Symbolism in portraits of Elizabeth I

Find out more about the symbols used in portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and discover their meanings.

The Tudor rose

The red and white Tudor rose was created by combining the emblem of the House of Lancaster (the red rose) with that of the House of York (the white rose). These rival houses were united in 1486 by the marriage of the Lancastrian Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, which brought much-needed stability to the nation after years of civil war (the Wars of Roses).

The Tudor rose was used in Elizabeth's portraits to refer to the Tudor dynasty and the unity it brought to the realm. The rose also had religious connotations, as the medieval symbol of the Virgin Mary. It was used to allude to Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, as the secular successor to the Virgin Mary.

The pelican: a symbol of motherly love

The pelican was one of Elizabeth's favourite symbols. It was used to portray her motherly love to her subjects. In times of food shortages, mother pelicans were believed to pluck their own breasts to feed their dying young with their blood and save their lives. In the process of feeding the mother would die. In the Middle Ages the pelican came to represent Jesus sacrificing himself on the cross for the good of mankind and the sacrament of communion, feeding the faithful with his body and blood.

Endurance, eternal life and purity

A phoenix is a mythological bird which never dies but, after 500 years, is consumed by fire and born again, making it a symbol of the Resurrection, endurance and eternal life. Only one phoenix lives at a time, so it was also used to symbolize Elizabeth's uniqueness and longevity.

The ermine, an animal of the weasel family, also featured in many portraits of Queen Elizabeth I. Prized for its tail of pure white fur with a black tip, according to legend the ermine would rather die than soil its pure white coat and it came to stand for purity. It also functioned as a status symbol, as wearing ermine was restricted to royalty and high nobility.

A sieve is a symbol of virginity and purity reaching back to Ancient Roman, where the Vestal Virgin, Tuccia, reputedly proved her purity by carrying water, unspilt, in a sieve. This symbol was used to glorify Elizabeth's virginity and associate England with the Roman Empire.

The goddess of the Moon and war

Moons and pearls were used to present Elizabeth as Cynthia, the goddess of the Moon, who was a virgin and therefore pure. Sir Walter Ralegh helped to promote the cult of Elizabeth as a moon goddess with a long poem he wrote during the late 1580s, The Ocean's Love to Cynthia, in which he compared Elizabeth to the Moon.

Elizabeth was also associated with Minerva (or Pallas Athena), the Classic virgin-goddess of war and defender of the state. Although prepared for war, Queen Elizabeth I preferred peace and came to stand for peacefulness and wisdom. She was also the patron of arts and crafts, especially wool, and of trade and industry, including shipbuilding.

Other symbols used in portraits of Queen Elizabeth I

An armillary sphere is a skeletal celestial globe used to represent and study the movements of the planets. It was used to represent wisdom and power and also as a symbol of the good relationship between Elizabeth and her courtiers.

Dogs were used to represent faithfulness, and the breed associated with the Tudors was the greyhound. While gloves represented elegance and olive branches symbolised peace, crowns, orbs and sceptres all signified monarchy.

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