Queen Elizabeth I - An Inspiration of Culture
Women in Art

 In patriarchal Tudor England, women were seen as weak, lacking intelligence, and often as creatures of vanity. In order to lecture women about what was good and bad, many painters in the sixteenth century portrayed the conflict between what was seen as the vices and virtues in women. The “good” women were usually portrayed wearing simple and dark colored dresses while attending activities that were though suitable for women, such as spinning or sewing. The “bad” women, however, were illustrated as wearing colorful and revealing clothing, and occupying their time by playing games or music and flirting with men (Salomon 74). 

    Thus, when Elizabeth I became queen of England, she understood the importance of controlling the way she was portrayed. Due to this control, Elizabeth created an almost mythical image of herself that her subjects embraced and glorified. Not only was Queen Elizabeth a great artist herself, but more importantly, her strong personality influenced and inspired the arts and culture in England to reach new heights. Elizabeth became the “imperial votress” (2.1.163) in the center of an artistic circle of writers and painters that bloomed in what became known as “the golden age.”

The Royal Image

    The growth of nationalism in the early sixteenth century helped to develop the state portrait as an art form. The royal image was supposed to illustrate power and greatness to the nation’s subjects, and the distribution of the royal image could be seen in paint, stone, print, and metal (Salomon 65). Although the style of Elizabeth’s portraits has been described in various ways, the qualities relate to the art form of mannerism. Elizabeth’s choice of using mannerism to represent her shows how present and aware she was about the different art forms that existed. 
    The mannerist style allowed for a shift between reality and fiction, which was highly favorable in Elizabeth’s eyes. This meant that she could be represented, for example, both as forgiving and forbidding, and with a womanly body yet at the same time shown as the body politic (Salomon 70). 
    In mans dominated England, images of aging men were often associated with power and experience. However, the general thought was that women were desirable as long as they could have children, but after the childbearing age, there was nothing left but death (Salomon 70). Thus, the representation of an aging Queen was not acceptable (Salomon 82). Just like the Virgin Mary had been portrayed with a youthful face, so did Elizabeth adopt the “mask of youth” for her portraits. 

The "Rainbow" Portrait

    Symbols of Elizabeth’s virginity were clearly illustrated in most paintings of her. One of these paintings was the famous “Rainbow” portrait (fig. 1), which was painted after 1600, and is attributed to the Netherlandish artist Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.
     In this painting, Elizabeth’s breasts are pushed up in her low-cut dress as a sign of her virginity. This is the way that young and unmarried girls used to dress in England. Elizabeth’s long flowing hair and the embroidered flowers on her bodice signify that she is not only a virgin, but also a bride: the bride of England. Furthermore, above the rainbow are the words “NON SINE SOLE IRIS,” which mean “no rainbow without the sun.” These words identify Elizabeth as God’s anointed substitute that protectively shines over her nation (Fischlin 192). 
    Moreover, Elizabeth was often illustrated by artists as a goddess, and in the “Rainbow” portrait, the crescent moons, which are symbolic of Diana, are apparent at the apex of her headpiece. There have been many discussions regarding what the eyes and the ears on Elizabeth’s gown symbolize, and many interpretations exist. However, one of the more political versions describes the symbols as signs of surveillance, stating, “The Queen watches and listens vigilantly, seeing from all perspectives, hearing in all directions” (Fischlin 183). 

    Throughout her reign, Elizabeth carefully nurtured and loved her nation, and she guarded her power with great jealousy, afraid that it would all be taken away from her. After all, she was “just” a woman in a time when England wanted to see power in the hands of men and not women. Therefore, the eyes and ears may symbolize the observant Queen who does not miss anything that is happening in her country.
    Thus, the “Rainbow” portrait simultaneously represents the woman Elizabeth Tudor, her regime, and the power of the sovereign head of the state. As often stated by Elizabeth, she was no ordinary weak woman, but a woman chosen by God to be the Queen of England. In the “Rainbow” portrait, Elizabeth’s holding of the rainbow symbolizes this divine authority. Traditionally, the rainbow has been illustrated as a symbol of peace. Thus by grasping the rainbow, Elizabeth becomes the divine sovereign and the mediator between godly and earthly powers. 

