The Plimpton "Sieve" portrait of Queen Elizabeth I

Revision as of 09:45, 28 July 2020 by ErinBlake (talk | contribs) (→‎Iconography: Removed incorrect reference to Plimpton portrait as "unique" (there's another in Florida))
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)

Completed by George Gower in 1579, this work is part of a series of portraits of Elizabeth I in which she holds a sieve to symbolize her chastity. It is the earliest of the "sieve" portraits, and the oldest painting in the Folger collection. A facsimile of the portrait is currently displayed in the Founders' Room. For more information, see this item's Hamnet record.

Physical description

ART 246171 (framed).jpg

Elizabeth I occupies most of the portrait's frame; above her right shoulder is a globe displaying South America and the western coast of Africa, and above her left shoulder is the royal coat of arms. Her right hand, which holds a tan glove, rests on a black and gold chair, while her left hand holds a gold sieve. The sieve, whose border displays an inscription (see below), is attached to the bodice of her dress with a cord.

The queen's figure and headdress are modeled on the type featured in the Darnley Portrait.[1] A transparent mantle with with stripes of gold descends from her headdress. The queen wears a red dress, embroidered with gold and silver thread; her sleeves are cream and embroidered with gold. A white ruff and white cuffs enclose her neck and wrists.


The portrait contains four inscriptions in Latin, French, and Italian.

Inscription Position Translation Notes
TUTTO VEDO & MOLTO MANCHA upper left, above globe I see everything and much is lacking last two letters of inscription are joined
E.R. upper right, above the royal arms Elizabeth regina
HONI SOIT QV...I MAL Y PENSE on the coat of arms Evil be to him who evil thinks motto of the Order of the Garter
SEMPER EADEM on the coat of arms Always the same Motto of Elizabeth I
STANCHO RIPO / SO & RIPOSATO / AFFANO 1579 beneath the coat of arms Weary I rest and, having rested, I am still weary Petrarch's Trionfo d'Amore, IV, 1. 145; letters "TA" in "STANCHO" are joined
ATERA...MAL DIMORAINSELA on the sieve's rim To earth the good, bad remains in the saddle


Other well-known portraits of this type include the Siena "sieve" portrait in the collection of the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena, completed in 1583 by Quentin Messys the Younger. These portraits were painted in the wake of Elizabeth I's abandoned marriage negotiations with François, duc d'Anjou as assertions of the queen's royal chastity.[2] Unlike the Siena portrait, here the queen turns to the viewer's right, not left, and the sieve is not just held by, but joined to, the queen's form, corded to the front of her dress.

Scholars consider the sieve emblematic of two traditions: one connects the sieve to the queen's virginity, while the other suggests the queen's power of discernment. Connections between the sieve and virginity are drawn together in the tradition of Tuccia, a Roman Vestal Virgin who proved her purity to her accusers by carrying a sieve of water from the banks of the Tiber to the Temple of Vesta.[3] Tuccia was lauded by Petrarch in his Triumph of Chastity; companion to this poem is his Triumph of Love, part of which is used in the Plimpton portrait as an inscription. Louis Montrose has speculated that the queen specifically intended the association of Tuccia with herself to combat rumors of her unchastity.[4] The inscription on the rim of the sieve references the second tradition present within the painting, implying that the queen is skilled at separating the "good" from the "bad" as she rules the country, ensuring that it is only the "good" that reaches her people.[5] It has also been suggested that the sieve is a reminder of the monarch's sexual sacrifice for her country, the result of which is a bounty of earthly gifts for it and her people.[6]

The globe in the upper left corner of the portrait, which displays South America and the northwestern portion of Africa, references the exploration undertaken by England in the sixteenth century. While the queen sees everything, "much is lacking," as identified in the inscription below it, expressing her intent to continue probing beyond the Atlantic ocean. The globe ties Elizabeth's perpetual virginity to the continued expansion of her country's territory.[7]


George Gower

George Gower was born in Yorkshire around 1540, and died in 1596 in London, where he was buried on August 30. By 1573, he was working in London as a portrait painter. Among his subjects were Sir Thomas Kytson and his wife Elizabeth, both 1573, and Elizabeth Knollys, 1576. On July 5, 1581, he was appointed Elizabeth I's Serjeant Painter for life. After this appointment, Gower and fellow painter Nicholas Hilliard attempted to streamline production of images of Elizabeth such that their production was exclusive to the pair. This attempt failed, and to date no images of the queen credited to Gower during his lifetime exist.[8]


In The English Icon, Roy Strong attributes this portrait to Gower on stylistic grounds.[9]


Publisher George Arthur Plimpton acquired the painting by 1930, which was inherited by his son Francis T. P. Plimpton upon the former's death in 1936. The younger Plimpton bequeathed the work to the Folger Shakespeare Library, but, through an arrangement with the Library, was possessed by his widow until its transfer to the Library in 1997.


  1. William L. Pressly, A catalogue of paintings in the Folger Shakespeare Library : "as imagination bodies forth" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 330.
  2. Louis Montrose, The Subject of Elizabeth: Authority, Gender, and Representation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006), 121-122.
  3. Montrose 125.
  4. Montrose 125.
  5. Pressly 331.
  6. Dana Percec, Elizabeth I: Creativity, Authorship, and Agency, in Episodes from a History of Undoing: The Heritage of Female Subversiveness, ed. Reghina Dascal. (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012), 9.
  7. Montrose 127.
  8. Pressly 329-330.
  9. Pressly 330.