Simon Davies, Painted Hall Ceiling Tour guide

24 July 2017

Sir James Thornhill, the artist behind the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, identified all the major characters of the Painted Hall's complex ceiling in a pamphlet, called An Explanation of the Painting in the Royal Hospital at Greenwich. These important figures float amongst a much larger cast of figures - but what role do these supporting figures play in the grand design, or are they just mythological infill?

A detail of the Painted Hall, displaying the Roman goddess Juno

The Roman Godess Juno (in blue) with an unidentified figure before her (yellow)

One figure in particular interests me. In the east end corners of the ceiling are the Roman gods Jupiter and Juno (called Zeus and Hera in Greek), famed King of the Gods and Queen of the Heavens, and husband and wife - here representing the elements of Fire and Air. What intrigued me (and started this quest) was the identity of the lady in the golden yellow and white robes near Juno, apparently performing Pilates in front of her Queen!

Thornhill does not name this female character, but if we look closely there are some revealing clues. Note the delicate shaft of light that softly arches from just below her leg to the stern of the warship below. This helps us identify her as Iris, handmaiden and servant to Juno and Goddess of the Rainbow. This identification is confirmed by the writer Richard Steele who published a description of the Painted Hall during Thornhill’s lifetime.

A faint rainbow forms part of this group of figures

A faint rainbow is visible among this group of figures

A closer study of the light trail reveals subtle hints of green and reddish pigments. The rainbow may once have been more vibrant but now is only visible to the most observant eye. Its significance lies in the fact that it unites two worlds – the realm of the gods and the earthly sphere of mortal men below. Iris, messenger of the gods alongside Mercury, is said to be “swift footed like a storm wind” and utilizes the rainbow as a bridge to connect both realms.

Behind Iris sits Juno, with a golden crown and green-blue cloak billowing around her head, her sacred animal the peacock by her side. Jupiter’s notorious infidelity made Juno jealous and she often responded violently, even conjuring up tempestuous winds that endangered mortal sailors. Thankfully Iris is at hand to soothe and balance out Juno’s powers; much as the appearance of a rainbow heralds a return to calmer waters following a storm. Mirroring arm gestures further highlight the empathy and understanding between the two goddesses.

The full composition, with the rainbow emanating from Iris

The full composition, with the rainbow emanating from Iris

The shape of the rainbow is very clear in Thornhill’s preparatory sketches for the ceiling. Once this area of the painting has been cleaned and conserved it will be much harder to miss. Unlike the mythical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the mystery of lady in yellow’s identity has now been resolved!

Book a Painted Hall Ceiling Tour today


If you haven't already, now's the time to book one of our acclaimed Painted Hall Ceiling Tours. Ascend 60 feet and discover the secrets of London’s largest painted ceiling.

Book a tour today >

Find out more