Abstract: Her virginity aside, Elizabeth I of England (1536 – 1603) is best known for fashioning a well-articulated image of herself – her instruments being propaganda through portraiture, speeches, and literary works; all employed so worked in perpetuity to successfully create a cult of popularity akin to that of the Catholic Cult of the Virgin Mary. The purpose of this paper is to examine the “evolution” of portraiture of Elizabeth I, in terms of the propaganda, iconography and psychology involved; involving brief case studies of the following portraits that stand for the major landmarks in her transition from a princess to a divine virgin queen: Elizabeth Tudor as a princess, the Coronation Portrait, the Rainbow Portrait, the Armada Portrait, and Elizabeth with Time and Death.

Keywords: Elizabeth I; Portraiture; Cult; Divine Virgin Queen; Propaganda; Iconography; Elizabeth Tudor as a princess; Coronation Portrait; the Rainbow Portrait; the Armada Portrait; Elizabeth with Time and Death.

“I grieve and dare not show my discontent;

I love, and yet am forced to seem to hate;

I do, yet dare not say I ever meant;

I seem stark mute, but inwardly do prate.

I am and not; I freeze and yet am burned,

Since from myself another self I turned.”[1]

Almost every biography of Elizabeth I would have  two typical chapters; one typically titled “A Young Queen”, or “The Daughter of Debate”; the other “Eliza Triumphant”, “Gloriana”, “The Divine Virgin”, etc. The use of these epithets are no mere formality – they capture the essence of a Golden Age presided over by a woman who, as far as the patriarchal norms of Tudor royalty were concerned, was unfit for the task. Yet she escaped the attempted blemishes on her reputation, sufficiently for her biographies to be strewn with references that showed the triumph of the Maiden and Mother over the mere Wife and Widow. This wasn’t an easy task by 15th century standards, especially for a young woman with a tainted past[2] and the looming cloud of illegitimacy[3] over her; yet mass popularity and a splendor that spoke from beyond the grave, was won over by critical devices: religion, royalty, and vanity. Whilst the first commands a magnitude of research on its own, the rest can be fused together and indeed, they are empirical in the flourishing arts of the famous Elizabethan Age[4]. Literary endeavors aimed at securing patronage were congested with flattery and paved much way for the Queen’s notorious vanity; which, nonetheless, reigned evermore when it came to portraiture. These portraits are the insignia of timelessness, the living proof of the Monarch’s quest for the hereafter, and the careful distinctive light she wanted to see herself in: the imperfect Queen, as opposed to the flawed Woman.

It is in this light that this paper is going to examine the “evolution” of portraiture of Elizabeth I, in terms of the propaganda, iconography and psychology involved.  For convenience, the portraits chosen for scrutiny are the life – sized prototype ones (and not those on other media such as miniatures, medallions, woodcuts, cameos, coins, illustrated manuscripts, etc.) that have imprints of the major benchmarks of her fascinating timeline – her admission into adolescence, coronation, the daunted victory over the Armada and finally the transition from Monarch to Madonna.

“. . . but she was a queen, and therefore beautiful.”[5]

In hindsight, the portraits of Elizabeth I form one episode in that vast story of the alliance of art and power that is central to any understanding of the Idea of Monarchy as it evolved in the early modern period[6]; as well as are illustrative of the evolution of English royal portraits from the representations of simple likenesses to the later complex imagery used to convey the power and aspirations of the state[7]. As Roy Strong suggests,

The sixteenth century witnessed a huge escalation in the cult of crowned heads as onto the inherited attributes of the medieval rois thaumaturges, whose very touch could heal, were grafted the virtues of the Erasmian Christian Prince, the role of the monarch as hero and Caesar, and, as the century drew to its close, a desire by those who watched and waited to cast a ruler as one who would fulfil messianic prognostications. Portraiture belongs to that strange repertory which makes up the Idea of Monarchy which includes ceremonial and pageantry, eulogistic literature and poetry besides emblems and devices. All contributed to the increase in mystique. In most countries in Western Europe this was achieved by the realisation of these in terms of the new forms and conventions of renaissance humanism and art. What is unique about the cult of Elizabeth, however, is that its optical expression remained firmly medieval.[8]

Indeed, these portraits remain today as the rich storehouses of Medieval symbolism, aesthetics, and iconography bearing much resemblance to Byzantine icons and only in the last few years of the reign was there any serious sign of a comprehension of the norms of Renaissance painting as expressed by way of chiaroscuro and the use of scientific single point perspective.[9] Unlike their predecessors, however, these oeuvres stand untouched for their glitter and the allure they induce toward a legendary Virgin – unique as a sub – genre of Renaissance portraiture. They are allegorical, deceptive, and virtuoso on the themes of eternal youth, prosperity and righteousness; betraying a proliferation of poor likenesses to the reality of a wrinkled lady with a crumbling state[10]. Steeped in classical mythology and the Elizabethan understanding of English history and destiny, they were filtered by allusions to Petrarch‘s sonnets and, late in the reign, to Spenser‘s Faerie Queene.[11] More striking than their perpetual ability to successfully beguile spectators for centuries, is the conspiracy involved in their conception and execution. It’s a matter of debate, who invented the Cult of Elizabeth[12], but its realization can be chartered and scrutinised; and it can be safely claimed that the process gifted a phenomenal construct: the imparting of a material countenance to the abstract notion of power, specifically royal and female authority. To reflect a Queenship crafted with a wisdom derived from historical hindsight, endeavouring to adopt, adapt, or discard her predecessors’ policies and strategies for running the complex business of a well-governed state[13], the face of her body natural[14] was drawn into the process of projecting and deciphering of meaning. The body politik[15] didn’t escape either – it was manipulated with the general connotation of female virtue, weakness and timidity, whilst still stressing that the authority exercised was as high as that of a prince possessing virility. In fact, it was androgyny in all its glory.

