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"A headteacher's portrait is a memoir. It is supposed to be a support mechanism for the decisions I have to make. But I was advised as I took this job to not mistake the painting for the person. And you would be well-advised to do the same."
Minerva McGonagall to Harry Potter in 2020[src]

The Headmaster portraits were a set of portraits mounted in the Headmaster's office at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Each portrait represented a previous Headmaster or Headmistress, though not every person to hold the office was immediately granted a portrait. They were honour-bound to serve the current Headmaster at all times. Several of these portraits had counterparts in other prestigious magical institutions, such as the British Ministry of Magic Headquarters, St Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries, and the Black family home at 12 Grimmauld Place. This was extremely useful, as the individuals within such portraits might travel freely between them, though one important limitation was that they might not bring along individuals from other portraits with them.[1]

A trait shared by many of the portraits was that they spent most of the time asleep or pretending to be asleep, though most of them, with the occasional exception of Phineas Nigellus Black, would immediately awake when addressed.[1]


Phineas Nigellus Black: "Visit my other portrait? Oh, no, I am too tired tonight."
Unidentified Headmaster: "Insubordination, sir! Dereliction of duty!"
Armando Dippet: "We are honour-bound to give service to the present Headmaster of Hogwarts! Shame on you, Phineas!"
— Some of the other portraits scolding Phineas for attempting to shirk his duty to the current Headmaster[src]

1995-1996 school year

When Arthur Weasley was attacked by Nagini on 18 December, Albus Dumbledore called upon several of the portraits to relay or provide information on the event. Everard was sent to his portrait at the Ministry of Magic to make sure Arthur was found, Dilys Derwent was sent to St Mungo's to monitor his arrival there, and Phineas Nigellus Black was sent to 12 Grimmauld Place to inform Sirius Black that Harry Potter and the Weasley children would be arriving there by Portkey.[1]

The portraits witnessed Cornelius Fudge's attempt to arrest Dumbledore later that year, and did not sham sleep that night, but instead outright supported him against the Ministry, with one or two even giving Fudge a rude hand gesture. Even Phineas could not deny that Dumbledore's defence against Fudge's brigade as impressive.[2]

1997-1998 school year

After the death of Albus Dumbledore, then-Head Severus Snape continued to be advised by, and take orders from, his portrait. It was under these orders that Snape delivered Godric Gryffindor's Sword to Harry Potter, and arranged for Harry to view several of his memories.[3]

Following the defeat of Lord Voldemort at the Battle of Hogwarts, the portraits cheered on Harry when he visited the Headmaster's office. Dumbledore in particular complimented Harry, and supported his decision to discard the Resurrection Stone and return the Elder Wand to the White Tomb.[4]

Knowledge of portraits

"Dumbledore is dead, Harry. And I’ve told you before, portraits don’t represent even half of their subjects."
Minerva McGonagall warning Harry Potter not to mistake a portrait for the living person in 2020[src]

While the paintings in the wizarding world, such as those mounted on the walls of Hogwarts Castle, had all been bewitched by their painters so that the subjects depicted in them to move, talk and, by extension, interact with each other and those that looked at them, they were typically very limited in what they could say and do. Possessing little knowledge into the lives of the witches and wizards they depicted, the portraits at Hogwarts were typically more or less reducible to two-dimensional representations of their once living counterparts[5] as seen by the painter; capable of using some of their favourite phrases and mimicking their general demeanour, but little else.[6] The gallery in the Headteacher's study, however, was an exception to the rule; as the headmasters and headmistresses of Hogwarts poured so much of themselves into their painted likenesses that what they left behind in the office following their passing were more accurately described as faint imprints of themselves than mere pieces of art,[7] and the depth of their insight was unknown to all but the head of the day.[6]

Indeed: Whilst not as fully realised as ghosts,[7] the fact that these paintings were not only capable of considerably more interaction with the world outside their frames than the other portraits in the castle, but appeared so lifelike that even the current Head of the school were sometimes cautioned against mistaking them for the people they depicted,[8] both further illustrated the accuracy of Minerva McGonagall's high praise the abilities of the school's Professors,[9][10] as a portrait's level of sentience depended not on the skill of the witch or wizard that painted them, but rather the power of the witch or wizard depicted.[6]

Known Headmasters with portraits

Professor Swott's portrait in 1992

Dumbledore's portrait in 1997

Behind the scenes

  • J. K. Rowling has stated that all of the portraits in the Headmaster's office (and, in fact, all of the portraits at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry) are of deceased individuals.[12][13] Thus, though it has never been directly stated, it can be assumed that a Headmaster who left the position for other reasons (retirement or sacking, for example) will not have their portrait installed at all as Headmasters must die in office to get a portrait on the wall[14].
  • Rowling has explained that Severus Snape's portrait did not appear in the Headmaster's office immediately after his death in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows because he effectively "abandoned" his post shortly before his death.[13][15]
  • The virtual tour of the Headmaster's office on Disc 2 of the DVD release of the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets reveals two portraits of Albus Dumbledore (as portrayed by Richard Harris) on display in the office, one on the wall amongst the other portraits, and the other in the sitting room behind the desk. As Dumbledore was alive at the time, this contradicts J.K. Rowling's above-mentioned statement that all Headmaster portraits depict deceased individuals. However, it can be assumed that neither of these portraits of Dumbledore were the "official" portrait, and that they were only in the office for decoration, or were draft versions of the final portrait which Dumbledore sat for while still alive.


Notes and references

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 22 (St Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries)
  2. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 27 (The Centaur and the Sneak)
  3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 33 (The Prince's Tale)
  4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 36 (The Flaw in the Plan)
  5. J. K. Rowling said in an interview that the portraits at Hogwarts depicted deceased individuals.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Writing by J. K. Rowling: "Hogwarts Portraits" at Wizarding World
  7. 7.0 7.1 J K Rowling at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Sunday, August 15, 2004.
  8. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
  9. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 30 (The Sacking of Severus Snape)
  10. Harry Potter: Wizards Unite (Introduction to the Profession of Professor by Minerva McGonagall)
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (film) DVD (Disc 2 - Dumbledore's Office)
  12. 2004 J. K. Rowling at the 2004 Edinburgh Book Festival
  13. 13.0 13.1 J. K. Rowling at Carnegie Hall in 2007
  14. 2007 Accio Quote! Bloomsbury Chat: Laura Trego: Was the absence of snapes portrait in the headmasters office in the last scene innocent or deliberate
    J.K. Rowling: It was deliberate. Snape had effectively abandoned his post before dying, so he had not merited inclusion in these august circles..
  15. 30 July 2007 Bloomsbury.com webchat