Prime Position SEO General Inês De Castro: The’skeleton queen’s’ macabre tale

Inês De Castro: The’skeleton queen’s’ macabre tale

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The monarch who was crowned after death is a legend in Portugal. Holly Williams examines why artists and writers have been drawn to Paula Rego’s portrait of Inês.

It’s an age-old story about two lovers who are unfairly torn apart. But, while the story of King Pedro I and his queen Inês De Castro has elements of Romeo and Juliet, it ends up somewhere far more macabre – imagine if Shakespeare’s play veered into horror movie territory in the final act.

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– Is Paula Rego the UK’s greatest living artist?
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– The princess who thought she was made of glass

The Pedro and Inês myth, based on a true story from mediaeval Portugal, is one of the most frequently adapted historical stories of all time, and for good reason. It has everything, from passionate young love to the coronation of a corpse. The great Paula Rego, whose 2014 portrait Inês De Castro was painted as a commission for the Women’s Art Collection at Cambridge University’s women-only Murray Edwards College, is among those who have been inspired by it. With over 600 artworks by artists such as Maggi Hambling, Lubaina Himid, and Judy Chicago, the collection is the largest of its kind in Europe, and many of them can be seen starting today in an exhibition at the London Art Fair, Myth-Making and Self-Fashioning. The work of Rego, With its depiction of Queen Inês as a skeleton, which she painted to commemorate the collection’s 60th anniversary, should be a particularly unsettling highlight.

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To return to the story’s origins, the following is thought to be broadly true, taken from a chronicle written around 1440 by the Portuguese historian Ferno Lopes: in around 1340, Prince Pedro I fell in love with his wife’s lady-in-waiting, Inês de Castro, whose father was a Spanish nobleman. Pedro’s father, King Afonso IV of Portugal, did not approve and exiled Inês. However, after Pedro’s wife died, Inês returned to Portugal and married Pedro, with whom she had four children.

Afonso and his advisers were not pleased, and in 1355 Afonso decided that Inês’ presence posed too great a political risk to the royal Portuguese line, and had her executed. She was buried in Coimbra, while Pedro vowed vengeance and led an uprising against his own father, igniting a civil war within Portugal. When Pedro ascended to the throne following Afonso’s death in 1357, he tracked down Inês’s two assassins and ripped out their hearts.

Pedro also promised to make Inês queen of Portugal even after he died. At the monastery of Alcobaça, grand tombs were crafted for them both – and in 1360, Pedro dug up Inês’ decomposing body and grandly carried it in a procession from Coimbra to Alcobaça, where it was royally entombed, so that he could eventually rest opposite her in death, always.

That is a grimly amazing story in and of itself, but as it was reshaped into a widely re-told myth, it became even darker, with the story’s unsettling ending expanded to include a rather literal take on the idea of crowning a dead queen. In the 1577 tragedy Nise Laureada by Spanish playwright Jerónimo Bermdez, Inês was not simply transferred to a new tomb, but her corpse was treated to a full coronation ceremony..

The story of Inês lends itself to very striking imagery – you can’t walk by a skeleton in regal dress without stopping and thinking ‘what’s going on there?’ – Naomi Polonsky

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Since then, most adaptors have found the scene of a mad king insisting on his lover’s rotting body being dressed in coronation robes, propped up on a throne, crowned, and her hand kissed by noblemen irresistible, forming a grotesque set piece for scores of plays, poems, paintings, operas, and novels.

Rego has also captured this moment on film. Her painting depicts Inês as a sprawled skeleton dressed in gold and carmine robes, with Pedro kissing her hand and a crown placed on her head. The image, like much of Rego’s work, both captivates and unnerves the viewer.

Paula is fascinated by cases of violence against women. and it’s a very tragic and visceral example of that,” says Naomi Polonsky, curator of the Women’s Art Collection. “But also, she’s interested in folk and fables, so there’s that element as well. [The story of Inês] lends itself to very striking imagery – you can’t walk by a skeleton dressed in regal regalia without stopping and wondering “what’s going on there?”

How the story became a myth

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This macabre fascination has undoubtedly driven much of Inês’s interest, but the story has been interpreted in a variety of ways. It provides a forum for discussing a wide range of topics, including love and devotion, innocence and injustice, politics and war, madness and obsession, death and grief, femininity and masculinity.

“Because there are so few historical documents from the time,” says Aida Jordo, a Portuguese-Canadian academic and theatre practitioner at York University in Toronto who has extensively researched Inês de Castro presentations. “Artists can invent, reinvent, and add to what I call Inês de Castro’s palimpsest: new versions are written over old stories.” And it’s difficult to overstate how well-known and influential this story is in Portugal. “It is etched in our collective memory,” Jordo, who was born in Lisbon, says. “Most Portuguese schoolchildren are introduced to the story in fourth or fifth grade; my nephew played the assassin in the school play!”

Pedro and Inês will also be encountered by Portuguese teenagers while studying their national poet, Cames, at school, usually focusing on the episode from his epic 1572 poem Os Lusadas in which they appear. “Cames is hugely responsible for the story being such an iconic representation of Portugal,” Jordo says, adding that Cames’s translation into other languages “took Inês out of the story.”

Although their myth is less well-known in English-speaking countries, its influence is vast: a recent academic work, José Pereira da Costa’s Inês de Castro, Musa de Tantas Paixes, has a bibliography that includes a staggering 5,531 works about Inês de Castro. What’s more, the story has been fictionalised with a consistent, persistent regularity throughout the centuries.

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