Experts at The National Portrait Gallery say a newly discovered sea and moon symbol hidden beneath centuries-old layers of paint on a Walter Raleigh portrait reveal his love and devotion towards Queen Elizabeth I.
The discovery, which is unveiled tomorrow as part of the NPG’s major survey of Elizabethan portraiture, Elizabeth and her People, shows the sea just below an emblem of a crescent moon, indicating Raleigh’s willingness to be controlled by the Queen in the same way the moon controls the tides.
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Elizabeth had been compared to the moon goddess Cynthia and experts now say the newly-revealed water must refer to the explorer himself (using the pun Walter/water).
Ralegh’s later letters to Elizabeth also contain similar coded references to moon and water. Once thought to have been written while he was imprisoned for his secret marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting in 1591, it is now believed they date from the same period of the painting in 1588.
In between plundering Spanish warships, being knighted by the Queen, orchestrating the defeat of the Spanish Armada and spectacularly falling from grace, Sir Walter Raleigh also found time to write a series of bizarre poems for the Queen in which he cast her as Cynthia, the moon goddess (a powerful, benevolent virgin, who was also known to be capricious when affronted).
Its seems that both poetry and painting were important tools with which to send personal messages of devotion to the Queen. The ‘Cynthia’ cycle of poems was referred to in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen of 1590 and it is thought he saw them in manuscript form in 1589 while both men were in Ireland (one year after the portrait was painted).
Literary scholar and exhibition advisor Professor Andrew Hadfield from the University of Sussex said the fascinating discovery suggests that “Raleigh was at work on his strange Cynthia poems in the late 1580s and that he may have regarded his position at court as perilous and unstable well before his secret marriage”.
“We know that he had a literary friendship with Edmund Spenser, an equally complicated and conflicted figure, and they may have been developing their poems about the queen together in the 1580s.”
Both the portrait and the poems are on display in the exhibition which features an array of objects and costumes with portraits of courtiers, merchants, lawyers, goldsmiths, butchers, calligraphers, playwrights and artists.
- Elizabeth and Her People at the NPG, October 10 - January 5. Book tickets
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