Of the alleged portraits of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the above is most likely to be the authentic one. It was completed some time in the 1590s, when Bathory was in her forties. The painting itself is no masterpiece, but it fulfills the criteria of official pictures – it expresses both a somber formality and a sense of intimacy when looked at closely. Although it far from certainly portrays the Countess, the large nose, awkward ears and high forehead were typical tracts of the Bathory family, and the period in which it was painted suggests it is, indeed, the ‘Bloody Countess’. The symbolism deployed by the artist was common in late Renaissance art. In this case, the barely visible key that Elizabeth holds in her right hand may point to her accomplishments in the domestic organization of the family’s estates. The ring on her finger suggests her generosity, and the pearls that decorate her neck are an emblem for the wealth and nobility of character of the Countess. The clock that she rests her hand on may denote her knowledge of medicine or healing. Still, the meaning of the painting is open to subjective interpretation.
The enigmatic symbolism in the painting above reflects the mystery surrounding Elizabeth’s life and her deeds. The notoriety and legend surrounding Bathory’s case has induced many people in recent times to condemn her as a ruthless serial killer. However, the contradictions in witness accounts and the sheer lack of evidence that emerges in the judicial proceedings relevant to the Bathory case may suggest otherwise. In the following paragraphs we will attempt to broadly outline the main areas of debate between those who condemn her and those who proclaim her innocence. The complexity of the case is such that it will not be possible to reach a conclusion on the matter in such a short space.
Elizabeth Bathory was born into a prominent Transylvanian family that possessed countless properties throughout Hungary, making them the richest landowners in the Kingdom.
By the time the Countess was born, in 1560, her family had been holding the highest offices in Hungary and Transylvania for the most part of three centuries. In May 1575, she married Ferenc Nadasdy, a member of the Hungarian aristocracy’s most wealthy families after the Bathorys, in what was a typical pre-arranged marriage with political connotations. Due to the prolonged battle against the Turks, Nadasdy was frequently at the war front (he was made chief commander of the Hungarian troops in 1578) and Elizabeth thus effectively ran the family’s estates herself. Her husband ultimately died in 1604 due to a mysterious disease, after having had limb problems for more than two years. According to confessions and testimonies, it was during the period between Nadasdy’s death and Elizabeth’s imprisonment in 1610 that Elizabeth’s tortures and murders started or intensified. Although her alleged crimes ensued in all her various properties, including the one at the seat of the Habsburg Empire in Vienna, a major fraction of the tortures she inflicted on people occurred at Cachtice Castle, her principal residence, in what is now Slovakia.