If we look back to the portraits embellishing Belgian banknotes, we find that the first realistic portraits did not appear until the First World War. It was mainly members of the Belgian dynasty who were honoured as a patriotic symbol and who served to deter counterfeiters. Gradually, they were followed by famous historical figures, who performed a role as ‘ambassadors’ for Belgium.
Apart from the kings, no living persons were ever immortalised on banknotes. The National Bank’s banknote committee always held long drawn out discussions, scrutinising the life, merits and fame of the personages before deciding who to choose. Not only was the aim to achieve a balance between the Belgian regions and communities; the candidates also had to be sufficiently well known, and have an unblemished record. Culture and science were the favourite choice: fourteen artists and three scientists were commemorated on banknotes. However, women were completely overlooked. Apart from the Belgian queens, only one female personality was selected to appear on a banknote: Margaret of Austria was depicted on the back of the 500 franc note featuring Bernard (or Barend) Van Orley. She was therefore carefully chosen.
From birth, Margaret of Austria (Brussels 1480- Mechelen 1530) was used by her father, Maximilian of Austria, as a valuable pawn in the European political game. She was the daughter of Maximilian of Austria and his wife Mary of Burgundy. In view of her Habsburg and Burgundian heritage, she was highly eligible. When Margaret was barely two years old, her father betrothed her to the Dauphin, later Charles VIII. She was taken to the court of Amboise where she received a French upbringing. However, in 1491 she was rejected by her betrothed, who saw Anna of Brittany as a more lucrative marriage partner. Maximilian was undaunted, and arranged for his daughter to marry the heir to the Spanish throne, John of Castile. It was a double wedding, because John’s sister Joanna married Philip the Handsome, Margaret’s brother. John died in that same year. Although Margaret was hardly enthusiastic about marrying for a third time, in 1501 she nevertheless married Philibert II of Savoy. Since her husband was not really interested in politics, she took over virtually all his administrative duties. This marriage, too, was short-lived: in 1504 Philibert died. For the rest of her life, Margaret always wore the widow’s cap depicted on the banknote.
Clearly, the first part of Margaret’s life was rather turbulent, yet it gave her the huge advantage of being very familiar with the courts of Europe, and she had a good understanding of international politics. Furthermore, she had acquired an extensive knowledge of languages, having mastered not only French and Latin but also Castilian.
Following her brother’s death (1506), Margaret of Austria took charge of bringing up her nephews and nieces; this meant that she also cared for the one who later became the Emperor Charles. As his guardian, she ruled over the Netherlands. One of Margaret’s most important achievements was the appointment of Charles as Maximilian’s successor to the imperial crown. As regent, she was also quite happy to take her own place at the negotiating table. In 1529 she made peace with the French king (Peace of Cambrai, 31 July 1529). Margaret was not the only formidable lady at the negotiating table: opposite her sat Louise of Savoy, the mother of the French king. That is why this peace was also known as the ‘Ladies’ Peace’. Its importance should not be underestimated. The Habsburgs finally had to renounce their claim to the Duchy of Burgundy. Once again it was confirmed that Artois and Flanders would be removed from the power of the French king, paving the way for the subsequent border between France and the Netherlands.
As well as being a born politician, Margaret of Austria was also active as a patron the arts. That is why the arch-duchess is depicted on the back of the banknote showing Bernard Van Orley. He was court painter to the Habsburgs. The Mechelen court was the place to be for all humanists and Renaissance artists. That is how Bernard Van Orley met Albrecht Dürer, among others, and saw the drawings of Jacopo de Barbari, the previous court painter to the Habsburgs.
The 500 franc note with Bernard Van Orley and Margaret of Austria was first issued on 2 July 1962 and was part of a series devoted to 16th century scientists and artists. That series determined the main colours of the Belgian banknotes for the first time: green for the 5000 franc, brown for the 1000 franc, blue for the 500 franc and red for the 100 franc note. There followed a change of printing technique: the offset technique was used to print the background on both the face and the back.
The design of the whole series was entrusted to the Italian graphic artist, Florenzo Marino-Bessi, a specialist in designing banknotes. He may have based his portrait of Van Orley on a 16th century engraving by Filips Galle. On the face we see the portrait of Bernard Van Orley flanked on the left by the Brussels coat of arms (St Michael slaying the dragon). The head of King Baudouin serves as the watermark. On the back we can see the portrait of Margaret of Austria. It is based on a portrait by the court painter Van Orley. A replica of that work is currently in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels. In the background is the Court of Savoy, the palace of the arch-dukes and one of the first Renaissance buildings in the Netherlands.
- CD-Rom, Le billet de banque belge, NBB Museum, 2001.
- De Iongh J., De hertogin. Margaretha van Oostenrijk, hertogin van Savoye (1480-1530), Amsterdam, 1981.
- National Bank of Belgium, The Belgian franc. Belgian coins and banknotes since 1830, Brussels, 1993.
- Te Boekhorst B., Danneel M. & Randaxhe Y., Adieu frank: Het boeiende verhaal van België en zijn geld, Tielt, 2001.