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Let’s analyse: Mary I by Hans Eworth (1554)

Queen Mary I
by Hans Eworth
oil on panel, 1554
Primary Collection
NPG 4861

About the artist and sitter

The portrait we’re looking at is of Queen Mary I by Hans Eworth. In the 1540s Eworth moved from the Netherlands to England. With around 35 surviving portraits associated with him, he became one of England’s most esteemed Flemish artists of the time. As a follower of the Catholic Church, Eworth’s popularity within the English court was lost when Protestant Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558.

Mary was the first crowned Queen of England with her reign beginning in 1553, one year before this portrait was painted, and lasting for 5 years until 1558. During her reign she attempted to convert the country permanently back to Catholicism after her father, Henry VIII, broke from the Catholic Church to create the Protestant Church of England in 1534. She was ultimately unsuccessful as her half-sister and successor, Elizabeth I, converted the country back to Protestant.

Background

The portrait shows Mary in front of green velvet, which also covers a surface in front of her, covering the lower half of her body. Eworth painted this portrait the year Mary married Philip II of Spain, a politically motivated match. Mary had only been queen for less than a year, therefore had a lot to prove. This portrait was likely commissioned as either a gift for her husband, or to display the power she would have as queen. Possibly to also display her power as a new queen, Mary is displayed in a more masculine manner with her shapeless bodices and high necklines in nearly every portrait as queen. Mary is also mostly depicted in the dark colours she favoured and introduced to the Tudor court as contemporary fashion.

The green velvet that surrounds Mary, at the time, is thought to have symbolised virility, fertility, wealth, youth, peace and rebirth. The rebirth and renewal may also hold religious connotations, such as the birth of Christ and his rise from the tomb. This could indicate the new change Mary was bringing to the country as she attempts to reverse the English Reformation.

Analysis

Detail: Mary I by Hans Eworth

Mary can be seen wearing a French hood that is flattened on top. This was an English variant of the French hood, which was associated with Mary. The hood covers the majority of Mary’s hair and may have had a flap of stiff, dark fabric which covers the back of the head, or this flap could also be pleated. Mary’s hood has a decorated upper billiment which was popular on French hoods of the time.

The gown that Mary is wearing is an English court style which was popular during the reign of her father. A theory we have is that Mary’s gown in this portrait is made of purple velvet instead of a russet silk as we earlier suspected. According to sources, in April 1554 Mary bought 6 gowns in the colour purple. We believe that a lack of care for the portrait over the years may have caused the pigments in the paint to fade from their original colour. Despite what the portrait may appear to show, Mary didn’t purchase her first russet gown until 3 years after the portrait was painted.

However, it is also possible that Mary is not wearing a gown she owns, but one that Eworth owns. We believe that this is not the case, however, as the undersleeves Mary is wearing in the portrait correlate to records of cloth of silver and cloth of gold sleeves she bought in April 1554. Purple was reserved for members of the Royal family due to a sumptuary law put in place by Henry VIII. Mary, once queen, shifted her purchases to more purple items, including gowns and royal robes. These purchases show her preparing for her new royal role. Another theory is that Mary saved her lavish purple velvet for public display, and used velvet earthy tones, suggesting this gown was never originally a shade of purple, in her portraits to connect herself back to her Catholic Grandfather, Henry VII, a legitimate Catholic Tudor monarch. Mary’s sleeves seem to be made from fur, possibly sable due to the colour and the expensive. Her gown also has a high neckline with a standing band – a flared, standing chemise collar.

Detail: Mary I by Hans Eworth

Mary can also be seen holding a red flower. There are different sources which claim the flower is either a carnation, which symbolises early marriage, or an English rose which has religious connotations and also as an act of legitimacy. It is most likely an English rose because of her royal status and the message she is most likely trying to portray. This would indicate that Mary is the legitimate heir to the throne after her younger half-brother named Lady Jane Grey, their cousin, as his successor to the throne.

Possibly as a way to display her wealth, Mary is wearing rings on every finger except her middle finger. In the 16th Century rings can display someone’s profession depending on which finger they were worn. Thumb: doctor, index: merchants, middle: fool, annular: students, but also marriage and betrothal, and auricular finger: lovers. In this portrait it seems that Mary has ignored these meanings, likely because it is known she is queen, except the finger that represents the fool.

Another reason why Mary isn’t wearing rings on her middle finger could be because it is the longest finger on the hand. Long, pale and skinny fingers were considered very beautiful at this time; rings can make the fingers look shorter, especially within paintings, which was not the ideal. Also in her right hand, Mary can be seen holding a pair of leather gloves, displaying her wealth and lack of laborious work. These gloves could also be slashed to display the ring finger.

Detail: Mary I by Hans Eworth

The pendant pearl that Mary wears was first thought to have been ‘La Peregrina’, given as a wedding gift from her future husband, Philip II of Spain. However, it is now thought to have been a pearl that Philip’s sister, Joanna of Austria gave to him. He is then thought to have gifted this pearl to Mary instead of ‘La Peregrina’. Mary could not have been wearing ‘La Peregrina’ because the one in the portrait is too big and the pearl was first recorded 21 years after Mary’s death. This pearl is likely called the Mary Tudor Pearl. The open front chemise collar of her gown displays the pearl choker she wears which leads down to a cross pendant which could be a representation of her dedication to the Catholic church. It is also there to display her wealth and position of power. It could also portray the unity between England and Spain due to her marriage.

Conclusion

Due to the evidence presented, this portrait of Mary I seems to be a display of power; Mary I is asserting herself as the queen of England. Her masculine silhouette and earthy tones in her portraits could be her way of displaying her strength and capability of standing among only men as head monarch. In many ways she projects her status within society. As a woman that did not follow contemporary fashions, she did influence the women at court despite what portraits of the time may suggest.

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