Semiotic analysis of a portrait

Henry VIII 1520

Fig 1- King Henry VIII by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, circa 1520. National Portrait Gallery, London

As a king, Henry used his choice of dress was a way in which he asserted his power, Hayward (2007) stated his use of wardrobe to create a sense of magnificence was conveyed very powerful.

Within the painting, he is shown to be wearing a significant amount of gold, it has been said that ‘Henry VIII had a great passion for jewels and jewellery’ Norris (1938). A significant piece of jewellery which Henry is shown to be wearing is his chain with a pendent around his neck, like the ones in Fig.2. Norris (1938) explained that gold chains were very popular, and a wardrobe account states that in 1511, Henry purchased a 98-ounce pendent for £199. The price Henry paid for this item of jewellery supports the argument that he used his economic capital to emphasise authority.


Fig 2- Pendant’s similar to what the royalty and nobility would wear- Norris, H, 1938. Costume & fashion. Vol.3, The Tudors. Book 1, 1485-1547. London: J.M. Dent and Sons LTD.

The colour of clothing was also used in the 16th Century to show power and authority, due to the significant differentiation of pricing and dyeing techniques. In respect to Henrys clothing within the portrait, he is shown to have been dressed in Red velvet. Red dyes in the sixteenth century, were very expensive due to the way in which it was created. Kirby, et al (2014) described the way in which red dyes are extracted from the bodies of female Kermes insects which contain eggs which are yet to hatch. This process was highly time consuming where by insects must be killed and dried, this was accomplished by ‘immersion of boiling water, exposure to sun, heating on a skillet and suffocation’ Feeser, et al (2012). This means the price of clothing dyed using Kermes Dye was significantly high.

As stated under the current events of the 1520 on (National Portrait Gallery, n.d.) Henry was involved in The Field Of Cloth Of Gold around the time of the when the Portrait would have been painted. It involved ‘two of the greatest kings of the European Renaissance, the 25-year-old King Francis I of France and King Henry VIII of England then aged 29’ Richardson (2014). One of Henrys main aims within his Foreign Policy, was to be viewed as strong power amongst leaders within Europe, he used The field of Cloth of Gold was used as a way to achieve this through the use of lavish decor for example ‘the mule too, of course, was dressed in crimson velvet, and all of her trappings were of gold’ Lacey (1972). This links to the amount of gold which Henry was wearing within the portrait, as he wanted to also look as lavish due to the date of the painting being the same time as when The Field of Cloth and Gold took place.


Feeser, A. e., Goggin, M. D. e. & Tobin, B. F. e., 2012. The materiality of color: the production, circulation, and application of dyes and pigments, 1400-1800. Surrey: Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.

Hayward, M., 2007. Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII. s.l.:Maney Publishing .

Kirby, J. a., Bommel, M. R. v. a., Verhecken, A. a. & Spring, M. a., 2014. Natural colorants for dyeing and lake pigments: practical recipes and their historical sources. London: Archetype Publications Ltd in association with CHARISMA .

Lacey, R., 1972. The Life and Times of Henry VIII. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

National Portrait Gallery, L., n.d. King Henry VIII. [Online] Available at: [Accessed April 2018].

Norris, H., 1938. Costume & fashion. Vol.3, The Tudors. Book 1, 1485-1547. London: J.M. Dent and Sons LTD.

Richardson, G., 2014. The Field of Cloth of Gold. s.l.:Yale University .

Image References

Fig 1-National Portrait Gallery, L., n.d. King Henry VIII. [Online] Available at: [Accessed April 2018]

Fig 2-Norris, H., 1938. Costume & fashion. Vol.3, The Tudors. Book 1, 1485-1547. London: J.M. Dent and Sons LTD.





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