The Rainbow Portrait is one of my favourite paintings of Elizabeth I. While she looks beautiful and youthful, in reality she was in her sixties when this was created. I also have a fascination with its clever use of symbolism.
Eyes and Ears
The eyes and ears on her dress seem to say that Queen Elizabeth hears all and sees all. Though I believe they could also have a religious meaning. A 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer says, “For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is againſt them that do evil.”(1) They also remind me of the eavesdropper carvings in the ceiling of the Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace. Alright, they also remind me of that scene in the 1993 movie Robin Hood Men and Tights. You know, when Cary Elwes says, “Lend me your ears!” and, ahem, the good people take him literally and toss ears at him.(2) He’s quite right when he adds, “That’s disgusting.”(3)
Back to the studio. Err, I mean, portrait. Back to the portrait. Google translator tells me the Latin inscription on the painting ‘non sine sole iris’ means ‘not without the sun’. Many online translations in regard to this work say it means, “no rainbow without the sun.”(4) Elizabeth, good Queen Bess, may not have been the son her father Henry VIII wanted, but here she is said to represent the actual sun. That is a great deal more powerful. While Elizabeth rules as the Virgin Queen, the sun is a constant cycle of rebirth, stability, growth and goodness in the world. The portrait is riddled with symbolism, but I want to focus on the rainbow for this post.
While Elizabeth looks like she is holding clear plastic tubing, possibly to water the garden of flowers on her gown, it is widely acknowledged this item would have been painted with all the colours of the rainbow. So she is holding a rainbow in her hand, which I believe is actually quite a powerful statement. This symbol is most often said to represent peace and Elizabeth is then the keeper of peace. I agree with this assessment, but I feel like the rainbow may symbolize a little more.
The rainbow in the Bible is referred to in Genesis 9:12-17. Taken from the New King James Bible, I believe this line is the most telling: “13 I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.”(5) This tells us God made the rainbow as a symbol of His promise of peace between Him and the world. Very basically, no more floods and arcs will now be strictly recreational.
The symbolism in the painting seems to be reinforcing Elizabeth, who is holding the rainbow, as God’s representative on Earth. As Elizabeth was the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, this symbolism makes sense to me. It is her duty to uphold this promise made between God and the English people and this painting literally depicts that through the rainbow symbol.
In the fascinating book The Secret Language of Symbols by David Fontana, the Chrisitan symbolism of the rainbow is expanded upon further. The seven colours of the rainbow are said to signify the seven gifts given to the Church by the Holy Spirit.(6) These seven gifts are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. (7) Elizabeth, the anointed Queen, is depicted holding them all. It reminds me of that song from Sunday school. The one that goes, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” Well, if the religious symbolism is correct, Elizabeth holds the whole rainbow, all seven gifts from the Holy Spirit, and the agreement of peace between God and His people, in her hand.
This portrait also carries strong political messages. Just before Elizabeth came to the throne, her half-sister Queen Mary I, undid England’s Protestant religious reforms in an attempt to return the country to Catholicism. The Acts of Uniformity and Supremacy of 1559 however, returned England to a Protestant nation and named Elizabeth the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.(8) She needed to uphold the religious responsibilities of the country and rule it as well. Holding the rainbow, God’s agreement that all will be well, is a huge statement. I believe the rainbow does symbolize Elizabeth as the keeper of peace for the nation, but peace rooted in the religious beliefs that she upheld. It is a powerful message, and Elizabeth was a powerful person. Just look at her portraits.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments over on Instagram.
- The Church of England (website), “The Book of Common Prayer (1662)”, accessed April 22, 2022. https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2019-10/The%20Book%20of%20Common%20Prayer%201662.pdf
- Robin Hood Men in Tights, directed by Mel Brooks (1993; United States; Brooksfilms; Gaumont, 1993), Disney +.
- Claire Ridgway, “Elizabeth I Portraits”, The Elizabeth Files (website), accessed April 22, 2022. https://www.elizabethfiles.com/elizabeth-i-portraits/9499/
- Bible Gateway (website), https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Gen+9%3A1–17&version=NKJV, accessed April 20, 2022.
- Fontana, David, The Secret Language of Symbols: A Visual Key to Symbols and Their Meanings, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993, page 52.
- Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_gifts_of_the_Holy_Spirit, accessed April 22, 2022.
- Claire Ridgway. “Act of Uniformity 1559”. The Elizabeth Files, accessed April 22, 2022. https://www.elizabethfiles.com/act-of-uniformity-1559/3833/
Sources and further exploring
Bible Gateway (website). https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Gen+9%3A1–17&version=NKJV. Accessed April 20, 2022.
Elizabeth I Rainbow Portrait.jpg. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elizabeth_I_Rainbow_Portrait.jpg. Wikimedia Commons. Accessed April 19, 2022.
Fontana, David. The Secret Language of Symbols: A Visual Key to Symbols and Their Meanings. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993.
Reading the Past. “Dr. Kat and The Rainbow Portrait.” YouTube video, 10:16, December 28, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=84tAGtJh3qw
Ridgway, Claire. “Act of Uniformity 1559”. The Elizabeth Files. Accessed April 22, 2022. https://www.elizabethfiles.com/act-of-uniformity-1559/3833/
Ridgway, Claire. “Elizabeth I Portraits”. The Elizabeth Files. Accessed April 22, 2022. https://www.elizabethfiles.com/elizabeth-i-portraits/9499/
Robin Hood Men in Tights, directed by Mel Brooks (1993; United States; Brooksfilms; Gaumont, 1993), Disney +.
The Church of England (website), “The Book of Common Prayer (1662). Accessed April 22, 2022. https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2019-10/The%20Book%20of%20Common%20Prayer%201662.pdf
Trammell, Mary M., “The Struggle Over the English Bible,” The Christian Science Monitor, November 13, 1991. https://www.csmonitor.com/layout/set/amphtml/1991/1113/13151.html. Accessed April 20, 2022.
Whitehall Moll History Clips. “Lucy Worsley on the Rainbow Portrait.” YouTube video, 2:39, May 28, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XQQW6TwYQo
Published April 25, 2022