Monday, February 22, 2010

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I

Take a close look at this portrait of England's Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). The orange fabric of her outer garment is covered with eyes and ears! Of the many portraits of the monarch, this one may be laden with the most symbolism. It is called the "Rainbow Portrait" and was painted c. 1600, when Elizabeth was in her 60s - although she is depicted as ageless. It is attributed to Isaac Oliver (c. 1565-1617), although it may have been the work of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (c. 1561-1636), and hangs at Hatford House in Hertfordshire, U.K.

The queen is costumed for a masque and the wildflowers on her gown indicate that she is Astraea, the chaste Greek goddess of justice - although the flowers may also have the more political meaning that she is restoring to England an eternal spring, like that of the Golden Age. The crown of her headdress symbolizes her royalty, the astrolabe represents her royal command over nature, and the eyes and ears on her garment imply that she hears and sees all (or reference her fame, seen and heard by so many). Her virginity is symbolized by the pearls on her headdress and veil. The crescent-shaped jewel above her crown refers to Diana, virginal goddess of the moon and the hunt in Roman mythology. The wisdom symbolized by the serpent on her left arm has captured the ruby, which is equated with the queen's heart, meaning that Elizabeth's passions are controlled by her wisdom. She holds a rainbow, symbolizing peace, in her right hand, and it reads, "Non sine sol iris" ["No rainbow without the sun"]. This means that her wisdom alone can assure peace and prosperity.

This interpretation is made in light of the fact that the queen was entertained at costume balls in the latter years of her life by the poetry of Sir John Davies (1569-1626), who writes of classical figures, including a rainbow goddess, and puns the words "rain" and "reign":
"Cynthia* Queene of seas and lands,
That fortune euery where commands
Sent forth Fortune to the sea
To try her fortune euery way.
There did I Fortune meet, which makes me now to sing,
There is no fishing to the sea, nor seruice to the king..."
A religious reading of the painting sets Elizabeth I up as a defender of the Christian faith. The rainbow and the serpent provide symmetry in their Biblical allusion to peace and salvation, respectively. The serpent, because it sheds its skin, has long been a symbol of rebirth. The sun in the motto is not the queen, but Christ himself, whose death made that rebirth possible. The eyes and ears appear in the context of divine blessings, with which she is favored:
"Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, that many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen, and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them." (Matthew XIII: 16-17)
And she wears those blessings like a mantle. Her hair styled in ringlets invokes the Elizabethan wedding and coupled with her virginal appearance characterizes her as a bride of Christ (like a nun).

Another reason forElizabeth's youthfulness in this portrait is suggested by Eyewitness to History: "In this portrayal we see a Queen who is relatively young, vibrant and the personification of strength. Politics, of course, provides an explanation for the discrepancy. The 'Virgin Queen' was now approaching the end of her reign. She was childless and without a natural heir. The portrayal of her as much younger than her actual age may have given her a false vitality that deflected questions about the uncertain future of her Crown."Elizabeth was succeeded by James I, her cousin's son.

Layers of meaning like layers of paint...

*Another name for Diana.

1 comment:

  1. Eyes and Ears and Walsingham's hand.


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