Lew started the story back in Spain and Portugal, from where the Jews were expelled in the 1490s. The author focused on the strength of Manasseh Ben Israel whose family had fled to Amsterdam from Madeira in Portugal. In his 1652 book, The Hope of Israel, Manasseh noted that countries tolerant of Jews were also those that flourished economically. Manasseh had tried to find a solution to counteract the Christian concept of the oppressed homeless Jew; he reminded Whitehall that Jews always displayed civic loyalty. Manasseh was a man of grand vision, and had his portrait done by Rembrandt in 1636. But the man was a realist - he had to accept less favourable terms for Jews, if they were to be tolerated in England eg synagogues would only be permitted inside private homes.
Catherine’s father, Fernando Mendes (born 1647), came from the town of Trancoso in Portugal, which had a Jewish community surviving as crypto-Jews. Under difficult circumstances, Fernando eventually moved from Portugal in c1660, first to France and then to England. His timing was excellent; Oliver Cromwell had allowed Jews to be readmitted as recently as 1656.
Henry Lew's book cover
The Victorious Hero... Concludes Peace, 1723
by Catherine da Costa
Fernando Mendes was sent to study Medicine at Montpellier University in 1666, graduating with his Doctorate in 1668. In 1669 he returned to London and went into business with his very wealthy first cousin, Alvaro Rodrigues da Costa. Alvaro was a man who was hugely successful trading inside the East India Company. So clearly Dr Mendes never had to rely on Medicine as his sole source of income. The quid pro quo for a successful life was that neither men could be Jewish - Fernando was a Catholic and Alvaro became a Protestant.
Catherine de Braganza came from a senior noble house in Portugal, and lived there until she married King Charles II of England in 1662. An article of the marriage treaty was that Queen Catherine was allowed freely to practise her faith; her chapels in St James’ Palace and Somerset House were the only two places in London where Catholics could legally worship. Once again timing was critical. In 1678 Dr Fernando Mendes was appointed physician to King Charles II and Queen Catherine de Braganza. Mendes was paid a salary, and was provided with his own apartment in Somerset House, the Queen’s royal palace in London.
Dr Mendes married Isabel Rodriques Marques, daughter of a devout Jewish merchant. Their first baby was born in Somerset House in late 1689. Queen Catherine, who could not have any babies herself, was delighted with the little girl, had her baptised in the palace and asked that she be called Catherine. Even after King Charles’ death in 1685, Dr Mendes remained in the Dowager Queen’s service. And Catherine Mendes remained the god-daughter of Queen Catherine.
I am sorry we learn so little about Catherine’s values, hopes and goals in the book. We DO know that she became a pupil of the famous miniaturist Bernard Lens III (1682-1740), a painter at the courts of kings George I and George II. In 1707 Lens became the first British artist to replace vellum, the most common material for miniatures, with ivory. (As Catherine did later). Catherine’s copy of Lens’ painting, The Victorious Hero Takes Occasion to Conclude Peace, must have been very influential on the young woman.
In 1698 Catherine married her cousin Anthony Moses da Costa, a young merchant, and had three children. Like his father, Anthony became a leading figure in East India trade, and in banking. He was admired by Voltaire, rejected by the Russian Company because of being Jewish and was appointed commissioner for the new American colony of Georgia.
Top: Bernard Lens, Portrait of a Lady called Mary Queen of Scots (1720)
Middle: Catherine da Costa, Self Portrait (1720)
Bottom: Catherine da Costa, her son Abraham (born 1704)
Why would a Jewish artist paint a Madonna and Child? Henry Lew reiterated that Portuguese Marranos had been living as Christians since the 1490s. And remember that Catherine’s father Fernando and her father-in-law Alvaro were both committed Christians. Perhaps Catherine saw Sofonisba Anguissola’s Madonna and Child (1556, p65) and adored it.
Catherine’s oeuvre was worth examining. Her Self-Portrait was my favourite (1720, p64); the well-dressed artist was busy working at her easel. The Portrait of her Father Dr Fernando Mendes showed a well dressed gentleman in a wig, in front of his impressive library (1721, p46). And her portraits of her son Abraham da Costa (1714, p66) and her Double Portrait of Two Children were sensitive (not dated, p68). Only the portrait of London merchant Francis Jacob Salvador (1720, p67) was, in my opinion, not very sensitive.
For Smitten by Catherine, Dr Lew has published a limited edition of 500 copies in hardback. This beautiful book was complete with plates of Catherine’s art, works by her teacher Bernard Lens III, and the original painting by Rubens that Catherine copied. And locate an old catalogue of the exhibition Jewish Artists in England 1656-1956, held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Nov-Dec 1956.