The Painted Word – Political Allegory in Early Modern Royal Portraiture

Portraits of sovereigns were always conceived with a political function in mind. Monarchs used their official portraits to cultivate an image of majesty, prestige, and royal authority, a key component in the broader construction of an inherently politicised royal public image. Whilst there is a discourse within the existing art-historical scholarship that seeks to depoliticise royal portraiture and downgrade the importance of symbolism, it is fruitless to extricate the paintings of early modern sovereigns from their clear political intentions. Close inspection of contemporary art indicates a distinct propensity for allegory, which served as a central way in which an image of Renaissance princely magnificence was promoted. 

‘The Rainbow Portrait’, 1600-1602. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The famous portrait of Elizabeth I, The Rainbow Portrait, has received significant attention due to its religious significance; however, little emphasis has been placed on its impact as a highly politicised piece of art. The most potent political thread of this painting is the portrayal of Elizabeth as ageless, when by 1600 she was nearly seventy years old. At the turn of the seventeenth century, England’s monarch was nearing the end of her life without a legitimate heir to succeed her. Through this lens, the depiction of Elizabeth as wearing the ‘Mask of Youth’ appears undeniably political. Contributing to the fiction of an eternal present, this portrait was a product of the period which attributed the physical likeness of the monarch to the health of the state, and served to alleviate the political anxieties surrounding the succession and a potential return to a turmoil akin to the Wars of the Roses. However, if we look closely at this painting, there is a distinct sense of political iconography. Some scholars have considered this painting as an exemplification of Elizabeth’s sexual power, a credible concept which recognises the inextricable connection in the early modern period between a female monarch’s sexuality and her political authority. The transparent rainbow she grasps in her hand, whilst iconographically establishing a connection with the divine and implicitly presenting Elizabeth’s legitimacy as a deific leader, also reflects her sexual power. The phallic symbolism applied to the rainbow consolidates her supremacy over the masculine, establishing a dominance that was essential for a female ruler in the early modern period. Through this specific painting, it is evident that royal portraiture was undeniably politicised as a visual representation of strength and control.

However, although the symbolic content of royal portraiture was the central means of constructing a political image, it is also significant to consider the role that portraits served as a princely currency and an integral component of political discourse in the diplomatic relations within the European princely community. Portraits were exchanged to ameliorate political relationships, as well as to serve as symbols of recognition of other rulers within the royal fraternity. Whilst this role was undoubtedly significant, its longevity is eclipsed by the allegory and symbolic weight which timelessly pervades the paintings of sovereigns, such as the famous Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I. 

Maximus McCabe-Abel, History in Politics Vice President

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