Elizabeth I and the Plimpton Sieve Portrait

by Heather R. Darsie

In 1579, when Elizabeth was around forty-five-or forty-six years old, a portrait of her holding a sieve was painted by George Gower. It is believed that Gower was born around 1540, but his early life is obscure. Along with the 1579 portrait of Elizabeth, Gower created a self-portrait. In his self-portrait, Gower emphasizes the importance of his art by having the tools of his trade and his family crest in a set of scales in the background. His tools outweigh the crest, showing his dedication to his craft.

Gower’s dedication turned out to be a good investment, because he was created Elizabeth’s Serjeant Painter in 1581. Gower painted official portraits of Elizabeth, and several portraits of higher-level nobility. Gower may have been precluded from limning or painting miniatures, a duty held by Nicholas Hilliard.

Despite being painted by Gower, the Plimpton portrait received its name from the family who donated the portrait to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

In the portrait, Elizabeth holds a sieve in her right hand, seen below. This is the earliest of a series of portraits depicting Elizabeth holding a sieve, a symbol which was tied to Tuccia. Tuccia was a third-century BC Roman Vestal Virgin whose virginity was questioned. To prove she was a virgin, Tuccia besought the goddess Vesta to perform a miracle. Tuccia then went to the Tiber river with a basket full of holes, scooped water into the basket, and carried it back to the temple without one drop falling from the basket. Tuccia is mentioned in some of Petrarch’s “Triumph of Virtue” from his collection of Triumphs, and is not the only allusion to Petrarch in the painting.

Elizabeth’s Left Hand, Holding the Sieve

Around the rim of the sieve is written, “ATERA MAL DIMORAINSELA”, or “a terra il ben mal dimora in sella”. Some of the writing is obscured by damage or over-painting. It means, “to earth the good, the bad remains in the saddle”. Other messages are found in the portrait as well, though they are more obvious at first glance.

Over Elizabeth’s shoulder one can find her coat of arms, below, and other messages. The “E. R.” stands for “Elizabeth Regina”, Latin for “Elizabeth the Queen”.

Elizabeth’s Coat of Arms

Her arms are supported by the English Royal Lion and the Welsh Dragon, both of which were used by her father Henry VIII and brother Edward VI. Elizabeth’s coat of arms has the blue garter of the Order of the Garter surrounding, upon which is written, “HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE” which loosely means “shame/dishonor to he who thinks bad thoughts”. The main difference between Elizabeth’s arms and those of her father and brother is the motto. Much like her elder sister, Elizabeth chose to deviate from the motto of the last male Tudor monarchs, which was “DIEU ET MON DROIT”, or “God and my right”. Elizabeth’s elder sister Mary I chose her own motto too, which was, “VERITAS TEMPORIS FILIA”, or “truth is the daughter of time”. Elizabeth chose, “SEMPER EADEM”, meaning “ever the same”, a motto used by Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn. This is, in this writer’s opinion, the most overt reference Elizabeth made to her mother during her reign. For the most part, Elizabeth did not speak publicly or otherwise mention her discarded mother.

Turning back to the coat of arms, “STANCHO RIPO/SO & RIPOSATO/AFFANO 1579”, is written beneath the arms. It means, “weary I rest, and having rested, I am still weary”. This quotation is from Petrarch’s Triumphs as well; specifically his “Triumph of Love”. The “1579” references the year in which the portrait was completed.

Over Elizabeth’s right shoulder is another written message, seen below.

Globe and Inscription over Elizabeth’s Right Shoulder

It says, “TUTTO VEDO & MOLTO MANCHA”, meaning, “I see everything and much is lacking”. One can see the artist’s attempt at depicting the Iberian peninsula and parts of Europe with Africa underneath on the right side of the globe, and bits of North and South America on the left.

Elizabeth’s face is just starting to become that of Gloriana used in her later years. Elizabeth is forty-five or forty-six years old, and her face appears to correspond to that age with some liberties taken by Gower to flatter her. She wears a headdress which bears a resemblance to that used in the Darnley Portrait. The Darnley Portrait is held by the National Portrait Gallery, and was executed around 1575.

Elizabeth’s Face

She wears the Elizabethan ruff, and has pearls and precious stones in her hair, which is pinned up. A mantel flows behind her. The mantel is very fine and translucent, allowing the dark background to show. It is decorated with gold bands. Elizabeth’s dark eyes, inherited from her mother, are on full display.

Gower carefully captured the details of Elizabeth’s red gown, as well. Seen below, attention is paid to the intricate gold and silver embroidery, and the string of pearls pinned decoratively around the neckline of her dress. The jewel and chain around Elizabeth’s neck are adorned with pearls, rubies, and possibly diamonds, which match the adornments in Elizabeth’s hair.

Elizabeth’s Gown

Rich white fabric on her sleeves is seen through slashes at the shoulder, where the cream sleeves embroidered with gold of her gown are attached. Lace around the cuffs of her sleeves are detailed, too.

In her right hand, seen below, Elizabeth is holding a tan glove.

Elizabeth’s Right Hand with Glove(s)

Elizabeth was known for having beautiful hands, and enjoyed displaying them by wearing fine gloves. She rests her hand on the back of a chair, although the rest of the item is not within the frame of the painting.

This portrait, a fine piece of Elizabethan propaganda, was produced at a time when Elizabeth was considering her last serious suitor. From 1579 to 1581, Francis, Duke of Anjou, was the youngest of the sons from Henri II of France and Catherine de’ Medici. His spine was crooked, and his face heavily scarred from a bought of smallpox at the age of eight. For those reasons, it was widely rumored that Francis was deformed. Elizabeth, after having met the young man who was twenty-two years younger than her, did not find him to be terribly deformed at all. She seemed to take an earnest liking to him. After marriage negotiations were abandoned, Elizabeth lamented Anjou’s departure. Elizabeth is said to have written the following poem:

I grieve and dare not show my discontent;
I love, and yet am forced to seem to hate;
I do, yet dare not say I ever meant;
I seem stark mute, but inwardly do prate.
I am, and not; I freeze and yet am burned,
Since from myself another self I turned.

My care is like my shadow in the sun —
Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,
Stands, and lies by me, doth what I have done;
His too familiar care doth make me rue it.
No means I find to rid him from my breast,
Till by the end of things it be suppressed.

Some gentler passion slide into my mind,
For I am soft and made of melting snow;
Or be more cruel, Love, and so be kind.
Let me or float or sink, be high or low;
Or let me live with some more sweet content,
Or die, and so forget what love e’er meant.

Gower, Plimpton Sieve Portrait, 1579

Elizabeth was now transitioning from being a woman, queen, and potential bride to the ever-powerful embodiment of a creature borne of political necessity, the Gloriana, Virgin Queen.

Love learning about the Early Modern period? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anna of Cleves told from the German perspective!

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Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Petrarch. “Triumph of Chastity”, Triumphs.
  2. Petrarch. “Triumph of Love”, Triumphs.
  3. Applebee, Arthur N., et al. The Language of Literature- British Literature. Boston: McDougal Littell (2000).
  4. Folger Shakespeare Library. “The Plimpton ‘Sieve’ Portrait of Elizabeth I”. https://hamnet.folger.edu/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?BBID=128729
  5. “The Plimpton “Sieve” portrait of Queen Elizabeth I”Folgerpedia. Retrieved 6 September 2020.

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