Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1583


This painting is by Quentin Metsys the Younger, a Flemish painter and artist of the Tudor court. It is one of several Sieve Portraits of Elizabeth I painted by various artists from 1579 into the early 1580s, so called because they depict Elizabeth carrying a sieve, thus associating her with the Roman Vestal Virgin, Tuccia. The sieve is also an emblem of wisdom and discernment.

The Sieve Portraits mark a turn in Elizabethan portraiture as they introduce motifs celebrating the Queen’s chastity while also depicting the established imagery of Elizabethan imperialism. This combination of symbols creates a version of Elizabeth whose powerful and discerning rule is directly related to her status as a Virgin Queen. This celebration of Elizabeth’s virginity may have been a response to the ongoing marriage suit of Francis, Duke of Alençon and Anjou by those opposed to the match. Sir Christopher Hatton – one such opponent – is depicted in the background of the portrait and may well be its patron.

Tuccia, the Vestal Virgin and other symbols of chastity

In ancient Rome, Vestal Virgins took vows of chastity and were attendants of Vesta, goddess of hearth and home. In Roman mythology, Tuccia, a priestess of Vesta, was falsely accused of unchasteness. She proved her virtue by performing a miracle: carrying a sieve full of water from the River Tiber to Vesta’s Temple without spilling a drop. Other symbols of chastity in the painting include a quotation from the 14th-century poet Petrarch in the bottom left on the folly of love, and the faceted column to the left – Petrarch’s idealised love and muse Laura was often depicted with a pillar of jasper, a stone with the power to quench passion. The pillar (also a symbol of imperialism) is decorated with roundels depicting the story of Dido and Aeneas: Aeneas resisted Dido’s advances and went on to found the Roman Empire.

The Virgin Queen and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Oberon speaks of a ‘fair vestal’ and ‘imperial vot’ress’ in his anecdote of watching Cupid’s dart fall unspent (2.1.158–64). These are often taken to be complementary allusions to Elizabeth I and her virginity, a spectre lurking in the background of the play’s exploration of the themes of marriage, virginity and female sexual choice and agency. In the first few decades of her reign, Elizabeth presented herself as a marriageable virgin, but always reserved the right to choose her own husband and even whether or not she would marry at all. From the early 1580s, she was presented as a perpetual Virgin Queen. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania, a headstrong Queen, foreswears her husband’s bed while they are in dispute (2.1.62). Hermia creates her own choice when faced with the options of death, enforced virginity or an arranged marriage, by running away with her chosen lover. She is then confronted with and resists Lysander’s (and her own) sexual desires. The play’s allusions to Elizabeth (whose refusal to bend to external pressures to marry received much criticism) perhaps become darker or more dangerously pointed as the events of the wood turn cruel and the male characters exert their power over the women.

The Merchant of Venice and the woman’s right to choose

Ideas about Elizabeth’s rejection of foreign suitors, her right to choose a husband or to remain chaste, resonate in The Merchant of Venice. In a strikingly powerful speech, Portia laments the fact that her marriage is dictated by male choices. Her ‘dead father’ devised a ‘lott’ry’ where suitors from different countries ‘choose’ from three different caskets (1.2.25;33). Portia must marry the man who chooses the chest containing her portrait. Yet she notes the heavy irony of ‘the word choose’ since ‘I may neither choose who I would, nor refuse who I dislike’ (1.2.22–24). She wittily mocks her international suitors, hoping they fail the test and ‘return … home’ (1.2.102–03); but she admits she ‘will die as chaste as Diana’ if she challenges her ‘father’s will’ (1.2.106–08). Ultimately however, the conflict between male and female choice, submission and rebellion, is conveniently resolved by the fact that Bassanio – the man Portia loves – choose the right casket in Act 3, Scene 2.

Full title:
Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I
c. 1583
Painting / Image
Quentin Mestys the Younger
Usage terms

© Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) in Ceremonial Costume (oil on canvas), Zuccari, or Zuccaro, Federico (1540-1609) / Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, Italy / Bridgeman Images

Held by
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena

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