The Tudor Society
The Tudor Society
  • Elizabeth I’s Challenge to the Masculinity of the Royal Body by Susan Bordo

    Lacey Baldwin Smith has written that “Tudor portraits bear about as much resemblance to their subjects as elephants to prunes.” A slight exaggeration, maybe. But it is true that the historical accuracy of the depictions in Tudor portraits, particularly of royalty, was often at war with “symbolic iconizing”—the use of imagery to represent the person’s character, position or role.

    The symbolism could include inscriptions, emblems, mottos, relationships with other people, animals, or objects, and it could also be written into the body itself. A famous example is Hans Holbein’s sketch of Henry VIII—the painting itself was destroyed in a fire—with the king posed to emphasize his power, authority, and resoluteness: legs spread and firmly planted, broad shoulders, one hand on his dagger, and a very visible codpiece (larger, art historians have noted, than portraits of other men at the time.) His stance, as Suzanne Lipscomb points out, “mimics the stance of a man standing in full armour…sparking associations with martial glory.” Lipscomb also points out an interesting detail: in the draft sketch, Henry’s face is turned to a ¾ angle. But in the final painting, as we know from 16th century copies done within Henry’s lifetime, Holbein has Henry looking straight ahead, confronting the spectator with an unblinking stare that is still symbolic of masculinity today.

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