Elizabeth Rainbow Portrait
Elizabeth I: The Rainbow Portrait, c1600, by Isaac Oliver. This portrait can be viewed at Hatfield House. Oliver was a pupil of Elizabeth's favorite court painter, Nicholas Hilliard, and the brother-in-law of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Some historians have argued that Gheeraerts painted this portrait, but most favor Oliver.
This is my favorite portrait of the queen. It has the most elaborate and inventive iconography of any Tudor portrait.
Elizabeth's gown is embroidered with English wildflowers, thus allowing the queen to pose in the guise of Astraea, the virginal heroine of classical literature. Her cloak is decorated with eyes and ears, implying that she sees and hears all. Her headdress is an incredible design decorated lavishly with pearls and rubies and supports her royal crown. The pearls symbolize her virginity; the crown, of course, symbolizes her royalty. Pearls also adorn the transparent veil which hangs over her shoulders. Above her crown is a crescent-shaped jewel which alludes to Cynthia, the goddess of the moon.
A jeweled serpent is entwined along her left arm, and holds from its mouth a heart-shaped ruby. Above its head is a celestial sphere. The serpent symbolizes wisdom; it has captured the ruby, which in turn symbolizes the queen's heart. In other words, the queen's passions are controlled by her wisdom. The celestial sphere echoes this theme; it symbolizes wisdom and the queen's royal command over nature.
Elizabeth's right hand holds a rainbow with the Latin inscription 'Non sine sole iris' ('No rainbow without the sun'). The rainbow symbolizes peace, and the inscription reminds viewers that only the queen's wisdom can ensure peace and prosperity.
Elizabeth was in her late sixties when this portrait was made, but for iconographic purposes she is portrayed as young and beautiful, more than mortal. In this portrait, she is ageless.