Five iconic portraits of Elizabeth I

  • Published 21 June 2016

Queen Elizabeth inspired hundreds of portraits during her long reign, including the Armada Portrait, which we are fundraising to save for the nation. Follow her transformation from a fledgling monarch to the indomitable and almost mythical Virgin Queen through five other iconic depictions.

1. The Hampden Portrait, c1560

​Attributed to Steven van der Meulen or Steven van Herwijck​

Private collection

This full-body portrait is unique in its allusions to Elizabeth becoming a mother and wife, with the foliage, fruit, and flowers to the right symbolising her fertility and readiness for marriage. The work was likely painted when Elizabeth was made to address the issue of marriage during the early stages of her reign.

In her right hand, Elizabeth holds a carnation, a reference to the Virgin Mary, affirming her as not just Queen but also the governor of the Church of England. Another important symbol is the celestial sphere hanging at the end of a string of pearls from her waist. It is believed to refer to the harmony her wisdom brought to the kingdom.

2. The Darnley portrait, c1575

​Unknown continental artist

National Portrait Gallery, London

This portrait is thought to be the source of a facial pattern that would be used in other authorised portraits until the turn of the century. It is the commission that established Elizabeth's iconic ageless beauty. It is believed that the Queen's famous pale complexion in the portrait is due to deteriorated red lake pigments in the paint.

It was also the first painting to use the sceptre and crown as separate props, rather than worn and carried by the monarch.

3. The Ditchley portrait, c1592

​Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger

National Portrait Gallery, London

This later portrait of the Queen is during the epitome of the cult of Elizabeth, mythologising and celebrating her divine powers. From her left ear dangles a jewelled celestial or ancillary sphere, showcasing her mastery over nature. She stands on a map of England with her feet planted near Ditchley, where the sitting was arranged – the home of her former champion, Sir Henry Lee.

It is believed to be the largest painting of the Queen that has ever been commissioned. Elizabeth faces the clear weather to the left, symbolising her success as a monarch.

4. The Rainbow Portrait, c1600

​Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger

Hatfield House, Hertfordshire

One of the last portraits of the Queen, this painting hangs in Hatfield House and it is one of the most heavily symbolic. Elizabeth's gown is emblazoned with wildflowers, thus representing Elizabeth as Astraea, the ancient Greek heroine. Her cloak is embroidered with eyes and ears, indicating that she sees and hears all. The pearls in her headdress and on her veil symbolise her virginity. The crescent-shaped jewel above her crown has allusions to Cynthia, the moon goddess.

The celestial sphere re-appears in this painting above the serpent, which symbolises wisdom, on her left arm. The eponymous rainbow is in Elizabeth's right hand, with the Latin inscription 'non sine sole iris' – 'no rainbow without the sun'. It is a symbol of peace, emphasising that there can only be peace with the Queen's wisdom.

5. Portrait of Elizabeth I, c1595

​Studio of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger

Private collection

This is one of the very few portraits of Elizabeth that shows her looking aged, tired and unhappy – it's a rare sight to witness the Queen in portraiture with none of her flaws covered up. In spite of a 1596 order to officers 'to aid the Queen's Sergeant Painter in seeking out unseemly portraits which were to her "great offence"', there is no mention of banning a depiction of the Queen with signs of ageing.

Donate now to help bring the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, arguably the most iconic of all of the Virgin Queen's depictions, to The Queen's House in Greenwich. All donations will be match-funded, doubling your contribution.

You can see the painting at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London.

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