Plant Symbolism in the ‘Rainbow’ Portrait and the Bacton Altar Cloth

Flowers in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras could mean lots of things, some of them quite complex. Many portraits from these periods depicted sitters holding or wearing fresh flowers and plants, and/or wearing clothing that was decorated with floral designs. Some scholars have looked at their meanings and interpretations, and the way that the imagery of flowers generally, and even of specific species of plant, can relate to the sitter. If we apply these ideas to the embroidered plants that decorate the bodice in the ‘Rainbow’ Portrait of Elizabeth I, a wealth of possible interpretations spring up. These ideas can be expanded on with the additional information we can gather about this style of embroidery by examining the Bacton Altar Cloth, an amazing surviving embroidery from the same time, which shows a design of flowers and plants very similar in layout and in composition to the embroidery of the bodice in the painting.

Right: a section of the Bacton Altar Cloth, made by an unknown maker c. 1590-1620. Owned by the Church of St Faith in Herefordshire, now at Hampton Court Palace. (Photo credit Historic Royal Palaces). Left: a close-up from the ‘Rainbow’ Portrait, attributed to Isaac Oliver or Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1600, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire.

Pansies, for example, also known as ‘heartsease’, or ‘love-in-idleness’, were well known in the 16th and 17th centuries, not just for their romantic connotations but for their curative properties. The name ‘heartsease’ itself suggests their use in easing pains of the heart; perhaps in this case representing the many broken hearts Elizabeth has left in her wake as the impenetrable eternal virgin. Shakespeare certainly made reference to this connection with his description of the plant in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was written and first performed around the same time that the ‘Rainbow’ Portrait is thought to have been painted (c. 1600):

‘…I saw…Cupid all armed: a certain aim he took,
At a fair vestal, throned by the west,’ [We may take the ‘fair vestal’ to be a cloaked reference to Elizabeth I]
‘And loos’d his love-shaft smartly from his bow
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts.
But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quench’d in the chaste beams of the watery moon;
And the imperial vot’ress passed on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.
Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound:
And maidens call it ‘love-in-idleness’.
Fetch me that flower; the herb I show’d thee once.
The juice of it, on sleeping eyelids laid,
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.’

In this speech it is suggested that Cupid’s arrow, aimed at the heart of the queen, which cannot be pierced, has passed her by and struck the pansy instead: which now by virtue of this mishap holds magical properties. It has been transformed, in fact, into a love drug. This is of course a poetic fantasy, but one which is rooted in scientific understanding of the time. According to John Gerard’s Herbal, a popular reference book of the era, violets (a close relative of the heartsease) could provide a good medicinal remedy that ‘comforteth the heart and other inward parts’. Heartsease itself is particularly recommended against fever, light-headedness, inflammations of the chest, and as a cure to ease the pains of syphilis: a particularly unpleasant and literal example of a ‘love’ related malady.

Shakespeare, through the mouth of Oberon, also goes on to mention more of the plants which decorate both Elizabeth’s gown in the ‘Rainbow’ Portrait and the Bacton Altar Cloth:

‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips [cowslips] and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, [honeysuckle]
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine’.

This describes the idyllic bower where Titania, Queen of the Fairies takes her repose. Shakespeare’s vivid portrayal of the fairy’s boudoir, decked in flowers and medicinal herbs, suggests a potential link between these kinds of plants and notions of etherealness, or otherworldly forces; or perhaps the potency and transformative properties of nature in general. It is tempting to attribute a similar connection to the flowers in the ‘Rainbow’ Portrait. The ‘queen of the fairies’, or ‘the fairy queen’ is another poetic alter-ego of Elizabeth’s: most famously expressed by Edmund Spenser in his work of the same name. It would make sense for Elizabeth, in her role as ethereal queen of the natural world, to be shown dressed in a potent, transformative, magical bounty of curative herbs and flowers. And she is: every species shown on the bodice in the ‘Rainbow’ Portrait has a recognised curative property featured in the various herbal texts of the period.

The Bacton Altar Cloth (photo credit: Historic Royal Palaces)

However, the precise meanings for each flower intended by the author of the portrait are hard to determine, given the wealth of possible connotations for each. Lilies, for example, as well as standing for ‘purity’, could also help to heal pustules on the ‘privy parts’, and ease delivery during childbirth. Roses, rather beautifully, were good for ‘strengthening the heart, and refreshing of the spirits, and likewise for all things that require a little cooling’. However, they could also ‘moove to the stoole’ and provide an effective laxative. Perhaps the key to understanding this, then, is not in attributing the correct bio-medical significance to each flower, but in simply recognising that they did have this significance. What is being presented here is a plethora of properties; but also, therefore, a plethora of knowledge. And knowledge, scientific knowledge, was something that a contemporary audience certainly would have placed great importance on. In her examination of the Bacton Altar Cloth in 2018, Eleri Lynn noted that ‘botanical motifs’ like those featured on this textile and also in the ‘Rainbow’ Portrait, ‘were considered fashionable not only for their beauty but also as symbols of learning and knowledge, and a greater understanding of the natural world’. This, then, might be the real significance of the great variety of plants and flowers decorating the queen’s bodice, and also the even wider variety we can see on the Bacton Altar Cloth.

A close-up of the bodice in the ‘Rainbow’ Portrait, showing an embroidered ‘heartsease’ or wild pansy; and an illustration from John Gerard, The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes (London: Adam Islip, Joice Norton and Richard Whitakers, 1636), p. 851, which clearly shows the wilting heads and flower buds of this yellow violet.