“. . . a maid

That paragons description and wild fame,

One that excels the quirks of blazoning pens,

And in th’essential vesture of creation

Does tire the engineer.”[16]

It’s impossible to venture into the examination of these portraits without reflecting on their inspiration herself. Drawing their conclusions from a variety of official manuscripts, letters, speeches, coins and portraits – modern historians have accredited certain episodes of her extraordinary life behind the formation of her iconography and often attempted at homogenization, when it comes to reading in between the strokes.[17] The first important work on the cult representation of Elizabeth is that of Elkin Calhoun Wilson (England’s Eliza, 1939) wherein he sees the idealisation of the queen in poetry as a popular reaction to her extraordinary qualities as a ruler rather than a deliberate governmental stratagem. The cultural historians from the Warburg Institute, Dame Frances Yates (Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century, 1975) and Roy Strong (The Cult of the Virgin Queen, 1977) have been largely responsible for commentaries largely concentrating on the theme of virginity. Later scholars like Stephen Greenblatt (Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, 1980) and Philippa Berry (Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen, 1989) begin the approach of ‘the cult of Elizabeth’ from an explicitly gendered perspective; though staying focused on Elizabeth’s virginity. Others such as Margaret L. King (Women of the Renaissance, 1991), Theodora A. Jankowski (Women in Power in the Early Modern Drama, 1992), and Carole Levin (The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power, 1994) continue to see the queen as the ‘master-builder of her public image’, and claim that she cannily appropriated the symbols of divine virginity in her portraits and life in order to overcome cultural attitudes towards women and remove political problems arising from her gender. Susan Frye (Elizabeth I: The Competition for Representation, 1993) and Louis A. Montrose take a more sophisticated approach, viewing the creation of the royal image as a complex interplay between the queen and her subjects – so that in their analysis, Elizabeth was an agent rather than the author of her representation. Helen Hackett (Virgin Mother, Maiden Queen: Elizabeth I and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, 1995) has questioned the most familiar myth surrounding her, namely that she fashioned her own image and created the cult of the Virgin Queen as a political device to inspire awe in her subjects, consolidate her political power, and signal her intention never to marry. She holds that virginity held different political meanings for the queen and her subjects; and it wasn’t the priority in the agenda of propaganda her portraits were charged to fulfil. Parallel to her, Susan Doran (The Myth of Elizabeth, 2003) states that Elizabeth didn’t adopt much of the so – called Marian iconography and she was seldom directly responsible for devising her own image. In works where she was the patron of a portrait, she was more usually depicted as a Protestant ruler rather than a virgin queen. Anna Riehl (The Face of Queenship: Early Modern Representations of Elizabeth I, 2010) makes an inquiry into the subject of Elizabeth’s face, accounting for her dual status as a woman and a monarch. She puts aside Strong’s Mask of Youth theory[18] for the path proves to be no mere linear progression from conventional, unexciting portrayal of the young woman to an austere ruler to a divinely immortal Virgin Queen. Virginity wasn’t the only card at play – legitimacy, in all its hues, was a crucial element: hence the manufacture of a portrait depended on the purpose of the painting.[19] Provided the interpretations of the portraits have all originated in the recent past – 20th / 21st century – it can be assumed that the contexts as well as the key to understanding these remarkable images as the Elizabethans might have understood them are lost. What remains, therefore, is an unrealistic hope for the amateur viewer and professional scholar to emerge themselves in the leviathan collection of abstract pattern and symbolism to unravel the intrigue that is the cult representation of Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth and the Three Goddesses: The start of the Cult of Virginia.

Interestingly, while there may be volatile disputes over the motives behind the characteristics of portraiture, its chronology enjoys unanimous confidence. During the first decade of her reign, the most widely circulated portraits of Elizabeth were produced for printed books: the dedicatory page of John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments and the title pages to the Bishops’ Bibles[20]; none of which contained any hint of exaggeration of divinity that would be the hallmark of later portraits. Until about 1580 there were relatively few portraits of the Queen, certainly no abnormal quantity. These were produced to be sent to potential suitors or as diplomatic gifts; and Elizabeth appeared in all of them as a well – dressed lady of her own court holding gloves or with a flower in her hand. However, this was to change dramatically at the close of the 1570s when a second and far more important phase began. By 1579, although Elizabeth was still on the marriage market, the confrontation with Spain that was to culminate a decade later in the Armada was already underway. As the eighties emerged, allegories were introduced and they would be coyly employed to evoke imagery powerful enough to hold together a nation and inspire it with a sense of destiny. There appeared the first of a long series of portraits of Elizabeth which introduced a heavy overlay of imperial pretensions stemming from maritime power and from a reassertion of dominion based on the descent of the House of Tudor from the imperial stock of Troy and on the conquests of King Arthur. The Queen, of course, remained the perfect lady but she had suddenly become something else, a portent, a being set apart, and an object of veneration whose destiny was both mysterious and great. Finally in the aftermath of the Armada the celebratory and iconic tendencies of the 1580s reach their fulfilment in portraits that enshrine her as a Diva to be adored by her subjects.[21] Till her deathbed, very few realistic portraits slipped her attention, and managed a survival. Unfortunately in a cruel twist of dramatic irony, a woman who all her life avoided being portrayed the hapless victim of Time should have an effigy resembling her likeness. It seems that the Steuarts did not just fail to grasp the so subtle Tudor shrewdness, and the importance of ‘modest’ ceremonialism; they also materialized their debtor’s worst nightmare.

