With her gallons of pearls, Elizabeth evinces not only a staggering display of wealth but also her global dominance and autonomy. In the painting, she is shown literally standing on the world, a gesture that restates the strong reach of her empire, which can supply her with any jewel she could ever desire. Yet, O’Reilly noted, often, these sitters wore an excess of jewels that we know they didn’t really have from the household inventories left behind. Either they mixed in fakes, borrowed stones, or had the artist imagine them.
Despite the difficulty of acquiring precious stones (as evidenced by Elizabeth’s studded white gown), in the
, “anywhere opulence could be displayed, it was,” Volandes said. In Elizabeth’s Golden Age, fashionable members of the court also sought to communicate wealth in their clothing. In ’s
1514 double portrait of Henry IV of Saxony and Catherine of Mecklenburg, gold silk and thin strips of actual metal were woven together to create the sitters’ “insanely heavy” textiles, O’Reilly said, which would “affect the way you move and carry yourself.”
The gold chains around Henry’s neck, she observed, were often given as gifts, and were worn prominently in portraits to show the subject’s favored position at court. This kind of power-play portraiture continued for centuries; the sitters’ prestige could also be gleaned from the potency of a gemstone’s color or a special piece’s provenance. For a long time, only royalty and aristocrats had the pleasure of possessing such treasures. But 300 years later, in the late 19th century, there was a “monumental shift in the expression of power and wealth,” Volandes said.