Five secrets of the Armada Portrait

  • 31 May 2016

The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I is packed with symbols, and was designed to be a show of strength and majesty. Here, we look at five of those symbols and what each could mean.

1. The egg

The red, egg-shaped object over Elizabeth's shoulder might seem slightly out of place, but the egg has a history of representing fertility, rebirth and eternal life, and is an auspicious symbol of wealth, luck and health.

2. The pearls

Elizabeth's hair and clothes are draped in pearls, which were archetypal representations of female virginity and purity in the Renaissance era – the perfect adornment for the so-called Virgin Queen. Where Henry VIII's portrait by Hans Holbein displays the King wearing a giant codpiece to emphasise his virility, Elizabeth's portrait shows a giant pearl in its place.  They were also used to symbolise Cynthia, the goddess of the Moon, who was a virgin, untouched and pure. 

3. The globe

Elizabeth rests her right hand on a globe, with her fingers pointing at the New World – a piece of imperial symbolism that underlines her power over the world, as well as England. The first European colony in America, Virginia, was established in 1584, a few years before the Armada Portrait was painted, and it was named for Elizabeth.

4. The suns

Her skirt and her sleeves are populated by numerous golden suns. The sun is an artistic symbol as old as history itself, a signifier of power, enlightenment and life. Elizabeth herself is placed between scenes of storm and calm, suggesting that she is the sun, and the source of the clear weather shown to the left.

5. Elizabeth's posture

The Queen's sturdy posture, open arms and serene gaze signify vivacity and strength. The exaggerated grandeur of her dress might symbolise the the medieval idea of the ‘King’s two bodies’: the frail, physical one, and the spiritual, from where true power originates. Her body may be ‘weak and feeble’ (as she described it in her famous Tilbury speech), but her strength as ruler comes from within. In her impenetrability, Elizabeth can also be said to embody the sanctity of the nation state.

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