Symbols and emblems used in Elizabeth portraiture

ElizabethThe red and white Tudor rose was created by combining the emblem of the House of Lancaster (red rose) with that of the House of York (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 that it brought to the realm. The rose also had religious connotations, as the medieval symbol of the Virgin Mary, and was used to allude to the Virgin Queen as the secular successor to the Virgin Mary.

The pelican was one of Elizabeth's favourite symbols, used to portray her motherly love of 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. The mother died in the process and during 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.

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 is an animal of the weasel family 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 features in many of Elizabeth's portraits, where it also functions 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 carring water, unspilt, in a sieve. It was used to glorify Elizabeth's virginity and associate England with the Roman Empire.

Moons and pearls (because of their resemblance to the moon) were used to present Elizabeth as the goddess of the Moon, Cynthia (also known as Diana), 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 often associated with Minerva (or Pallas Athena), who was the virgin-goddess of war and defender of the state. Although prepared for war, she 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.

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 represent faithfulness. The breed associated with the Tudors was the greyhound.

Gloves represent elegance, olive branches peace, and crowns, orbs and sceptres signify monarchy.

Portrait of Elizabeth I with pelican emblem >>