27 October 2020

The Many Faces of a Queen: The Armada Portraits of Elizabeth I


Lise many Elizabethan portraits, the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, painted in 1588, is heavily symbolic, and intended to be a show the queen's strength and majesty. Unlike most portraits, it is in a landscape format, and three different versions survive.

The most famous of the three Armada portraits is thought to have been commissioned by Sir Francis Drake, and is known as the 'Tyrwhitt-Drake' portrait (above). 

The Armada Portrait held by the National Portrait Gallery has been cut down at some point, to fit the conventional portrait format, leaving  the central figure of the queen and remnants of the background.


Finally, the Woburn Abbey version has  the columns of red with gold coloured bases, which suggests these two paintings may have come from the same artist.


Restoration work on the 'Tyrwhitt-Drake' portraits included X-Rays, which revealed that the ships in the background had been painted over older ships, similar to those in the Woburn Abbey version.

The symbols in all three versions would have been recognised by the Tudor audience. The many large pearls symbolise Elizabeth’s chastity and connect her to Cynthia, the Greek goddess of the Moon, who was a virgin and seen as 'pure'. Elizabeth's hair and clothes are draped in pearls, and where Henry VIII's portrait by Holbein displays the king wearing an oversized codpiece to emphasise his virility, Elizabeth's portrait shows a giant pearl. 

Mermaids and sirens were subjects of Poseidon, god of the sea, sent to tempt sailors and then ruin them, so the inclusion of a mermaid here could show Elizabeth’s might against the Spanish seamen. It has also been suggested the mermaid symbolises Mary Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth is facing away from the plots and Mary's execution

The red, egg-shaped object over Elizabeth's shoulder might seem out of place, and has been described as an egg, an acorn and a pomegranate, or even a decorative finial, but I believe nothing in these paintings is there by accident, and it is an egg to represent fertility, rebirth and eternal life, and is a symbol of wealth, luck and health.

Elizabeth rests her right hand on a globe, with her fingers pointing at the New World – imperial symbolism that underlines her power over the world, as well as England. The first European colony in America, Virginia, was established in 1584, a few years before the Armada Portrait was painted, and it was named for Elizabeth.

Her skirt and her sleeves are decorated with golden suns. The sun is an artistic symbol as old as history itself, a signifier of power, enlightenment and life. The circle of ruff extends from Elizabeth’s face like the Sun’s rays. She is shown as the centre and source of warmth, beauty, and goodness.Elizabeth herself is placed between scenes of storm and calm, suggesting that she is the sun, and the source of the clear weather shown to the left.

The Queen's posture, with open arms and serene gaze signify strength, and the exaggerated dress symbolises the the medieval idea of the ‘King’s two bodies’: the frail, physical one, and the spiritual, from where true power originates. 

Royal Museums Greenwich secured  the 'Tyrwhitt-Drake'  Armada Portrait in 2016 after raising £10.3m including £7.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, to buy the painting from descendants of Sir Francis Drake. The three surviving versions of one of the most famous portraits of Elizabeth I were on display together for the first time in 2020:



A gripping read - it felt like I had been transported back in time.”  


Drake – Tudor Corsair (Book One of the Elizabethan Series)

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