Elizabeth I's Sieve Portrait - allegory and meaning

1st May 2018

During her 44-year reign as Queen of England, Elizabeth Tudor (1533-1603) had numerous portraits painted of herself. Some of these have withstood the ravages of time better than others. But one of the best preserved and possibly one of the few that come anywhere close to showing a natural likenesses would be this one. The Sieve Portrait by Quentin Metsys the Younger.
Tudor Queen Elizabeth in black gown holding a sieve, full length portrait
The Sieve Portrait by Quentin Metsys, 1583. Click to enlarge.
It's one of my favourites. And I would like to share with you why I feel it’s not only a great painting but also a splendid historical document in its own right.

It is a journey that will take us from the temple of the vestal virgins in ancient Rome, to the royal court of Elizabethan England; from the Renaissance poetry of Petrach to the art of a great Flemish master.

The Sieve Portrait

Whereas many portraits – especially during the latter years of Elizabeth’s reign - were produced to an official formula, presenting a mask- like and unchanging visage of the Virgin Queen, this one possesses a very obvious human appeal.
close up of Elizabeth I head and shoulders portrait in half profile, with ruff
Close-up of Elizabeth I.
Although painted in 1583, it became lost at some stage. And then forgotten. It was only re-discovered late in the 19th century. The canvas was found rolled up in the attic of the Palazza Reale in Siena. This could explain why it is so well preserved. It remains in Siena to this day, housed in the Pinacoteca Nazionale.

It is not the sole surviving ‘sieve portrait’ of Elizabeth as Queen, though. She had several painted on the theme. Here, for instance, is a relatively stiff and dour rendering, painted a few years earlier, by George Gower.
Elizabeth I portrait, with sieve, in scarlet and cream gown, with ruff
An earlier effort - the Sieve Portrait - by George Gower.

The Artist Quentin Metsys

The best Sieve portrait, however, has to be by Quentin Metsys (also spelled as Matsys, or Messys). The subject of this article. A celebrated Flemish Renaissance painter, Metsys was born in Antwerp and lived from around 1543 to 1589). It is known that Elizabeth was a great admirer of his work. As early as 1577, she endeavoured, unsuccessfully, to purchase his 'Burial of Christ' triptych from the Carpenters' Guild in Antwerp. Metsys lived and worked in England during the 1580’s. And the Sieve Portrait dates from this time.

The picture itself might well have been a gift to the Queen from her courtier Sir Christopher Hatton (1540-91 ). Hatton may even have met the artist during a trip to Antwerp some years earlier.
old engraving, black and white of the painter Quentin Metsys, in profile, long hair
Representation of the artist Quentin Metsys - an engraving by Jean-Baptiste-Deschamps.
So once Metsys had come to England, in part perhaps to escape religious persecution in the Netherlands (then at war with Spain), Elizabeth would have been delighted to have sat for such a skilled and talented artist. The painting was always going to be something just a bit special. Moreover, it is not simply a representation of England’s Queen at the time. It is also a clever piece of propaganda, meant to portray a powerful message to the viewer. In this instance this is achieved by referring to a certain Renaissance poem ‘The Triumph of Chastity’ written by the Italian Humanist philosopher Francesco Petrarch. (1304–1374).

Petrarch's Tuccia

Petrarch's poem recounts the legend of Tuccia, one of the vestal virgins of ancient Rome. These were young women, votaries of the goddess Vesta who presided over the hearth, the home and family. They served in the temple of Vesta. And they were not expected to be tied to the usual social obligations of marriage and childbearing. Instead, they undertook a vow of chastity in order to devote themselves to education and the observance of state ritual. Among their duties, for example, was the task of maintaining the sacred flame of the temple hearth.

Falsely accused one day of not being entirely as virtuous as her job description demanded, Tuccia bravely demonstrated her innocence by carrying water in a sieve from the river Tiber to the temple. This feat, once accomplished, was rightly perceived as a miracle. Thus vindicated, her virtue proved, the story ends happily for Tuccia.
photo of ancient statue of Roman Vestal
From the statue in Roman statue showing the chief vestal - Virgo Vestalis Maxima.

The Tudor Tuccia

So, fast-forward to the 16th century, and we see the Queen of England, walking calmly, almost trance-like, carrying a sieve in her left hand. And there is also the suggestion of water therein. But why would Elizabeth have chosen, or agreed to such a comparison with Petrarch's heroine in the first place? And what else is going on in this painting?

