Symbolism in Elizabeth’s Portraits

Symbolism in Elizabeth’s portraits has been there all along, but some of us have chosen not to see it until now. It wasn’t until I recently watched a documentary that talked about the symbolism in Elizabeth’s “Rainbow” portrait that I started looking for them. In this article I will cover three portraits with obvious symbols. If you happen to find more portraits with symbols please feel free to share with me!

Elizabeth “Rainbow” Portrait

rainbow portrait sybolism

Elizabeth had lots of symbolism in her portraits that is easy to overlook.

For example, this “Rainbow” portrait is loaded with symbolism and I’m not sure how I never noticed it before.

  1. “Mon Sine Sole Iris” means No Rainbow Without the Sun. Only the queen’s wisdom can ensure peace and prosperity.
  2. Notice the eyes and the ears – This is something I’ve overlooked and I’m not sure how I could have missed it! Clearly this is symbolizing that she is always watching and listening, or that she has eyes and ears everywhere.
  3. The snake/serpent symbolizes fertility while the heart at the top right hanging from the snake symbolizes love.
  4. In Elizabeth’s hand it looks like she is holding a clear tube – this is indeed a rainbow, however the colors have faded from the portrait. She hold the rainbow in her hand. The rainbow in this portraits symbolizes peace. She’s holding it – does that mean without her there is no peace?

We can also note that there are lots of pearls in this portrait…The pearls symbolize virginity. Isn’t it amazing how one portrait can hold so many symbols!?

The “Phoenix” Portrait

phoenix symbols

Here’s another portrait, the “Phoenix” portrait. Again, not sure how I missed the symbolism.

  1. Note the phoenix. In the full image it’s easy to overlook. A phoenix is (in classical mythology) a unique bird that lived for five to six centuries in the Arabian desert. After this time it consumed by fire and born again, rising from the ashes with renewed youth to live through another cycle. Only one phoenix can live at a time so it symbolizes it uniqueness and longevity.
  2. Elizabeth is holding a red rose. A red rose has religious connotations – it was the medieval symbol of the Virgin Mary. It also symbolized that Elizabeth was the Virgin Queen.
  3. Pearls. Again we see the pearls. They symbolize her virginity and purity.

The “Ermine” Portrait

Here are more symbols “hidden” within her portraits. From now on, every time you see a portrait of Elizabeth you’ll look a little closer.

This portrait shows her royalty, purity, wealth, prosperity and power.

ermine symbolism

1. The ermine. Ermine represents royalty and nobility along with purity.

2. The pearls. This time the pearls look black to me. Black pearls represent wealth and prosperity.

3. The Sword of State. Elizabeth would use this in her portraits, sometimes small, sometimes large to symbolize power.

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36 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Rebecca,
    What a fascinating article! I will never look at a portrait of anyone the same way again. Her symbolism in her dresses was all very important to Elizabeth. Her purity, her watchfulness, her power. It all helped to keep her a figure of power in England.

  2. At the bottom of the beautiful bodice in the Rainbow Portrait, between the length of pearls and the robe, I see a woman’s face peeking out. I see one and 1/2 eyes, an eyebrow, a nose and a mouth. Am I crazy? I cannot find a reference to this puzzle.

  3. You mention the phoenix in passing. This blood red bird ????????????? is almost certainly a flamingo. This bird winters on river deltas and coastal marshes of the Mediterranean where it mates. The red colour stems from the shrimps it eats. The very large flocks are known for spectacular displays made by stretching out their wings and rising from the ground in groups. From a distance this looks not unlike fire. The birds fly south in the early spring, taking with them, so the ancient Greeks thought, the cares of the winter.

  4. This is so interesting 🙂 I never realized there was quite this much detail. Reading this sparked an interest in me and I tried to look for more details in other portraits when I came across this article
    In one of her portraits Queen Elizabeth was very likely holding a snake, however they had painted over it and replaced the snake with something else. Due to deterioration of the paint, you can now see the outline of the snake.

  5. I loved this. 16 years ago I wrote my thesis(dissertation) on 8 portraits of Queen Elizabeth I dealing with the two bodies… Female & Queen. I used the Rainbow Portrait,
    & The Ermine Portrait as two of my portraits. I got to see the Rainbow Portrait at Hatfield House and talk with a very nice lady about its symbolism .
    On a side note, in the movie Elizabeth The Golden Age, when Elizabeth(Cate Blanchette) goes to see a dying Walsingham at his home it is Hatfield House and you can clearly see the Rainbow Portrait hanging g on the wall behind his bed.

  6. The black pearls in the Ermine portrait once belonged to Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots) whom Elizabeth I had beheaded. These pearls were quite famous having been given as a wedding gift to Catherine de Medici, mother-in-law to Mary Stuart upon the marriage of Francis II to Mary Stuart. Here’s a link for greater depth and detail concerning the black pearls:

  7. I keep getting something off this painting. Why is the original kept at Hatfield house? Is that not disrespectful to Queen Elizabeth. Can some say why it is at this location?

