Armada Portrait

Armada Portrait

The Armada Portrait (1588) is one of the most famous depictions of Queen Elizabeth I, formerly attributed to court painter George Gower whose authorship is today considered unknown.

Armada Portrait Analysis

This painting is exceptional in that, although it is manifestly a portrait, its defining trait is two pictures in its background. It is called the “Armada Portrait” because the two pictures show the greatest military triumph of Queen Elizabeth’s reign: the defeat of the Spanish Armada in the English Channel.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada

The British triumph occurred in the summer of 1588, when a Spanish navy, the so-called Armada, attempted to facilitate an invasion of Great Britain from the Spanish Netherlands. With some help from a seastorm, the British fleet accomplished a decisive victory in the Channel which incapacitated the Armada from covering a massive invasion of Britain (50,000 men), as planned.

The remnants of the Spanish navy could only circumnavigate the Isles and lose additional vessels to storms before retreating.

A symbol of Royal legitimacy

Because the victory against the Armada represented a final rebuff to Catholic claims against the legitimacy of Elizabeth and in favor of Mary Stuart of Scotland; because it was partly due to:

  • A seemingly divine intervention among the forces of nature in favor of Elizabeth’s navy
  • It mobilized the British, most especially English, people to a great collective effort of preparation and national defense
  • It involved the Queen herself appearing under arms and on horseback before her army with a vow that she would fight and die if needs be

The victory against the Spanish Armada quickly became a symbol of Elizabeth’s reign and an element of British and English national pride.

It matters little that a similar British expedition against Spain a year later similarly failed at endangering the Spanish capital. The triumph of 1588 became extensively commemorated in Great Britain, the tempest that engulfed the enemy navy even becoming known as the “Protestant Wind”. Its importance for Queen Elizabeth is majestically on show in the Armada Portrait.

The background Paintings in the Armada Portrait

On a scarlet wall and strangely enwrapped in velvety jade-green curtains, two paintings can be seen. The picture on our left shows the English vessels facing the incoming Armada. The trails of smoke over some of the ships in the distance tell us that English fireships have been dispatched to hit the Spanish vanguard. The sand-colored sea, we notice, is disturbed, and the sails are blown up: premonitions of the storm in a day that is still serene.

In the right-hand picture, it is night, instead, and the storm has come. Fierce-looking waves are lapping all around the rolling Spanish galleons. The Armada is in the throes of its near-total demolition under the blows of nature.

Queen Elizabeth I

The merry queen sits with her back to this victory of British arms, ceremonially attired in a billowing dress, a display of pearls across her chest and arms and her imposing coiffure, and turning her bust and head slightly to our left.

A crown lies to the left behind her, the table beneath it helping us, just like the other piece of furniture to the right, to establish the four levels of distance in this painting. The crown is notably simple and cannot have been a representation of Elizabeth’s royal crown. It is perhaps intended to betoken modesty.

Queen Elizabeth’s left hand is symbolically placed over a globe — the entire painting is an allegory, we realize — precisely over North America, firm colonial possession at the time. The other hand, hanging limply at the level of the knee, is holding a minuscule scepter in-between index and thumb. A small metallic statue of a mermaid intrudes in the bottom right, implying another surface on that side of the room.

The allegory of the Armada Portrait

The Queen is thereby represented in the Armada Portrait as the empress of the seas, she whose power, embodied by the Royal Navy, cannot be truly questioned by any peer. The Armada Portrait shows her in the guise of a queen triumphant, her equable visage a testament to the confidence of her royal authority.

The serenity of her rulership is likely intended to be shown by the opposition of light on the left (the Queen’s right) to the relative darkness on the right (the Queen’s left). The way Elizabeth looks, it may be implied, is radiant; behind her is only the doom of her fallen enemies.

This opposition between the two halves of the painting, substantiated mainly by the contrast in tones between the two background pictures, may also be observed in Elizabeth’s hands: the one on the right is visibly livid by contrast with the one on the left.

This symbolic opposition is taken up and enhanced in the more strenuously celebratory Ditchley Portrait of c. 1592. In that case, the Queen stands over the flattened surface of a globe (bearing down on Germany rather than America), two fans in her hands allusive of winds.

The peculiar mermaid figurine on the bottom right, besides being a powerful female figure who is supposed to hold sway over the oceans, maybe a sexual allusion as well. In the myth, the mermaid has the power of bewitching sailors and leading them to perdition.

She is therefore a symbol of rampant female sexuality and guile. Queen Elizabeth, by contrast, had made a cult of her own chastity and virginity, a symbol of which is the pearl, one of which is to be admired over her forehead while one dangles from her bodice.

Indeed, one might fancy that the astounding system of pearls along her vestment shuts her figure inside that amazingly geometric blouse and gown which gives structure because it runs along their edges and across.

Attribution of the Armada Portrait

The Armada Portrait was once thought to be the work of George Gower (d. 1596), Elizabeth’s court painter in the faculty of Serjeant Painter since 1581.

More recent studies, however, have ascertained that authorship cannot be safely attributed to any one artist. What is clear, instead, is that the painting was well regarded given that several remakes were made by unknown artists, three of which survive to this day.

Location of the Armada Portrait

The authoritative version of 1588 is today in the rich collection at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, England. A variant supposed to have been commissioned by Sir Francis Drake was purchased in 2016 by the British Royal Family and made a national property.

The other two versions are held in the National Portrait Gallery in London, as well as in the Queen’s House at the Royal Museums Greenwich in London.

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