Scientific detective work has revealed a mysterious coiled serpent in the hands of Queen Elizabeth I, which was painted out by the artist shortly afterwards, in a portrait at the National Portrait Gallery
. It has also been revealed that this portrait of the queen, which has not been on display at the Gallery since 1921, was painted over an unfinished portrait of an unknown sitter. The revelations about this painting and three others of the Tudor queen will form a new display, "Concealed and Revealed: The Changing Faces of Elizabeth I", from 13 March at the National Portrait Gallery as part of the Making Art in Tudor Britain project led by Dr Tarnya Cooper.
The portrait of Elizabeth I with the serpent (NPG 200) was painted by an unknown artist in the 1580s or early 1590s. Degradation over time has revealed that Elizabeth I was originally painted holding the serpent, the outline of which is now visible on the surface. Paint analysis has shown that the snake was part of the original design, painted at the same time as the rest of the portrait, and Elizabeth's fingers were originally clasped around the snake (as seen in the artist's impression). At the final stage of painting a decision was made not to include this emblem, and the Queen was shown holding a small bunch of roses instead. A serpent was sometimes used to represent wisdom, prudence and reasoned judgment - all fitting attributes for a Queen - but in the Christian tradition serpents have also been used to represent Satan and original sin. The removal of the snake may therefore have been due to the ambiguity of the emblem. The snake is mainly black, but has greenish blue scales and was almost certainly painted from imagination.
It has also been revealed that the same portrait was painted over the unfinished portrait of an unknown woman. X-ray photography shows a female head facing in the opposite direction and in a higher position than the queen. The eyes and nose of the first face can be seen where paint has been lost from Elizabeth's forehead. The identity of this original sitter remains a mystery, but the unfinished portrait was very competently painted and appears to be by a different painter. This discovery confirms that sixteenth-century panels were sometimes re-used and recycled by artists. The unknown woman appears to have been wearing a French hood, fashionable in 1570-1580s, suggesting that there may have been a period of a few years before the panel was re-used for the portrait of Elizabeth I.
The four portraits in the display, Concealed and Revealed: The Changing Faces of Elizabeth I, are all from the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, and two have not been on display for decades. The portraits date from the 1560s until just after the queen's death and they have all changed in appearance in some way since they were created. Advanced scientific techniques have helped to unlock clues as to how they would have originally looked. Each has recently undergone in-depth technical analysis as part of the Gallery's Making Art in Tudor Britain research project. The display will examine why the changes took place and the evidence this tells us about portraits of Elizabeth I and artistic practices in this period.
"Concealed and Revealed: The Changing Faces of Elizabeth I" runs from 13 March - 26 September 2010 in Room 2 of the National Portrait Gallery.
Dr Tarnya Cooper says: 'The recent technical analysis on these remarkable portraits has been critical to our understanding of Tudor painting. The portrait of Elizabeth I with a hidden serpent is a really unusual survival. Yet, it is difficult to know exactly why the serpent may have been originally included, or how common this motif might have been. The queen certainly owned jewelry and costume including emblems of serpents, which were probably understood as a symbol of wisdom. However no other portrait of Elizabeth appears to depict her holding a snake. The current condition of the picture has meant it has not been on display for decades, and this display provides an exciting opportunity to present it to the public alongside other key portraits.'