View Full Version : Queen Elizabeth I and snakes

10th December 2010, 03:18
Several portraits of this monarch include one or more snakes (serpents).

The most famous of them is the Rainbow Portrait, c. 1600, attributed to Isaac Oliver (though this is by no means certain), which can be viewed at Hatfield House.


A large jewelled serpent on her left sleeve holds from its mouth a heart-shaped ruby (allegedly Elizabeth's heart) on a chain. On its head rests an orb, possibly the globe of the world or a celestial sphere. Elizabeth is holding a rainbow in her right hand, and the Latin inscription 'Non sine sole iris' on the painting translates as 'No rainbow without the sun'.

This painting is well known for the eyes and ears which decorate her orange cloak. Less obvious are the equally numerous mouths. Since she was often referred to as the Virgin Queen, perhaps one should ignore the exceptionally vulva-like ear positioned over her genitals [1]. "Elizabeth's headdress poses a second problematic reading. The pale arc emerging from its top has been described both as an aigrette and as an 'overarching ray' of queenly light" [2]. The hair style of the Queen with its "Thessalonian bride allusion. . . [contributes] to the sponsa Dei (wife of God) theme". [1]

Inigo Jones's designs for the Masque of Blackness (1605) "based the masquers' headdresses on one which Vecellio depicts for his Sposa Tessalonica [no image available]. Exactly the same source was used by the painter for the Queen's headdress in the 'Rainbow' portrait". [1]

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/41/Inigo_Jones%2C_design_for_Masque_of_Blackness_1605 .jpg/220px-Inigo_Jones%2C_design_for_Masque_of_Blackness_1605 .jpg

If you find this painting fascinating, as I do, I commend you to read my references to it below. They are equally fascinating and reflect the current thinking of each generation of writers, basing their interpretations on religious, political and even sexual iconographies. The long pearl necklace she wears symbolizes purity and virginity. The more one looks into this painting, the more enigmatic it becomes, like an Elizabethan Mona Lisa.

However, speaking from the viewpoint of an "awake and aware" member of this forum, what else can we read into it? Why is the rainbow she holds so colourless? It looks more like a piece of plastic tubing purchased from the local hardware store. Does the sun, flowing into her (maybe by the beam from her headdress) invest her with the power to turn it on (no rainbow without the sun)? Sun god? Where have we heard that before? "That Elizabeth can go beyond the possible - not only reach but also restrain the rainbow - would surely have resonated well with an audience who would have ascribed to her a near-divine stature." [2] Many comparisons have been made between the Virgin Queen and the Virgin Mary.

And what of the rainbow itself? It has been portrayed as two reptilian monsters joined together, one pointing toward the past, the other pointing toward the future, but this is only one of several interpretations. Whatever the original intention, the rainbow is now firmly in her grasp. "...at the outset of the seventeenth century, the rainbow continued to serve its traditional roles as herald of God's Noachian covenant and as token of an idealized antiquity". [2]

http://www.freeimagehosting.net/uploads/6d7c0788f3.png (http://www.freeimagehosting.net/)

The ears, eyes and mouths seem to me to have a sinister implication more in keeping with the three-letter acronym organizations of today than suggesting that she embodied the eyes, ears and mouths of her people. And the great serpent on her sleeve that has gripped her heart. Does it signify knowledge, like the serpent of Eden? And why does it support the Earth (or heaven)?

http://www.freeimagehosting.net/uploads/6e524dbf5c.png (http://www.freeimagehosting.net/)


The Hardwick Portrait, circa 1599, by Nicholas Hilliard can be viewed at Hardwick Hall (maintained by the National Trust). "It was comissioned by the legendary Bess of Hardwick, who also embroidered the queen's skirt. The skirt is amazing - sea serpents, dragons, etc." [3]


Although several snakes are included, the iconography here is simpler and seems to mean that she can assert dominance over (the creatures of) the earth and, importantly, the oceans, allowing no impedance to colonization of the New World. They are all "below" her.

Continued in next post...

10th December 2010, 03:21

This closeup from one of the Armada portraits clearly positions her hand on her colonies in the New World:

http://www.freeimagehosting.net/uploads/dcb6a5abb5.png (http://www.freeimagehosting.net/)


The Hidden Snake Portrait


A late 16th century portrait of Queen Elizabeth I has revealed over time and degradation that she was originally depicted holding a coiled serpent in her hand instead of the innocuous nosegay she holds now. When an earlier image that has been painted over begins to show through, that is known as a pentimento, which means repentance in Italian.

The portrait, painted by an unknown artist, some time in the 1580s or early 1590s, has not been on display at the National Portrait Gallery since 1921. You can clearly see the shadow of the serpent’s coming up from between her fingers and his tail coiling above her hand.

The serpent was a symbol of wisdom and reasoned judgment — as on the rod of Aesculapius, the physicians’ emblem — so that’s probably where our unknown artist was going with the imagery. He changed his mind, though (possibly in consideration of the common association of snakes with the devil and original sin), and quickly painted it over with a strangely-shaped but perfectly inoffensive little bouquet of roses.

Paint analysis shows that the snake was definitely made at the same time as the rest of the portrait. There is no varnish between the snake and flower layers, so we know it was painted right over.


The artist repented of his creation, if you will, and now the serpent is repenting him right back.

That’s not the only pentimento showing through, though. X-rays show that a portrait of an unknown woman lies underneath Elizabeth. Her head is higher and she’s facing the opposite way.[...]you can actually see her eye and nose in the left side of Elizabeth’s forehead and temple where the paint has chipped off. It looks like an absorbed twin.

http://www.freeimagehosting.net/uploads/fd8c58dfc2.jpg (http://www.freeimagehosting.net/)

The "hidden snake" portrait, while not particularly flattering, is nevertheless interesting in its own right and was on exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (UK) earlier this year.


Roman fresco from the temple of Isis in Pompeii, Io is welcomed in Egypt by Isis (http://romanhistorybooks.typepad.com/).

[1] Political Allegory, Absolutist Ideology, and the "Rainbow Portrait" of Queen Elizabeth I (http://web.archive.org/web/20041023234427/http://www.geocities.com/yskretz/elizafischlin.html). Fischlin, Daniel. Renaissance Quarterly. New York: Spring 1997.
[2] The Rainbow Bridge: rainbows in art, myth, and science (http://books.google.com.au/books?id=kZcCtT1ZeaEC&pg=PA61#v=onepage&q&f=false), pages 61-67. By Raymond L. Lee, Alistair B. Fraser
[3] Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (http://www.marileecody.com/eliz1-images.html) By Marylee Cody
[4] Faces of Elizabeth I (http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/elizface.htm). A magnificent gallery of all her portraits in 3 pages.

Also interesting:
The Phoenix and the Pelican: two portraits of Elizabeth I, c.1575 (http://www.npg.org.uk/research/programmes/making-art-in-tudor-britain/the-phoenix-and-the-pelican-two-portraits-of-elizabeth-i-c.1575.php)

The Hidden Snake Portrait: