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?