Lady with an Ermine is a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, from around 1489–1490. The subject of the portrait is identified as Cecilia Gallerani, and probably was painted at a time when she was the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Leonardo was in the service of the Duke.
The painting is one of only four portraits of women painted by Leonardo, the others being the Mona Lisa, the portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, and La belle ferronnière. It currently is displayed in the Wawel Castle, Kraków, Poland. When exhibited in The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, it was described as “signal[ling] a breakthrough in the art of psychological portraiture.
There are several interpretations of the significance of the ermine in her portrait. The ermine, a stoat in its winter coat, was a traditional symbol of purity because it was believed an ermine would face death rather than soil its white coat.
In his old age, Leonardo compiled a bestiary in which he recorded:
MODERATION The ermine out of moderation never eats but once a day, and it would rather let itself be captured by hunters than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain its purity.