“For the face, I grant, I might well blush to offer, but the mind I shall never be ashamed to present. For though from the grace of the picture the colours may fade by time, may give by weather, may be spotted by chance, yet the other nor time with her swift wings shall overtake, nor the misty clouds with their lowerings may darken, nor chance with her slippery foot may overthrow … And further, I shall most humbly beseech your majesty that when you look on my picture you will witsafe to think that as you have but the outward shadow of the body afore you, so my inward mind wisheth that the body itself were oftener in your presence…”[22]

Elizabeth Tudor as a princess

Elizabeth’s earlier portraits were not knit with the aggressive display of power – instead they conveyed a vignette of demure and obedience, albeit in all too depressing crudity[23]. The c.1546 Elizabeth Tudor as a princess, attributed to William Scrots, is an epitome of this style and gesture; she apparently not yet adroit in composing her face as a text she intended for others to read. David Starkey pens[24],

Elizabeth’s second surviving portrait … when Elizabeth was in her early teens. The artist is unknown, but he was a master, who responded to his subject with a delicate sensitivity. Elizabeth stands. Her body is slightly turned to the right. But her eyes confront the observer directly and hold him with a steady stare. The set of the jaw is firm. Her auburn hair, parted in the middle, is her father’s, as is her pale complexion, her delicate mouth and her long, slightly arched nose … But the eyes, coal black and profound, are her mother’s, Anne Boleyn’s. She holds a book, with gold mounts at the corners, in front of her. The gesture displays her hands, with their long, slender, beringed fingers, in which she took such pride. It also suggests that she has been interrupted in reading. And it was clearly serious study: a slip of paper marks one place in the book; her left index finger another. To her right is another, much larger book, open on a velvet draped lectern. She is ready, you feel, to receive Grindal or Ascham and begin her exercises in Latin or Greek or theology.

But she is no blue stocking. She wears the latest French hood. This reveals the face, rather than concealing it like the native English gable head – dress. Her dress, with its long, wide sleeves, is in crimson damask and it is open at the front to show a magnificent underskirt, richly worked in gold embroidery. Her under sleeves are of the same fabric. Her hood, necklace, dress, and girdle are trimmed with lustrous pearls. The effect is rich, fashionable, yet elegantly restrained. There is also a hint, just a hint, of her breasts under the tightly stretched fabric of the bodice.

Finally, there is the background. Tawny curtains are pulled back on either side, leaving her head and milky – white shoulders outlined against the dark void between them. A doorway seems to lie beyond. To the left is the dull glint of a rich counterpane. She is reading in her bedroom in front of her bed.

Akin to the portrayal of Elizabeth I in c.1544 The Family of Henry VIII at Hampton Court and a c.1550 miniature attributed to Levina Teerlinc, the portrait comprises the typical subtle Henrician or fragmented Edwardian allegory, executed in the Mannerist style of painting in the Netherlands. Meant as a gift to her brother Edward VI in 1549, it portrays Elizabeth as the accomplished Renaissance Princess, quiet and studious-looking, ornament in her attire as secondary to the plainness of line that emphasizes her youth. Great is the contrast with the awesome fantasy of the later portraits[25] – though the fashion present is obvious. The French hood not only suggests a cosmopolitan spirit and a maiden status; but also nods silently toward the signature panache of her executed mother, Anne Boleyn. Her red hair – though a cultural and moral “Badde”[26] – reinforces the genetic link to her auburn-haired father and thus functions as an ocular confirmation of her legitimacy.[27] The catcher in the rye, however, is the purposefully chosen accessory: books. The books emphasize Elizabeth’s commitment to scholarly pursuits, a value that she shared with her brother, the portrait’s recipient, and her piety.[28] Her learning is her defining characteristic, safe for the “spare” to the throne after a young brother who was still publicly figured as carrying on the dynasty[29]. Moreover, it alludes to the peace and quiet much desired by a public figure as she in the private sphere, but difficult to find; and is reminiscent of Henry VIII’s illustrated Book of Psalms that portrays him reading in his bed chamber, despite having studies, libraries and closets in plenty.[30] More important is the hint toward her blossoming sexuality at the wake of adolescence – something that was sophisticatedly ‘restricted’ to be aligned along Protestant ideals of womanhood and a weapon which she would weld later in life to play “The Marriage Game”. This is the harbinger of the manner in which she would promise to wed and energetically woo several husbands, before suggesting that perhaps she was a victim of her own vacillation and hence surprised by time.[31] The portrait is reminiscent of a time she would shortly be tarnished with the Seymour affair, and closely watched – therefore in all probability, the unconcealed face was meant to be a window to her innocent soul, for the people, the investigators and the King – and arrive at the conclusion that her “inward good mind” is free of vexation.

“. . . she that by nature’s compos’d

Of round cherry cheeks and red hair

If she be pink-ey’d and long-nos’d,

Believe me, ‘tis dangerous ware.”[32]

NPG 5175; Queen Elizabeth I by Unknown artist
Coronation Portrait

This portrait of note is of a later time – the c. 1600 – 1610 copy of the lost origin of the c.1559 Coronation Portrait – but it is placed second in the chronology by the virtue of the event it commemorates. The best known of her unusual frontal portraits, a promising 26 year old Elizabeth appears in Mary I’s Robes of Estate, thick with the signature Tudor roses, fleurs-de-lis, portcullises and the royal arms interspersed with naturalistic flowers. The fabric of her dress is made from woven gold and silver silk thread. The lining of her robe is ermine, with each black dot being the tail of one animal[33]: a reflection of the sumptuary laws that dictated fur to be worn solely by royalty. She has long flowing hair, though of a more blonde hue; which is traditional for the coronation of a queen. Her accessories include the Crown, the Sceptre and the Orb and she sports the chains of the Order of Garter. The anointed “Sovereign of England, Ireland and France”, the Tudor roses legitimize her Tudor descent, whereas the fleurs-de-lis – the heraldic emblem of France – represent the long standing English claim to the French throne.[34] The soon-to-be iconic high Elizabethan ruff appears in the portrait. Nonetheless, what is most striking in the picture is her face. She embodies the 15th century standard of youthful beauty – gracefully slender, pale white, with an unnaturally high hairline that makes the face appear thinner and longer. What more, it unsubtly engages the treatment of heraldic images as a kind of face[35]; as suggested by Anna Riehl,

