Nicholas Hilliard was a miniaturist and this is one of only two normal size, or 'in large', portraits that can reasonably be attributed to him. Hilliard was the most important artistic personality of the Elizabethan age. He was born in Exeter and brought up in Geneva, where he may well have first seen work by Holbein, whom he later described as 'the most excellent painter and limner [miniaturist] ... Holbein's manner of limning I have ever imitated and hold it for the best.' This was written in Hilliard's Treatise on the Art of Limning, an account of the technical and aesthetic principles of his art which adds a significant intellectual dimension to his artistic personality. Hilliard returned to London at the age of fifteen, was apprenticed to the Queen's goldsmith and by 1572, when he made his first known miniature of her, was himself high in the Queen's favour. Before Hilliard appeared, Elizabeth had been unable to find a satisfactory court painter to create the awesome goddess-like image of herself that she required. This portrait of her, from just a few years after that first miniature, shows the standard that he set for all other painters of the Queen. In style it is extremely artificial, flat, linear and shadowless. These were all qualities encouraged by the Queen because it gave her portraits the same visual character as religious icons. Her face is a white, almost inhuman mask and her dress is incredibly rich - encrusted with gold embroidery, hundreds of pearls and other jewels. Only one hand is visible but it is very prominent and holds a rose. Above the hand is a magnificent jewelled pendant representing the mythical bird, the Phoenix. The Phoenix was supposed to reproduce by burning itself and arising renewed from the flames and is thus a symbol of virginity and chastity as well as of immortality. The rose is not only an emblem of the Tudor dynasty, the red rose of Lancaster, but is also associated with the Virgin Mary, who in Christian literature has long been referred to in terms such as 'the rose of heaven'. 'the mystic rose' and 'the rose without thorns', meaning without sin. The rose is also a symbol of perfection. Elizabeth I carefully cultivated the idea of her own virginity and the association with the Virgin Mary as well as with more ancient deities such as the virgin goddess, Astraea, who was supposed to bring eternal spring time. Portraits like this were not only intended to impress her own subjects but were also sent abroad as diplomatic gifts to foreign rulers.
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.15