17 April 2015

On vacation: Virgin empress of the seas

Elizabeth I, the “sieve” portrait. Quentin Metsys the Younger, 1583. 

Pinacotecta Nazionale di Siena.

I have become addicted to Wolf Hall, the novels and the TV production, so I have been finding Tudor portraits as a way of filling up the gap until the next book. The finest of all the Elizabeth portraits is, I think, this one known as the “sieve” portrait. It incorporates two Elizabethan themes: Empress of the Seas, and Virgin Queen.

Her position as Virgin Queen is shown as a representation of the Vestal Virgin, Tuccia, who carried a sieve of water from the Tiber to the Temple of Vesta to prove her chastity. The translucence of the flowing water shown at the bottom of the sieve is echoed in the astoundingly beautiful translucent sea-green globe.

The themes of virginity and empire are brought together in the medallions on the column in back, although with some literary freedom, in the story of Aeneas who foreswore marriage in order to found an empire.

The column is continued by the columns behind Elizabeth and the colors appear again on the courtiers on whom she has turned her back. The patron of this portrait is thought to be her close companion, Sir Christopher Hatton, who may be the third of the background men. He is accompanied by a page who wears a white hind, Hatton's emblem.

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