Christmas Pearls: power (1)

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The original tudor Somerset House was briefly occupied by the princess Elizabeth, later Elizabeth I. The building was recently completed and had been seized from its original owner, the Duke of Somerset on his arrest and execution for treason. Elizabeth lived in the house for five years before her accession to the throne in 1558.

Pearls have a powerful association with Elizabeth I. During her reign she developed a personal iconography as the Virgin Queen, drawing on both religious and maternal sentiment. Pearls, as symbols of purity since medieval times, played a central part in this imagery.

Rather as the statues of Roman emperors grew when the image and iconography of empire started to eclipse reality, so as Elizabeth’s reign advanced, her love and use of pearls seemed to intensify.  Seamstresses transferred her collection of pearls between her dresses as she wore them. The 1588 Armada portrait shows Elizabeth at the apogee of her power,  wearing a dress encrusted with pearls, pearls woven through her hair and eight ropes of pearls draped at her waist. The image speaks of purity, lustre, lavish wealth and power.

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