The Enigma of Elizabeth I’s Rainbow Portrait.
She is one of the most ubiquitous Queens in our collective consciousness: Elizabeth Tudor has been portrayed in films, books, plays, television series and so on. Every actress worth her salt wants to play her. The whole concept of the modern day Renaissance Pleasure Faire revolves around her court. We are all familiar with her appearance from art history classes and museum visits. Our whole concept of who she was and what she represented has been inculcated into our heads by endless exposure from all intellectual angles. In her portraits we see her wearing beautiful gowns, gazing down on us with her enigmatic visage and none of these portraits is more mysterious than the quirky “Rainbow Portrait”.
Let’s start with a little bit of background here: I’m not going to get into details about her family history because all of that has been covered ad nauseam by Hollywood and historians alike. But what I want to focus on instead was her almost anal retentive obsession with her image and how she wanted to be seen by her public. According to her biographers, Elizabeth was surrounded by a public relations apparatchik that would put a Hollywood publicist to shame. This resulted in many representations of her that are heavily embedded with symbolisms. Portraits of her could only be commissioned by approved artists and they would be given an “authorized” stencil of her face which would be used a template in order for the artist to reproduce her face. This accounts for the almost identical visage in almost every single painting. Official portraits of the Queen where usually commissioned to commemorate an official event such as her coronation or the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The provenance of the Rainbow Portraits remains as much of a mystery as the cryptic symbols embedded within it.
For an art piece that has been so over analyzed, there is very little known about its aforementioned provenance. The artist is unknown and it’s not sure how it came into the possession of its first owners, the Cecils, father and son who where ministers to the Queen. It’s believed it may have been commissioned by the son to commemorate her visit to Hatfield House, the Cecil family seat. Another curious detail is that when this painting was believed to be created, she was already pushing 70, towards the end of her life. But she is represented as a young maiden with long, flowing auburn locks cascading down her shoulders. Again, the official face template being put to good use and for good effect. Nonetheless, it’s one of the last known portraits made of Queen Elizabeth before her death in 1603.
Let’s have a closer look, shall we?
Starting from the top and working our way down, she is wearing a crown toped off by a crescent moon believed to represent Diana, Virgin Goddess of the Hunt. Diana, also represented the warrior and steward of the land, two responsibilities that were shared by Elizabeth in her lifetime.
Moving our eyes down along her costume, we can appreciate that it is dripping with pearls, a symbol of purity and another subtle reference to her virginity as she was known to be “The Virgin Queen”.
To her right, next to her face, there is a bejeweled gauntlet attached to her gorget. This represents the loyalty of her male courtiers and their willingness to throw down their gauntlet in order to defend her honor.
Her back collar has been stiffened with starch and fashioned into the shape of wings resembling angel or fairy wings. “Glorianna” was one of her official titles and also the title character of an opera composed by her contemporary, Henry Purcell: “The Fairie Queene”.
Her left sleeve is embellished with a brocaded snake holding a ruby red heart in its mouth: The wisdom and temperance of the snake holds in check the compassion and emotion of her heart. Above the snake’s head is an Orb, representing the Monarchy. Balance is maintained between the two qualities that are so important to a successful Monarch.
In her right hand she holds a rainbow and above her in Latin the words: “Non Sine Sole Iris” which translates to “No Rainbow without the Sun”. Meaning that if one wants peace and prosperity, then compromises must be met.
Finally, and perhaps the most curious is the cloak with the multiple eyes and ears embroidered all over. What could this mean? “I am all knowing and all seeing?” For most of her reign she fought and won against all odds.
For Elizabeth, it was not how she was seen, but how she wished to be seen. And how she wished to be seen was as a ruler who consolidated authority, transcended time and defied the ravages of aging. As one historian explained, the imagery of “The Rainbow Portrait” represents the three pillars of her reign:
“Divinity, Virginity, Power”.
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