The bold, brown-eyed youth who meets our gaze in this 1585 portrait is often thought to be the playwright Christopher Marlowe, though many critics have questioned whether this is really the case. Like so much of Marlowe’s life, the painting is steeped in controversy, myth and mystery.

Is this Christopher Marlowe?

Workmen stumbled across the portrait in 1953 under some rubble in the Master’s Lodge of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where Marlowe was a student from 1580 to 1587. The Latin inscription, Anno dni ætatis suae 21 1585, suggests that the sitter was 21 in 1585. This has led some scholars to claim that it could be Christopher Marlowe, who was probably born in 1564. The motto, Quod me nutrit me destruit meaning ‘that which feeds me destroys me’, might also seem fitting for this self-destructive young writer who, we know with hindsight, lived fast and died young.

Or not?

Other critics argue that this is unlikely to be Marlowe. They point out that, as a shoemaker’s son he would not have been allowed to wear this elegant velvet doublet, since there were sumptuary laws against ‘excesse of apparel’ for humble members of society. Some also suggest that he would have been too poor to commission a portrait while he was a Cambridge student on a scholarship endowed by Archbishop Matthew Parker. However, some also claim that Marlowe was involved at this time, as a government spy in Catholic France, and this clothing could be suitable for such an aspiring young man.

Though the debate continues, we have no other image of Marlowe, so this painting is frequently used to fill the gap. It has come to symbolise Marlowe, even without firm proof.