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College Row

Painted portrait of Queen Elizabeth the First
The Sieve Portrait of Elizabeth I.
See larger image.

From the Folger

Without question the Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I is the most glorious painting in the Folger art collection. Its visual splendor, iconographic significance and powerful capturing of a charismatic subject guarantee it center stage in our upcoming spring exhibit, which commemorates the 400th anniversary of Elizabeth’s reign (1558-1603). One reason for emphasizing the Sieve Portrait in this space (see also page 36) is that the portrait has an Amherst connection, bequeathed to us by Francis T. P. Plimpton ’50 and received at the library in 1997. The Folger conservators sent out the portrait for professional cleaning so that years of varnish could be stripped away and the portrait’s details revealed in their full splendor. In addition, they commissioned a new, period-appropriate frame.

Painted in 1579 when Elizabeth was 46, the three-quarters-length portrait depicts the queen in what seems to me a somber or reflective mood. Her skin is pale (as usual in her portraits), her face showing little emotion, with her head turned to the viewer’s right. The painting’s visual splendor comes from the vivid play of red, white and black—the red of Elizabeth’s hair, picked up in the rich red velvet of her lavishly bejeweled gown, playing against the delicate tracery of the veil that falls from her jeweled headdress and against the flat black background in which a shadowy globe is visible. The painting’s informal title comes from the golden sieve the queen holds—somewhat awkwardly—against the folds of her skirt.

The painting has long been a personal favorite of mine because I found in the sieve an illustrative argument about the iconography of female bodies that I described in my 1993 book, The Body Embarrassed. There I argued that the sieve—known to allude to the myth of the Roman vestal virgin Tuccia, who miraculously carried water in a sieve from the Tiber to the Temple of Vesta—is a paradoxical symbol of Elizabeth’s virginity. Full of holes, the sieve refers unmistakably to the symbolically leaky, hence unreliable nature of ordinary women’s bodies even as it asserts, through its link to Tuccia, the queen’s transcendence as virgin monarch of ordinary women. For Elizabeth in her capacity as ruler, the sieve is an emblem not of leakiness but of discernment, of the good judgment requisite in rulers.

The Sieve Portrait is a fitting centerpiece for the Folger’s Great Hall exhibition. Entitled “Elizabeth I: Then and Now,” the exhibit opened to the public on March 21 and will run through August 2. Because of the Folger’s rich holdings in Elizabeth materials (the richest in North America), we are able to present a vivid documentary overview of this remarkable woman’s accomplishments and career. The exhibit features several letters in the queen’s own hand, including one in French to Henri IV and another to her cousin (and successor) King James of Scotland. There is a letter to her from Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, one of her two great favorites, and a contemporary account of the trial of her other favorite, the ill-fated Robert Devereux, earl of Essex. Because she called Dudley “her eyes,” he affectionately inserts tiny eyebrows over words with double “o’s” into his letters and tiny eyes before his signature.

Other materials are less private, though no less fascinating, and reveal Elizabethan culture’s almost obsessive fascination with its monarch—and the fascination she has attracted ever since. The Folger owns Queen Elizabeth’s own pulpit Bible, her royal seals and a number of royal proclamations. Books in our collection include engravings in which the queen is depicted hunting, picnicking with her court, or on royal progress through the countryside. But because we are interested in tracking her symbolic afterlife as well, the exhibition will close with contemporary images and artifacts about Queen Elizabeth, including a Queen Elizabeth Barbie doll, complete with ruff and bright red hair, still ensconced in her original box. The exhibition will be open to view during the height of Washington’s tourist season, and we hope that members of the Amherst community will find an opportunity to see for themselves. The Sieve Portrait and other images from the exhibition can be viewed on the Folger Website.

—Gail Kern Paster

Read a review of Infinite Variety: Exploring the Folger Shakespeare Library | Next: Verbatim >>

 
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