To begin with, the face also lends itself to the heraldic metaphor on a purely geometric level. The outline of a typical “heater” shield, with its elegant curves swooping from the wide top and meeting at the bottom point, resembles a mask that could be fitted onto a human face. As a piece of functional armour, however, long before its emblematic and symbolic roles became an end in themselves, a painted shield was meant both for an easy identification of the bearer and for protection of his body …  Furthermore, the symmetrical quartering of a coat of arms is compatible with the partition of the face: both natural, following the line of the nose and the imaginary line connecting the eyes, and artistic, often performed in the preparatory sketches for drawing a portrait.

The natural map of the “quartered” face, however, stands in contrast with the traditionally diagonal mirroring of the design of the quartered coat of arms (the imagery and colours of the bottom left segment, for instance, correspond to those in the top right). An imposition of the heraldic pattern onto a face inevitably reorganizes natural facial elements. Even more importantly, it inscribes the face with a new meaning. If a physiognomy serves as a marker of individuality, the metaphoric stamping of a face with a heraldic emblem, itself an important expression of early modern identity, leads either to veiling of the natural features (and thus closing up of their own meaning) or superimposition of one pattern upon the other. The naturally and culturally encapsulated identity and meaning of one’s face, therefore, are either replaced or conjoined with those recorded in one’s coat of arms.

Consequently, the imposition of heraldry on the queen’s face activates a complex interplay of three kinds of power: that of a shield, that of royalty/nobility, and that of a face. The face, however, exerts its own kind of command—and the queen’s f ace, in particular, is immensely powerful, as confirmed by the records of Elizabeth’s social interaction. For this reason, the convergence of her shield and face has a potential to increase Elizabeth’s power symbolically or alter it. This convergence can combine the expressive and aesthetic power of the face and the inherent protective and rhetorical power of the shield—or replace the former with the latter, thereby deactivating the queen’s ability to exercise her authority through the conventional use of her face. And insofar as, for a woman, that use is traditionally predicated on her beauty, while heraldry is predominantly a masculine domain, the superimposition of the two inevitably causes a gender-related shift in meaning.[36]

The next in line of discussion includes a series of portraits[37] which appeared in the 1570 – 1580 and are fundamental to the understanding of the cult representation of Elizabeth I, namely Queen Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses, the Sieve Portrait, the Darnley Portrait, the Ermine Portrait, the Pelican Portrait, the Phoenix Portrait, the Ditchley Portrait, and the epitome of supreme royal mythology – the Rainbow Portrait. These portraits use unsubtle humanist politico – religious allegory, all geared to replicate the Christian counterpart of the Cult of the Virgin Mary into the more humane, yet equally divine – the Cult of the Virgin Queen.

(Both kneeling before a statue of Madonna)

Elizabeth: Am I to be made of stone? Must I be touched by nothing?

Walsingham: Aye, Madam. To reign supreme all men need something greater than themselves to look upto and worship. They must be able to touch the Divine here on earth.

Elizabeth (gazing up at the statue): She had such power over men’s hearts. They died for her.

Walsingham: They have found nothing to replace her.[38]

By the 1580s, Elizabethans had acquired their indigenous Madonna, alternatively revered as Goddesses such as Diana, Cynthia, or Amphitrite; and is adorned with classical symbols of virtuousness and chastity such as a sword, a branch of olive, a phoenix, a pelican, an ermine, a sieve, a serpent, a rainbow, a celestial sphere, a globe of the world, a crescent-moon let alone the more traditional bouquets of roses and pansies. This wide array of symbolism finds its culmination in the c.1602 Rainbow Portrait at Hatfield House, attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts, the Younger under his patron, Sir Robert Cecil. What is unique about this portrait is that it is beguiling if viewed independently; yet when read associated with certain events and two special pageants in the closing years of Elizabeth’s reign – there emerges the larger, most magnificent façade of the cult that was fostered around the Queen’s legendary virtue and her identification as Mother to her subjects.

Rainbow Portrait

The Queen, almost bare bosomed, wears a golden cloak which uses real gold as well as glazes of orange and crimson to depict the folds. It is bordered with pearls and onto it have been painted eyes and ears. There are three bejewelled emblems on her sleeve: a coiled serpent from whose mouth is suspended a golden chain with a ruby pendant in the form of a heart and, above its head, an armillary or celestial sphere. Her face is rejuvenated back into that of a young girl, something which is true of all the portraits of her in her last years. In her hand she holds a rainbow; her motto scribbled in the background, “NON SINE SOLE IRIS” or “No rainbow without the Sun”.  This picture also has to be read as a series of separate images as well as collectively: The following analysis of the portrait includes the combined efforts of Roy Strong, and Frances Yates[39]

