Secret snake discovered in Elizabeth I painting – what was she hiding?

In 2010, scientists investigating a 400-year-old portrait of Queen Elizabeth I made a very curious discovery — a hidden snake in the queen’s hand…

The mysterious painting was created in the late 1580s or early 1590s by an unknown artist. In it, Elizabeth I is depicted in a magnificent, jewel-laden gown with a faint smile and a small posy of flowers in her hand, a conventional symbol of virginity and virtue. The painting’s deterioration over time has caused an image beneath the posy to resurface, that of a dark-coloured snake coiled around the queen’s fingers.

Scientists believe that the artist originally painted Elizabeth holding a snake, then painted over it shortly afterwards with the posy. Since nobody knows who the artist was or what the circumstances surrounding the painting were, we can’t be sure what their motivations were for drawing the snake, or for removing it.

What we do know is that snakes and serpents were highly ambiguous in their symbolism. Sometimes they were used as a symbol of wisdom, prudence and good judgment, all good traits for a queen. However, in Christian iconography, their symbolism was a lot darker. Christians associated snakes with evil, original sin and Satan himself, and Elizabeth I was a devout Protestant.

What does this say about how the artist viewed Elizabeth? If they intended to paint her with a symbol of the Devil in her hand, did they see her as evil? As a sinner? As hiding something?

And if so, what might Elizabeth have been hiding? There are a bunch of conspiracy theories that surround the Virgin Queen, but one that comes to mind is that she was not a queen at all. She was an imposter. A man in drag, in fact. The real Elizabeth died a youngster, and her guardians seized a little ginger boy from the small village of Bisley to take her place and protect themselves from Henry VIII’s wrath. This is said to explain why Elizabeth never married or had children, always wore wigs and heavy make-up, only let a couple of trusted physicians attend to her, and gave a direct order that no autopsy be carried out on her body after she died.

It’s said that a number of Tudor courtiers believed that Elizabeth was harbouring a deep, dark secret. The fact that she wasn’t Elizabeth at all is one possibility.

The other possibility that comes to mind is courtesy of conspirator extraordinaire David Icke, who believes that the Royal Family are shape-shifting reptiles in disguise. Perhaps the snake in the painting was intended as a clue to the queen’s true nature as a reptilian alien?

A close-up of the snake, with an artist’s impression of how it originally looked

As fun as this conspiracy-mongering is, we all know that David Icke and his cronies are mentally ill. The truth could be as simple as this: the serpent is an ambiguous symbol, so the artist had second thoughts about it and decided a posy of flowers would be safer.

Tarnya Cooper, curator of 16th century paintings at the National Portrait Gallery where the portrait is held, says this:

“The portrait of Elizabeth I with a hidden serpent is a really unusual survival. Yet it is difficult to know exactly why the serpent may have been originally included, or how common this motif might have been. The queen certainly owned jewellery and costume including emblems of serpents, which were probably understood as a symbol of wisdom. However, no other portrait of Elizabeth appears to depict her holding a snake.”

And the investigations that drove the serpent out of its lair have unveiled another secret hidden within the painting. The queen’s strangely bumpy forehead is because there is actually another woman in the image. Scientists have discovered that the picture of Elizabeth was painted over an earlier, unfinished portrait of an unknown woman whose eyes and nose can just be seen in the queen’s forehead!

Who was this woman? I’m aware that it was common practice for painters to reuse canvases in the 16th century, but it could also be speculated that this woman’s image was left unfinished and then erased because she was someone who had been disgraced…

Alas, she remains lost to time.

Next week: a review of Season 1 of conspiracy thriller Designated Survivor

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