Queen Elizabeth I (1558 — 1603)
This engraving was published late in Elizabeth's reign in 1596 when she was sixty-three years old, thirty-eight years after her coronation and just seven years before her death in 1603.
The Queen stands in full royal regalia, wearing a boned ruff, a richly embroidered gown and pearls in her hair. The full, rounded silhouette of the dress is due to her wearing a French farthingale, which was the height of fashion in the last years of the sixteenth century. Framed by her country's coastline and holding out the emblems of monarchical authority, the Orb and the Sceptre, Elizabeth is portrayed as protector of her realm. The title of the print names her not only Queen of England, France and Ireland, but of Virginia as well, the name given in Elizabeth's honour to an area of land much larger than that of the modern-day State. This New World colony covered most of the land from the eastern coast of North America, claimed by Sir Walter Raleigh on his 1584 expedition.
The symbols in this print are a combination of those that relate to the royal line and those that relate specifically to Elizabeth. She stands between two columns; the one on the left surmounted by the royal coat of arms, the one on the right bearing the Tudor portcullis. On the table beside her is an open book, the words 'POSUI DEUM ADIU-TOREM MEUM' meaning' I have made God my help,' a motto which is recorded as appearing on coins as far back as the fourteenth century. The two birds perched on the top of the pillars are devices personal to Elizabeth, although the symbols in themselves were not new. A pelican with its brood sits on the left, and a phoenix immersed in flames is on the right. Pelicans, which were mistakenly believed to slit their own throats to feed their starving young, were associated not only with Christ's crucifixion but also with the Virgin Mary, signifying maternal self-less love. Apart from the mythical phoenix's obvious association with the Resurrection, it was also linked to Mary in terms of virginity — the bird rising asexually from its ashes. By extension, therefore, many have taken this to mean that Elizabeth used this symbol of virginity to fashion herself as the 'Virgin Queen'. However, by this date and in relation to the Protestant Queen the symbols had taken on additional meanings that arguably replaced the old Catholic ones: those of a nursing mother, a symbol of the monarchy, as well as simply charity, uniqueness and longevity. These symbols were often used in pictorial representations and verbal descriptions of the Queen, but are just two amongst a host of symbols appropriated by Elizabeth for the construction of her public image.
Although this engraving is unsigned it is attributed to Crispijn de Passe, an engraver from Antwerp, who is known to have produced two other plates of Elizabeth I. All three of these bear the publishing address of a man called Hans Woutneel, a book dealer and print publisher who introduced Passe to London.
Museum Number P.2603-R