Queen Elizabeth I
- Place of origin:
England, Great Britain (possibly, made)
Italy (possibly, made)
France (possibly, made)
- Materials and Techniques:
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Sculpture, room 111, case 9, shelf 3
The art of engraving gemstones can be traced back to ancient Greece in the 8th century BC and earlier. Techniques passed down to the Egyptians and then to the Romans. There were major revivals of interest in engraved gems in Europe during the Byantine era, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and again in the 18th and 19th centuries. At each stage cameos and intaglios, these skillful carvings on a minute scale, were much prized and collected, sometimes as symbols of power mounted in jewelled settings, sometimes as small objects for private devotion or enjoyment. In the secular world of the Renaissance in Europe, carved gems were collected and commissioned by rich and powerful patrons and rulers who wished to be seen as potent and enlightened figures in the mould of the great classical emperors. Part of the panoply of prestige, they were given as diplomatic or courtly gifts, and were much prized as a high form of courtly art. About 30 cameos of Queen Elizabeth survive, many apparently from the same workshop. They were probably made as gifts both from and to the queen and her supporters at home and abroad, and would have been mounted as brooches, pendants or rings, richly set in gold, enamelled and often jewelled settings. There is evidence from contemporary paintings that they were sometimes worn for ceremony by their owners on long chains or ribbons. As with many of the painted portraits of the queen, the image was not meant to be a true likeness but a statement of her virtues and powers. Here she holds a sieve. The symbol of the sieve derives from accounts of the life of the Vestal Virgin Tuccia who, according to various ancient writers including Petrarch, was miraculously able to carry water from the river Tiber to the temple of the Vestal Virgins in a sieve to prove her chastity. It appears as an attribute of Queen Elizabeth in a number of the painted portraits, collectively known as the 'Sieve' Portraits, dating from 1579 onwards, and was, according to William Camden the contemporary historian of Elizabeth's reign, her favourite device. It alludes both to her virginity, through which she was able to offer herself wholly to the path of duty and empire, and to her powers of discernment of good from bad.
Vertical oval cameo. Dark brown, opaque white and dark brown layered agate, variety sardonyx, the sides bevelled towards the front. Depicting Queen Elizabeth I. The queen is shown three-quarter length, her body facing forwards, her head in profile to the left. Her curled hair is revealed at the front of her head, but is covered towards the back by a jewelled head-dress from which a long veil hangs down her back. She wears a close-fitting ruff and her high-collared dress is richly embroidered with scrolling plant forms dotted with tudor roses. Large drop pearls hang from a jewelled necklace. She wears a chain, a jewelled girdle, and a jewelled order, possibly the 'George' or 'Lesser George' badge of the Order of the Garter, from which hang three large drop pearls. Her left hand is gloved, and in her bare right hand she holds a collander or sieve.
The engraving is cut from the top two layers of the stone, and is framed by a rim reserved from the middle white one. The dress, head-dress and cheek are cut from the top, brown, layer, the veil and the face from the white. The ground is also cut from the white layer, but is more polished than the face and veil providing contrast. The stone has many small flaws and has probably been artificially treated to enhance the dark brown colour (see Production Note). Set in a simple gold mount with loop for suspension.
Place of Origin
England, Great Britain (possibly, made)
Italy (possibly, made)
France (possibly, made)
Materials and Techniques
Height: 55 mm, Width: 40 mm
Object history note
Acquired by the Museum of Ornamental Art, later South Kensington Museum, in 1854, accessioned in 1855. Vendor not recorded.
