The image of power? Queen Elizabeth I and the 'Mask of Youth'

Queen Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard

The ‘Mask of Youth’ is a term given to the portraits and miniatures of Queen Elizabeth I which adopted a standardised image of ageless beauty. Such representations of the queen were made following state proclamations which prohibited any images of Elizabeth to be distributed which gave ‘great offence’.

Strength and stability

This type of imagery arose from a government decision in 1594 to use an idealised portrait format. A possible reason for its adoption was that it was felt that any lifelike depiction of the ageing queen would reinforce instability within the realm, due to the uncertainty over the succession. The ‘Mask of Youth’ therefore offered a mechanism for Elizabeth’s government to control her image for propagandistic reasons, maintaining a strong profile of the unmarried and childless queen as still a forceful protector of the land.  

Political tokens

The miniature depicted above was possibly commissioned by Sir Thomas Vavasour, one of Elizabeth’s gentlemen of the court. It is believed to have been produced by Nicholas Hilliard in the 1590s, and is one of the finest and largest miniatures of Queen Elizabeth I to employ the 'Mask of Youth'.

It was common practice for courtiers to commission these miniatures, as Elizabeth often expected her courtiers and nobles to promote her image. It became fashionable to wear them as symbols of the wearer’s devotion and loyalty to the monarch, and they were then often made into pendants and cameos.

More than a portrait

Instead of this miniature being purely a visual depiction of Elizabeth, the primary focus is the promotion of the glory and majesty of kingship, exemplified by the magnificence of her gown and jewels.  Her dress incorporates other imagery, with the V-shape of the waist possibly representing virginity and chastity.

Within Elizabeth’s headdress there is a jewel shaped like a crescent moon which has been seen by some to represent Cynthia, the moon goddess. Its inclusion here may represent Elizabeth’s beauty to be like the waxing and waning of the moon.

The cult of Elizabeth?

Some have argued that these miniatures represent a replacement of the cult of the Virgin Mary, however this is problematic as such movement would have been open to accusations of idolatry, or the worship of idols.

An alternative reading is that these images were a general promotion of the divinity of the monarchy. With a focus on classical imagery associated with Cynthia or representations of virginity, it has been argued that this promotion was of secular rather than religious nature.

Personal promotion

There is also debate around how much these miniatures were linked to the personal advancement of the buyer. On one hand, they could be seen to promote the buyer’s wealth and social standing. On the other, they may have been symbols of a form of courtly, chivalric love which centred upon promoting the virtues of loyalty and duty to the public good, a sentiment embodied by the queen herself. On balance, there is an argument to be made for it being a mixture of the two.

Queen Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard

Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) by Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1619) 

Read more about Nicholas Hilliard's miniature of Elizabeth I...

South view of Ham House in the Spring

Ham House 

You can see Nicholas Hilliard’s miniature of Elizabeth I at Ham House near Richmond, where it is kept in the ‘Green Closet’. This room is the only example in Britain of a picture closet complete with its original collection of 87 highly-prized miniatures.

Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603), British School 1592/1598 - 1599

Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603), British School, late sixteenth century 

Hilliard’s miniature was the inspiration for later paintings of Elizabeth, including this spectacular full-length portrait at Hardwick Hall, in which the queen wears a dress decorated with land and sea creatures. The painting appears to have been acquired by Elizabeth Talbot (‘Bess of Hardwick’), Countess of Shrewsbury (c. 1527 – 1608) and was almost certainly on display at Hardwick Hall in the queen’s lifetime.

Hon Frederick Villiers aged 9 by Anthony Stewart, watercolour on ivory, 1824