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Snake in hand
by Malcolm Evans| Brighton, UK
Sunday, 27 June 2010
tags: art & design, culture, europe, fuzzy sets, making sense
X-ray and infra-red technology revealed, beneath roses held by Queen Elizabeth I in anonymous sixteenth-century painting displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2010 for the first time in 90 years, an earlier depiction of her right hand clutching what appears to be a black snake with blue-green highlights. ;What’s going on here we wonder. Artistic subversion of royal iconography? A Tudor Dan Brown moment of some kind? Clearly an enigma to set the popular semiotics machine in motion.
Some possible explanations:
• Historian David Starkey identified the serpent as being a symbol of wisdom at that time, and an apparent favourite of Elizabeth’s from the evidence of a discrete green serpents on an orange taffeta dress in another portrait.
• Why then the revision and painting out? The posy replacing the snake may have expressed second thoughts, at the time or later, around the serpent being an ambiguous image also strongly associated in Christian iconography with evil and original sin.
• Roses, in contrast, would have been an unproblematic icon of the Tudor dynasty, as well as the posy being a conventional female prop in portraiture.
With Freud and by now a decade or two of graphic online porn between us and the occluded serpent it’s hard to overlook the phallic connotation noted by art history blogs and press coverage of a snake “coiled suggestively around her right hand” (Arifa Akbar in The Independent). But donning our semiotic hats and trying to look at all human beings (including us in our own times and places) as aliens it can be salutary to look at the hand and snake trying to think ‘wisdom’ or ‘evil’ rather than the sense that might strike us first as obvious, natural and universal.
Imagine a future time when the cultural orthodoxy shares with Jorge Luis Borges this view of our psychoanalytic received wisdom today: “I have read Jung with great interest but with no conviction. At best he was an imaginative, exploratory writer. More than one can say for Freud: such rubbish!” Then we would look at the symbol interpreted as a phallic suggestively uncoiling snake and, with Foucault responding to the classification of animals in Borges’s Chinese Encyclopaedia, wonder at “the exotic charm of another system of thought” and “the stark impossibility of thinking that.”
© Malcolm Evans 2010
Arifa Akbar, “The Virgin Queen, the serpent and the doctored portrait”, The Independent, 5 March 2010, p.3