Power in Print

When we look at the paintings of early modern monarchs in western Europe it is not just a visual experience, certainly the visual impression is often striking, but there is another layer underlying the image that tells a much more elaborate story. It is the language of power and authority that is intended to influence both public and symbolic perceptions of the monarch in the public eye. Today we would call this good branding, back then it was just one of the many subtle ways that monarchs reinforced their public image.

Like modern branding and marketing efforts, not everyone was successful. There were certainly monarchs who’s efforts were poorly received. And some, such as Charles 1, for whom that failure ultimately proved fatal. However, by looking at those who were successful, and those who were empirically not, we can establish a list of certain themes and practices that greatly improved a monarchs brand.

  • Be a symbol- some of the most successful of early modern monarchs were those who did not try and present themselves as individuals and humans, but those who presented themselves as an enduring symbol of royal, divinely-ordained authority. Rulers such as Elizabeth i realized the power of larger than life symbolism and used it to create success, while rulers like Charles i tried to present themselves as “common” men, a decision that may be indirectly responsible for his ultimate decapitation. This practice would be especially important for female rulers, who could not rely on the traditional rules of the monarch to reinforce their image.
  • Use religious iconography- religion was firmly tied to early modern state craft, the idea of divinely ordained kingship was the foundation of the monarchy across Europe. As such, a wise ruler was one who tied themselves inextricably to the symbols of religious power. Later in her reign Elizabeth i created deliberate parallels between herself and the virgin Mary.
  • Establish a dynastic link- some of the most successful rulers of the middle ages and the early modern period were those who recognized the power of their family name. The idea of kingship is obviously closely tied to blood, but its a different thing to very publicly reinforce that connection through common themes in art within a dynasty. When a new dynasty takes the throne they are well advised to create new artistic themes that ties the new dynasty together and differentiate themselves form past monarchs.
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