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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Nicholas Hilliard: The English Renaissance and its symbols

Updated: Apr 10, 2021


Nicholas Hilliard, Portrait of Alice Hilliard, 1578, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

If we think about the Renaissance our mind is going to Italy and specially to Florence with great artists as Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael but there was as well an English Renaissance.

European artists that arrived in the island bringing with them the innovative ideas of the Renaissance and the new techniques had inspired local artists to create their own style and from that moment an English Renaissance was born in its own way.

This period is spanning from the reign of Elizabeth I till James I and was innovative in painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, music and science providing the base for the modern English society.

After the peace of Troyes, in 1564 England gave away its demand on Calais cutting the bond with the catholic European continent. The Protestant country, isolated from the continent, will give the base to a new and distinct form of art.

One of the main protagonists was Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), considered one of the first English painters.

Hilliard came from a family of Goldsmiths, his father and two of his brothers were goldsmiths, and he married Alice the daughter of his master Robert Brandon, a goldsmith and city chamberlain of London.

Robert Brandon was the Queen's jeweller and Hilliard spent seven years apprenticeship with him before to be made a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in 1569.

Some art historians suggested that Hilliard may also have been trained in the art of limning by Levina Teerlinc during this period. She was the daughter of Simon Bening, the last great master of the Flemish manuscript illumination tradition, and became court painter to Henry VIII after Holbein's death.

Nicholas Hilliard became famous for his portrait miniatures of members of the courts of Elizabeth I and James I of England, where he added his precision as a goldsmith. He created something never seen before, his works were intimate, private, with secret messages and were superbly executed with freshness and charm.

His works were small watercolours on vellum no bigger than a playing card, that was usually used as a base to mount the vellum. Hilliard’s technique was incredible in the way he could give a three-dimensional effect in his miniatures with the different thickness of the colours and the magnificent execution of the jewellery.

He used to create the jewellery in his paintings with a silver colour that reflects the lights and for the gems a mixture of resins and colours heat up in the fire with a needle that gave a drop shaping to create ruby or other precious stones.

These three-dimensional effects were created to increase the reflection and shininess of the painting jewelleries if they were view in the candlelight.

Nicholas Hilliard, The Pelican Portrait, 1575, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

One of the portraits that gave fame to Hilliard in the court was The Pelican portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.

The Queen's appearance at this time was increasingly magnificent and these portraits depict her wearing particularly elaborate clothes and jewellery.

She is shown here wearing a velvet bodice decorated with precious stones at breast and it is possible to see the pelican jewel. The pelican represents self-sacrifice, as it was said to draw blood from its own breast to feed its young. It alludes to Elizabeth's role as mother to the nation. The two cherries tucked into her right ear probably refer to her virginity as she was known as the “Virgin Queen”.

Nicholas Hilliard was the closest there was to an official “court painter”, and one of the few artists who painted Elizabeth from life and always in an open space as the Queen didn’t want any shadows in her face.

He painted the Queen over a 30 years period and helped to construct her public image as an icon of beauty and virtue.

Hilliard was appointed limner (miniaturist) and goldsmith to Elizabeth I with a modest pension.

Despite this patronage, in 1576 the recently married Hilliard left for France with intent to increase his knowledge by this voyage but upon all with the hope to get a piece of money of the lords and ladies here for his better maintenance in England at his return.

In his French period (1576-1578), he realized some of his most beautiful portraits.

One of them it is his Self-portrait aged 30.

Nicholas Hilliard, self-portrait aged 30, 1577, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This self-portrait marks Hilliard's first encounter with the Renaissance ideal of the artist as an individual of genius, and where painters express their aspirations to the status of a gentleman. This was possible in France but not in England where they were seen just as any other craftsmen.

Extremely delicate and beautiful is the portrait of his wife Alice, probably influenced there by the famous chalk drawings of François Clouet, noted for their seductive ability to catch fleeting expression.

Nicholas Hilliard, Portrait of Alice Hilliard, detail

The young woman in her twenties is wearing a ruff, in a circular frame with a decorative border with inscriptions in gold.

Alice’s bodice is decorated with a wheat that indicates abundance, life, fertility.

