Portraits of Elizabeth

One version of "The Sieve Portrait" attributed to the circle of Quentin Massys (or Mestys) depicts Elizabeth I with a sieve. In Petrarch's, "I Trionfi," Tuccia, a Vestal Virgin proved she was chaste by carrying water in a sieve. The sieve is a symbol of chastity. The motto visible in one of the paintings, Sancho riposo e riposato affano/ "Weary I rest and having rested I am still weary" is a quotation from the "Triumph of Love" by Petrarch. The imagery suggests that the period of love has ended and chastity triumphs.

Compare "The Sieve Portrait" with "The Rainbow Portrait", painted for Robert Cecil by Marcus Gheeraerts, the Younger, c. 1600, formerly attributed to Issac Oliver, on display at Hatfield House.

The emblem of Catherine de' Medici, widow of Henri II, King of France was the rainbow with the Greek motto, "It brings light and serenity." The portrait of Elizabeth reads, Non sine sole iris/ "No rainbow without the sun."

"The Armada Portrait" by George Gower, at Woburn Abbey, is an imperial image. The Spanish Armada was defeated two years before Shakespeare wrote "Henry VI" (1590), the first of his historical plays, plays written during an eventful period in which England emerged as a major sea power.

"The Ermine Portrait," 1585, by William Segar, and formerly attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, combined the ermine with the sword of state and seems to refer to Elizabeth's purity and the righteousness and justice of her government. It thereby unites the public and private spheres. The portrait was made for the Queen's adviser, William Cecil, Lord Burghley.

The idealized and highly symbolic paintings of Elizabeth contrast with the effigy representing the elderly queen in The Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey, sculpted by Maximilian Colt and painted by Jan de Critz.