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Royal Portraiture: The Pelican and The Phoenix

Elizabeth I inherited many traits from her father King Henry VIII, such as her hair colour, her boundless intelligence, and her often used the skill with propaganda. Elizabeth was technically only England’s second queen, so she had to prove to her people that she had “the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.”

One of the tools that she used to spread this message around England were her portraits. Elizabeth I’s portraits were often full of symbolism and messages that she wisely used to influence not only her people but the entire world’s opinion of her.

Elizabeth I "Phoenix Portrait"

Elizabeth I “Phoenix Portrait”

In 1574, she had English artist Nicholas Hilliard to paint a portrait of her. The central piece in this picture is the phoenix pendant that Elizabeth is wearing. The phoenix has many symbolic meanings in this painting, for instance, the bird represents chastity and virginity; Elizabeth wanted to be remembered as ‘The Virgin Queen’.

Henry VIII’s daughter always wore pearls, whether it was in her hair, on her exquisite gowns, or around her neck. However, there was a reason she decorated herself in thousands of pearls; they represented purity and virginity. She further proves her innocence by the cleverly positioned pearls around her waist.

There can only be one phoenix alive at any given time and, just as the phoenix, there can only be one Queen of England. After a bird dies, they soon rise out of the ashes and live again; this symbolizes Elizabeth’s rise to power, for she went from a princess to a prisoner, to Queen of England. Besides Elizabeth’s phoenix pendant, we can see a red rose that she is holding in her hands. It has been said that she often held things during portraits to “show off” her long and elegant hands. The red rose is symbolic as well, as it represents beauty. The roses five petals were also thought to represent the five wounds of Christ.

Elizabeth I "Pelican Portrait"

Elizabeth I “Pelican Portrait”

That same year, Elizabeth had the same artist to paint another portrait of her. In this portrait, which is almost identical to “The Phoenix”, Elizabeth wears a pelican pendant. Hence the painting’s title. In those times, it was believed that pelicans would pluck their chest to feed their dying young with its blood.

The pelican on Elizabeth represents her selfless love towards her country and her people. She stated, “There is nothing about which I am more anxious than my country, and for its sake I am willing to die ten deaths if that be possible”. This comment could also allude back to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, him saving his flock with his body and blood. In the top corners of the painting can be seen a Tudor rose on the left and a Fleur de Lys on the right, the Tudor rose representing her rightful claim to the throne of England. Tudor roses can also be seen in the embroidery on her dress. The fleur de lys represents her claim to the throne of France, which English monarchs have been proclaiming since the 1340s.

Back in Elizabethan England, the colours of your clothes were a sign of status and your place in society. In “The Pelican”, Elizabeth wears the colours white, gold, black, and red, which were made from dyes only the very wealthy could afford. In this portrait, just as in the first, Elizabeth is decked in many pearls. Elizabeth made it known that she was the true ‘The Virgin Queen’, for she famously proclaimed things like, “I would rather be a beggar and single than a queen and married.”

What symbolism can you point out in these portraits?

Photo Credit: Elizabeth1 Phoenix.jpg via Wikimedia Commons, Elizabeth1.jpg via Wikimedia Commons

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