The miniature is a touching portrait by the husband of his young pregnant wife, who will travel back to England across the Channel, to give birth to their first child.

In his sojourn in Paris Hilliard have the opportunity to meet a young 18 years old called Francis Bacon, the future philosopher, statesman, Lord Chancellor and scientist.

The portrait is remarkable for the intensity and the keenness of Bacon’s gaze and for its exquisite technique.

Nicholas Hilliard, Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount of St Alban, 1578, National Portrait Gallery, London

Hilliard uses some tricks to create vivid and three-dimensional effects using small dots of blue applied to the pale grey of the iris, the vibrant red mouth has diagonal stripes on the lower lip painted to suggest the fall of light, a few strokes of black wash above the upper lip suggest the beginning of a moustache and the highlights and edges of the ruff have been painted in a thick-bodied white paint.

Nicholas Hilliard, Francis Bacon, detail
Nicholas Hilliard, Francis Bacon, detail

Hilliard returned to England and he continued to paint portrait miniatures more and more complex.

The Elizabethans and Jacobeans loved symbolism. They loved the way you could use symbols to keep things secret and also to reveal things to people who were in the know and to exclude things from people to who they didn’t want to convey certain message.

Miniatures lend themselves brilliantly to symbolism because they are small, you can hide them, you can close them, you can open them, you can show them to your friends who might understand the symbols and if other people see them and don’t understand the symbolism that could be a good thing.

These images were private and intimate kept in small secret boxes or wore as a neckless often with secret love messages to exchange between lovers.

One of the most famous portrait miniatures is The man on flames, a stupendous painting of a young man wearing a white shirt open almost to the waist, with a golden background of flames.

The flames are scattered with powdered gold so that when the picture is turned this way and that, the fire of love leaps into life.

Niholas Hilliard, The man on flames, ca.1600, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

He has a chain round his neck with a portrait even smaller of her lover, really difficult to identify.

She gave herself to him, in private, and now he offers himself in return: a lover burning with passion.

There is anything more explicit than in Hilliard’s famously mysterious portrait of 1588, known as Man Clasping a Hand from a Cloud.

The identity of the eponymous gentleman, with his pale blue eyes and fine golden tendrils, has never been established. Perhaps something in his black satin doublet and elaborate hat, trimmed with intricate silver lace, might have given a clue in his days. But descending from the transparent circles of cloud above is another hand cuffed with equally complicated lace, a symbol of devotion from a courtesan to his beloved.

This was a symbol of dedication, fidelity, intimacy, protection, linkage across distance in which a

Nicholas Hilliard, Man Clasping a Hand from a Cloud, 1588, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

man clasping a hand means that his hand will always be in hers. Hilliard seems underline here the idea of protection as the hand emerges from a cloud, and is therefore a helping or a guiding hand, a hand from heaven. In the miniature there is a mysterious motto Attici amoris ergo, which still has not been satisfactorily explained.

Young man among roses is known as one of the most famous miniature by Hilliard and in an unusual large elongated oval shape possibly to be incorporated into an expensive object such as a looking-glass.

There is not a certainty identification in the young man leaning on a tree with his right hand above his heart, but we know really well who was the subject of his love.

The white roses as the white and black colours of his clothes are the colours of Queen Elizabeth I.

Nicholas Hilliard, Young man among roses, 1585-95, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It has been suggested that this unknown young man is Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, the Queen's young favourite. At this date he was in his twenties about 30 years younger than the Queen he pays homage to, hand on heart. This impossible love with the “Virgin Queen” is underline in the motto taken from Lucan's De Bello Civili “Dat / poenas laudata fides” (“my praised fidelity gives me pains”)

This portrait could be one of that objects that the Queen received as homage of her knights and courtesan at the Accession Day ceremonial. As a woman ruler she encouraged a unique court culture, exerting her authority through elaborate rituals of courtship with her male courtiers.

These beautiful miniatures were intimate pieces of art, designed to be mementos and reveal much about relationships and sentimentality in this period, as tokens of love, favour, power and ostentation.

Unfortunately, like so much of sixteenth-century art, the symbolic meaning is often forgotten and remains as an enigmatic secret.



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