In Elizabeth I with a pelican emblem (1575), Nicholas Hilliard used symbols to communicate messages about Queen Elizabeth I. 

Nicholas Hilliard was the closest there was to an official 'court painter', and one of the few artists who painted Elizabeth from life. He painted the Queen over a 30 year period and helped to construct her public image as an icon of beauty and virtue. Although he painted some large-scale works, such as this one, he is best known for his exquisite miniatures.

The pelican

In the Middle Ages the pelican was understood as symbol of Christ's sacrifice, dying on the cross to save mankind. In times of food shortages, mother pelicans were believed to pluck their own breasts to feed their dying young with their blood, saving their lives. In the process of feeding the mother would die.

This potent symbol of self-sacrifice and motherly love was co-opted by Elizabeth and used to represent her as 'mother' to her Protestant nation. It also signified the Queen’s commitment to her subjects. The pelican became one of Queen Elizabeth’s favourite symbols.

The meaning of colour

In this painting Elizabeth is dressed in the colours that made up much of her wardrobe, including black, white, red and gold. In addition to the depiction of jewels on the gown, the colours themselves sent messages of wealth and status. For instance, bright red fabrics were dyed with cochineal, which Spain controlled in terms of trade. This, combined with the complicated dying process involved, meant that use of cochineal was restricted to the very wealthy.

Black was also expensive to produce and fashionable amongst the elite. The partlet (undershirt) and sleeves of Elizabeth's outfit are blackwork of Tudor roses. Blackwork refers to the embroidery of black thread on white cloth in linear patterns, used to create a lace-like effect. It was popular during the Tudor era when lace was difficult to obtain and reached its heyday during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Few examples of blackwork have survived, as the iron oxide used in dying the black silk thread had a corrosive effect, rotting the fibres of garments. Much of the information about blackwork and the types of designs favoured has been gleaned from portraits of the period.

Using our collections for research

The collections at Royal Museums Greenwich offer a world-class resource for researching maritime history, astronomy and time. Find out how you can use our collections for purposes of research.

The Armada Portrait 

Recently saved for the nation, the Armada Portrait commemorates the most famous conflict of Elizabeth I's reign – the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in summer 1588. This iconic portrait is now back on public display in the Queen's House after careful conservation.

Find out more and visit The Armada Portrait

Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I