Elizabeth I ruled a much bigger territory than Isabella, and got a law made in England prohibiting the circulation of unflattering portraits of her. Elizabeth's portraits are notoriously fictitious in always showing her as a pearly-skinned icon of Renaissance beauty even when she was old. This is what makes a newly revealed portrait of her from the workshop of Marcus Gheeraerts so remarkable.
The portrait shows an unmistakably ageing Elizabeth, her wrinkles unconcealed by makeup, with heavy, dark lines under her eyes. The reality of fleshly deterioration and melancholy age is revealed almost as brutally as in a notorious portrait of the present Elizabeth by Lucian Freud. The glittering crown on Elizabeth I's head in the 1590s painting, the extravagant lace collar and jewels seem almost ironic surroundings for a face that is not just time-marked but miserable. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, as one of her subjects wrote.Share
Marcus Gheeraerts, whose studio seems to have produced this portrait, usually gave Elizabeth a far more idealised aspect. In his glittering Ditchley Portrait, she stands in a silver dress on top of a map of southern England, a beautiful colossus seen against a stormy sky in which the sun is breaking through. The story behind this painting reveals the culture in which Elizabeth had to be beautiful. It was commissioned by the courtier Henry Lee after Elizabeth got angry with him for taking a mistress: the painting commemorates her forgiveness. She is the fairy queen, taking pity on Lee. (Read more.)