In this portrait of the queen, aged about 41, she is treated almost like a religious icon. Elaborate symbolism and rich detail show off her status and royal qualities. Her figure is stylized and her face mask-like. She is shown against a flat background with little attempt to convey spatial depth.
The mother pelican on her brooch is a traditional Christian symbol of Christ's sacrifice. It was believed that the pelican fed her young with her own blood. Here such a symbol refers to Elizabeth's role as a mother to her people.
Hilliard was miniature painter to Elizabeth I (a style also known as 'limning'). This work relates closely to his miniature portrait of 1572 but might be by a follower using Hilliard's designs.
Queen Elizabeth I of England (r: 1558-1603) was portrayed by the English painter, Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619). The painting dates to about 1574. The queen is depicted wearing a plum red gown decorated with applied jewels, including pearls and emeralds.
The bodice and large padded sleeve rolls are slashed and have fine cloth drawn out from underneath to act as a form of ornament. She is also wearing an embroidered partlet with a small collar and matching sleeves. A very fine cloth with bands of gold protects the embroidered garments. Her low-necked smock is just visible above the top of the arched bodice.
The partlet and sleeves are embroidered in blackwork on a white ground. The design is of stylized roses (the Tudor emblem) and foliage. The painting is sometimes referred to as the ‘Pelican’ portrait, because of the pelican jewel on her chest. The pelican is a traditional Christian symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. It was believed that the pelican fed her young with her own blood, and so the bird became a symbol of piety and self-sacrifice. The pelican here alludes to Elizabeth’s role as mother of the nation.
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool