The Armada Portrait Descriptive Essay

Posted By claire on June 23, 2010

Following on from last week’s article “Elizabeth I – Queen of PR”, I thought it would be good to start our examination of Elizabeth I portraits with the famous Armada portrait. This portrait is by an unknown artist (possibly George Gower) and was painted circa 1588, the same year as Elizabeth I’s defeat of the Spanish Armada.

The Armada Portrait is rich in symbolism, as are many of Elizabeth’s portraits, so I’ll start the ball rolling with symbols I can see and have found during my research, but please do add your own thoughts in the comments section below.

Symbolism in the Armada Portrait

  • Pearls – Like her mother before her, Elizabeth loved pearls and in her portraits pearls symbolise purity and virginity. Pearls symbolised purity. Marilee Cody, on her excellent site on Tudor portraits – – suggests that the pearls were Dudley’s last gift to Elizabeth and so had special meaning to Elizabeth.
  • Elizabeth – Although Elizabeth was around 55 when this portrait was painted, she is presented as youthful and vibrant with her made-up face, bright red hair and unblemished complexion. She is also dressed in all her finery and rich jewels,  and really is the iconic, ever-youthful Virgin Queen.
  • Elizabeth’s gaze – C J Cairns writes of how the way that she is gazing into the distance could symbolise her looking to the future of her realm.
  • Posture – Just as her father liked his posture to speak of his power and magnificence, Elizabeth too has adopted a posture of power.
  • Ruff – C J Cairns writes of how her ruff frames her face like rays of the sun.
  • Window scenes – I think it was David Dimbleby in his series “The Seven Ages of Britain” who noted that in the window on the left hand side of the painting there is the arrival of the Armada and then on the right there is the defeat of the Armada. This portrait could be seen as a tribute to Elizabeth’s success at protecting the nation from Spanish invasion or you could see a religious meaning: perhaps the ships are being forced onto the rocks by the “Protestant wind”. C J Cairns comments that Elizabeth has “called upon the elements to dispel the Spanish Catholic threat”.
  • Globe – If you look at the placement of Elizabeth’s hand on the globe, you can see that her hand is over the Americas which England was busy colonising. As Marilee Cody points out, this painting was painted one year after the birth of the first English child in the colonist’s settlement of Virginia. Her fingers are extending to other parts of the globe and this symbolises that Elizabeth’s power is fa reaching and that the whole world is at her disposal.
  • Pillars – An article on wikipedia says that “The Queen is flanked by two columns behind, probably a reference to the famous impresa of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, Philip II of Spain’s father, which represented the pillars of Hercules, gateway to the Atlantic Ocean and the New World.”
  • The egg shaped object – Of you look at the right hand side of the painting, you can see that there is an egg shaped object above Elizabeth’s shoulder and in front of the window. It appears to be a pomegranate which symbolised fertility, abundance, generosity, union, prosperity, rebirth, resurrection and eternal life.
  • The Crown – Confirmation of Elizabeth’s powerful position as monarchy and her royalty and majesty. If it is indeed an imperial crown, as some have suggested, it speaks again of Elizabeth’s far reach and Elizabeth as Empress.
  • Carving – The arm of the chair has a carving of a mermaid which, according to C J Cairns was “a symbol of the potential destructive nature of females” and that Elizabeth’s position with her back to the image could signify her rejection of its meaning. I wonder if it actually speaks of Elizabeth’s power over the seas.
  • Bow – One article on this portrait has suggested that the placement of the large bow is a “blatant display of Elizabeth’s virginity” just as Henry VIII’s large codpiece spoke of his sexuality and prowess.

Notes and Sources

Categories: appearance, Elizabeth Personality, portraits
Tags: Elizabeth I paintings, Elizabeth I portrait, Elizabeth I portraiture, symbolism, The Armada Portrait

After what the Heritage Lottery Fund has described as one of the most successful funding campaigns ever, one of three versions of the 1590 “Armada portrait” has been acquired by the Art Fund for £10.3m. The painting, bought from Sir Francis Drake’s descendants, will be on public display from October this year in the Queen’s House, Greenwich, before undergoing conservation in 2017.

