March 4, 2010 / 4:05 PM / 8 years ago

Snake reappears in 16th century Elizabeth portrait

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - A serpent originally included in a 16th century portrait of Elizabeth I but painted over shortly afterwards has “reappeared,” the National Portrait Gallery in London said Thursday.

Degradation over time has revealed that the monarch was originally painted holding a serpent, the outline of which is now visible again in the work by an unknown artist dating from the 1580s or early 1590s.

But at the last minute the emblem was covered, and the queen was depicted holding a small bunch of roses instead.

The gallery said it was not sure why the change was made, but suggested that it may have been to do with the ambiguity of meaning the symbol carried.

An artist's impression of a section of a portrait of Britain's Queen Elizabeth I, painted by an unknown artist circa 1580-1590, is seen in this handout made available by the National Portrait Gallery in London March 4, 2010. REUTERS/National Portrait Gallery/Handout

While a serpent was sometimes used to represent wisdom, prudence and reasoned judgment -- all fitting attributes for a queen -- snakes also symbolized Satan and original sin in the Christian tradition.

The portrait, which has not been on display in the gallery for nearly 80 years, is part of a new exhibition titled “Concealed and Revealed: The Changing Faces of Elizabeth I,” which runs from March 13 until September 26.

It features four portraits which date from the 1560s until just after the queen’s death in 1603, all of which have changed in appearance in some way since they were created.

Advanced scientific techniques have helped unlock clues as to how they would have looked originally.

The portrait of Elizabeth holding a serpent, for example, was painted over the unfinished picture of an unknown woman, showing how 16th century panels were sometimes re-used and recycled by artists.

Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato

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