Zoomable Image of An allegorical double portrait of King Charles II (1630-85) and Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705), c.1665

An allegorical double portrait of King Charles II (1630-85) and Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705), c.1665

English School

An allegorical double portrait of King Charles II (1630-85) and Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705), c.1665

English School

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Oil on canvas


49 x 97 ins., (124 x 247 cm)

A version of this painting was paraded through the streets of Lisbon (where Catherine married Charles by proxy) on the couple’s wedding day...

This extremely rare, large scale allegorical tableau represents the newly-wed King and his Portuguese bride within an allegorical setting, designed to be read by the viewer from left to right. Seated, with hands clasped, the couple present a strong, united front. England’s wealth at this point was much fortified by Catherine’s dowry. This settlement included Tangiers, which would give England control over the Mediterranean, and Bombay, an important trade gateway to India.[1] Naturally, the union was also expected to produce an heir, a premise indicated in this painting by the mother figure, surrounded by cherubs, to Catherine’s left.

The optimistic tone of this allegorical painting is perfectly in keeping with the mood of king and court at this time. Cherubs honour the couple with laurel leaf crowns, although Catherine was never formally crowned. Catherine holds a staff called a caduceus, or Mercury's wand. The reference here may be to Mercury as god of commerce, indicating the riches to come from the trade routes opened by Catherine’s dowry. These riches are also indicated in the hands of the cherubs to the right of the picture, as gold, pearls, fruits, a globe artichoke and ears of corn tumble through their hands indicating both the potential material and dynastic bounty of the couple’s union.[2] The female figure central to this half of the painting possibly holds a trumpet, symbolising that she is Clio, Muse of History.

The flaming sword held by the cherub to the right of the picture is a reference to the cherubim in Genesis 3:24, (‘a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life’). Charles II has returned from exile and restored England to the Garden of Eden – unlike Adam and Eve, he has been allowed to re-enter after his forced expulsion. The thunderbolts held by the cherub are a direct reference to the force of love felt between Charles and Catherine, as well as an indication of Charles’ protection of the kingdom in which they now both reside.[3]

Charles II married Catherine of Braganza by proxy in Lisbon in April 1662 and she arrived in England later that year. A Catholic princess, who had led a secure but sheltered upbringing, she seemed no match for the lively beauties who surrounded her husband at court. Charles himself, however, seemed pleased with the match, and while never reigning in his appreciation of other women, became devoted to her steady nature and integrity. Samuel Pepys caught his first glimpse of the Queen shortly after her arrival and noted; ‘…though she be not very charming, yet she hath a good, modest, and innocent look, which is pleasing…The King and Queen were very merry; and he would have made the Queen-Mother believe that his Queen was with child, and said that she said so. And the young Queen answered, “You lye;” which was the first English word that I ever heard her say which made the King good sport.’[4]

Frustratingly, a lack of firm provenance for this picture makes it difficult to guess at the original function and location. Katherine Gibson, writing in 1997, suggested that the portrait may be by a Portuguese artist and that it may even be the very painting paraded through the streets of Lisbon on the couple’s wedding day. This is unlikely, given that the portrait of Catherine is probably derived from the Lely portrait, painted after her arrival in England therefore after her wedding by proxy.[5] The sheer size of the picture suggests that it was undoubtedly painted to be hung in a grand location, with high ceilings. This fact may even point to a public arena, where the image may have had a civic function. Certainly the strong royalist slant and the blatant confidence in the couple’s marriage suggest that this image was painted with singular, celebratory purpose – a large-scale investment in the future of the royal family.

Although it has not been possible to identify an artist for this allegory, it was likely to have been painted by an English hand. The head types of the king and queen conflates a number of different sources, including the portrait by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) of Catherine in the Royal Collection, where she wears similar dress with a blue robe draped across her lap.[6] The portrait of Charles would appear to be based on the seated composition by John Michael Wright (1617-1694), although many elements of the costume vary from this portrait.[7] This double composition is also found in crude etchings, dating to the year of their marriage. One such example shows the couple holding hands, a cherub with the Portuguese coat of arms flies above the couple.[8] The combination of both Classical and Biblical elements imply a trained artist drawing on both types of imagery to convey a message. There is a unique Britishness to this use of symbolism that would have been instantly recognisable to the contemporary viewer. The effect is a dramatic, sweeping panorama, made to fill a wall as impressively as a fine tapestry.

[1] The dowry also promised £300,000 in cash. The vast majority of Catherine’s dowry however remained unpaid, inhibiting her ability to gain any political power in England.

[2] Catherine was unable to bear Charles II his much hoped-for heir and suffered many miscarriages, the last in 1669.

[3] In his play Tamburlaine the Great, Christopher Marlowe wrote of ‘Jove’s dreadful thunderbolts’ in reference to the strength of his hero.

[4] The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 7 September 1662

[5] Katherine Gibson, Phd, PHD 'Best belov'd of kings': the iconography of King Charles II’, p. 83

[6] The portrait by Lely in the Royal Collection is dated to circa 1662-65 (RCIN 401214). Although the present portrait is not an exact copy, it draws on the dress and pose of the Queen in this image.

[7] National Portrait Gallery, NPG 531

[8] British Museum, 1850,1109.21

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