Framed in fantasy: Stuart allegorical imagery and Queen Mary II

By Holly Marsden

Like many English monarchs, Queen Mary II carefully cultivated a public image through visual and material culture. Through tangible objects and artworks, regnant queens could secure the loyalty of their public whilst strengthening the image of their dynasty. Mary came from the Stuart family, and the visual culture surrounding her reign demonstrates a strategic attempt to hark back to previous Stuart rulers.

One way that Mary did this was through commissioning and sitting for portraits with allegorical subject matters. In art, allegory is when aspects of the artwork are used to symbolise deeper moral or spiritual meanings. Allegorical images are able to illustrate complex thought in a tangible form. Depictions of visual allegories were used by English monarchs to demonstrate their power, often using classical imagery to associate themselves with the empires of Greece and Rome. In seventeenth-century English painting, the tradition of allegorical representation in royal portraiture was transformed by the court painter to Charles I, Netherlandish artist Jan Van Dyck.

Van Dyck painted allegories that did not focus on visual reality, but on possibility. He used a mixture of real and fantasy representation, reducing the extensive number of props and costume previously used in royal images. The re-imaged Stuarts in Van Dyck’s paintings represented the ideas or projections of who their characters should be, rather than the royal figure realistically dressed as an allegorical character. Dress as portrayed in portraiture was a political symbol as much as it was an expression of taste. Through Mary’s display of royal dress, she connects to other Stuart women such as Anna of Denmark, queen consort to James I. Dress in allegorical portraits helped to situate the figure outside of reality.  

A portrait of the Roman goddess Diana by Peter Lely from 1672 is of Mary II when a child, before her engagement to William of Orange. Lely’s painting of Mary as Diana depicts her central to the composition, in front of a plain pastoral background. The lack of extensive props and elements to set the scene is in accordance with the precedent set by Van Dyck. She is dressed in sumptuous fabrics which include a flowing scarf, and Diana’s crescent crown is placed on her head. Her bow and arrow also communicate that the figure is Diana, who is Goddess of the Hunt. One theory of the origin of this image states that this depicts Mary as her character of Diana, whom she performed as in John Crowne’s masque Calisto. Staged in the court of Mary’s uncle Charles II, this image aided the masque in presenting Mary as an eligible marriage match.

Another theory is that this young girl as Diana is not Mary at all, but only later attributed as the young princess. Whatever the origin, both theories beg the question as to why Mary is associated with Diana, especially if the Stuart dynasty attributed her to this figure perhaps later into or after her reign. Diana symbolised the somewhat contradictory virtues of chastity and fertility, meaning she was an appropriate symbol for a queen who was expected to continue the Stuart line whilst promoting sexual and religious piety. Moreover, as a self-sufficient huntress, Mary as Diana may have helped to quell fears over having the first woman on the throne since Elizabeth I.

Van Dyck’s introduction into the Stuart court in the 1640s created a hybrid of a Dutch and English painting style that became characteristic to the Stuart dynasty. The style stressed the social image of the family rather than the political image of the dynasty, like English royal painting had previously. This was influenced by Netherlandish painting traditions and went hand-in-hand with the Protestant move away from the belief and visual portrayal of the Divine Right of Kings. In all, the Stuarts presented themselves, as noted by Simon Schama, as the ‘family of families.’ This cultural exchange was echoed in Mary’s appointment as Dutch consort to her husband William of Orange in 1677, before she travelled back to England to take over from her deposed father James II in 1688. Once again, cultures and fashions were brought from the Dutch court and introduced to England. Consort queens were vital in cross-cultural exchange such as this.  

Allegorical depictions of royals did not always convey the messages they had planned. A medal circulated by William and Mary to celebrate their coronation in 1689, designed by Jan Roettiers, depicts the bust of the royal couple on the obverse. The reverse side portrays the allegorical scene of Roman god Jove (or Jupiter) releasing a thunderbolt from a cloud at Phaeton, who is driving a chariot. As a result, he loses control and falls over the burning world. The allegory at first sight provides a fitting sentiment for the Glorious Revolution: Protestant William is Jupiter, ready to overtake from Catholic James II (Phaeton) who has lost control of power. The allegory used demonstrates that the government aimed to reassure the public that the monarchs’ power is well-placed. It also aimed to settle anxieties over the tumultuous Revolution and affirm loyalty to the crown. By circulating commemorative medals, the monarchy created a physical manifestation of power which could be experienced by the masses.

However, not all of the public read the allegorical message of the medal as the monarchy intended. The Jacobites, followers of James II, interpreted the medal to show Mary as the Roman figure of Tullia driving the chariot to demonstrate their disdain of the so-called Glorious Revolution. In Roman mythology, Tullia urged her husband Tarquin to kill her father to gain his throne. According to Jacobite readings, then, the medal shows Tullia, or Mary, riding over the remains of her father. The lightning bolts were seen as a punishment from God for patricide and for not handing her new-found power entirely to her husband. Images on objects are as important to explore as images in portraiture.

As we have seen, allegory was important in early modern depictions of royalty, conveying coded moral messages through imagery. Despite her short reign, images of Mary II demonstrate careful (but not always successful) image-making by the Stuart family, informed by cultural influences from the Netherlands.

Recommended Reading
Gordenker, Emilie E. S. “The Rhetoric of Dress in Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Portraiture.” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 57 (1999): 87-104.

Roskill, Mark. “Van Dyck at the English Court: The Relations of Portraiture and Allegory.” Critical Inquiry 14, no. 1 (1987): 173-199.

Schama, Simon. “The Domestication of Majesty: Royal Family Portraiture, 1500-1850.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 17, no. 1, (1986): 155-183.

Schwoerer, Lois G. “Images of Queen Mary II, 1689-95.” Renaissance Quarterly 42, no. 4 (1989): 717-748.

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