Historical significance: One of a group of thirty surviving cameo portraits of the queen, two of which are in the Metalwork collection, all dating from about 1575-1603, possibly emanating from one specialist workshop which supplied the court jewellers with engraved stones for setting in different ways. They were probably made as gifts both from and to the queen and her supporters at home and abroad, and would have been mounted as brooches, pendants or rings, richly set in gold, enamelled and often jewelled settings. There is evidence from contemporary paintings that they were sometimes worn for ceremony or in portraits by their owners on long chains or ribbons, at waist height. Three are shown worn in this way by Garter Knights in procession in the painting Queen Elizabeth's Visit to Blackfriars in 1600, to attend the Marriage of Lord and Lady Herbert, Sherborne Castle. The names of Julien de Fontenay, who engraved gems for Henri IV in France, and Richard Asstill, engraver to Henry VIII, have both been suggested as possible heads of this workshop, and authors of the common style. There are links between the gems, and the painted portraits, as well as those on medals and coins representing the queen. The symbol of the sieve derives from accounts of the life of the Vestal Virgin Tuccia who, according to various ancient writers including Petrarch, was miraculously able to carry water from the river Tiber to the temple of the Vestal Virgins in a sieve to prove her chastity. It appears as an attribute of Queen Elizabeth in a number of the painted portraits, known as the 'Sieve' Portraits, dating from 1579 onwards, and its symbolism is examined by Roy Strong in several of his books, including Gloriana: the portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, 1987, pp. 95-107. It was, according to William Camden the contemporary historian of Elizabeth's reign, her favourite device. It alludes both to her virginity, through which she was able to offer herself wholly to the path of duty and empire, and to her powers of discernment of good from bad.
Cameo depicting bust of Queen Elizabeth I, oval sardonyx in gold setting; England, Italy or France, about 1580
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Inventory of Art Objects Acquired in the Year 1855. In: Inventory of the Objects in the Art Division of the Museum at South Kensington, Arranged According to the Dates of their Acquisition. Vol I. London: Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., 1868, p. 5.
Trusted, Marjorie, ed. The Making of Sculpture. The Materials and Techniques of European Sculpture. London: 2007, p. 147, plate 278.
Doran, Susan, ed. Elizabeth - The Exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. Chatto & Windus, London: 2003, p. 195, cat.no 198 (c)
Machell Cox, E., Victoria & Albert Museum Catalogue of Engraved Gems. London, Typescript, 1935, Part 2, Section 1, pp.136-138.
Strong, Roy,C. Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I. Oxford University Press, 1963, p. 129, no. 7.
Gere, Charlotte, The International Silver & Jewellery Fair & Seminar, Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots: History and Myth, London, 1991, p. 33
Kagan, Julia, Gem engraving in Britain from antiquity to the present (Oxford, 2010), pp.45, 47
Strong, Roy, Gloriana: The Portraits of Elizabeth I(London, 1987), pp.94-107 (for the ‘sieve’ portraits)
The Golden Age of the English Court: From Henry VIII to Charles I (Moscow Kremlin Museums 24 Oct 2012-27 Jan 2013)
Elizabeth (National Maritime Museum 01/05/2003-14/09/2003)
Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots: History and Myth (Park Lane Hotel 08/02/1991-11/02/1991)
Labels and date
Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars label text:
Cameo of Elizabeth I with a sieve
This cameo originally had an elaborate gold,
enamelled and jewelled setting. The sieve which
Elizabeth holds alludes to the classical heroine
Tuccia, who carried water in a sieve from the River
Tiber to the Temple of Vesta in Rome to prove her
chastity. The sieve is a symbol of Elizabeth’s
chastity, as well as her powers of discernment.
Attribution note: The distinct banding in this objects appears to have been enhanced by dyeing, a common practice from the earliest times. The dark brown colour is concentrated around the grain boundaries. The method most likely to have been used is the 'honeying' technique whereby agate with layers of varying porosity is submerged in a solution of honey and acidic wine. It is then heated until the more porous layers develop a deep brown colour. Honeying, and the later practice of Sugaring agates persists to this day. In the case of onyx/sardonyx this is because the dramatic contrasting colours the engraver wants occur only rarely in nature. The honeying technique is well documented, the first known record being made by Pliny, though there is evidence to suggest the process was in use centuries earlier in ancient Mesopotamia. In the 19th century chemical dyes were introduced which created the same effects, although honey and sugar continued to be used alongside these. See Margaret Sax article in Jewellery Studies, 7. (this information from J Whalley November 2009). The gold mount may be contemporary with the cameo, but would have undoubtedly originally been the basis for a much more elabrate setting.
Gold; Gemstone; Microquartz; Layered agate; Sardonyx
Elizabeth I (Queen of England and Wales)
Sculpture; Royalty; Jewellery; Portraits