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Daily Mail | Mar. 4, 2010
A mysterious image of a coiled snake has appeared in a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, the National Portrait Gallery said today.
The serpent was depicted being clasped in the Tudor monarch's fingers in the original version of the work - but it was painted over at the last minute and replaced with a more decorative, if rather oddly shaped, bunch of roses.
Deterioration over time has meant the snake has revealed itself once more, with its outline now visible on the surface.
Revealed once more: The image of a snake has appeared in a 16th century portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. A faint outline of the coils can be seen superimposed on her hand, while the serpent's body, - seen as dark shading - follows the line of the flowers she is holding and also passes beneath her fingers
The portrait was created by an unknown artist in the 1580s or early 1590s.
The image has not been on display at the London gallery since 1921 but it will form part of an exhibition titled Concealed and Revealed: The Changing Faces of Elizabeth I, from March 13 to September 26.
A serpent was sometimes used to reflect wisdom, prudence and reasoned judgment, but the scaly creatures are also linked to notions of Satan and original sin.
The gallery suggested the snake's removal may have been due to the ambiguity of the emblem.
An artist's impression has been created of what the snake could have looked like, with infra-red technology revealing the changes in the initial design.
What lay beneath: An artist's impression of what the snake may have looked like, left, and an infra-red image of the altered design. A serpent was sometimes used to reflect wisdom but they are also linked to notions of Satan and original sin
A statement from the gallery said: 'The snake is mainly black but has greenish blue scales and was almost certainly painted from imagination.'
Tarnya Cooper, curator of 16th century paintings at the gallery, said the snake is a unique attribute in portraits of the queen.
'The portrait of Elizabeth I with a hidden serpent is a really unusual survival. Yet it is difficult to know exactly why the serpent may have been originally included, or how common this motif might have been.
'The queen certainly owned jewellery and costume including emblems of serpents, which were probably understood as a symbol of wisdom.
'However, no other portrait of Elizabeth appears to depict her holding a snake.'
The image of the monarch clutching the serpent/flowers covers a portrait of another woman, whose identity is unknown.
X-ray photography showed a female head facing in the opposite direction and in a higher position than the queen.
The eyes and nose of the first face are visible where paint has been lost from Elizabeth's forehead.
The gallery believes the unfinished portrait was by a different painter, showing how 16th century panels were sometimes recycled by artists.
The unknown woman appears to have been wearing a French hood, fashionable in 1570-1580s, suggesting that there may have been a few years before the panel was re-used for the portrait of Elizabeth I.