The portrait has been connected to two 1602 pageants – one hosted by Lord Thomas Egerton at Harefield and the other by Lord Robert Cecil in the Strand – and to the 1599 Hymes of Astraea by Sir John Davis … the rainbow is the traditional symbol of peace whose origins are biblical, God showing his rainbow to Noah after the Flood (‘I do set my bow in a cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.’), and whose prior use by Catherine D’ Medici has been documented with her motto in Greek – “It brings light and serenity”… the painted eyes and ears on her dress recalls her motto – Video Taceo or “I see all and say nothing”; as well as according to the interpretation of Ripa’s Iconologia under Ragione di Stato, stands for the Queen’s servants of whom Robert Cecil was chief. In another entertainment John Davies wrote of her: ‘Many things she sees and hears through them, but the Judgement and Election are her own’, thus an allusion to the Queen’s excellent faculty. The dress itself resembles a costume worn at pageants – its association with the rainbow is an attempt to evoke the weather Goddess, Iris, who with the companionship of Saint Swithin, the rural rainmaster places her in a rustic incarnation entirely suited to country house entertainment. However, Elizabeth’s firm grasp over the rainbow subordinates the Goddess to her control. The pearls adorning the dress, with the low cut neckline symbolised virginity. The serpent at her sleeve appears as a traditional symbol of wisdom (‘Be wary as serpents’), attribute of Prudence and Minerva. All these apply to the Queen and make up a progression of thought which runs from her reception of information or intelligence by means of her servants’ eyes and ears onto the wisdom which she possesses by which to interpret it. Through her wisdom the Queen rules the passions of her heart and the celestial sphere is placed so as to be complementary to it. The sphere was another emblem of Elizabeth’s and she wears one as a jewelled earring in the Ditchley Portrait. Other uses of it make it clear that it refers to her adherence to the Word of God enshrined in the Protestant faith. That is implicit here but alludes also perhaps to her knowledge of celestial affairs. She looms as a portent bearing in her fantastic headdress a huge crescent-moon shaped jewel, for here too she is “Cynthia, the wide ocean’s empress”…whose destiny was to rule “some new world, as vast as the universal frame”. She adorns the rejuvenated “Mask of Youth”, bearing no resemblance to the wrinkled Queen in reality, for as a goddess, she is eternally young and with the succession after her in doubt any allusions to the Queen’s mortality were forbidden.

Therefore, this portrait in an act of supreme homage turns Elizabeth into a cult icon!

Armada Portrait

The fourth portrait considered is the c. 1588 Armada Portrait, commissioned to honour one of the most decisive naval victories in English History at the zenith of the Cult. It flaunts the Protestant Deborah of the Elect Nation of England triumphant against Catholic Spain and the “Bishop of Rome”, besides commemorating the Elizabethan vision of an Empire as derived from Dr. John Dee’s General and Rare Memorials[40], and a sense of Predestination. Towing the line in between Flemish heraldic representation, and Renaissance ideas of unity in Time and Space, it shows a heavily decked up Queen in stunning hieratic grandeur, standing on her realm of England atop the globe of the world, banishing storms and ushering in sunshine.[41] The chair to the right is viewed from two different angles, as are the tables on the left, and the background shows two different stages in the defeat of the Armada. In the background view on the left, English fire – ships threaten the Spanish fleet, and on the right the ships are driven onto a rocky coast amid stormy seas by the “Protestant Wind“. On a secondary level, these images show Elizabeth turning her back on storm and darkness while sunlight shines where she gazes. As the Armada is vanquished behind her, she reaches out her right hand to seize the world. What we are called to dwell upon is not prognostications of greatness but this time their fulfilment, for the globe of the world no longer hovers in the shadows in the background but is placed on a table at the front of the picture.[42] Moreover, in one amazing image Elizabeth is her country, woman and kingdom having become interchangeable. The enemies of both woman and kingdom figure allegorically in the painting –

The queen is flanked by two columns behind, probably a reference to the famous impresa of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VPhilip II’s father, which represented the Pillars of Hercules. Andrew Belsey and Catherine Belsey have pointed out the striking geometry of the painting, with the repeating patterns of circles and arches described by the crown, the globe, and the sleeves, ruff, and gown worn by the queen. They also contrast the imperial figure of the Virgin Queen wearing the large pearl symbolizing chastity suspended from her bodice and the mermaid carved on the chair of state, representing female wiles luring sailors to their doom, another interpretation is that the mermaid symbolizes Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth is facing away from Mary indicating that the plots and Mary’s execution are all behind her and she doesn’t worry about it anymore. The crown also symbolises the English monarch.[43]

In fact, it took the decapitation of the treacherous Queen of Scots, compounded with the Armada invasion to spur a later Elizabeth to a new species of self-understanding and self-representation in terms of the Platonic quartet of political virtues.[44] Divinity and mass adoration wasn’t enough – a monarch had to be seen as the warrior defending the State, as well as involved in its expansion. The iconography of the Armada Portrait, indeed, signifies a certain departure from existing norms. The Cult of the Virgin Queen is present, but what are added to that are the formidable dimensions of volatile imperialism and the inaccessibility of the Monarch. Henceforth, prophecies of empire became inextricably linked with the maintenance of the Queen’s maiden state.[45] Elizabeth adorns the unmistakable and ageless “Mask of Youth” and her body appears almost unnatural, signifying that here she stands as a State as opposed to the mere Human. According to the ‘norm’, the virginal body is effectively turned into an icon of sovereignty and imperialism yet what is new in this vision is the association of her presence with an ability to control the force of the elements, her very presence banishing calamities, whether divine or manmade. In her very guise, she is placed into the gallery of messianic rulers of the late mannerist age!

Lord North: Madam, it is a coffin.

Elizabeth: Are you such a fool to give a pie such a name?[46]

Elizabeth with Time and Death

The final portrait for scrutiny is the posthumous c.1622 Elizabeth with Time and Death, created as the deliberate disrespectful revision of one of the most iconic portraits of Elizabeth I – the Armada Portrait. Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts, the Younger, it depicts a weak, exhausted and aged Elizabeth I[47] sitting on a chair, and leaning on a pillow to support her drooping head, with a book in the left hand. Time and Death look over her shoulders, and two putti hold a crown and an olive wreathe above her head. What are distinct about this portrait are its sinister negative connotations, as Julia M. Walker suggests, particularly of the book and the left orientation of the portrait –

… However fabled her learning might have been, it is evidently of little benefit or comfort to her now. In fact, as hard as it may be for us to acknowledge in the twenty-first century, the appearance of the book itself may have negative connotations. That “Elizabeth with Time and Death” features the queen holding a book suggests one of two implicit statements. The most obvious is that her learning, unnatural in her sex as all have observed, has taken the place of her more natural activities as a woman and thus she is left, not with the fruit of her body in the form of heirs mourning at her tomb – heirs which might have benefited her nation – but with an effete and somewhat inappropriate way to pass eternity by reading, an activity which evidently gives her little satisfaction. The more convoluted reading of that book in her left hand would be as a reference to the portrait of her as a princess, a role which the Stuarts would suggest she should never have abandoned.

