Fantasy Portraits

Learn a little about seventeenth century ladies fashion and Elizabeth Bathory fake portraits.
Original posting: Updated: May 17, 2019.
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Only two "original" portraits alleged to be that of Elizabeth Bathory were known to exist until the 1580 portrait was found in 2105. Doubts about the true likeness of Elizabeth Bathory's in either of these two portraits have persisted, and so she remained enigmatic, impossible to really know what she looked like in real life. Elizabeth Bathory was reported to be a very beautiful woman and these two previously known portraits certainly do not bubble with any sort of flattery in this regard, at all. What's more, is that they are very poorly executed. No wonder then, that so many different portraits of other women were substituted over the years to represent her. Unfortunately, these two "original" portraits are no more accurate in depicting the true likeness of Elizabeth Bathory, than the myriad of thousands of fantasy depictions of her, created through the years by artists worldwide! Of these two, one is a fake. The other, a figment of the painter's imagination.

Two Very "Ruff" Portraits

It pains me physically to see a woman victimized, rendered pathetic, by fashion.

Wisdom of Yves Saint Laurent

Let's examine the two previously known representations of her (portraits #1 and #2 shown below) so that we can, once and for all, discount the claim that these portraits offer any semblance of her true likeness, or that they were even painted while she was alive.

Two portraits allegedly of Elizabeth Bathory
[LEFT] Portrait 1: It has been claimed to be the actual likeness of Elizabeth Bathory. Attributed to Benjamin von Block, c. 1656. [RIGHT] Portrait 2: Portrait of Elizabeth Bathory by an unknown artist. Claimed to be painted in 1585.

Fashion fades, only style remains the same.

Wisdom of Coco Chanel

To the uninitiated in the world of seventeenth century fashion, there seems to be nothing at all wrong with the portraits #1 and #2 of Elizabeth Bathory shown above... but there is. These portraits show her completely out of fashion for her time when she was still alive, but very much in fashion for the period after her death. It's easy to tell simply from her neck accessory called the ruff.

Henrietta Maria: Style of ruff in 1615Anne_of Austria: Style of ruff in 1621The ruff is a projecting starched frill worn around the neck and was in fashion roughly between between the mid-sixteenth to first quarter of the seventeenth century. As a fashion accessory, the ruff is, without doubt, the most gloriously frivolous accessory in the history of clothing. Impractical, high maintenance and expensive, the ruff was the most immediate way, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to convey that you had loads of money and all manner of staff dedicated to maintaining your appearance.(1) As a fashion accessory, the ruff changed along with contemporary fashion as can be seen in the following two examples of two ladies - Henrietta Maria (left) and Anne of Austria (right) who were very much in fashion, and very much in style. To put it simply, the ruff, right up to Elizabeth Bathory's death in 1610, and at least 1615, was very puffy, elaborate figure-of-eight folds such as the ruff as in the portrait Henrietta Maria, Princess of France, c. 1615. By 1621, the ruff began to wane as an accessory, became much simpler in design as seen in the portrait of Anne of Austria, 1621. By the mid 1620s the ruff would disappear altogether.

So, now that we understand seventeenth fashion a little more, from a ruff perspective anyway, let's look at portrait #1 and #2. Notice the ruff. Which ruff does it match closer to? Anne of Austria, 1621, of course! Clearly these two paintings were not created during Elizabeth Bathory's lifetime but much later after her death! The artists of the two portraits of Elizabeth Bathory had some painting skills, but absolutely no knowledge of period fashion whatsoever! We could not agree with you more, Mr. Saint Lorent! Two very 'ruff' portraits indeed!

At this point, we could quite easily discount both paintings as having any true resemblance to the Countess, but there's more...

Two Different Women...
Close up of Portraits 1 and 2, allegedly of Elizabeth Bathory - obviously two different women.
[LEFT] Portrait 1: Elizabeth Bathory portrait COPY c. 1656 close up. [RIGHT] Portrait 2: Elizabeth Bathory FAKE portrait c. nineteenth-twentieth century close up.

Notice the difference in the facial features in the two views of the face shown above. It's clearly not the same person! Notice also the style of ruff worn by the two subjects. These are of a post-1620s style and not earlier!

... And Three Others

Do you notice anything odd about portrait #3, #4 and #5 shown below? Maybe that these portraits have some resemblance to portrait #1, the one said to be the true likeness of Elizabeth Bathory herself? Notice also the typical portrait poses for the artist, so typical of many sixteenth and seventeenth century portraits of ladies. Perhaps a closer examination of portrait #4 will reveal something interesting.

