Unknown Woman in Persian Dress, by Gheeraerts

There’s a portrait of an unknown woman, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, that is sometimes touted as a “pregnancy portrait of Elizabeth I.”

Well, it certainly does look like a pregnancy portrait of somebody, because the hand on the small of the back is a classic pregnancy pose. But I seriously doubt that it’s supposed to be Elizabeth, no matter how much people would like it to be. It doesn’t really look like her, and there’s more than one redhead in the Elizabethan world. And yes, painters often did versions of popular or prestigious poses with other sitters, and very seldom redid the same poses with the same sitter. So saying that it looks a lot like a known 1563 portrait of Elizabeth by the same guy — not exactly a great argument. (And I don’t think it’s Mary Queen of Scots, either.)

The implication of the sad sonnet seems to be that the woman died in childbirth or while still pregnant, at some point before the portrait was totally finished; and that the man who commissioned the portrait regretted having treated her unfairly in some way.

Read the sonnet and the mottos on this art page. They’re very enlightening.

“Mea sic mihi prosunt” was a known motto of the time. Mary Queen of Scots used it when she did a hugely complicated embroidered hanging for her bed of state, which basically seems to have been a bunch of embroidered squares all sewn together, much like quilts made of separate quilt square artworks today. Her use of “Mea sic mihi prosunt,” according to Drummond’s letter to Ben Jonson describing it, was associated with a picture of “A Vine tree watred with Wine, which instead to make it spring and grow, maketh it fade”. So the grapevine is saying, “My own [wine] benefits me in this way.” It’s a sarcastic motto about ungrateful children.

So the implication in the portrait, with “Mea sic mihi” placed on the “love tree,” is that “My own love hurt me,” or “my own fruit killed me.” Less negatively, it’s possible that the woman just got really sick, and that the man was being over-dramatic… but I’m not betting on it. My thought is that the woman died at some point when the portrait was being finished, or even afterward; and the sonnet and mottos were added.

The Persian outfit was apparently made for one of those masques or costumed occasions that the Tudors loved. The loose dress would have been much more comfortable for a pregnant woman, and it even came with flat shoes instead of heels.

The “stagge” is a common heraldic emblem and badge, which could identify the man (since he says it is his stag). But a stag (any adult male deer) is also a synonym for “hart,” a male red deer over five years old. The stag is crowned with “hart’s ease,” another name for pansies.

“Hart’s ease” or “heart’s ease” represented love for another, often true love and reciprocated love. The sonnet about the hart’s crown, and the “dolor est medicinae dolori” (pain is a remedy for pain) next to the hart, seem to indicate that the man only fell in love with the woman when she was nearly dead.

Of course, this is all guessing.

There’s another theory, very well expressed by Joanne Teresa Diaz in her 2008 dissertation on Elizabethan complaint poetry, that the woman had commissioned her own portrait and written her own sonnet, and that she was being sarcastic just like Mary Queen of Scots. But… then why would she blame herself in the sonnet for being cruel? Not to state the obvious, but you don’t get pregnant by being cruel to your man.

(Well, I guess maybe if you slept with another man to get pregnant, or while pregnant. But in that case, why the pregnancy pic?)

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