Elizabeth I and a Snake?

I’ve always liked royal portraits. It’s always fun to see how a monarch decides to visually assert his/her power, prestige, wisdom, wealth, etc. In portraiture, these attributes and characteristics of the sitter are emphasized through various signifiers (e.g. lavish, expensive clothing signifies that the wearer of the clothes is rich). What what if the signifier (or symbol) isn’t clear or easily understood?

That seems to be the case with this portrait by Elizabeth I (anonymous artist, 16th century, shown left). The final product of this painting showed Elizabeth I holding a bunch of roses in her hand. I haven’t seen what the painting looked like with roses (this Telegraph article described the roses as a “decorative” element), but it seems to me that roses could have also been been an easily identifiable symbol for Elizabeth I, since roses were a symbol of her family, the house of Tudor.1
But whether these roses were symbolic or decorative, they were obviously added at the last minute. Deterioration of this painting has revealed that the monarch originally was holding a snake in her hand. Based on the remaining visual evidence, an artist has recreated how the snake probably appeared in the original portrait (see below). It is thought that the snake was repainted with roses because of the “ambiguity” of the serpent symbol (again, see Telegraph article).

Well, “ambiguity” is right. The well-known symbolic associations with snakes are the Fall, sin, death, and Satan. And I’m pretty sure Elizabeth I wasn’t going for those associations. Once in a while you hear about snakes being associated with wisdom, so maybe that explains why the snake was originally included? Can you think of any other symbolic reasons why Elizabeth I would be depicted with a snake?

On another note, deterioration of this painting has also caused a strange ghostly appearance on Elizabeth I’s forehead. This portrait was painted over another unfinished portrait, and the eyes and nose of the previous woman face have become visible. It appears that the painter of Elizabeth I decided to reuse the unfinished panel, a common practice at the time.

Poor Elizabeth. As was suggested on The Corinthian Column, Elizabeth I doesn’t appear to have been the most attractive of monarchs. And having an extra nose and pair of eyes in your forehead is not going to improve your looks.2

1 You can see other portraits of Elizabeth I with Tudor roses, such as “The Pelican Portrait by Nicolas Hilliard (c. 1575-1580).

2 This Elizabeth I portrait is part of the National Portrait Gallery (London) collection. It has not been on display for almost a century, but will soon be exhibited as part of the show “Concealed and Revealed: The Changing Faces of Elizabeth I.” The show runs from March 13 to September 26.

  • Jon says:

    I think about Cleopatra every time a see a woman holding a snake close to her chest. That probably has nothing to do with this painting, but other than that, I got nothing.

  • Jon says:

    Unless E. is trying to identify with another famous queen who played men like fools.

  • kashurst says:

    Perhaps the snake itself is not the entire symbol? Because she is holding it could it mean that she is subduing it? She liked to be known for her power over her enemies.

  • heidenkind says:

    I was thinking the same thing Jon was.

    The snake was definitely a symbol for magic and female goddess cults in ancient times… not that Elizabeth I would have known that.

  • e says:

    You must promise me that you will never stop writing this blog. I look forward to every post!

    Is it weird that I like the snake much better than the roses? I can understand why the snake wouldn't be desirable — too sneaky and deceiving — but, it does look cool.

    I'm also glad you pointed out the ghostly look the painting is getting and why. The first thing I thought when I saw it was that she was a rather pale, unattractive woman.

    The question I have (and maybe there isn't an answer) is:
    did Elizabeth want the snake painted over or did the artist just do that on his own?

  • columnist says:

    The intrigue the portrait creates is delicious!

  • Davidikus says:

    Have you been to the National Portrait Gallery in London? It is a fascinating museum, full of historically important but artistically uninteresting works. I always wondered why, bar one or two, the English monarchs have failed to find or hire the great painters that the Spanish or French kings seemed to have had an endless supply of!
    This picture looks gauche – even more so now that its underpainting resurfaces.


  • M says:

    Great thoughts, everyone! I especially like kashurst's idea about subduing enemies. And I never made that association with Cleopatra, Jon. That's an interesting thought.

    e, I'm pretty sure that Elizabeth wanted the snake removed from the painting. Maybe she wanted the snake originally, and then changed her mind (since she realized the symbol was too ambiguous). Usually, patrons would specifically stipulate what they wanted included in their paintings, so it's safe to assume that Elizabeth had an opinion about the snake.

    Davidikus, I have been to the NPG, but it has been about seven years. I chuckled when I read your description of the "artistically uninteresting" collection. Now I'm curious and want to go back soon, so I can observe the artistically uninteresting art for myself! 🙂

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.