The Face of Queenship: Early Modern Representations of Elizabeth I

The Face of Queenship:  Early Modern Representations of Elizabeth I
Part of Queenship and Power Series by Anna Riehl

Scholars of Elizabethan history usually study how Queen Elizabeth I represented her authority via imagery to her people.  Riehl took a different approach and discussed how others created this construction. While this reviewer has researched the collective images of Elizabeth focusing on the artists’ use of costume and jewelry, Riehl’s approach, which concentrated only on Elizabeth’s face, generated far more interest as it enlightened this reviewer. Who could not respond to Riehl’s impassioned claim that “the face emerges as a site of power and means of empowerment:  epistemological, political and, even divine.”

Riehl discussed how the image was needed to promote her virtues as shown with needed beauty and idealization for her role in the international marriage market and then power and stability after the Amy Robsart scandals.  

Beauty and power in the Queen –constantly having to use imagery to portray power and sensitivity, openness and guardedness because her body politic, (as a monarch) and her body natural (as a woman) –complicated how her image was not only depicted but also interpreted through the centuries by poets, playwrights, and painters.

Is the fascination with Elizabeth due to her not being known personally to many people?  Few of her subjects actually knew her.  This was not the time of social media.  Images and anecdotes were not as widely nor as quickly dispersed and could be more controlled, be it by the Queen or the Early Renaissance artists. Riehl discussed the clusters, paintings of similar characteristics, which if, say the Pelican painting is the nose (yes, Riehl spent a great deal of time analyzing noses, eyes, mouths, hair, etc.) you see rather than the one in Gheeraert’s portrait, your conception of Elizabeth’s face would be different.

Having the privilege to view the Serpent Portrait at Kenilworth, one could make a case for this particular ‘cluster’ being a bridge between other images which will be a future entry at

The structure of the book logically moved from the depiction of earlier Tudor monarchs, to Elizabeth’s crisis of small pox (surprisingly effects her body natural as well as her body politic) and how the diplomats and literary artists dealt with her looks (a careful balance had to be created between describing her actual features and the idealized version).  Riehl’s final chapter, the most interesting to this reviewer, examined Elizabeth’s portraits more closely with a skilled explanation of Nicholas Hilliard’s mastery and the general move by artists to depict the Queen’s features as youthful.  The author does not shy away from discussing the less favorable views of Elizabeth I. Although it is a pity to end with the antithesis of what she had spent her life trying to avoid, Riehl describes Elizabeth in the Manteo portrait as “she gazes at the viewer with acceptance of her ravaged state, her dignity unshaken, and a smile hidden in the corner of her mouth.”  This is why she has been admired throughout the centuries.

A scholarly, unique and interesting book.  Riehl made use of excellent sources both primary, (contemporary letters, documents, portraits and literary devices) and secondary, (treatises and scholarly discourses).


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