Portrait #3: Christina Nyary (1604-1641), Portrait #4: Anna Juliana Esterhazy (1630 - 1669), Portrait #5: Judith Revay (1590 - 1643).
[LEFT] Portrait 3: Portrait of Christina Nyary (1604 - 1641). One of her daughters from her second marriage (portrait #4), married Francis Nadasdy (1623 - 1671), grandson of Elizabeth Bathory. Portrait by unknown artist. [MIDDLE] Portrait 4: Portrait of Anna Juliana Esterhazy (1630 - 1669), daughter of Christina Nyary (portrait #3), wife of Francis Nadasdy (1623 - 1671), son of Paul Nadasdy (1598 - 1650) who was son of Elizabeth Bathory. Portrait by Benjamin von Block (1631-1690) painted in 1656. [RIGHT] Portrait 5: Portrait of Judith Revay (1590 - 1643), mother of Francis Nadasdy (1623 - 1671), grandson of Elizabeth Bathory. Attributed to Benjamin von Block, c. 1656.

In all likelihood, portraits #1 and #5 were painted around the same time as portrait #4, by Benjamin von Block, circa 1656. Hence we have assigned the designation "attributed to von Block" for these portraits. Portrait #4, was painted by a different, unknown, artist altogether. Portrait #2, is no doubt a fake by an unknown artist and certainly not painted in 1585.

Portrait #1

It turns out that Elizabeth Bathory's grandson - Francis Nadasdy - had a desire to paint a series of portraits of his living family, including some of his ancestors whose portraits had gone missing. He chose to hire the artist - von Block - and arranged for him to travel to his home in Hungary to do the work. By 1656, von Block had completed the portrait of Anna Juliana Esterhazy, Nadasdy's wife - portrait #4. One missing portrait was probably that of his own mother, Judith_Revay. Nadasdy surely remembered his own mother. His grandmother's portrait, that of Elizabeth Bathory, was undoubtedly the other missing portraits. But there was a problem. Nobody in Nadasdy's circle knew what his grandmother looked like. In 1656, Francis Nadasdy's grandmother had been dead for forty two years. His father, Paul Nadasdy for six years. His mother, Judith Revay (portrait #5), for thirteen years, and his mother-in-law, Christina Nyary (portrait #3), for fifteen years. Nadasdy, himself, was born nine years after his grandmother, Elizabeth Bathory had died, so he could not have known what she looked like either. As a matter of fact, anyone that may have seen his grandmother - Elizabeth Bathory - alive, and in the flesh, so to speak, was long dead as well.

One possibility is that some semblance of her likeness, an etching in a book or another portrait, was in his possession and it would be a simple matter for von Block to recreate it. This is unlikely, however. The stigma of his grandmother's reputation, still hung thick in Hapsburg Austria and Hungary, and those that knew of her, were careful not to openly discuss her. Nadasdy was, after all, an obedient servant of the Crown. Even before he was born, in 1611, the Hungarian Parliament (Diet) legislated, that her name "Elizabeth Bathory" be declared illegal and thus, in the view of the state, she became a non-person. It was criminal to speak, write or bear her name anywhere! Legally, Elizabeth Bathory was referred to as the "Lady Widow Nadasdy." Even Nadasdy's own father, his grandmother's own son, who's legal name was Paul Bathory Nadasdy, was forced to drop his mother's family name, "Bathory" from his own, simply becoming a Nadasdy. After her conviction, even objects visibly identifiable with Elizabeth Bathory were to be destroyed if found. Thus, anyone possessing any of her former possessions that wished to preserve them would have either removed or masked her name so as not to run afoul of the law. Whomever possessed her portrait would not have even known that it was a portrait of her as it would have been unidentifiable. Furthermore, if such a portrait existed, which we know it did, it was not in the possession of the Nadasdy family. Why else have von Block create another?

Elizabeth Bathory's grandson, Francis II Nadasdy and his execution in Vienna for treason in 1671.
Elizabeth Bathory's grandson, Francis II Nadasdy and his execution in Vienna for treason in 1671.

