Today is the anniversary of Elizabeth I’s coronation as Queen of England, so this week’s picture is the so-called Rainbow Portrait, which has been attributed to Isaac Oliver and which hangs, as it has done for centuries, in Hatfield House. Oliver was known as a miniaturist, so if he did paint this half life-size portrait it is by some distance his largest surviving work. The attribution, which seems plausible, rests on his known links with Hatfield’s owner Robert Cecil and on the miniaturist’s attention to detail manifest throughout the painting.

Elizabeth stands before a dark archway holding a rainbow above which is inscribed the Latin motto “NON SINE SOLE IRIS”: no rainbow without a sun. With her other hand she lightly touches the hem of her extraordinarily ornate cloak, painted partly in gold leaf and decorated with human eyes and ears. One of its sleeves is prominently decorated with a jewelled serpent. The queen also wears a bodice decorated with flowers, three pearl necklaces, several bracelets, a brooch in the form of a cross and a fantstically ornate head-dress. Her outfit is completed by an open standing ruff, a gauzy transparent veil and a ballooning diaphanous lace-embroidered collar of such extent it makes her resemble some strange hybrid of human being and winged insect.

Elizabeth I was getting on for 70 when the picture was painted, but she has not been made to look it. She controlled her own public image rigorously. Her portraitists knew that in the world of art she was to be frozen in perpetual youth. There is something slightly quizzical about the look on her face, as if she is challenging the viewer to decode the meaning of the complicated allegory behind which she has been veiled. Elizabeth enjoyed codes and ciphers and...

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