Similarly, the queen’s head held in her right hand is at odds with the other right-handed actions in the portraits, as this pose suggests not action or control, but the abandonment of all active pursuits, including learning. Although her body is oriented to her right as it is in the Allegory of the Tudor Succession, the Siena Sieve portrait, the Armada portrait, the Ditchley portrait, the Rainbow portrait, and in Cecil’s engraving, her head is turned to her left, her sight-line down and to the left, as though she had just lowered the left hand holding the book. Death, the more prominent of the two background figures, looms over her left shoulder, and – even though it requires considerable contortion – both of the putti hold the crown with their left hands … the queen seated before a table (a pose not used in any of the other portraits) with two important elements of the composition over her right and left shoulders. Rather than the English and Spanish fleets and that God-sent storm, however, we see Time behind her on the right, mirroring the queen’s pose by propping his head with his left hand as he supports himself with his right arm, his hour-glass broken before him, and Death leaning over her left shoulder holding an emptied hourglass in his right hand, his left arm over the back of her chair. The chair and pillow are similar to the Armada portrait chair and pillow, although in the earlier portrait the pillow is behind the queen’s left side as mere decoration, while in the posthumous portrait the pillow becomes a seemingly necessary support for her right arm…[48]

The symbolisms of her previous powerful portraits have been reproduced to reinforce an opposite degrading effect – beside the chair and pillow of the Armada Portrait, the orbs, rose, intaglio and table covering appear to renounce both the Monarch and her reign. The dominant theme is the disempowering remark toward a portrait that commemorates Elizabeth’s Agincourt, and hence bringing about the parody of the queen at her most powerful. Such a reverse representation appears obvious in the light of its contemporary political conditions. Witnessed is the politically potent usurpation of the iconic Elizabeth I by her powerful survivors and the disparity between her posthumous reputation against the royal revision of her position in English History.[49] The power of art is wooed to further the agenda of the Steuarts, erasing the shadow of a generally popular Queen, by representing her unnatural, alone, powerless and gloriously dead. With her physical death, her carefully constructed public persona passed from her control into an entirely new space: Public Memory; and began a story of its own, woefully one of ‘unmaking’.[50]

The Elizabethan portraits are the markers of the supreme conviction that reigned the Virgin Queen, starting from her decision to maintain maidenhood to her agonising struggle to come to terms with her aging process as well as mortality. Even today an enigma, her portraiture provide invaluable insights into the Elizabethan Golden Age, of how not only her contemporary others perceived her, but also how she would be perceived in the years to come. To conclude with Roy Strong –

The portraits of Elizabeth I, allegorical or otherwise, form a unique phenomenon in the history of British art. Into an aesthetic which was still essentially medieval was poured the attributes of sacred empire, the courtly imagery of Petrarch’s I Trionfi, the new-fangled fashion for emblems and imprese, Protestant propaganda and the subtleties of neo-Platonic allegory. The result is a series of pictures which exert a hypnotic hold upon the imagination. Within them we can detect pulsating the attitudes and imagery which were to sustain an island kingdom in the creation of an empire and a mythology of monarchy which has lived into the present century. Unlike Elizabeth II, Gloriana died before projected image and present reality became so far distanced that they fell apart.[51]

And yet, the legend is never the whole story …


[1]Quoted from the poem On Monsieur’s Departure by Elizabeth I (Riehl, 2010, p.82).

[2] Elizabeth, by the time she ascended the throne, had a reputation unfit for a queen. Convicted of an affair with Sir Thomas Seymour in 1547 – 48, that resulted in his execution in 1549; and made the focus of Protestant plots and rebellions (i.e., Wyatt’s Rebellion of 1554), she endured imprisonment in the Tower of London from March – May of 1554 – this was followed by a year of house arrest at Woodstock. Yet she was popular, had friends in the Parliament and at court – and coupled with the death of her two siblings – she was destined to be the Queen of England.

[3] Elizabeth’s birth in wedlock, to Henry VIII of England and his second wife, Anne Boleyn; marked the climax of “The King’s Great Matter” and the Henrician break from Rome.  In the eyes of the Papacy, Katherine of Aragon was the rightful queen of England and Mary Tudor was the sole heir – any other child born outside this union was declared a bastard. Yet Elizabeth was heir presumptive in the years 1533 – 36, till the dissolving of Anne Boleyn’s royal marriage, her decapitation and the bastardization of her child. In 1537, with the birth of Edward IV to Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, Elizabeth’s prospect of the throne was further reduced. In the eyes of the Catholics, she remained forever a bastard – this blotch to her reputation haunted her with conspiracies and rebellions throughout her reign, and after death in popular anti – Elizabethan cultural representations. It’s surprising that, unlike Mary I who reversed the decree of her bastardization on her accession to the throne, Elizabeth never made such a reverse. Perhaps, she stressed more on her royal descent from her father, than her mother or she thought it was safer to let the sleeping dogs lie (Weir, 2008).

[4] 1558 – 1603.

[5] Riehl, 2010, p.45.

[6] Strong, (vol. 2) 1995, p. 5.

[7] Wikipedia, 2016.

