Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Britain's Scattered Heritage": Armada Portrait


"Scattered heritage": George Gower, Portrait of Elizabeth I ("The Armada Portrait") Queen Elizabeth's forty year long reign was an iconic age for later generations, Britain was for a while an important European power and to some extent on the seas too, a period when the country's lost sense of national pride was restored and developed. Elizabeth was perhaps one of the earliest of the modern monarchs to understand the importance of public relations, and she used her portraitists as a form of propaganda to present her best self-image to her adoring public. In these works her image was carefully managed best show her in her position of power: as an icon of beauty, strength, and goodness. This image, in which realism played no part, utilised symbols and emblems recycled from biblical, classical, and mythological sources. The “Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I” painted by George Gower in 1590, is one of the chief examples of this and is an important piece of the cultural patrimony of the nation.

The work glorifies the aging Queen depicting her use of fine clothes, jewels, and cosmetics to maintain her glamorous image. The painting contains much symbolism, particularly the use of pearls and the globe. Pearls are said to have been Queen Elizabeth's favorite jewel. They were also a symbol of virginity and are used here to show her purity. In the picture Elizabeth's hand rests upon the globe and point towards the Americas, suggesting to the viewer that the British monarch's power extends far beyond the boundaries of her small island kingdom, a foretelling of the dream of a future British Empire.

In the background can be seen two scenes which to some extent depict God's acquiescence to these dreams. Through the window on the left can be seen the arrival of the Spanish Armada. in 1588. Spain's King Philip II had attempted to invade England to make the country a Catholic province of Spain. Philip's fleet of 132 ships was defeated in a sea battle with the English fleet of 34 ships and 163 armed merchant vessels. Faced with English fire-ships, the Spaniards broke formation and fled, and the escaping ships were ultimately destroyed by a storm. This is shown through the window on the right.

Gower’s painting hung for many years in the art gallery at Woburn Abbey near London, until the successful Napoleonic invasion in 1805. It was then removed together with many other artworks taken from the large houses of the landowning elite that were sacked by the invaders and used for billetting the troops. The painting now hangs in the Louvre. Heritage groups in Britain have long insisted that the object return, citing the illegality of the Napoleonic invasion as justification. The Louvre however has insisted that "La Reine Vierge" stays in France.

More on the painting here. Photo from here.

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