Elizabethan PR

Much of the stability and integrity of Elizabeth Tudor’s reign in 16th century England was based on allegorical associations – metaphors of virginity and chastity. These included allusions to the huntress Diana, to manifestations of Selene, goddess of the moon. Strong female figures of chastity and independence. These, in turn, supported further layers of iconography, such as, for example, the use of pearls - the stones most closely associated with the sea and with those deities who presided over it. The sieve portrait is no exception.
close up of painted pearl brooch and string of pearls
Pearls galore, a double strand and brooch is often included in the dress of Elizabeth.
Renaissance poetry was popular in the Elizabethan court. Elizabeth herself would have read it directly in both Latin and Italian, languages in which she was fluent. So it is little wonder that the triumph of Tuccia would also be made use of in this sense. Iconography of this kind was constantly crafted and distributed for public consumption. This was not only among the educated classes, but with the populace as a whole - percolating down through various levels of sophistication. Politically advantageous on all levels.

The phenomenon of England’s Virgin Queen as head of the Church of England through moral strength and integrity was a universally understood principle, therefore. And, during the early years of the Protestant Reformation, it also served as a serviceable replacement for the Catholic Virgin of former times.

The Globe

The symbolism doesn’t stop there, however. Like many portrayals of Elizabeth I at this time, this one also took the opportunity to reinforce the legitimacy of the nation’s governance overseas. It wanted to convey the notion, just taking wing at the time, of Empire.

The Queen’s advisor and confidant, the polymath John Dee was the first to conceive of the term 'British Empire.' He wrote about it just a few years before our portrait was painted in his General & Rare Memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation, published in 1577. A very persuasive idea for adventurers such as Drake and Raleigh. And for those who backed them financially.
engraving of Tudor man in scholar's cap, white beard
Elizabethan geographer, mathematician and astronomer, John Dee.
small image showing head and shoulders of young Tudor princess with text
Behind Elizabeth’s left shoulder can be seen a large globe, therefore (a rare and highly prized item of furniture in those day, by the way). It also has ships sailing westward across the Atlantic. A statement of England’s growing power as an imperial nation, engaged in trade and exploration by sea. England was going places, and expanding vastly beyond its own narrow shores. It was a time of enormous optimism and self-confidence.
close up of a 16th century globe, with ocean and ships
A beautifully crafted terrestrial globe with ships heading West.

Spanish rivalry

The nation's great rival at the time, especially in terms of the colonization of the Americas, was Spain. This was a proud nation with similar imperial ambitions. It was also one with whom England was engaged in almost perpetually conflict. This state of affairs, rooted in religious division as much as commercial rivalry, would culminate in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Just 5 years after this painting was completed. The presence of the globe is already a kind of 'shot across the bows,' therefore. A statement of intent and defiance.
banner of text against purple background

The Decorative Pillar

Behind Elizabeth’s right shoulder can be seen a pillar. Highly decorated, it shows scenes from another mythological story. This is the tale of Dido and Aeneas - from Virgil’s epic, the Aeneid.
close up from painting shows a decorative pillar with oval scenes from mythology
The decorative pillar close-up.
Elizabeth would have been perfectly happy for the spectator, to compare her to Aeneas. Although male, he was an individual who also famously overcame temptation in love. In his case this was the queen of Carthage, Dido. Aeneas resisted her charms. On orders from on high (the god Jupiter), he abandoned poor Dido (who took her own life as a consequence) and went on to command the destiny of a powerful nation. Aeneas sacrificed love, in other words, for the good of the people. And as early as the first full year of her reign - 1559 - Elizabeth had made it abundantly clear in her first speech to Parliament that - much to their horror - she was prepared to do the same.

'... in the end this shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a Queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin.'

Marriage proposals

At the time of this wonderful painting Elizabeth had just emerged unscathed and unwed (which to her might well have meant much the same thing) from the latest bout in a lengthy courtship. This was the marriage proposal from Francis, Duke of Alençon (see ‘Elizabeth – the Virgin Queen and the Men who Loved Her’).
portrait head and shoulders of French nobleman in ruff and plumed bonnet
Francis, Duke of Alençon.
Being a Frenchman, Alençon was regarded with mixed feelings among Elizabeth’s Privy Counsellors. Some were in favour. Others not so keen. Among the detractors, moreover, was the possible patron of this very painting, Sir Christopher Hatton. Would Hatton have left a clue to any of this in the work itself? Very likely yes.
portrait of Elizabethan courtier with tunic and ruff, Christopher Hatton
Sir Christopher Hatton.

