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Elizabeth I Sieve Portrait

George Gower’s 1579 portrait of Elizabeth I is the earliest of several paintings that show the queen holding a sieve.

A three-quarters length portrait of a woman with dark red hair and pale face and hands. She is wearing an ornate red and gold gown with a high ruff and she is holding a golden sieve in her right hand.
George Gower. The Plimpton "sieve" portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. Oil on panel, 1579.

The bequest of Francis T. P. Plimpton.

This magnificent portrait of Queen Elizabeth I is the earliest of several paintings that show her holding a sieve. It was painted by George Gower in 1579, just two years before he was appointed Elizabeth’s Serjeant Painter. The sieve portrait is considered one of the finest portraits of the queen executed in her lifetime.

The painting is, like other works of the period, rife with allegory. According to Roman legend, a virgin could carry water in a sieve, making it a logical symbol for the Virgin Queen. The globe at the upper left represents England’s role in the age of exploration. The Italian motto above it—“TVTTO VEDO & MOLTO MANCHA”—means “I see everything and much is lacking,” signifying Elizabeth’s leadership in imperial expansion.

Below Elizabeth’s crest is a line from the Italian poet Petrarch. It can be translated as “Weary rest, and rest with woe and pain.” The passage describes the life of someone dedicated to the pursuit of Love. Elizabeth, as the Virgin Queen, was above such concerns.

By the time this portrait was painted, Elizabeth was 46, and she had been queen for 21 years. In hindsight, we know that her long reign had not even reached the halfway point.

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