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Painting, Sculpture and the Graphic Arts

All of the arts flourished under Elizabeth I's reign, largely due to the Queen's love of the arts. During the age of Elizabeth, painting was dominated by portraiture, particularly in the form of miniatures, while elaborate textiles and embroidery prevailed in the decorative arts, and sculpture found its place within the confines of tomb and architectural decoration. The Queen herself took a keen interest in her portraits, guiding artists such as Nicholas Hilliard and Marcus Gheeraerts in the creation of stylized images of immense elegance, wealth and power. Various artists such as Hilliard, Gheeraerts, Robert Peake the Elder, John de Critz, and George Gower received commissions from the Crown, and employed techniques from European Mannerism and the School of Fontainebleau. These artists made large-scale, full-length paintings that portrayed the noble class in richly decorative costumes with armor, embroidery, ruffs, hunting gear, weapons, and lace. This artificial and decorative style became characteristic of Elizabethan painting in general.

Additionally, some of the most famous Elizabethan works of art are miniature paintings. Miniatures came from the tradition of illuminated manuscripts and from Renaissance portrait medals, a revived classical form. It is said that the foreign artist Hans Holbein, instructed Hilliard, one of the Queen's favorite artists, in the technique. Hilliard produced miniatures painted on vellum or ivory or card, and such miniatures often functioned like lockets or cameos. Intended for private viewing, portrait miniatures were often highly personal and intimate objects that often depicted lovers or mistresses. Many of the larger court portraits of Elizabeth were based upon Hilliard's miniatures and portraits.

In the decorative arts, demand for domestic silver significantly increased during the mid-sixteenth century because of rapid growth in population and subsequent expansion of the middle and upper classes. Silver plates were often decorated with embossed sculptural vegetal forms, fruit, grotesque figures, and strapwork. These intricate designs of foliage and patterning were also applied to suits of armor and domestic textiles embroidered with colored silks and threads of gold and silver.

Architecture of the Elizabethan period became expression of wealth and status. Symmetry and ornateness characterized the style of the English Renaissance, with tall houses and towers, for example, accented by elaborate gardens and stables. Elizabethan style followed the Tudor style, and was succeeded in the beginning of the 16th century by the purer Italian style introduced by Inigo Jones. It responded to the Cinque-Cento period in Italy, the Francois I style in France, and the Plateresque or Silversmiths style in Spain.

Literature and Poetry

Influenced by Italian sonnets, English writers of the period began introducing complicated poetic structures in both verse and prose. The sonnets and plays of William Shakespeare became exceptionally popular in England and eventually across Europe. Shakespeare's plays abounded in different forms such as comedies, satires, tragedies, and romances, and included "Romeo and Juliet," "Hamlet," "Macbeth," "Julius Caesar," and "A Midsummer Night's Dream." As a result, theater became a national pastime across social classes in England. In addition to Shakespeare, playwrights Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson flourished during this era. Marlowe was known for his magnificent blank verse, his overreaching protagonists, and his own untimely death. Jonson was a dramatist, poet and actor, best known for his plays "Volpone" and "The Alchemist," his lyrics, his influence on Jacobean and Caroline poets, his theory of humours, his contentious personality, and his friendship and rivalry with Shakespeare.

Poets such as Edmund Spenser and John Milton produced works that demonstrated an increased interest in understanding English Christian beliefs, such as the allegorical representation of the Tudor Dynasty in "The Faerie Queen" and the retelling of mankind's fall from paradise in "Paradise Lost."


Music of this period became increasingly expressive and refined, and a knowledge and appreciation of music set apart the truly genteel members of the high social classes. In addition, court musicians gradually moved into their own music houses and guilds. Several different instruments became popular during the Elizabethan era, including the lute (a forerunner of the guitar or cello), viol (predecessor to the violin), spinet (a piano-like instrument), bagpipe, fife and cornet (a short trumpet).