Young Man among Roses, by Nicholas Hiliard, 1587.

 

I have always been fascinated by Elizabethan England. Like Italian art, it revelled in hidden symbols; but, unlike the Italians, the Elizabethans had no use for the kind of realistic visual art that existed in contemporary Italy.

A Young Man Amongst Roses by Nicholas Hilliard, 1585-95. Museum no. P.163-1910, © Victoria and Albert Museum, LondonDuring the Elizabethan times, the visual arts retreated in favour of a series on symbols as signs, they become a sort of visual text. While in Italy frescos and canvases in large dimensions were the norm, in England Nicholas Hiliard was painting his little portable gems. To me, he was the greatest master of the English miniature.

Hiliard’s portrait miniatures are the perfect examples of the visual arts of a country very different from 16th century Italy. They were exchanged as a symbol of love, friendship and loyalty: they were intimate objects, not for show, but to be carried everywhere, like a photo today. They have the immediacy of a snapshot and the preciousness of a jewel and, like contemporary Italian art, they are steeped in hidden symbols.

My favourite is the Young Man among Roses in the British Galleries, at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was made in 1587, when the tradition of falling in love with the monarch was still alive and Elizabeth exerted her authority on her male courtiers according to the rules of Courtly Love. This young man wears the Queen’s colours, the black and white, therefore declaring his secret passion for her and, with hand on heart, swears his eternal devotion. The man is presumed to be Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, the Queen’s young favourite, who at this date was seventeen years old to the Queen’s sixty. Only a few years later, however, in 1601, he would be at the centre of a conspiracy to overthrow Elizabeth and take power. It all ended very badly, with the Queen heartbroken and Essex losing his head on Tower Green, the last person to be beheaded in the Tower of London. Nothing is what it seems…