[8] Strong, (vol. 2) 1995, p. 5.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Banishment of signs of age in most of the later portraits was not simply the result of the queen’s personal vanity for there were obvious political advantages in the practice. As well as creating political uncertainty, the unclear line of succession could also activate criticism of the queen herself who was understandably held responsible for the perilous state of affairs.  In these circumstances, paintings that truthfully showed the queen’s advancing years would draw attention to the dangers ahead and encourage political unrest. Similarly, portraits of an ageing queen could only remind observers of the presence of an adult male ruler with his own live progeny (i.e., James of Scotland), waiting impatiently in Scotland for Elizabeth’s demise. At the same time, the ‘Mask of Youth’ reinforced the idea embedded within the theory of ‘the King’s Two Bodies’ that Elizabeth remained awesome despite growing older. No wonder, then, that the council tried to secure control over the queen’s image in July 1596s by ordering the defacement of unauthorised and ‘unseemly’ portraits (Doran, 2003, p.189).

[11] Wikipedia, 2016.

[12] Elizabeth I is best known for fashioning a well-articulated image of herself – her weapons being propaganda through portraiture, speeches, and literary works; all employed so worked in perpetuity to create a cult of popularity akin to that of the Virgin Mary. They used Biblical allusions, dynastic iconography, mythological allegory, the cult of chastity, Petrarchan discourse, imperial imagery and, as an additional element, the influence of Italian romances, especially the works of Ariosto. In the late representations Arthurian legend met with romantic folk motifs, medieval fairies and wild men with classical goddesses, fauns, nymphs and satyrs. Although there was no doctrine that gave her divine powers, she was venerated in a manner similar to “saints” in a deliberate attempt to confuse the lightly educated subjects. Spontaneous accounts of miracles associated with Elizabeth or her images were not discouraged, even if they weren’t given official sanction. However tempting it would be to look at the cult of Elizabeth as the direct continuation of the Cult of the Virgin, yet no connections were made until the very last years of Elizabeth; as demonstrated by this eulogistic couplet written at her death: She was, She is (what can there more be said?) / In earth the first, in heaven the second maid. A print after her death also showed her in heaven surrounded by the twelve stars of Mary. Though the coincidence that Elizabeth was born on the Eve of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, 7 September, and died on the Eve of the Annunciation to Virgin Mary, 25 March, was pointed out yet it was never utilized and the extent quotations can all be connected to the post-humus Stuart cult of Elizabeth (Anonymous, 2007).

[13] Riehl, 2010, p.13.

[14] The human body of the ruler, subjected to age and death.

[15] The royal body comprising the realm of a monarch that enjoys continuity, immune to age or death.

[16] Quoted from Othello by William Shakespeare (in Riehl, 2010, p.92).

[17] Doran, 2003, pp.171-172.

[18] While Strong emphasizes that the Mask of Youth was employed in Elizabeth’s I portraiture to impart the impression of her as an eternal being, one untouched by the perils of age or death; Riehl states that the invention and establishment of the “mask of youth” were so radical that the new image affected the meaning of a range of Elizabeth’s portraits that came into being well before this innovation. With the introduction of the rejuvenated face of the older queen, the linear sequence of portraits turned in upon itself as Elizabeth’s youth was reinvented in new, masculinized terms. When Elizabeth was a princess, the possibility of her inheriting the throne was so remote that she, unlike her younger brother, was never depicted on a threshold of gaining power. She was represented instead in accordance with conventional portrayal of young women’s “constrained chastity.” Even as Elizabeth became queen, almost all her early portraits continued to be conventionally feminine, showing no preparedness for the exercise of power. The aspect of her coming into power was not addressed explicitly. Not until the mid-1570s and 1580s do these images begin to acquire and surpass all the attributes usually granted to portraits of adult men, those indicative of full authority and responsibility. The process of maturation reflected in Elizabeth’s portraiture thus not only lags behind Elizabeth’s actual coming of age, but also yields little in terms of representation of her youth as “the time of power and increasing responsibility,” a concept normally reserved for males. The “mask of youth,” then, is as much a return to this underrepresented stage as it is an idealization of still being youthful and at the same time already fully empowered. In this sense, the trajectory of Elizabeth’s portraiture is circular rather than linear, with a return to youthfulness that simultaneously rewrites the decaying visage of the aging ruler, and the immature malleability of the young queen whose ability to sustain her power was still in question. In the later portraits that utilized “the mask of youth,” the face is the only element that conveys the queen’s youthfulness, and the multifaceted effect of the later portraits results from the reconciliation of the logical tension between this face and allegorical apparatus of a fully mature power scattered around it. The rejuvenated face surrounded by splendour is repeated even in the portraits of the queen not associated with Hilliard. This instance of the reworking of Elizabeth’s face additionally indicates that the manufacture of a countenance in portraiture was often quite autonomous from the queen’s body natural for which this face was invented as a prosthetic substitution. Here and later in Elizabeth’s reign, the manipulation of facial features and the gaze modified the sitter’s apparent age, making her look older or more youthful, depending on the purpose of the painting. These changes in depiction also alter the representation of her personality, rendering her either vulnerable or stern and thus implicitly undermining or strengthening her royal authority. Moreover, the images in this cluster and others present the queen as a woman who, in her attractiveness or plainness, invites or discourages the viewers to perceive her as a possible object of desire or figure in unapproachable majesty. As Elizabeth’s reign continued, these tendencies coexisted and vied for dominance. The less attractive face of version four, for instance, looks forward to the intractable will and acumen that reappears about a decade later in the Darnley portrait and even later in the Ditchley portrait; likewise, the rejuvenating technique of idealization is echoed in the end of the century in the invention of “Mask of Youth” (Riehl, 2010, pp.149-150).