  8. In the rainbow portrait I agree that the heart could be an apple. What is the ‘jewel’ hanging above her shoulder? To me it appears to be a hand/gauntlet. It has five fingers and what appears to be a ring.

  9. Is it possible that the serpent was also a reference to the serpent in the garden of Eden? The “heart” looks a bit more like an apple to me. The Tudors loved to make edgy little jokes (Elizabeth was also renowned for this type of humour), and this could, perhaps, be a little jibe at those that were uncomfortable with a woman in power (what man that had issue with female rule would not be even more uncomfortable with her wearing the serpent and apple on her sleeve?)

    Is it also possible that the coat covered in ears and eyes (though definitely meant to show that she sees and hears all) is also a reference to Argus, a servant and guard of Hera, that killed the Echidna (mother of monsters that took the form of a large serpent)?

    I think the phoenix is almost a bit reminiscent of her mother’s badge as well. And it’s neat that she’s holding a similar rose to the one that Anne Boleyn holds in her Hever portrait (common, sure, but don’t think that would have gone missed by those in the “know”). Could these be some minuscule points towards her mother?

    Just some random thoughts!

  10. I had seen the portrait with the ears and eyes before (and actually realised after seeing it several times what they really were) and someone explained that it showed the queen had eyes and ears everywhere – so be very careful what you say and write as she would find out!
    Didn’t know the rest, so thanks…
    Also, do you know who actually posed for the Jane Seymour figure as I’ve heard several different names suggested including Katherine Parr (just after she married Henry) but had no idea it wouldn’t be her own face shown..

  11. The Phoenix Portrait:
    This gown is described as a “strait-bodied” gown, or a “French Gown”, with “french sleeves”. A French Gown–another example of Elizabeth’s love for foreign fashion–was apparantly a front-closing gown with a narrow, tight-fitting bodice, a low, square neckline and a wide skirt tightly cartridge-pleated to the waistline. the term “strait-bodied”, which meant tight-fitting, was another word for the same thing. The embroidery pattern on the gown reveals that the bodice is cut on the bias–that is, with the weave of the fabric at a 45 degree angle, rather than going vertically and horizontally. Fabric cut on the bias stretches more than fabric cut on the straight, which may have helped this French bodice fit more tightly and smoothly to the torso. Either the Queen is wearing a boned corset (known then as a “pair of bodies”) underneath her gown, or the bodice itself is stiffened with reeds or perhaps even whalebone. Both items–a separate pair of bodies worn under a bodice, and boned bodices themselves–are documented in Elizabeth’s wardrobe at this time. This French Gown is worn in conjunction with “French Sleeves”. This foreign style, which became quite popular in England, was a sleeve with a large, padded sleeve-head which tapered smoothly down to a small wrist.
    The shape of the dress as a whole–narrow sleeves with broad tops, tight-fitted, front-opening bodices with very full overskirts and low, cuved necklines–echoes that of many woodcuts of French Noblewomen created during the same decade. What truly sets this gown apart from any other is its incredible decoration; the ruff is edged with fine lace, the partlet is intricately embroidered with blackwork, and the gown itself is completely covered in gold embroidery and pearls. Cleverly placed puffs accentuate the breadth of the shoulders and the slender waist. The heavy, elaborate jewelry makes it even more breathtaking. Clearly, this was a portrait meant to impress. By this point in time, the typical Elizabethan gown had become very “busy”–covered with embroidery, trim, beads or pearls or other fabric treatments, such as pinking or slashing. A far cry indeed from the simplicity of Tudor garb, when the fabric itself was, for the most part, a gown’s main decoration.
    The queen’s head is completely uncovered, and her hair is dressed in her signature curls. Frizzing and curling the hair became quite fashionable during her reign, as people sought to emulate Elizabeth as much as possible. She wears only a small headdress and transparent veil.
    One interesting quirk: This Gown is of blue velvet. Blue was, by the elizabethan period, considered a color worn mostly by servants, due to the cheap cost of indigo dye. Who knows? Perhaps the queen was trying to make one more symbolic point 😉

  12. The Rainbow Portrait:
    The theme is that of Elizabeth as the Queen of Love and Beauty. The theme is that flower decked spring. The spring flowers are an allusion to the springtime and Elizabeth as Flora and Empress of Flowers. Elizabeth’s gown is embroidered with English wildflowers, thus allowing the queen to pose in the guise of Astraea, the virginal heroine of classical literature. Her cloak is decorated with eyes and ears, implying that she sees and hears all. Above her crown is a crescent-shaped jewel which alludes to Cynthia, the goddess of the moon. A jeweled serpent is entwined along her left arm, and holds from its mouth a heart-shaped ruby. Above its head is a celestial sphere. The serpent symbolizes wisdom; it has captured the ruby, which in turn symbolizes the queen’s heart. In other words, the queen’s passions are controlled by her wisdom. The celestial sphere echoes this theme; it symbolizes wisdom and the queen’s royal command over nature 🙂

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