Venetian Red Notebook: No Rainbow Without the Sun
In the latest installment of A History of Lace in Seven Portraits for Venetian Red, Liz writes about a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower. This got me thinking about my favorite portraits of Elizabeth I, most of them rife with lace (and pearls.) There are so many wonderful ones, but Isaac Oliver’s Rainbow Portrait, which hangs in Hatfield House, stands out. Unlike many of the Elizabeth portraits, the thing that you first notice about this painting is the color. It is quite elegantly monochromatic, all shades of warm russet, umber and gold.
As a protege of the favored court painter, Nicholas Hilliard, Oliver painted a miniature that was a likeness of the aging Queen which could have cost him his career. In 1596 the Privy Council issued orders that all “unseemly portraits” of the Queen be destroyed—thereafter the Queen was pictured only in the so-called “Mask of Youth” and portrayed as untouched by age. Elizabeth I often referred to the sorrows of her aging body, so it wasn’t vanity that prompted this edict, rather a wish to portray the monarch as perpetually potent, ageless—especially critical for maintaining the authority of an unmarried Queen who would never produce a male heir.
The Rainbow Portrait was painted when Elizabeth was 67 years old. Volumes have been written about this painting, interpretations that expound, variously and with great conviction, on the perceived religious, political, literary and sexual symbolism in the work. On the simplest level, it is a portrayal of Elizabeth as Astraea, the youthful goddess of justice. She is wearing pearls, the symbol of virginity; her bodice is embroidered with English wildflowers to symbolize her youth and virtue. The serpent embroidered on her left sleeve represents wisdom, also alluding to Eden and the need to be ever-vigilant against evil. The serpent also has a heart-shaped ruby in his mouth, indicating that Elizabeth’s heart is ruled by wisdom, not emotion.
Elizabeth’s mantle is covered with ears and eyes, indicating that the Queen sees and hears all–or, perhaps, that her counselors and servants see all, but that only she speaks. In her right hand she holds a rainbow, symbol of hope, wisdom, faith and peace. The rainbow is oddly colorless—but the explanation seems to be in the Latin inscription on the painting, “Non sine sole iris”—no rainbow without the sun. Queen Elizabeth is the sun, her vibrant red hair and the elaborate rays of her multi-tiered lace collar proclaim that she outshines all by her brilliance, that she is the link to the divine, and that by her wisdom and virtue the people of England will be guided to peace and prosperity.
This portrait, and the hundreds of others done of Elizabeth I during her lifetime provide an intriguing look into the complex, interrelated worlds of politics and religion in 16th century England and the very interesting role that artists and portraiture played in that era.