Darlena Ciraulo, in 2014, discussed the complicated relationship between the flower imagery in literature and art during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the developments in botanical knowledge and scientific illustration that occurred during this period. Particularly interesting to this discussion, she noted the increase of ‘the practise of illustrating the life cycle of flowers’, with ‘newfound enthusiasm’ during the mid- to late-sixteenth century, accompanying a ‘movement towards illustrative realism in botanical illustration’. This movement expressed itself in the desire to produce ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’ illustrations of plants; which documented every part of them. The naturalist Leonhart Fuchs, for example, wrote of his desire to make each illustrated plant ‘“as complete as possible” by including its roots, stems, leaves, flowers, seeds and fruits’. He maintained that a ‘complete’ diagram was the best method of representation. However, this meant that what was often created was a rather fantastical representation of the living plant as if seen at all stages of its reproductive cycle all at the same time. Some even included examples of different colour or species iterations branching from the same stem. Thus, many illustrations found in botanical texts of the sixteenth century, just like many of the embroidered plants we may observe on the bodice in the ‘Rainbow’ Portrait and on the Bacton Altar Cloth, are shown not just with a blooming flower, but also a flower bud, leaves and leaf buds, and a wilting flower or flower going to seed, and/or fruit. This importantly showed not just the beauty of the flowering plant, but also its functional purpose, and all the scientific data about the life cycle that may be offered by such an inclusive depiction. This also offers us a potential reason for this depiction of the floral life cycle in the ‘Rainbow’ Portrait. In Ciraulo’s examination of flower imagery and references to health in Romeo and Juliet she discussed Shakespeare’s many analogies of the female body with the various moments of the flower’s life cycle. This will make perfect sense to a modern reader as well as a Shakespearean one, as many such analogies still exist today. The ‘budding’ maiden, for example, or the ‘blossoming’ young woman, the ‘deflowered’ virgin and the ‘withered’ crone who has ‘lost her bloom’. It is possible that something like this is happening in the ‘Rainbow’ Portrait: a celebration of the eternal rhythms of life perhaps, or of Elizabeth’s own timeless beauty in juxtaposition with the living and dying blooms on her apparel.

Another way to interpret the floral imagery in the Rainbow Portrait is to look at emblems. Images from emblem books of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries frequently show human figures, as anthropomorphised embodiments of the various concepts and qualities being visualised. This is particularly true of the Iconologia, Cesare Ripa’s popular ‘Guide to Emblems’: a source in which many of the other emblematic themes in the portrait can be found. Elizabeth wears a serpent on her left sleeve, just as the figure of ‘Intelligenza’ does in Ripa’s description, which would seem to indicate ideas or themes of ‘intelligence’ in the ‘Rainbow’ Portrait. (Please see Figure [5]). This has been noted by many other scholars in the past. What has not been mentioned so frequently, however, is the fact that, wearing the serpent in the same manner, in the same place, and even in the same proportions shown in the woodcut illustration which featured in the 1603 edition of this book, it appears that Elizabeth is represented here not merely as having intelligence – many other paintings have done that – but as actually being ‘Intelligence’: i.e., embodying the emblematic figure of ‘Intelligenza’. This distinction may seem slight, but if we allow Elizabeth to be not merely connected to such a figure, but to step into the frame herself and actually become her, then this opens up a new wardrobe of goddess guises for her to try on. Perhaps, with her serpent sleeve, she becomes ‘Intelligenza’, spirit of wisdom; or perhaps, dressed in her cloak covered with eyes and ears, she is ‘Ragione di Stato’, the spirit of the art of government. And perhaps, with her young, plump-cheeked face, her cheeky smile, the loose flowing locks of the maiden, and her white gown covered in flowers and leaves, she could become, not Astraea, but instead the figure described here:

‘Giovanetta…sara vestita bianco, e desto vestimento dipinto
di verdi fronde, e fiori rossi e gialli.’
or:
‘A young woman…dressed in white, her gown painted
with green fronds, and red and yellow flowers.’

This is ‘Allegrezza’: the spirit or personification of laughter, joyfulness, or glee; and in this description flowers feature again and again. ‘Allegrezza’ is dressed in flowers, crowned in flowers, and to be found in meadows filled with them. In fact, as Ripa explains: ‘The flowers themselves mean Allegrezza [joyfulness/glee], and it is said, that meadows laugh, when they are covered with flowers’.

This image shows three figures from illustrations in Ripa’s Iconologia: Allegrezza, Intelligenza and Regione de Stato. They can each be connected with an element of symbolism in the Rainbow Portrait.

The individual plant species that feature in the Rainbow Portrait and the Bacton Altar cloth champion each of their medicinal virtues. The sheer quantity and variety of plants shown also reference the achievements of the proto-botanists who compiled the popular herbals and plant catalogues of the period. The flowers may also point, like the flowers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to Elizabeth’s own ethereal qualities. And they suggest her representation in the guise of ‘Allegrezza’, the bold and joyful goddess of mirth. Combined, all these themes show that the symbolism of the flowers and plants in the ‘Rainbow’ Portrait and the Bacton Altar Cloth can present many layers. They may show knowledge, health, and pleasure, and even power – the power of mankind over the natural world, and of a sovereign over the wealth and bounty produced under her reign.

By Natalie Bramwell-Booth

Content for this article was taken from Speaking Stitches, Laughing Flowers: An Emblematic Reinterpretation of the Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I, an MA by Research dissertation by Natalie Bramwell-Booth. If you would like to read the whole dissertation you can download a PDF by clicking the link below:

Click Here to View and Download Dissertation

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