Thursday, January 7, 2010

Ermines: A Lesson in Art and Science

Recently, we have been studying the art work of Leonardo da Vinci. We currently have five of his paintings hanging on my living room walls (Mona Lisa, Ginevra de' Benci, Lady with an Ermine, The Virgin of the Rocks, and Study of Cat Movements and Positions).
Their decided favorite of da Vinci's works is Lady with an Ermine, who they all find "beautiful" and "rich looking". This painting has led to some fascinating and fun discussions in my home.

When I first hung Lady with an Ermine my mother was visiting. She noticed the painting and asked "what is that animal supposed to be?"
I thought I knew something and I answered that it was called an ermine and probably extinct.

The whole matter was forgotten until yesterday when my daughter asked if we could research what ermines were like (being told by me that they were extinct and all).

I quickly discovered how little I knew. Ermines do exist today, and though they are not a widely known animal, there are enough of them out there to keep them off any endangered or threatened lists.

My daughter's curiosity led to great learning for all of us.

Here is what we learned about ermines:

Ermines (Mustela erminea) are members of the weasel family. You can find ermine in Canada, Northern USA, and Eurasia. Ermines are very territorial carnivores that live and thrive in the Siberian tundra. God created them with the unique ability to handle extreme cold. They also enjoy marshes and woodlands.
Their life span is only 4-7 years. With such a short life span it seems only reasonable that the females would mature as early as two months old! It takes the male ermine about ten months to catch up . . . no comment ;).
Mating occurs as soon as they are able to hunt independently. They can have up to thirteen kits (young) in each litter. The moms are the active parents who raise and provide for the kits.
Ermines feed on birds like chicken and snow owls as well as squirrels and rabbit.
As a key feature, God created the ermine with a beautiful and useful coat. It has the ability and benefit of changing color in the spring and winter to camouflage it from predators. In the spring the ermine's coat is brown, blending it into the ground and woodlands. In the winter its white coat is virtually invisible against the snowy surroundings. The change of appearance is dramatic and beautiful. The one constant is the tip of its tail which always remains black.
In our study we learned that ermines were used for clothing and as status symbols in the Middle Ages. We also learned that the little black tip of their tail was a key ingredient to producing the paintbrushes that artists treasured in da Vinci's day.
In one of da Vinci's notebooks he writes about feeding the ermine every two days. This might have been a logical pet for an artist. He may have cared for the ermine temporarily during the sittings for his painting, or maybe it was a permanent resident in his studio. It was fun to wonder about what an ermine might do and how it might behave around paints and canvas while hanging out in da Vinci's studio.
During the renaissance the ermine was prevalent in art and literature. It represented royalty, purity, and chastity.
Leonardo da Vinci may have used the ermine in Lady with an Ermine to depict his subject (Cecelia Gallarani) as virginal. He also may have had a more witty and puzzling purpose for using the ermine. Cecelia Gallarini was a very young mistress to the Duke of Milan (There was some discrepancy with her age. Accounts have her as 9, 10 or 17 years of age). In any case, it would have been wise and appropriate to depict her as innocent and virginal.

From our biographical reading on Leonardo da Vinci we learned that da Vinci loved word games, riddles and witty puzzles. Some speculate that his use of the ermine was a play on words with her last name being so close to the Greek word for ermine (galay).

The painting is wonderfully made. I love his use of color and the heavy richness of the hues.

Maybe your children would like to experiment with coloring their own interpretation of Lady with an ermine. A very well done coloring page can be found

Another notable portrait containing an ermine was made of Queen Elizabeth 1. Where the ermine seems large in the arms of Cecelia, the ermine is much smaller in Queen Elizabeth 1's painting (created by Sir William Segar). He sort of hides out in her sleeve.

The size of the ermine could be reflective of the human subject's age, or in Queen Elizabeth's case, shrunk down for greater symbolic subtlety. It both cases the ermine enhances the wealth and status of the painting's subject.

If you have little ones you might like to check out
this poem about ermines. It was created to teach the letter E, but it also worked for my little ones who were joining in with our fun tangent of scientific learning sparked by art.

Happy Learning!

my sources:,_pets,_pet_lovers,_art&articleid=121862

*Images in this post are in the public domain. They were obtained from Karen's Whimsy and Wikepedia Commons. Thanks to both sites for making them available.


  1. Don't you love with when you "accidentally" incorporate another lesson into the one you had planned! Always something more to be learned!

    Thanks for participating in the blog carnival!

  2. How wonderful that all this came from hanging a painting in the living room! We've just been reading about da Vinci. I bet my kids would like to hear all about the ermine now.

  3. How very cool that you all learned so much from the inspiration of a painting!! Thank you for sharing!!


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