The solution was more than likely found in the portrait of his mother-in-law, Christina Nyary (portrait #3) which is undoubtedly the work of another artist and probably the property of Nadasdy's wife or another member of the Esterhazy family. We can say this because of the fashion style of Christina Nyary is correct for her time, meaning it was painted circa 1620. Having this framework with which to start, and heavily influenced by the style of the recently completed portrait of Anna Juliana Esterhazy, von Block and Nadasdy got to work on the portrait #1 and #5. Von Block, very much like a crime composite artist, had to call upon the depth of his creativity to paint both portraits. The easiest to paint was that of Nadasdy's mother because Nadasdy remembered what she looked like. In the case of Elizabeth Bathory, not so much. Von Block had to rely on a lot of creative license and that of Nadasdy's own fuzzy recollection of what his grandmother may have looked like which were descriptions from his relatives while they were still alive. Everything seemed correct except that neither of the two men had any clue what ladies fashion was in Elizabeth Bathory's time during the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century before her death. This is surprising because all they needed to do was a little research of other period portraits which would not have been that hard to do. But, they did not. Thus the Countess Elizabeth Bathory was painted in 1620s garb which explains the similarity of portrait #1 to #3 and #5, handkerchief in hand, the same apron in portrait #1 and #3, and all. From a fashion perspective, at least, they got his mother, portrait #5, correct for her time. Portrait #1, not at all. Therefore, it can be discounted as a true likeness because it was created fully 42 years after her death by von Block and the woman is woefully out of fashion!

I know what you are thinking. If it was so dangerous to possess anything belonging to Elizabeth Bathory, to even mention her very name, why did her grandson have a portrait of her commissioned in the first place? He was, after all, the highest judge (Judge of the Royal Court) in Imperial Hungary at the time, appointed by the Hungarian King and Holy Roman Emperor, no less. Well, he had resigned himself to follow in his grandmother's footsteps. The portrait recreation of his grandmother, Elizabeth Bathory (portrait #1) was painted while he was organising another rebellion against the Habsburgs. The plot was discovered. He, along with several other prominent noblemen was beheaded for treason in Vienna in 1671. Several thousand other noble families in Imperial Hungary suffered a similar fate.

Portrait #2

It is claimed that this portrait was painted in 1585. It is also a well known fact, recalled by local area residents, that for years it was proudly on display in the hallway between the ground floor tavern and the upstairs museum located in the same building as the present-day museum, in Čachtice, Slovakia. We know this from first-hand accounts of people who saw the painting during the Communist Czechoslovakian era in the 1960s. What's more, is that they all recall the "freshness" of the colours and paint, which they found odd for a portrait centuries old. Even stranger, was the location of the portrait, which was in an area just outside of the upstairs museum entrance which was, as it is now, under lock and key in the evenings, and further barred from entry by an exterior heavy wrought gate. It was certainly an odd place to keep a valuable artifact. It remained here until, not surprisingly, it disappeared one day around 1993.

What is also interesting, is that this painting, like Elizabeth Bathory, has a local myth of its own. It was certainly painted after Elizabeth Bathory's infamy was developed in literature of the 1800s, which, prior to that time, was mostly unknown to the world, but flourished as local folklore. Some say that a love struck, romantic young man in the Slovakian town of Čachtice, or Nové Mesto nad Váhom area, created it in the 1960s, with his girlfriend's face to impress the young lady, and perhaps to poke fun at the whole myth. This would explain a great deal, especially given that most of the portrait's detail is focused primarily on the face of the young woman, rather than the rest of the portrait, which is somewhat crude and anatomically out of proportion (grotesque even), as if painted as a secondary concern to detail. Still others claim that it was painted by one of the members of the film crew that filmed an on-location, farcical Bathory film titled, Odhalenie Alžbety Báthoryčky (Exposing Elizabeth Bathory) in the early 1960s, the subject of which was the local townsfolk's, and the regime's gullibility concerning her folklore and the political system in general. It was later released in cinema's across the country - a chapter in Čachtice history preferred to be forgotten these days. Today, the 'lost' portrait #2 still hangs in the museum, but it is a copy of the fake, as it were. In terms of original works, it has been replaced with two newly created portraits, as well as several reproductions, including one of the van Block portrait #1. This time, all portraits are located inside the museum, safe and sound. The myth of Elizabeth Bathory is a major source of tourism revenue for the town of Čachtice, and the von Block image style of the Countess is now also a commercial brand.

