One thing I loved about my high school history lessons was how my teacher incorporated art and science into our lessons. I’ve tried to do the same with our homeschool history lessons, and this Queen Elizabeth lesson is one of those lessons. When a leader of a nation sits for a portrait they are choosing how they will be portrayed and what they will be photographed in. This is especially true during the Renaissance period, and never more true than with Queen Elizabeth’s portraits.
Background information for Queen Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth ruled England in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, her father’s reign, and her sister’s bloody reign. She had a delicate balancing act to make. She had to steer her country through troubled diplomatic waters as the first Protestant nation with several Catholic nations trying their best to upset her rule, and who wanted her cousin Mary of Scotland to be queen (because she was Protestant).
Because of all of this Queen Elizabeth used everything in her power to maintain control of her country. She used the fact she was unmarried to play countries against each other to gain her favor. She used her wardrobe to portray a strong confident leader, there is an entire style of dress that started thanks to her (and that alone could be a post, but that’s not the purpose of today’s post). Queen Elizabeth used the portraits painted of her to show who she was.
In the Mystery of History 3* there are several lessons on Queen Elizabeth, and I probably should have waited until later in the year to do this project, because we hadn’t really covered the Spanish Armada, or a couple of other important events, but I was too excited about the lesson to wait.
Queen Elizabeth lesson
I went to wikipedia and printed off several of Elizabeth’s more famous portraits. Despite having a fairly long reign Elizabeth only had 8-10 official portraits.
First each kid was given three portraits to examine and see what details they could find about each one. They noticed the opulence of her portraits, and how she was usually seated in a similar position.
What’s particularly interesting about some of her portraits is the stories you will find behind them. The Spanish Armada portrait was painted to celebrate England’s total victory over Spain. There are a lot of implication painted into the background of the portrait. Notice how she is standing with her hand on the globe, implying dominion over the whole world. She is painted in the captain’s cabin of a ship, showing her naval victory over Spain, outside of her window you can see the remains of the Spanish fleet. This painting is to show how strong she is.
By comparison look at her earliest portrait as queen. Queen Elizabeth is painted in the style of Tudor paintings, and has very specific symbolism. She holds a book that can be interpreted to be a prayer book to show how devout she is, or a book of poetry or learning to show how studious she is. In some copies of this portrait she is holding a white rose to symbolize purity, and in others she holds the Tudor rose to symbolize her family.
I’ll include links at the bottom of this post to more information, but this makes a great essay for high schoolers as they compare her reign, how she portrayed herself, and the time period, and makes for a great primary source material.
Hands on activity for our Queen Elizabeth portrait lesson
After studying all of these paintings, and talking about how carefully Elizabeth crafted her image in those portraits, there was nothing left but for us to paint some self-portraits. I emphasized the importance of choosing ideas and background illustrating who you are. So we talked about details they might include, like hobbies, interests, who they hope to be someday.
And they set to it. Princess received a painting kit for Christmas (which she loves so much), so she used her easel while the rest of us painted and drew on the table. Everyone spent some time thinking about how they wanted to be known.
Batman, who wants to be a chef someday painted himself cooking and helping others. Superman who has great plans of being an inventor and is quite proud of how silly he is, painted himself inventing, and being silly. It really cracked me up.
Princess loves animals, so hers of course had lots of animals, of which I have no finished picture. After thinking a little bit I drew a picture of me reading on the couch, and with a random sewing project thrown over the arm of the chair, or that was what it was going to be when I was done. I didn’t finish mine.