Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Taming the Serpent

This portrait of Elizabeth I by an unknown artist has changed over time. Deterioration of the strange looking bouquet in her hand has revealed that the portraitist originally intended that she be seen holding a snake. The symbolism of such a curious prop has been lost to us. Some think the snake was an emblem of wisdom and judgment. Others remind us that in Christian tradition the serpent is associated with Satan, which may have been sufficiently alarming to Her Majesty that she, or one of her minions, commanded that it be painted over.

It's a mystery. What did the artist intend, and why was his vision countermanded?

I suggest a Freudian interpretation. The snake may have been intended as a phallic symbol, and her holding it proved that she was not lacking in the potency we generally ascribe to men. It was like the way ancient Egyptian queens were depicted with beards. Of course, one Egyptian queen died while holding a snake. Furthermore, to those with debased minds, Bess fondling such an exotic pet might be construed as an improper interest in things masculine. And so a retreat was made to something more feminine: a bouquet of ugly flowers.

Here's a contemporary artist's rendering of what the orginal detail might have looked like.

I'm still working on the significance of the queen's five o'clock shadow.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I; 1580-1590's. Click on the pictures for closer looks.

1 comment:

TallTchr said...

A Facebook friend commented as follows:

Well, that is MOST interesting. I might have hazarded the guess that that serpent serves to identify her with Mary, the virgin mother of God (and queen of heaven)--or even REPLACING her, as Mary was not a big favorite with Protestants. It was Mary, after all, who vanquished the serpent (the Devil) in a manner of speaking. (She's often shown ... See Morewith a serpent under foot). On the other hand, that snake doesn't, in the artist's recreation at least, looked as if it were being vanquished in the least. There is a very NASTY snake-like creature in Spenser's Faerie Queene (the queen, a stand-in for Eliz I) (Canto 1), half woman, half serpent, and foul beyond foulness. That, at least, would offer a v good reason for taking that snake out of the picture. This is the sort of WONDERFUL mystery that can extinguish whole days from a productive life.