16th century propaganda is something I found particularly fascinating when looking at Tudor portraits as the number and complexity of different symbols used in the paintings is incredible, particularly in portraits of Elizabeth I. It is clear that through paintings of herself, Elizabeth wanted to portray certain characteristics and ideas to her people.
This is a symbol for virginity, deriving from the Ancient Roman story of the Vestal Tuccia, who carried water in a sieve to prove she was chaste.
Vesta, if I have always brought pure hands to your secret services, make it so now that with this sieve I shall be able to draw water from the Tiber and bring it to Your temple
A Serpent is embroidered on Elizabeth’s sleeve in the Rainbow Portrait, with a heart-shaped ruby in its mouth. The serpent is thought to represent wisdom and the ruby Elizabeth’s heart, implying that the Queen’s wisdom controls her emotions.
The Thornless Rose
Roses are depicted in many of her portraits, particularly here in the Pheonix Portrait. This symbol is associated with the Virgin Mary, implying that Elizabeth, as a virgin queen, was married to England, as Mary was married to the Church.
This image was included in the portrait of Elizabeth aged only fourteen and the portrait was sent to her brother King Edward VI as a gift. The image of her finger marking the page of the small book demonstrates her pious protestantism, which must have pleased her brother.
‘For the face, I grant, I might well blush to offer, but the mind I shall never be ashamed to present. ….when you shall look on my picture you will witsafe to think that as you have but the outward shadow of the body before you, so my inward mind wisheth that the body itself were oftener in your presence.’
Eyes and Ears
The eyes and ears painted into the fabric of Elizabeth’s dress in the Rainbow Portrait clearly imply a sense of
omniscience; as queen, she was able to hear and see all. The addition is thought to refer to Hymns to Astraea by Sir John Davis.
This symbol emphasises Elizabeth’s purity and virtue as the ermine was thought to be willing to die to save its pure white coat as the queen was willing to die to protect her country and her chastity.