The Ditchley Portrait, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, c.1592

The Portraiture of Elizabeth I of England is another complex arts history bonanza. Wikipedia tells me it may be impossible for modern viewers to see the hundreds of images of Elizabeth as her subjects, courtiers, and rivals saw them. The portraits are steeped in classical mythology and the Renaissance understanding of English history and destiny, filtered by allusions to Petrarch’s sonnets and, late in the reign, to Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

Even those portraits that are not overtly allegorical may be full of meaning to a discerning eye. Elizabethan courtiers familiar with the language of flowers and the Italian emblem books could have read stories in the blooms the queen carried, the embroidery on her clothes, and the design of her jewels.

The most symbolic portraits of Elizabeth are The Armada, depicting the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588; and the Ditchley and Rainbow portraits, designed as part of elaborate themed entertainments.

The Armada Portrait ♠ The queen’s hand rests on a globe below the crown of England, “her fingers covering the Americas, indicating England’s dominion of the seas and plans for imperialist expansion in the New World”. ♠  In the background view on the left, English fireships threaten the Spanish fleet, and on the right the ships are driven onto a rocky coast amid stormy seas by the “Protestant Wind”.  ♠  On a secondary level, these images show Elizabeth turning her back on storm and darkness while sunlight shines where she gazes.

Elizabeth I: The Armada Portrait, c1588, unknown artist, possibly commissioned by Sir Francis Drake.

In the years following the defeat of the Spanish Armada the queen was celebrated in poetry, portraiture and pageantry as Astraea, the just virgin, and Venus, the goddess of love.

Hymnes of Astraea, by Sir John Davies, 1599, a series of acrostic poems in tribute to Queen Elizabeth is considered inspiration for imagery in The Rainbow Portrait. It is attributed to Isaac Oliver and was painted around 1600–1602, when the queen was in her sixties. In this painting an ageless Elizabeth appears dressed as if for a masque. It was commissioned by Robert Cecil as part of the decor for Elizabeth’s visit in 1602, when a “shrine to Astraea” featured in the entertainments of what would prove to be the “last great festival of the reign”.

The Rainbow Portrait ♠ 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. Her headdress is an incredible design decorated lavishly with pearls and rubies and supports her royal crown. ♠ The pearls symbolize her virginity; the crown, of course, symbolizes her royalty. Pearls also adorn the transparent veil which hangs over her shoulders. Above her crown is a crescent-shaped jewel which alludes to Cynthia, the goddess of the moon. (Hat tip: Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I)

HYMNE III, To the Spring, by Sir John Davies, 1599 

The Rainbow Portrait, c. 1600–02, attrib. Isaac Oliver

Earth now is greene, and heaven is blew,
Lively Spring which makes all new,
Iolly Spring, doth enter;
Sweete yong sun-beames doe subdue
Angry, agèd Winter.
Blasts are milde, and seas are calme,
Every meadow flowes with balme,
The Earth weares all her riches;
Harmonious birdes sing such a psalme,
As eare and heart bewitches.

Reserve (sweet Spring) this Nymph of ours,
Eternall garlands of thy flowers,
Greene garlands never wasting;
In her shall last our State’s faire Spring,
Now and for ever flourishing,
As long as Heaven is lasting.


Stories from the Faerie Queene, by Mary McLeod, 1916 — “If you are planning to read the Faerie Queene, or want to understand the narrative but don’t have the time or patience to tangle with an epic poem in early modern English, you’ve come to the right place.”