Icons of Divinity: Portraits of Elizabeth I

Icons of Divinity: Portraits of Elizabeth I

Andrew Belsey and Catherine Belsey

Icons of Divinity: Portraits of Elizabeth l’ in Renaissance Bodies: The Human Figure in English Culture (Reakton Books, 1990), pp. 11-35. 


The face is pale and perhaps slightly unearthly, with a high forehead sharply defined against red-gold hair. Brilliant lighting falls directly on the Queen, eliminating almost all shadow. The white lace ruff and the enormous pearls in her hair complete a circle, radiating outwards against a dark background from a face which seems in consequence to be the source of light rather than its object. Elizabeth gazes out to the left, beyond the frame of the painting, contemplating a destiny invi~­ ible to the spectator. She appears remote and a little austere. George Gower’s ‘Armada’ portrait (l588?) presents the Queen as an emblem of majesty.

Her richly jewelled dress, meanwhile, and the ropes of pearls round her neck, are palpable signifiers of magnificence. The skirt and the bodice, with its long sleeves hanging behind, are of black velvet, all bordered with a single row of pearls held between gold edging. Silk bows, matching the rose-coloured lining of the outer sleeves, are held in place by rubies and emeralds. The satin underskirt and sleeves are embroidered with pearls and with devices in gold thread which resemble the sun.

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