The "Ditchley" Portrait

    Another famous painting of Elizabeth that illustrates her power and protection over her nation is the “Ditchley” portrait (fig. 2), again, painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger around 1592 (Salomon 83). Here Elizabeth is portrayed like a mystical fairy, dressed in a white gown, with decorations behind her shoulders that can be associated with fairy wings.   The idea that Elizabeth was a descendant from Brutus and King Arthur was emphasized during this period, and both poets and painters idealized Elizabeth with a sense of mystique. She was a powerful woman that could decide whether to give men privileges that would make them wealthy or take away all power that the men had. Her power made people fear her and at the same time admire and adore her. 
    The “Ditchley” portrait is one of the few paintings that portray Elizabeth at her true age. Elizabeth is represented standing over a map of England with her feet on Ditchley in the county of Oxfordshire. With absolute power over her nation, Elizabeth banishes the storm behind her, and lets sunshine and prosperity shine over England. Moreover, during Elizabeth’s reign, England discovered and acquired many new territories around the world. The activity of the British Fleet is illustrated in the “Ditchley” portrait by several ships that are either sailing to, or from, England. Thus, Elizabeth is controlling the activity both on land and in sea. 

    The wisdom and understanding of the Queen is apparent in the Latin texts in the painting that state, “She gives and does not expect,” “In giving back she increases,” and “She can but does not take revenge” (Leahy 4). It is said that the portrait was ordered by Sir Henry Lee, the Queen’s retired Champion of the horses, as a gift of forgiveness for taking a mistress after his wife died. Elizabeth often showed her displeasure about her courtiers’ relationships. Thus, Sir Henry Lee knew that it displeased Elizabeth that he had taken a mistress but he hoped that Elizabeth would be understanding about his action. 

Elizabeth I and A Midsummer Night's Dream

    Many of Elizabeth’s admirers sought power and patronage, and they glorified her in any way possible. Poets like Edmund Spencer and Sir John Davies idealized her in epic and poetry. Courtiers like Sir Henry Lee entertained the Queen at his estate, and explorers like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Ralegh praised their Virgin Queen in the new colonies that they conquered (Labriola 2). 
    Queen Elizabeth loved to be illustrated as the Virgin Queen by writers and other artists, and one writer that created work with an Elizabethan spirit was William Shakespeare. In his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare describes the Elizabethan relationship between state and subjects. But it is rather the absence than the interaction of Elizabeth in the play that makes the events occur the way they do (Montrose 82). When Oberon, the King of the fairies, reflects upon his “imperial votress,” (2.1.163) he describes how Cupid’s arrow has missed the “fair vestal, throned by the West,” (2.1.158) and thus falls upon a “little western flower / before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound” (2.1.166-167). The juice of this flower has the power, if put on a sleeping person’s eyelids, to make that person fall in love with the next creature that he or she sees. Oberon wants to use this flower to make his Queen, Titania, fall in love with a beast and then when reality hits her she will submit and come back to Oberon.
    However, since the “vestal virgin” is not under the dominance of men, marriage, or maternity, because the arrow of Cupid did not touch her, “ironically, the vestal’s very freedom from fancy guarantees the subjection of others” (qtd. Montrose 83). As Elizabeth stated many times, she did not care if men thought of women as a weaker sex and inferior to men, but she was an exception: she was the Virgin Queen (Montrose 83). Thus, the weddings at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream happen due to the fact that the “imperial votress” stayed a virgin, that Cupid has missed her with his arrow. 

    In conclusion, Queen Elizabeth’s strong personality and absolute power over her nation gave her reigning years the name “The Golden Age.” It was a creative time where painters, writers and other artists flourished. In the center of this artistic circle stood Elizabeth with her head held high. She ruled with sovereignty over all the people in the patriarchal England, and inspired people to be, and create, more than what they could ever have dreamed of.