[19] Riehl, 2010.

[20] Doran, 2003, p.172.

[21] Strong, (vol. 2) 1995, pp.10-11.

[22] Quoted from Princess Elizabeth to King Edward VI, with a Present of Her Portrait, May 15, 1549 (in Marcus, et al, 2000, p.35).

[23] Strong, (vol. 1) 1995, p.136.

[24] Starkey, 2000, pp. 67-68.

[25] Wikipedia, 2016.

[26] Scholars such as Neville Williams and Liggett noted that Elizabethan women imitated their queen’s auburn hair colour. These judgments seem to be derived from portraiture of some women with hair inclining to reddishness. No one, however, seems to be concerned with the discrepancy between the colour of Elizabeth’s hair and the fair yellow of the medieval beauty standard. Fenja Gunn comes close to acknowledging the red-blonde rivalry created by this monarch’s genuine colouring, yet Gunn simply ignores the resulting tension: “Elizabeth’s own naturally red hair set the pattern for the rest of female society, but golden hair was also popular due to the influence of the Italian court.”  The only scholar who draws attention to the potential disapproval to which Elizabeth was exposed is Mendelson, who points to the common notions about the redheads but does not discuss the issue at length. Although the physiognomic meaning of the red hair, likely due to the queen’s natural hair colour, occasionally acquires positive tones and appears in a fair number of portraits featuring Elizabethan women, the traditional distrust of redheads remains dominant. In the Middle Ages, women who “experimented with precious hair dyes . . . were careful to avoid auburn—the sign of the witch”: not only did the red hair point to witchcraft, but it also had a direct connection to whoredom: all prostitutes in London were compelled to wear red wigs. According to the physiognomic pronouncements thought by the early moderns to be penned by Aristotle, “reddish hair” was a sign of a “bad character,” and, in the eyes, “excessively black colour signifies cowardice. Moreover, discussing whether it was lawful for a woman to amend her unfortunate natural hair colour, Jean Liébault proposed that, “if she had red hair, and since that colour suggests a proud and haughty person, given to certain grand vices, she could dye it blonde.” Indeed, if one of the English proverbs recorded in a commonplace book says that red-haired people are wise, this positive signification still shares the page with a chart that suggests that “Redde” women are “Badde”; for early modern physiological theories associated red hair and a fair complexion with the ‘hot’ humoral characteristics of the choleric personality, characterized by aggressive behaviour and sexual vigour (Riehl, 2010, pp.49-50).

[27] Ibid., p.50.

[28] Being Bess, 2013.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Starkey, 2000, p.68.

[31] Riehl, 2010.

[32] Quoted from a popular Elizabethan ballad (in Ibid., p.49).

[33] National Portrait Gallery, year unknown.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Riehl, 2010.

[36] Riehl, 2010, pp.104-110.

[37] It is impractical to club these portraits together, for each deserves special attention, but because the purpose of the paragraph is concentrated, through them, on the development of iconography of the Cut of the Virginia, leading to the crux of the subject matter, the Rainbow Portrait – the symbolism would be solely examined.

[38] Kapur, 1998.

[39] The following paragraph is summarized from the contents of Strong, (vol.2) 1995, pp.14-16; and Erler, 1987.

[40] Strong, (vol.2)1995, p.197.

[41] Ibid., p.13.

[42] Riehl, 2010.

[43] Wikipedia, 2016.

[44] Mueller, 2001.

[45] Strong, (vol.2), 1995.

[46] Weir, 2008, p.411.

[47] Walker, 1998.

[48] Walker, 2004, pp.64-71.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid., p.1.

[51] Strong, (vol.2), 1995, p.15.


  • Wikipedia Article – Portraiture of Elizabeth I of England [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portraiture_of_Elizabeth_I_of_England].
  • Wikipedia Article – Armada Portrait [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armada_Portrait].
  • Janel Mueller – Virtue and Virtuality: Gender in the Self-Representations of Queen Elizabeth I (2001, University of Chicago).
  • Mary C. Erler – Sir John Davies and the Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth.
  • Anonymous – The Development of the Cult of Elizabeth I.
  • Being Bess Article – Bess to Impress: Princess Elizabeth, c.1546 [http://beingbess.blogspot.in/2013/04/bess-to-impress-princess-elizabeth-c1546.html].
  • Strong, R. (1995). The Tudor and Stuart monarchy (vol. 1) Tudor: pageantry, painting, iconography. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer Ltd.
  • Strong, R. (1995). The Tudor and Stuart monarchy (vol. 2) Elizabethan: pageantry, painting, iconography. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer Ltd.
  • Walker, J. M. (1998). Dissing Elizabeth: Negative Representations of Gloriana (Post-Contemporary Interventions). US: Duke University Press.
  • Marcus et al. (2000). Elizabeth I: collected works. London: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Starkey, D. (2000). Elizabeth: apprenticeship. London: Vintage Books.
  • Doran, S. (2003).  Virginity, divinity and power: the portraits of Elizabeth I. In: Doran, S. and Freeman, T. (eds.). The Myth of Elizabeth. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Walker, J. M. (2004). The Elizabethan Icon: 1603 – 2003. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Kapur, S. 2008. Elizabeth (the movie).
  • Weir, A. (2008). The life of Elizabeth I. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Riehl, A. (2010). The face of queenship: early modern representations of Elizabeth I. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Borman, T. (2010). Elizabeth’s women: the hidden story of the Virgin Queen. London: Vintage Books.
  • Mortimer, I. (2013). The time traveller’s guide to Elizabethan England. London: Vintage Books.
  • License, A. (2013). In bed with the Tudors: the sex lives of a dynasty from Elizabeth of York to Elizabeth I. Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing.
  • Guy, J. (2016). Elizabeth: the forgotten years. UK: Penguin Random House.


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