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The formidable Juana of Austria (1535-1573) - Cultural Trend Setter and Political Power Player

Updated: Oct 22, 2023

Alonso Sanchez Coello, Portrait of Juana of Austria and her dog, 1557, oil on canvas, 180,5 × 112,5 × 2,8 cm, Schloss Ambras, Innsbruck © Kunsthistorisches Museumsverband

Juana of Austria (1535-1573), the youngest daughter of Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), assumed formidable roles - artistic, cultural, and political - at the court of Philip II of Spain. As princess of Portugal, and later regent of Spain (from 1554 to 1559), Juana wielded power and influence within her brother’s family and his political circles. Contemporaries admired her and paid tribute to her strength of character and capacity for government.

Historians have paid far too little attention to the contributions she made at Philip II’s court as an arbiter of taste and fashion and have also overlooked her influential intervention in artistic matters. Her engagement with contemporary music, dance, and theatrical performances - she mastered several musical instruments - has been given better scrutiny. Juana’s patronage of leading artists, architects and musicians at the Spanish court rivalled that of her brother Philip. Juana was a trend-setter, charting new paths.

Well-versed in Greek, Latin and Portuguese literature, Juana was also devoted to doctrine and religion. Her library was packed with religious tracts, treatises, books and musical scores, while her household was filled with painters, goldsmiths, singers and musicians in her employ: a testimony of her various talents and multi-faceted interests.

In 1559, while regent of Spain, Juana founded the Descalzas Reales Convent in Madrid, an aristocratic nunnery for ladies of imperial and royal blood, which she envisioned as a powerful spiritual center in Spain, and where royal apartments were built for herself and her female court. The Descalzas Reales, and the women close to Juana’a circle, evolved into the feminine counterpart of Philip II’s male court, where her sumptuous and extensive collection of Flemish tapestries, court portraits, jewelry, luxury goods, relics, wild animals and exotica from overseas, especially Portuguese Asia, were housed and displayed. The Descalzas convent, in the heart of Madrid, has been preserved, in an almost unaltered state, with its rich decoration and artistic treasures. Juana's patronage (within and without the Descalzas convent), and a reconstruction of her royal apartment, her collection, portraits, relics, tapestries, and objets d'art (some of which are still extant in the Descalzas Reales) will be undertaken in a forthcoming book by Annemarie Jordan.

Her state portrait shown here was painted by the famous portraitist, Alonso Sánchez Coello, at the Madrid court, today at Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck and is the first portrayal of a Habsburg princess having secretly joined the Jesuit Order (as a lay person) in 1557. Juana commissioned this portrait to commemorate this event, and neither her imposing father nor her brother were aware she had made this religious commitment. Juana chose to be portrayed here with her favorite dog, wearing an oversized leather collar embossed with her coat-of-arms. The column and pedestal to her right references her imperial father and his personal device (emblem) of the twin columns of Hercules with the motto: Non Plus Ultra. Sánchez Coello chose to “sign” this portrait with a trompe l’oeuil fly clearly visible on the column, to underscore his painterly talents and ingenuity. This is a portrait worthy of an Emperor’s daughter. It images Juana as a female figure of authority, power and status.

Juana's activity as a collector and as an influential political force at the sixteenth-century court of Madrid has been extensively researched by Dr. Annemarie Jordan Gschwend. Her latest article on the subject can be consulted here:

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Copyright © All Rights Reserved 2021 - Dr. Annemarie Jordan Gschwend

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So interesting, especially about the portrait. I can think of earlier portraits where the artist showed off by painting a fly but didn't realise ASC (one of my favourite painters) did it too!

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