Soul Portrait

The Books

cover art for What the Ermine Saw

What the Ermine Saw

Author: Eden Collinsworth

Genre: Nonfiction; Microhistory; Art History

Publisher: Doubleday Books

Published: May 24, 2022

Number of Pages: 272

This is an in-depth examination of one of the few remaining paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. Sometime around 1490, Da Vinci was commissioned to paint the portrait of a young woman named Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The result was a striking work titled Lady with an Ermine.

In this microhistory, the author describes the painting itself in great detail, but also brings in the backstories of Leonardo da Vinci, the woman who sat for the portrait, and the Milanese duke who commissioned it. The story doesn’t end there, though. The author also traces the painting’s journey from Renaissance Italy to divided Poland to Nazi possession in WWII and beyond.

Cover art for The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials # 2)

Author: Philip Pullman

Genre: Fiction; Fantasy; Steampunk-ish; Adventure; Middle Grade

Publisher: Scholastic

Published: July 22, 1997

Number of Pages: 370

Following the events of The Golden Compass, Lyra and her daemon Pan find themselves in a world very different from their own. While exploring a land where it seems only children survive, they come across a boy named Will. Like Lyra, he has stumbled onto this place from a different world. Unlike Lyra, Will does not have a daemon.

The pair join forces and soon discover they have more in common than they originally thought.

The Ties That Bind

In What the Ermine Saw, Eden Collinsworth follows the Renaissance painting Lady with an Ermine from the time Leonardo da Vinci painted it through to the modern age. The portrait is widely accepted to be the image of Cecilia Galerani, the favorite mistress of Ludovico Sforza. It is possible that the ermine she holds in the portrait represents Sforza, who sometimes used the animal as a personal emblem. In the painting, both Cecilia and the ermine appear highly intelligent.

In The Subtle Knife, Lyra comes from a world in which every human is born with a daemon. Pronounced “demon”, this being takes the form of an animal and is the physical embodiment of a person’s soul. Although the daemon of a child can change shape at will, it settles into a permanent form during puberty. The final shape a daemon takes is often a reflection of its human counterpart. For example, all witches have bird daemons.

Philip Pullman has stated that Lady with an Ermine was one of his visual inspirations for daemons. Much like Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon, the subjects of da Vinci’s painting appear very perceptive and in sync with each other as they focus their attention together on something beyond the canvas. It is not difficult to imagine that the ermine might in fact be the embodiment of the lady’s soul. Pantalaimon, or Pan, often takes the form of a snow-white ermine and eventually settles into his permanent form as a pine marten, a different species of mustelid.

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merged cover art for All Systems Red and Remarkably Bright Creatures

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