La Vida de Juana la Loca: the Passion of Joanna of Castile and the painter who obsessed over her

 Queen, nymphomaniac, victim! History has called “hysteria” on women time and time again when they proved unruly.


November 16th, 2016   by M. Elise Hillestad

Madrid was warm and languid, the September sun mellowing everything under it that afternoon as tourists gathered round cafe tables and fountains. Inside the cavernous marbled galleries of the Museo del Prado however, the scene was chilly. Queen Juana de Castile held me rapt in her mad gaze, and I could think of nothing else for thirty or so minutes, distractedly drawn away from all the Goyas flocked by Japanese tourists. I was sucked into the monumental eleven by sixteen foot painting with its nearly life sized figures, like the vigil flames in the painting sucked in by the winter’s gale.

The scene is pathetic and solemn; the mad queen Joanna, called Juana in Spanish, flanked by her retinue of court attendants and ladies in waiting has traipsed across Spain for eight months by torchlight, from Burgos bearing the disinterred corpse of her not-so-recently deceased husband in order to give him burial in Granada. Her entourage is weary of the Castilian steppes. Joanna in a fit of singular obsession, unfazed by the chill, moves away from the fire. In the distance can be seen bell towers symbolic of those of the convent Joanna was taken to after the death of King Felipe, under the accusations of her insanity, and to keep her from the throne which was rightfully hers.

Doña Juana la Loca ( Joanna the Mad ), 1877, by Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz, Museo del Prado, Madrid Spain

The painting, created when he was twenty nine years of age and studying at the Spanish Academy in Rome, was Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz’s masterpiece, and is a feat of intense historical realism and classical composition. The stratocumulus clouds, the stark landscape are all so real, one can feel the chill up the spine. The composition is masterful, the figures filled with pathos, and the painting won him the medal of honor in the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes of Spain in1878, and was paraded around exhibitions throughout Europe.

Pradilla, who was born to a poor family in Zaragoza, Spain during the revolution of 1848, the year known as the Springtime of Peoples, was heavily influenced by Velázquez, Titian, El Greco and Ribera, and did many copies of the Old Master paintings to learn and improve his own. He was a lifelong student of the classical Greek and Roman texts, along with Spanish historical documents which inspired many of his paintings. He owned a large library of rare books and was fluent in several languages, like the heroine of his prized painting Juana. It is said Francisco had a morbid fascination with the legend of Juana la Loca.

Joanna was born the third daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, in Toledo, the capitol city of the kingdom of Castile in 1479. Like other girls of her royal circumstances, Joanna was bred and groomed from birth to be a tool of her family’s political ambitions. The clever princesa excelled in the arts of court etiquette, drawing, hawking, playing clavichord, and the speaking of all the Iberian Romance languages. But there was one subject of study that the Joanna, perhaps too witty and willful for her own wellbeing, did not take to, and that was Catholicism. Joanna’s religious skepticism struck up controversy before she even hit the throne. At the age of sixteen, Joanna was betrothed to Felipe the Handsome, (yes that is actually what he was called) Duke of Burgundy in the region of Flanders. The marriage was one of a set of family alliances between the Habsburgs and the Trastámaras designed to strengthen both against growing French power. Lucky for young, fire-hearted Joanna, it was love at first sight. She fell quickly into a tempestuous passion for her husband. Unlucky for Joanna, Felipe’s passion was for women outside the matrimonial bed, which some say drove her to a state of jealous insanity she was unable to recover from, and which only worsened upon Felipe’s death when she was twenty seven.

But did Joanna actually suffer from mental illness, or were the accusations of madness and eventual confinement to a convent, all part of an elaborate plot by men of influence to separate her from her rightful throne? History has called “hysteria” on women time and time again when they proved unruly. There are numerous paintings, operas, and films surrounding the legend of Queen Joanna, with portrayals ranging from tragic nobility, to nymphomaniac and necrophiliac, and wife devoted even in death. In actuality, the crown was her birthright and she could have been a fine leader, were she not robbed of it, or driven from it. It seems to me that likely Joanna was the tragic victim of history’s treatment of women who posed the threat of wit and power. In his masterpiece of storytelling and atmosphere however, Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz has treated her with dignity, empathy, respect. He has lent a sympathetic brushstroke to a sad story.

painting detail, Doña Juana la Loca by Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz


painting detail, Doña Juana la Loca by Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz


painting detail, Doña Juana la Loca by Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz



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