At best, portrait #2 is stylized after a description of her, a sketch, a photograph, of the van Block version in the Hungarian National Museum - painting #1. This artist new nothing about seventeenth century ladies fashion either, neither do contemporary artists who paint modern day portrait versions, nor the present day Čachtice museum staff. Suffice it to say, portrait #2 has fooled the world and the joke is on those that believe this portrait #2 to be a 1585 vintage. Suffice it say, if portrait#2 had been painted in 1585, like so many today claim, then it should be said, that Elizabeth Bathory would have been very much alive during its completion, and very much, still very powerful. And if the stories that she murdered 650 young women are true, then contemporary Elizabeth Bathory officianados who peddle her cruelty, torture and mass murder, need to adjust their murder count by +1, from 650 to 651 to include her murder of the creator of this painting because, had she seen it, this mockery of her would not have gone unpunished! Portrait #2 can be discounted as a true likeness of Elizabeth Bathory because it is a known nineteenth or twentieth century stylized portrait copy - a fake, created well after von Block's invention.

In Conclusion

It may interest our readers to know, that even the Hungarian National Museum that houses portrait #1, also agrees with our assessment, and state:

The portrait was probably painted in the seventeenth century, after Bathory’s death. The position and the clothing of the poorly painted figure is almost completely the same as on the 1626 portrait of Christina Nyáry, the wife of Miklos Esterhazy I. It may be suggested that the portrait of Elisabeth was painted by one of the Báthory descendants, just to have a fictive image of her in the ancestors’ gallery of the family. The clothing worn by Elizabeth reflects a mixture of traditional Hungarian and Western European fashion. She is wearing a Hungarian dress with a gauze bodice and an apron decorated with lace. The dress is combined with starched Spanish collar, which were supported by stays or wires to maintain their shapes.(2)

Hungarian National Museum

It's very sad to see, that what began with an Elizabeth Bathory van Block invention in 1656 (portrait #1) to please his patron, Elizabeth Bathory's grandson, is today the the de facto image of her, as is portrait #2, completely out of fashion, and completely out of style and definitely, fictional in terms of her likeness.

Elizabeth Bathory Cartoon
Elizabeth Bathory Cartoon
Image source art: ID 8337877 © Meggiefaraday | Dreamstime.com

Finally, it's very disheartening, at least as far as portraiture and real history is concerned, to know that museums, like the one in Čachtice, Slovakia, appear to not know real history concerning Elizabeth Bathory and her era during a pivotal time in European history. They do not appear to bother with, or even represent well-researched, factual information at all concerning her. It is even more unforgivable because this institution is uniquely positioned to be history's truth teller. Then again, the museum has every right to its opinion, as does anyone. Nevertheless, I give them a failing grade as an institution of real history concerning the countess. After all, their museum is built on the very spot where Elizabeth Bathory's former home once stood. They do not celebrate a historic personage of great importance - their national and historic hero, in fact. They are selling their cultural heritage short. Instead, they propagate, even further embellish what precious little of Elizabeth Bathory's life is known with popular myth in return for tourist revenue. They should be aware, however, that many tourists - not even those who do not know history - walk away very impressed. On the bright side, there is the Čachtice Fortress (castle) ruin which is probably the most popular site with tourists and the highlight of any visit to the town. Mercifully, it's built of stone and has endured centuries. Ironically, these same tourist revenue help preserve what little is left of the ruin from further deterioration. We can hope that it endures a while longer, without becoming a spectacle as well, so that factual history of art, of Elizabeth Bathory, of Slovakia and Europe, of Čachtice, can be told accurately and realistically. Time will tell.

Portraits #1 and #2, have been the best known images of Elizabeth Bathory until 2015. They have been featured in many books and documentaries about her. Unfortunately, their historical narratives mostly peddle historical myth. Their images of Elizabeth are no more accurate in depicting the true likeness of Elizabeth Bathory than the cartoon shown on the right. The same goes for the the thousands of fantasy depictions of her created over the years by artists worldwide. Some Internet authors mistakenly use the portraits of Christina Nyary, Anna Juliana Esterhazy, and Judith Revay interchangeably as images of Elizabeth Bathory. They don't know history which is fine. One cannot know everything, but they should know that...

If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it's part of a tree.

Wisdom of Edward Johnston(3)

Article: Fantasy Portraits

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Notes
  1. Sotheby's Magazine, Jan/Feb 2015, Dressed for Excess, by Jonquil O'Reilly.
  2. Hungarian National Museum portrait - Portrait of Elisabeth Báthory (1560?–1614), Google Cultural Institute.
  3. This quote is widely cited and accredited to Michael Crichton. Actually, this is not a Michael Crichton quote at all but that of Edward Johnston from his book, Decoration and Its Uses which has had many reprints.