Elizabeth I: Uncovering the Secrets of the Rainbow Portrait | History Hit

Elizabeth I: Uncovering the Secrets of the Rainbow Portrait

The Rainbow Portrait is one of the the most enduring images of Elizabeth I. Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger or Isaac Oliver.
Image Credit: Hatfield House via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Rainbow Portrait is one of the most intriguing images of Elizabeth I. Attributed to Isaac Oliver, an English portrait miniature painter, the half life-size portrait of Queen Elizabeth is by far the artist’s largest surviving work.

In true Tudor style, the portrait is littered with ciphers, symbolism and secret meanings, and it works to constructs a very calculated image of the queen. By holding a rainbow, for example, Elizabeth is depicted as an almost divine, mythical being. Meanwhile, her youthful skin and drapings of pearls – associated with purity – help to promote Elizabeth’s Cult of Virginity. 

The Rainbow Portrait still hangs in the sumptuous setting of Hatfield House, among an array of grand paintings, fine furniture and delicate tapestries. 

Here’s the history of the Rainbow Portrait and its many hidden messages.

This is perhaps Isaac Oliver’s most famous work, “Young Man Seated under a Tree”, painted between 1590 and 1595. It is now held in the Royal Collection Trust.

A vision of splendour

Elizabeth I was especially conscious of her personal appearance and took great care to engineer an image to convey wealth, authority and power. Looking at this portrait, it seems Oliver was in no mood to offend his patron.

Oliver presents a beautiful woman in the flower of youth, with graceful features and unblemished skin. In reality, Elizabeth was almost 70-years-old when the painting was created in 1600. Apart from blatant flattery, the message was clear: this was Elizabeth, the immortal Queen.

Close-ups of the ‘Rainbow Portrait’ of Elizabeth I. Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger or Isaac Oliver.

Image Credit: Hatfield House via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Once more, Elizabeth dons extravagant clothing befitting her royal status. She’s dripping with jewels and opulent fabrics, all alluding to majesty and splendour. Her bodice is adorned with delicate flowers and she is covered in jewels – three pearl necklaces, several rows of bracelets and a weighty brooch in the form of a cross.

Her hair and ear lobes, too, are glittering with precious stones. Indeed, Elizabeth was famed for her love of fashion. An inventory compiled in 1587 stated she owned 628 pieces of jewellery, and at her death, over 2000 gowns were recorded in the royal wardrobe.

But this wasn’t just extreme sartorial indulgence. The 16th century was an age where dress codes were strictly enforced: ‘sumptuary laws’ introduced by Henry VIII continued until 1600. These rules were a visual tool to implement status, which was hoped to enforce order and obedience to the Crown.

Rules might state that only duchesses, marchionesses, and countesses could wear cloth of gold, tissue and fur of sables in their gowns, kirtles, partlets and sleeves. So Elizabeth’s luxurious fabrics not only suggest a woman of great wealth, they indicate her high status and importance too.

Elizabeth I is one of the most iconic figures from British history - her image can be recognised in an instant. But this was no mistake, for Elizabeth’s portraits were an audacious act of spin to cement her image of female majesty.
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A maze of symbolism

Elizabethan art and architecture was filled with ciphers and hidden meanings, and the Rainbow Portrait is no exception. This is a maze of symbolism and allegory, all alluding to the queen’s majesty. 

In Elizabeth’s right hand she holds a rainbow, besides which is inscribed a Latin motto “NON SINE SOLE IRIS”, meaning “no rainbow without a sun”. The message? Elizabeth is England’s sun, a divine light of grace and virtue.

Building on this idea of Elizabeth as a mythical, goddess-like figure, her translucent veil and diaphanous lace-embroidered collar give her an air of the otherworldly. Perhaps Oliver had Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, Fairie Queene, in his mind, which was published ten years before, in 1590. This was an allegorical work praising Elizabeth I and championing Elizabethan notions of virtue. It was, according to Spenser, intended to “fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle disciple”.

16th-century portrait of Edmund Spenser, English Renaissance poet and author of The Faerie Queene.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In Elizabeth’s left hand, her fingers trace the hem of her burning orange cloak, its glimmering brilliance brought to life by Oliver’s dabs of gold leaf. Most bizarrely, this cloak is decorated with human eyes and ears, suggesting Elizabeth was all-seeing and all-hearing.

It was probably a nod to the many rebellions, plots and conspiracies which had been crushed or thwarted throughout her life (many by her brilliant spymaster Francis Walsingham). The creature on her left sleeve hammers home the point – this jewelled serpent represents Elizabeth’s cunning and wisdom.

The Virgin Queen

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Elizabeth’s portraiture was the cult of the Virgin Queen, which is suggested heavily in the Rainbow Portrait. The pearls that drape her body allude to purity. The knotted necklace suggests virginity. Her pale, glowing face – painted with white led – suggests a woman of youthful innocence.

It is, perhaps, a surprising cult to encourage in light of Elizabeth’s failure to produce an heir and ensure stability for the country. Indeed, emphasising any aspect of Elizabeth’s womanhood was a bold move, for women were considered to be weak, biological mutations of nature, inferior biologically, intellectually and socially.

Earlier in the century, the Scottish minister and theologian John Knox argued fiercely against female monarchy in his treatise, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. It declared:

“To promote a Woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion or empire above any realm, nation or city is:
A. Repugnant to nature
B. Contumely to God
C. The subversion of good order, of all equity and justice”

For Knox, it was only too obvious that a “woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man, not to rule and command him.”

Portrait of John Knox by William Holl, c. 1860.

Image Credit: National Library of Wales via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In light of this, Elizabeth’s ownership of her Cult of Virginity is even more impressive. Some historians have even suggested the turbulent religious changes in the century may have paved the way for this positioning. The Protestant Reformation saw England move away from Catholic imagery and culture.

As the image of the Virgin Mary was eradicated from the national consciousness, perhaps it was displaced by a new Cult of the Virgin: Elizabeth herself.

Jessie Childs is an award-winning author and historian. In this fascinating interview, she explores the Catholic predicament in Elizabethan England - an age in which their faith was criminalised, and almost two hundred Catholics were executed. In exposing the tensions masked by the cult of Gloriana, she considers the terrible consequences when politics and religion collide.
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Alice Loxton

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