Introduction: Gloriana




Writers have portrayed the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth I for centuries – in books, plays and films – and the fascination remains today. Easily one of our most popular monarchs, in 2002 she was among the list of ‘10 Greatest Britons’ in a BBC poll. She is admired as a successful leader and a woman ahead of her time who is an integral part of England’s national story. But her early life was full of uncertainties and she was an unlikely candidate to be the greatest offspring of Henry VIII. This daughter, by Anne Boleyn, was the wrong sex in a world governed by men and she was often considered illegitimate because her parents’ marriage was annulled. The odds were stacked against her, but Elizabeth would survive the vicissitudes of her siblings’ reigns, numerous Catholic plots to kill her, the formidable Spanish Armada and the most obvious obstacle of all: her gender.

On becoming Queen, Elizabeth needed a very strong image to unite her country and consolidate her power. Art was a powerful device for displaying royal magnificence and for propaganda but a mere likeness would never be sufficient. Elizabeth’s portraits increasingly relied on glittering jewels, gowns and accessories for the projection of majesty. Along with her formidable grasp of public relations, her persona was a vital ingredient of her rule. The ‘Cult of Gloriana’ developed towards the end of her reign, a movement in which authors, musicians and artists – such as Spenser, Shakespeare, Tallis, Byrd and Hilliard – revered her as a virgin goddess, unlike other women. It was an idea sustained by public spectacle, chivalry, sonnets and oration which paid homage to Elizabeth as a deity. The Queen’s image was widely owned and distributed for the masses, thanks to the expansion of printing and, for the wealthy, through the medium of the painted portrait.

Elizabeth’s England was a small kingdom on the fringes of Europe which grew in self-confidence, in no small part because of the Queen herself. Her long reign provided domestic peace and stability, allowing the arts to flourish so that the Elizabethan era would prove to be a ‘Golden Age’. The eighteenth-century antiquarian Horace Walpole said in his Anecdotes of Painting in England that there ‘was no evidence that she had much taste for painting, but she loved pictures of herself’. Successive periods in history have invested her reign with significance and a large part of this legacy is her captivating image.


Hans Eworth, 1569, oil on panel, Royal Collection Trust

The allegory referred to in this painting is the Judgement of Paris, a theme derived from Greek mythology which also became popular in Roman art. Three of the most beautiful goddesses, Venus, Juno and Minerva, compete for the prize of a golden apple, dedicated ‘to the fairest’. Jupiter, King of the Gods, was intended to judge the competition, but instead he nominated Paris, Prince of Troy, to carry out the task. Paris chose Venus as the winner on the strength of her promise to help him win the hand of the most beautiful woman alive, Helen, the wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta. (It was Paris’s seduction of Helen and his refusal to return her that led to the Trojan Wars.)

The panel can be visually divided into two sections. To the left-hand side, Elizabeth is emerging as though onto a stage. She enters the scene through a classical archway leading from a substantial brick building. Inside the open door of the structure can be glimpsed a gold coffered ceiling, a frieze containing the Tudor coat of arms and a canopy displaying her own arms. She is wearing a crown and carrying an orb and sceptre, the most powerful attributes of monarchy. Her ladies-in-waiting are deep in conversation and are perhaps unable to see the vision before them. They are superfluous to the allegory, but they serve to ground the Queen in reality. Elizabeth would not have travelled anywhere without her accompanying ladies.

The right side of the picture is allegorical, with the three goddesses presenting a riot of movement and vivid colour. They are set into a pastoral landscape that includes a depiction of Windsor Castle and Venus’s chariot drawn by swans.

As the painting was commissioned either by Elizabeth or as a gift to her, the Queen would have been expected to take centre place in the composition. However, she has been supplanted by Juno, the goddess of marriage and fertility. Juno, Queen of the Gods, is gesturing for Elizabeth to follow. The position of her arm is echoed by the curved neck of the crowned peacock, her sacred bird. But Elizabeth will not be enticed by Juno’s association with matrimony and family life.

In the middle of the three allegorical figures is Minerva, the goddess of battle strategy and wisdom, whose powers include bestowing heroes with courage. She wears a helmet and a breastplate embellished with the head of a gorgon, and she carries a standard. The gorgon, with its hair of venomous snakes, was given to Minerva by Perseus as protection. Anyone looking at a gorgon was turned immediately to stone. In common with Elizabeth, Minerva, the warrior maiden, was believed to remain perpetually a virgin.

On the far right is Venus, the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and passion. Her discarded smock belongs to the age of Elizabeth rather than a world of myth. Its distinctive and colourful embroidery is typical of Tudor design of this time. The broken arrows on the ground, the bow and the discarded quiver refer to Venus’s son Cupid, who tried in vain to shoot Elizabeth with his darts of love. The implication is that despite her beauty, Elizabeth is impervious to matters of the heart.

The goddesses reflect the choices Elizabeth has made to rule wisely. Juno represents Elizabeth’s rejection of marriage and children, Minerva emphasises her skill, wisdom and courage in battle and Venus alludes to the Queen’s beauty and the life of pleasure that she has rejected, enabling her to govern her nation wisely. And yet, it is Elizabeth who retains the prize – not a golden apple but a golden orb, a powerful symbol of monarchy that represents the Queen’s triumph over all three of these classical goddesses.


Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses is intended to reflect the Queen’s rejection of marriage and children, her courage in battle, her wisdom and her beauty.

The first record of this picture is in 1600, in a diary written by Baron Waldstein, a German nobleman, who had seen it at Whitehall Palace. It was sold for £2 in the Commonwealth sale in 1652 to ‘Hunt and Bass’, of whom little else is known, but it returned to the Royal Collection during the reign of James II. On the frame is written: ‘Pallas [another name for Minerva] was keen of brain, Juno was queen of might, / The rosy face of Venus was in beauty shining bright, / Elizabeth then came, And, overwhelmed, Queen Juno took flight: / Pallas was silenced: Venus blushed for shame.’

The identity of the artist has been disputed. The initials ‘HE’, painted on a rock in the lower right corner, are suggestive of the artist Hans Eworth, although art historian Roy Strong considers the initials were originally ‘HF’ (Hoefnagel fecit) referring to the Flemish painter Joris Hoefnagel, noted for his topographical views and his mythological subjects. The landscape and the painting of Windsor Castle bear similarities to the Hoefnagel picture The Marriage Feast at Bermondsey. At present, the Royal Collection has attributed the painting to Hans Eworth, the artist from Antwerp who is associated with complex allegorical works and with the design of sets and costumes for Elizabeth’s court entertainments.

There are two points of interest unrelated to the meaning of the picture – it is believed to present the earliest pictorial representation of Windsor Castle and it is the only known portrait of Elizabeth wearing gloves. It is the first known allegorical portrait of Elizabeth and, to appreciate the image, viewers needed to interpret the classical messages contained in the painting. Elizabeth is depicted moving forwards from a dark interior into the light of the ‘new learning’ and the Renaissance.



If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!