A serpent repents in Queen Elizabeth I’s hand

Portrait of Elizabeth I with serpent pentimento on her handA late 16th century portrait of Queen Elizabeth I has reveled over time and degradation that she was originally depicted holding a coiled serpent in her hand instead of the innocuous nosegay she holds now. When an earlier image that has been painted over begins to show through, that is known as a pentimento, which means repentance in Italian.

The portrait, painted by an unknown artist, some time in the 1580s or early 1590s, has not been on display at the National Portrait Gallery since 1921. You can clearly see the shadow of the serpent’s coming up from between her fingers and his tail coiling above her hand.

The serpent was a symbol of wisdom and reasoned judgment — as on the rod of Aesculapius, the physicians’ emblem — so that’s probably where our unknown artist was going with the imagery. He changed his mind, though (possibly in consideration of the common association of snakes with the devil and original sin), and quickly painted it over with a strangely-shaped but perfectly inoffensive little bouquet of roses.

Paint analysis shows that the snake was definitely made at the same time as the rest of the portrait. There is no varnish between the snake and flower layers, so we know it was painted right over.

Infrared image of original serpant design on the portrait Artist's impression of original rendered from the infrared

The artist repented of his creation, if you will, and now the serpent is repenting him right back.

That’s not the only pentimento showing through, though. X-rays show that a portrait of an unknown woman lies underneath Elizabeth. Her head is higher and she’s facing the opposite way. If you click on the first picture at the top right of this entry, you can actually see her eye and nose in the left side of Elizabeth’s forehead and temple where the paint has chipped off. It looks like an absorbed twin.

Again the painter is unknown, but he’s definitely not the same person who would paint Elizabeth on the panel later. It’s very thoroughly painted but not quite complete. This lady is wearing a French hood, a garment fashionable from 1570 to 1580, so she might have been on the recycling heap for 10 to 20 years before getting royally repurposed.

The serpent portrait will go on display starting on March 13th along with 3 other interestingly altered paintings of Elizabeth I in an exhibit called Concealed and Revealed: The Changing Faces of Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth I of England, The Darnley PortraitThe four works range in date from the 1560s until just after her death in 1603. They were all modified in their time and have recently been re-examined using advanced scientific techniques of paint analysis, infrared and x-Ray photography so we can see more of what Elizabeth painters had hidden.

The most famous portrait of Elizabeth in the group, the Darnley portrait, originally showed the Queen with pink and rosy cheeks, so the image of the Virgin Queen always made up with white face and hands may turn out to be more of an artifact of faded paint than Elizabeth beauty standards.

23 thoughts on “A serpent repents in Queen Elizabeth I’s hand

  1. The serpent has a phallic significance, too–maybe showing Bess’s manly virtues, despite her frail female form. I totally like the serpent–I’m going to get a stuffed one to hold for my next Christmas card photo. Give the in-laws something to think about…

  2. i think he is trying to tell us the monarchy has two faces, and that they were evil,, i really do, just like nostrodamus had to draw pictures, and little quatrains, this is how the painter did it, this is HOW he told us, what the monarchy was all about, how about that creepy egg that was given to Queen Elizabeth? serpents all around the egg, and this weird solar system, that didn;t belong to us, comes out of this creepy egg covered in serpents, this is him telling us the monarchy had two faces, and that they were evil

  3. Hasn’t anyone heard of the so called Serpent line of European Monarchy? maybe this was to show her regal bloodline from Enki the wise serpent God.

  4. hi,to queen victoria i meet your father in england, now that i lost my fingers in an f4 mig welder and i got other fingers from other men ,does that make me a real prince, these are not my finger prince their jack geralic sam mc gee, uwings, all at the same time,better beleive it hertz.

  5. if you enlarge the picture at the top and look at the left hand side of her face, it looks a little like something was painted underneath, as it looks like there is an eye on the left hand side of her forehead

    1. Yes, as I mentioned in the blog entry, there’s a portrait of an unknown woman underneath Elizabeth, with her head higher and facing the other direction. Her eye and also her nose are visible under Elizabeths’ left forehead.

  6. Perhaps the snake is the artist’s intentional reveal. Ever hear of the Bram Stoker theory that Elizabeth died while away at the age of 10 and was secretly substituted with a young boy? Some attribute the fact that “she” never allowed anyone to see her without heavy makeup, was only ever attended by her own physicians, always wore such high collars and excessively thick, layered bodices to the need to disguise “her” true gender. It’s interesting also that the hidden face is very feminine in appearance, in strong contrast to the portrait’s masculine face of Elizabeth.

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