This painting is a story of the virtues, position and beauty of one extraordinary person, told through sophisticated symbols. Each of these symbols contains important information, and one of them has particular power.
To find out what the artwork is, read the information below the image.
A majestic face, fairy-tale like attire and a brooch with a pelican, a symbol of parental sacrifice – this is Queen Elizabeth I as portrayed by Nicholas Hilliard.
The image of Queen Elizabeth I known as the Pelican Portrait is the epitome of English portraiture in the Tudor times. It shows the English queen in a proud pose, dressed in a wonderful gown, richly decorated with pearls, jewels and gold. Moreover, the canvas speaks to the viewer with a number of props carrying important, symbolical meanings.
The author of this painting is Nicholas Hilliard, a painter, talented goldsmith and a miniaturist who, in the 1570s, was the most important artist at the court of Elizabeth.
Hilliard painted the Pelican Portrait around 1574, when Elizabeth was already more than 40 years old and had ruled over England for 15 years. The face of the queen, flawlessly white (in fact whitened with a cosmetic lead-based ointment), is wrinkle and blemish free. Elizabeth had strict control over her image – even as an elderly woman, toothless and bald, she insisted on being painted with flaming red hair and a visibly younger-looking face.
The dispassionate look on the queen’s face, as well as the pomposity of her attire, bring to mind the Italian mannerist painter Bronzino and his portraits of the Medicis –especially the image of Eleanor of Toledo and her son Giovanni in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
However, the two paintings, despite similarities, differ on a few important points. Apart from the presence of her son in the duchess’s portrait, Bronzino’s painting seems to be restrained, even austere in its gloomy colours and shadows. We don’t know if Hilliard modelled his portrait on the workshop of the Italian master, but if that was the case, he clearly decided to make his work different by saturating it with a downright Byzantine richness of detail.
Nicholas Hilliard’s idea was for the painting to not only tell of the wealth and beauty of the queen, but also about her merits and virtues. In Elizabeth’s times, images of this type functioned as a kind of ruler’s visiting card, often sent to foreign courts together with envoys, to encourage coalitions and marriages.
One of the most important props in Elizabeth’s portrait is the brooch with a pelican on the queen’s breast. In the Middle Ages, the image of a pelican was already a symbol of the ultimate sacrifice made by Christ for humankind. This theory was born out of the belief that mother pelicans sacrifice their own flesh and blood to feed their starving chicks. It was believed that they do it even if they will pay the price with their own lives.
In view of the strength of this symbol, it is not surprising that the pelican became one of the queen’s favourite emblems. This powerful sign of sacrifice and motherly love was used in the portrait to show the queen as the devoted mother of the English nation. It implied that Elizabeth went to great lengths for the good of her subjects.
Other symbols that make this painting a kind of manifesto include the two crowns placed above the figure of the queen. Elizabeth never abandoned her claim to the French throne. The claim dated back to the times of Edward III, more than 230 years earlier, when he announced himself the king of France. This is why on the right-hand side of the painting, just above a lily – fleur-de-lis – a crown was placed, symbolizing the queen’s claim to the throne of that country. The crown on the left side of the painting tops Elizabeth’s family heraldic emblem, the Tudor rose. This motif appears also in the rich embroidery on the sleeves of her gown and as the living flowers pinned to it. This detail is of great importance, confirming Elizabeth’s right to rule over England.
The colours used in this painting – red, black and white – are also not insignificant in highlighting the queen’s status as an important and wealthy ruler. The red pigment, used for dyeing clothes and draperies, was produced from cochineal, a substance that was only available to the richest in those times. Black dye, also highly favoured by the aristocracy, was equally costly. And the flashes of white in the painting are produced by some hard-to-get laces and pearls. These last ones (and we will find them in pretty much every single portrait of this monarch) additionally symbolized the purity and virginity of Elizabeth.
Hilliard’s painting takes an important place among Great Britain’s cultural wealth, so it is not surprising that it has been thoroughly researched. An interesting fact discovered by scholars from the National Portrait Gallery is that the structural elements of the painting are oak panels made of wood brought from Central Europe – most likely from Poland. Earlier research also showed that originally the painting was lighter in colour, with a crimson background.
The piece, nowadays in the Walker Art Gallery, used to be owned by the powerful aristocratic family of the Earls of Suffolk (known as “England’s second family”). According to family legend, the portrait was gifted to the Suffolks by Elizabeth herself. Despite no strong evidence confirming this story, it seems plausible, since the Howards were related to Anne Boleyn, the queen’s mother. In 1945, the descendants of the Howards endowed the painting to the gallery in Liverpool, where the image of the monarch can be admired today.
Translated from the Polish by Anna Błasiak
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