Posted in Tudor Paintings

Symbolism in Tudor portraits

In the Tudor era, it was well known that a dog represented faithfulness and that the Tudors were represented by a greyhound. This hidden meaning would be as familiar to a Tudor as a car logo or a symbol for a top brand of shampoo is to us today.

The Ambassadors portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, has whole books written about its symbolism, but according to the National portrait gallery in London, the painting’s hidden meaning is not ‘entirely clear.’

What is clear is that the various scientific instruments in the painting indicate a significant date in English history: ’11th April 1533.’ This date was the Good Friday when Henry VIII announced that Anne Boleyn was now his wife and his Queen.


The floor that the Ambassadors are standing on looks distinctly like the unique floor of the high altar at Westminster Abbey where Royal coronations have taken place for millennia. Alluding to her coronation?

The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton took place at Westminster Abbey.
Image result for the floor of westminster abbey
The  now well worn floor featured in the Ambassdors portrait

The ages of the sitters are written in Latin on the sheath of a dagger and on a book on the top shelf.

The famous 3D skull, that can’t be viewed unless you see the painting at a certain angle, was a reminder of death. Death symbols were common in a time when death was far more likely before old age than it is today. According to the National Portrait gallery website, the painting would be be positioned by a doorway so that the viewer would suddenly be confronted with the image of the skull. As we all are by a sudden death. It was a reminder to keep the Christian faith.

The Tudor rose was used in Royal Tudor portraits to refer to the Tudor dynasty and the peace it brought to the realm after the Wars of the Roses. A rose was also the medieval symbol of the Virgin Mary. It was used to cleverly allude to Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen in a time when veneration of Saint Mary was forbidden.

The pelican portrait by Nicholas Hillard

Elizabeth used many other symbols including the pelican to show her motherly love for her people. Tudors believed that during a famine a mother pelican would pluck at her own breast to feed her young on her own blood rather than let her children die.

The sieve portrait

A sieve is a symbol of virginity and purity reaching back to Ancient Rome. This symbol was used to glorify Elizabeth’s virginity.



The national portrait gallery: Primary Teachers notes

The Royal Museums Greenwich website



I love Tudor history and my bookshelves seem to groan a bit more every year...

2 thoughts on “Symbolism in Tudor portraits

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s