The Gathering

In this context, one of the most entertaining features of the composition is the small gathering of gentlemen in the upper right. These are distinguished by their clothing and halberds (combined spear and battleaxe) as being of the Queen’s Guard. Hatton, a favourite courtier at the time (and perhaps a little more than that – who knows?) was captain of the Yeomen of the Guard. He was also Vice-Chamberlain. Thus, he was responsible with both the Queen’s safety and personal welfare at all times.
detail from painting shows group of Elizabethan courtiers gathered in conversation
I like that little group of men. It shows us a glimpse into the pomp, and perhaps not a little of the pomposity also, of the daily court landscape. You can almost hear the voices, terribly urbane and perhaps rather overbearing and loud, as well. Peacocks of men, vying for attention constantly within a universe ruled by a single woman. All doublets and legs to the fore (Elizabeth was very fond of legs) and wearing those impossible tights!

But where is Hatton? Well, if we look very, very closely, we might just be able to distinguish his emblem of the white hind on the livery of what seems to be a young page nearby. The page is accompanying a man who might well be Sir Christopher himself. He, alone, appears to be looking in the direction of the Queen as she walks away.
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The Sieve – a practical instrument

But naturally, for all the intricacy and sophistication of the symbolism, it is the unlikely object of the sieve itself that we always return to when we look at this work. The various inscriptions scattered about the painting, moreover, add further layers of significance to its presence. And its mystery. A humble sieve is not something a Queen would be familiar with on a day-to-day basis. It is a practical piece of equipment used by gardeners and bakers to separate the finer elements of a substance from the coarse. Of soil or flour, for example. Separating that which is desirable and useful from that which is merely waste.
detail of painting showing an old sieve
Close-up of the sieve itself.

Inscriptions in the Sieve Portrait

Thus, around the rim of the sieve, we can read the inscription:

Translated, this means ‘The good falls to the ground while the bad remains in the saddle.’ So it is not just flour or soil we are considering here. It is a kind of sieve of human quality that we are being presented with. Elizabeth, we are urged to believe, is a creature of discernment and refined tastes. Especially where the good and the bad of human nature are concerned. Would-be suitors take note!

Meanwhile, the globe has its own inscription, one perhaps even more intimidating for any would be lover: TVTTO VEDO ET MOLTO MANCHA. This means ‘I see all and much is lacking.’ You can’t get much plainer than that.

The remaining item of written text worth considering is the actual inscription on the painting itself. Seen to the lower left, this is, again, taken from Petrarch’s story. STANCHO RIPOSO & RIPO SATO AFFA NNO. 'Weary I am and, having rested, still am weary.'
detail from the sieve portrait shows main inscription
The main inscription on the Sieve Portrait.

A subtle hint

It is telling the world that Elizabeth has possibly had quite enough of all the proposed matrimony nonsense. Any further attempts to exploit her in a dynastic sense (she was by then 50 years of age) should be considered as a pretty futile task. A subtle hint - perhaps not so subtle after all. Rather, a very clear message to all those courtiers and diplomats behind the scenes. Those who still entertained hopes that she would one day make a favourable match with some friendly and useful foreign prince. The kind of match that would secure an heir. Those hopes were now gone.
banner ad linking to novel, mostly text against dark background

A moment of realism

The sieve portrait consequently represents a moment of supreme realism. The game is up, Elizabeth is telling us. The real love of her life, Robert Dudley, had long since abandoned the chase. He had already married the Countess of Essex. The recent courtship by Alencon, who had stayed at court for months, all to no avail, had been the last realistic chance of a fruitful marriage. And although the proposal had been put on ice rather than completely abandoned, the situation described in this painting really could not be much clearer. Enough with all this marriage nonsense! It is time to seriously embrace the idea of being the Virgin Queen. And permanently.

And that, of course, is how we will always see her. This fabulous painting marks a vital turning point in history. A reality check. England’s greatest monarch has finally consolidated her public image for generations to come.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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