Aside from being a jewelry nerd, I’m a history nerd and avid reader. I know that most people like Elizabethan novels and it seems that I should too. The problem is that I have never found an historical novel written in a style that I like. Then I discovered a trilogy of books by Deborah Harkness, herself an historian of science and medicine. Her second book of the All Souls Trilogy, Shadow of Night, struck a chord with me. Set in Renaissance Europe, this book features all the things that get my heart ticking: Alchemy, historical people, Elizabeth I’s court and all the tiny little tidbits about daily life in the Renaissance. If you also like supernatural creatures like witches, vampires and firedrakes, this book has your name written all over it. The book is a few years old at this point and I confess that I’ve not only read this particular book twice, I’ve listened to the audio book on my way to and from work at least 4 times! What can I say? When I find something I like, I stick with it.
In Shadow of Night, The Countess of Pembroke, Mary Sidney and The Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy, both actual people, present a pair of what I assumed were fictitious miniatures to the book’s main characters. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a miniature in the Victoria and Albert Museum and an on line archive by Andrew Graham- Dixon featuring a miniature that bears a more than striking resemblance to the once-thought fictitious miniature.
In Shadow of Night, two miniatures painted by famed limner Nicholas Hilliard are presented as a wedding gift. One miniature, a conservative locket painted with the wife’s portrait for the husband to wear publicly and second more striking and intimate portrait of the husband for the wife to keep at home. It’s that second miniature that I’ll be discussing here.
In the book, Harkness tells of a miniature of man. His shirt is open exposing his bare chest. The man’s hair is disheveled, a tell-tale sign of the book’s main character’s distress. He’s pulling a locket away from his heart in an intimate gesture of love. The locket holds a portrait of the man’s wife.
This is no ordinary miniature. The style is totally different than regular miniatures from the time. The fact that this is an actual miniature found in the Victoria and Albert Museum and it is described so perfectly in a work of fiction really captures my imagination. After seeing the miniature, and having read it’s description many times, I’m convinced that the author of the book knew of this miniature. She had to have come across it and made the image work within her story line.
First, I’m going to show you what a standard Elizabethan miniature looks like. I say “standard” but keep in mind, the miniatures presented here are painted by the most famous limner of the time. The azure blue (or ultramarine) in the background is Nicholas Hilliard’s signature color and a way of recognizing his work.
This is a different image altogether. It’s very intimate with the man’s chest exposed. It’s as if we are catching a glimpse of this man in his bedchamber as he looks steamy-eyed at this wife.
The most striking thing about this image is the background. You’ll notice it is markedly different than the previous portraits. Here, the man is engulfed in flames. A traditional interpretation of this is that he died in a fire, but Andrew Graham-Dixon suggests the image should be seen as symbolic rather than literal. (My own study of Elizabethan and Renaissance art has shown me that so much art of the time was symbolic too.) Graham-Dixon suggests that this portrait may have been a token of affection or indeed, even a sexual proposition. This man is symbolically expressing the idea that he is burning for desire for the woman he is intently gazing at through the centuries. One eyebrow is lifted in the portrait in what can be seen as a “come-hither” look one lover may give to another. You can almost see one corner of his mouth rising in a knowing smile. It’s the kind of smile that tells the viewer that he knows her and finds her irresistible.
As you will notice if you do your own study of Elizabethan miniatures is that many of them are painted on vellum and backed on cards. Often times, playing cards were used. While this was a common practice for the art form, this particular miniature holds one more secret. The miniature was removed from its gold case during a restoration. Guess which particular card was used for its backing? You guessed it: The Ace of Hearts!
While the viewer of this portrait in Harkness’ book and in the Graham-Dixon archive is thought to be this man’s wife, another interpretation is that it may be more than that. The viewer may have been a secret lover. Remember the idea behind Lover’s Eye Miniatures- that the only person who would know the identity of the eye displayed is the person who holds the miniature. The first one was given by the man who eventually became a King to the woman he secretly longed for. Those eye miniatures were meant as “secret messages” of sorts, often of illicit affairs as in the case of King George III and Maria Fitzherbert. While the Georgian Eye Miniatures were made well after this Renaissance version, the idea had to have been expressed in eras past. Rings with “bawdy” intent (and by most historian’s accounts, the Elizabethans were a bawdy bunch) have been found in intaglios as far back as ancient Rome. (Another bawdy bunch). Putting messages of secret desire in jewelry is not a new concept. Could this mysterious miniature be one in a long line of such jewels?
*The Victoria and Albert Museum shares a wealth of information on portrait miniatures. You can start your own search by clicking this link.
**You can read the Graham-Dixon account of this miniature and search through his on line archives here.