Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The "Unseemly" Snake-Doctored Portrait of a Two-Faced Queen Elizabeth I

No book has ever been written on the subject of Elizabethan overpaint; yet, when pressed, any competent art historian will admit the phenomenon exists. We know that all art forms were heavily censored under both Elizabeth I and James I. Shakespeare himself complained about this royal censorship in Sonnet 66 as, “Art made tongue-tied by authority.” We also know that Elizabeth I's privy council passed specific laws banning "unseemly portraits" of their Queen.  How many portraits were subsequently overpainted? That we don't know. 

Recently one such portrait (NPG 200) when plumbed with infrared light revealed, beneath the Queen's bouquet of pretty primroses, a blatantly phallic serpent clasped Cleopatra-like to her not-so-virgin breast.

There is no layer of varnish between the snake and the overpainted roses. The NPG believes this lack of varnish indicates the original artist simply changed his mind regarding the picture's conceit. And they might be right, but oftentimes varnish was not applied for years in England because it took so long for paint to dry in the wet climate. The truth is we don't know when the snake was doctored.

Also note the underpainting and how another face is emerging out of the side of Elizabeth's (see top photo). Judging from more recent photographs of the portrait, this interesting two-faced feature has been mostly repaired (you can still see the nose and eye). Click here to view the NPG's x-ray of the portrait, which also reveals the spooky-looking lady in the underportrait. Click here to see the other spectral test results from NPG 200.

The painter is unknown. Anyone interested in x-rays and other spectral tests performed on Elizabethan portraits should visit the NPG website and explore the Making Art in Tudor Britain webpage. 

Above: green snake (upper right) is an artist rendering of how it might have once appeared. The snake has not been restored to the portrait; also, the original snake was not green.
Below: Infrared snake (via NPG Making Art in Tudor Britain)


  1. Interesting how the jaw and eye placement on the snake is far more equine that serpentine in structure - it gives me the opinion the artist hadn't ever really looked at a snake closely and possibly had never seen one for themself.

  2. You must needs cite your sources! For the sake of research I am doing, finding a source on the banning of "unseemly portraits" would be invaluable!

  3. I believe the overpainting here to be a form of sympathetic magic,hiding actual intent from the percieved.