Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I card

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I

WAG 2994

Currently not on display


These portraits of Henry the Eighth and Elizabeth the First - father and daughter - couldn't be more different. The oldest, Henry, is the most realistic - the most modern-looking. It's furthest from what was expected five hundred years ago. This Henry - THE image we all know from stage and screen - shocked the people who first saw it. Portraits tended to be small and half-length, in profile, recording only basic appearance. But this Henry is in every way larger than life. Most terrifying of all - when we're already forced to look up at him looking down on us - is his aggressive, full-on pose. With massive, puffed-up bulk on straddled legs - longer than they really were - clenched fists, and hand hovering menacingly above his dagger he fixes us with suspicious eyes. He doesn't need a crown to show he's King. This is a copy from a 1537 palace mural by Hans Holbein. By that time Henry had broken with the Catholic Church to marry Elizabeth's mother Anne Boleyn - then executed her to marry Jane Seymour. He'd also just brutally suppressed a rebellion against his church reforms. In the mural's only surviving preparatory drawing - or cartoon - Henry's face is turned to one side. But in the finished version, later destroyed by fire, he was as he is here. It's likely Holbein made the change after the rebellion - portraying him as the tyrant he'd just proved himself to be. A visitor seeing the mural said he felt 'annihilated by his presence'. You won't have missed Henry's thrusting codpiece, emphasising his virility. Elizabeth, by contrast, presents herself as a virgin. The pearls and cherries symbolise the Virgin Mary - purity. The pelican pendant is a reference to the belief the pelican fed her young with her own blood. Elizabeth is presented as nurturing mother to her people and the Protestant Church. Here, like Henry, she's in her forties. But her face is unlined and mask-like - reassuringly ageless and unchanging after the political and religious turbulence during and since her father's reign. For its 'flat', clear style, Elizabeth's portrait is attributed to miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard. Elizabeth collaborated closely with her artists in the few portraits she sat for, and then tightly controlled the copies. The pictures were believed to have protective powers, like icons. Since Henry's reign images of the Virgin Mary had continued to be removed from churches. Now under Elizabeth, the cult of the Virgin Mary was replaced by the cult of the Virgin Queen. Henry was the first to use the power of the image to its full potential in asserting his authority. Elizabeth demonstrated she was just as clever a manipulator of her own image as her father.