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Venetia, Lady Digby

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Venetia, Lady Digby

by Sir Anthony van Dyck
oil on canvas, circa 1633-1634
39 3/4 in. x 31 1/2 in. (1011 mm x 802 mm)
Purchased with help from the Pilgrim Trust, 1984
Primary Collection
NPG 5727

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), Painter. Artist or producer associated with 1023 portraits, Sitter associated with 30 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Perhaps painted as a posthumous tribute to Lady Digby, who is shown as Prudence, trampling on Profane Love and spurning two-faced Deceit. The doves and the snake she holds allude to St Matthew: 'Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves'.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Audio Guide
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Catharine MacLeod, Van Dyck: The Last Self Portrait, 2014, p. 15
  • Catharine Macleod, Van Dyck : the last self-portrait, 2015, p. 15
  • Cooper, John, Visitor's Guide, 2000, p. 36
  • John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 36 Read entry

    In her youth Venetia Stanley acquired a reputation for promiscuity, which her husband Sir Kenelm Digby was anxious to replace with something more acceptable, particularly as his family had opposed the marriage because of her alleged moral laxity. An erudite man, be used his extensive knowledge of mythology and allegory to put together a convincing brief for his friend, the artist Anthony van Dyck, to develop into a pictorial refutation of the rumours about her. Van Dyck himself was no great allegorist, but was content to follow the desires of the man who was 'alwayes his most generous friend and protector'.

    To help him to fulfil Digby's plan, Van Dyck probably consulted Cesare Ripa's well-known reference book Iconologia, which had been available in illustrated editions since 1603. In this he would have found both Prudenza with a serpent encircling her arm and a representation of Castita (Charity) with a Cupid subdued beneath her feet. He then arranged the allegorical references in a clear design: if you draw a diagonal line from the top-left corner to the bottom right, everything to the right is good and all to the left is bad. Lady Digby has overcome all the evil and achieved the serenity of redemption as the little angels crown her victory. Two-faced Deceit, coarse, rough and tawny, unlike her milky purity, cowers impotently with bound hands, symbolising the defeat of 'that monster which was begot of some fiend in hell', as Digby said of the 'false construction' put on her character. With a disdainful foot she dismisses Cupid, the symbol of lust whose flaming torch gutters to ashes. Her left hand rests approvingly on one of two turtle doves, symbols of married love, while her right holds a snake, a symbol of wisdom (although to most people these days the connotations of snakes are negative!).

    Although Venetia appears to be the mistress of her own redemption, Digby would expect to share in the credit. He had, after all, according to John Aubrey, claimed that he 'could take a woman out of a whorehouse and make her honest'. It is highly likely, although not certain, that this painting was posthumous, or at least completed after her sudden death on 1 May 1633. Digby was devastated by his wife's demise; the most poignant memorial to her is the death-bed portrait, with a crushed rose on the counterpane, now in the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 179
  • Schama, Simon, The Face of Britain: The Nation Through its Portraits, 2015-09-15, p. 120
  • Schama, Simon, The Face of Britain: The Nation Through its Portraits, 2015-09-15, p. 148
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 81 Read entry

    This elaborate allegorical portrait depicts Venetia Stanley, a famous beauty who married Sir Kenelm Digby (1603–65), a courtier and a great friend and patron of the artist Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641). Venetia’s sudden death, aged thirty-three, prompted her grief-stricken husband to commission a number of memorials, including this portrait of her as Prudence. Kenelm Digby probably devised the symbolic programme himself, and it reflects his anxiety to restore Venetia’s tarnished reputation. Before her marriage she was said to have been promiscuous, an accusation Digby passionately repudiated.

    The joint themes of the painting are wisdom and innocence. The snake she holds in one hand and the pair of turtle doves by her other hand reflect a passage from the Gospel of St Matthew (10:16), ‘Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. Venetia places her foot on Cupid, symbolising her defeat of carnal love, and two-faced Deceit is chained to the rock on which she sits. Three heavenly cherubs hold a wreath above her head celebrating her triumph over vice. This unusually small-scale, complex composition, with its rich colouring and exquisite level of finish, is one of Van Dyck’s finest English paintings.

  • Wilton, Andrew, The swagger portrait : grand manner portraiture in Britain from Van Dyck to Augustus John, 1630-1930, 1992, p. 67

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1633back to top

Current affairs

William Laud is appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. A supporter of the political and religious policies of Charles I, he worked for the uniformity of church doctrine and practice.
Formal coronation of Charles I in Scotland. It would be the king's first visit since he left the country aged three.

Art and science

Publication of Histriomastix by pamphleteer, William Prynne, which denounces female actors, coincides with the queen's participation in a masque; Prynne is consequently tried for sedition.
Playwright, John Ford, publishes 'Tis Pity She's a Whore; its treatment of incest makes it one of the most controversial works in English literature.


Summoned by Pope VIII, Galileo Galilei arrives in Rome to stand trial for the Copernican views he expressed in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, 1632. Found guilty of heresy, he spends the remainder of his life under house arrest.

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