Few images are as well known as the Armada painting, which shows Queen Elizabeth I basking in the aftermath of the greatest military success of her long reign, the defeat of a Spanish Armada.

This invasion force was sent by her rival and brother-in-law, Philip II, to take the English throne and revert England to Catholicism in 1588. The Spanish Armada posed an existential threat to Elizabeth Tudor’s reign and had been feared for decades. But when the Spanish launched the actual invasion, delivery from the threat seemed miraculously easy. A combination of atrocious weather and shrewd naval tactics on the part of the English divided the Spanish force, shipwrecking some and diverting others. No landing forces reached English shores.

At the time the victory was viewed as nothing short of miraculous and a sure sign of divine support for the rule of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I. The propaganda potential was considerable and the Armada portrait was no doubt commissioned in order to capitalise on this.

Painting politics

By 1590, when the image was painted, Elizabeth had been on the throne for more than 30 years and there was rising domestic discontent with her rule. Internal plots to overthrow her were especially rife in the 1580s and the execution of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots for treason in 1587 had done little to calm matters down. Elizabeth remained unmarried, was firmly past childbearing age – and as she approached old age the unresolved questions over her succession came increasingly to the forefront.

The stunning military victory over the Spanish Armada deflected attention away from these internal fears, instead projecting the image of a monarch whose reign was blessed by a divine overlord who endorsed her Protestant rule over that of her Catholic challenger. The wise, calm, magnificent Elizabeth steered her ships to victory, while those of her enemy crashed and burned. The iconography of the image is hardly subtle, aiming instead at glorious celebration.

The value of the Armada painting lies in its masterful storytelling, beautifully executed by the unknown painter who committed the narrative to canvas sometime after the actual events of the feared and foiled invasion. Elizabeth, in a splendid and jewelled gown, occupies the centre of the painting, flanked by two images. Both scenes show a fleet. On the left, the English fleet rides high on tranquil and becalmed waters, basking in sunshine, whilst on the right the Spanish fleet are battered by ferocious high waves. Elizabeth’s presence has becalmed the waves for her own navy, resulting in the destruction of enemy ships.

But there is more to this than just a reference to the military battle. The biblical references to the parting of the Red Seas, which allowed the Israelites, God’s chosen people, to be safe from the wrath of the Egyptian pharaoh, are all too clear. The painting bears witness to how contemporaries considered the events of 1588 as a reaffirmation of their monarch’s divine right to rule, something the patron of the image sought to evoke and remind the viewer of.

It should also be remembered that images of Elizabeth I were governed by tight rules that required images to be approved of by Elizabeth herself, which is one of the reasons why there are several versions of the Armada portrait. The propaganda value of the image was such that once the image was approved, several more versions were commissioned by courtiers demonstrating their loyalty to Elizabeth by adding one of her images to their own collections. The politics of painting at the Elizabethan Court were sophisticated and complex.

The painting also speaks more eloquently than even the sonnets and literature associated with the Elizabethan court, such as Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, about gendered perceptions of Elizabeth I. Here her reign is measured by meaningful events, and in the Armada portrait, she is curiously, magnetically androgynous in being both a woman in body but a divinely appointed king in her actions.

The second Elizabeth

Fast forward to images of the second Elizabeth, HRH Elizabeth II, now in the seventh decade of a reign whose longevity has outstripped even that of her Renaissance predecessor, and a different kind of royal portrait emerges.

In Mont Orgueil, in Jersey – long a significant Channel Island stronghold – is a prominent portrait of Elizabeth II, commissioned in 2004 by the Jersey Heritage Trust. Chris Levine’s aptly titled work “Equanimity”, featured on a holographic £100 Jersey stamp and banknote, depicts Elizabeth II as a serene and calm woman – and, significantly, an old woman, with silvery white hair and a lined face.

Her image speaks of graceful age and experience (and images of old women projecting age in a positive manner remain surprisingly few and far between). But where the Armada portrait surrounds Elizabeth I with iconography, telling a story about her achievements and successes, the story in the modern image lies in permitting the viewer a close contemplation of the person of the Queen herself. Military victories and political change are divorced from the figure of the monarch – she functions as a very different icon 400 years on: as a role model for personal integrity and conduct.

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