The Artist’s Sister in the Garb of a Nun, by Sofonisba Anguissola

The female Renaissance artist Sofonisba Anguissola depicts the sweet, Mona Lisa half-smile of her sister Elena framed by the head covering of a nun in this tender early work by a mistress of the portrait. It is almost as if Elena is trying the costume on, and with it wondering what the celibate religious life it symbolises might be like. Many young women who did not marry were dumped in convents in 16th-century Italy. But the Anguissolas, a noble couple who lived in Cremona, had other ideas: they got their daughters trained as artists, an almost unheard-of thing. Sofonisba was the most talented. Her gift was recognised by Michelangelo. She went on to work at the Spanish court and had a long, independent career. Meanwhile, Elena found the habit fitted, and became a nun.