Before its restoration the Corpus Christi College portrait was photographed in black and white. Painted in 1585, its old flaking boards had split apart by November 1952 when it was discovered.


What do we have to go on? The year it was painted, the impress of the sitter, the pose of the sitter, and the age of the sitter. The age of the sitter is 21. The portrait was painted in 1585, the year Christopher Marlowe was 21 years old. In the University of Cambridge Book of Matriculation and Degrees, 1544-1659, there is only one student in the Corpus Christi list of registrants who was 21 years old in 1585, Christopher Marlowe. Corpus Chrisit was the Cambridge college to which Marlowe had been assigned as a Divinity student.

Elizabethans liked their portraits to tell a story. If one were, say, a physician, he might have a few tools of the trade set before him on a table, perhaps a small cup for the letting of blood, or a bowl of leeches, an incision knife, pouch of tobacco (they thought smoking tobacco kept the plague away). The sitter in this portrait is posing in some sort of obvious manner, arms crossed, hands hidden.

A.D. Wraight describes the unusual pose in the portrait as symbolizing his entrance into the secret service, where he met and worked with Sir Francis Walsingham's younger second cousin Thomas Walsingham, the man who would become not only his patron and friend, but the one many believe was behind the faking of Marlowe's death at Deptford. See the photo of Marlowe's initials carved into a tree on Thomas Walsingham's estate.

Wraight says:

He had probably been recruited by Lord Burghley's agents to serve in the government's secret service to protect the Queen's life from Catholic plots. This impresa portrait displays his motto QVOD ME NVTRIT ME DESTRVIT. The sitter's folded arms (a rare posture in portraiture) imparts his message: 'I am one trusted to keep secrets'.

Since the portrait was being used in 1952 as flooring for a gas fire on metal supports in a Cambridge student's room that was just over Marlowe's room at Cambridge, we can easily deduce it mattered little to the college. This gives more evidence that the portrait is of Marlowe.

A.D. Wraight says:

Later when Marlowe was accused of 'Atheism' and the disgrace of his murder became known it would obviously have been removed, and for years remained lost or hidden.

She goes on to say:

This portrait was clearly in the mind of the Poet of the Sonnets when he wrote Sonnet 73 in his late years, the thought of approaching death with him, which he likens to 'black night' symbolized as 'Death's second self'. This important autobiographical sonnet is a retrospect on his life. Beginning with the memories of his Canterbury choirboy days when he played amid the ruins of the desecrated Abbey near his home, he recalls this portrait celebrating his entry into the Queen's service, and quotes his portrait's motto QVOD ME NVTRIT ME DESTRVIT - 'Consum'd with that which it was nourished by'.

Sonnet 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leave, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the West,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

Marlowe likely got the idea for his portrait’s motto from the last five words on his favorite poet Ovid’s statue in Tomis, where he died after ten years exile: Here I lie, who played with tender loves, Naso the poet, killed by my own talent.

This is one of several sonnets in which Marlowe gives us the identity behind the Shakespeare name. When he dies at the end of his life, unlike most men who are visited by death once, he will be visited by death a second time

Death's second self that seals up all in rest.

We are told the poet at the time of writing this sonnet is a phoenix who has risen from his own ashes, the ashes from the death that day at Deptford:

In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie

The portrait's motto is later found in the Shakespeare play Pericles, Act II, scene ii, during the competitive dance of the six knights before the tournament at the court of Simonides. Each night shows the king's daughter, Thaisa, the device (MOTTO) on his shield. It is the fourth knight who has the Cambridge portrait's motto on his shield:

[The Fourth Knight passes over]

SIMONIDES: What is the fourth?

THAISA: A burning torch that's turned upside down;
The word, 'Quod me alit, me extinguit.'

SIMONIDES: Which shows that beauty hath his power and will,
Which can as well inflame as it can kill.

Below you will find the whole of the relevant passage in scene ii:

[Enter SIMONIDES, THAISA, Lords, and Attendants]

SIMONIDES: Are the knights ready to begin the triumph?

First Lord: They are, my liege;
And stay your coming to present themselves.

SIMONIDES: Return them, we are ready; and our daughter,
In honour of whose birth these triumphs are,
Sits here, like beauty's child, whom nature gat
For men to see, and seeing wonder at.

[Exit a Lord]

THAISA: It pleaseth you, my royal father, to express
My commendations great, whose merit's less.

SIMONIDES: It's fit it should be so; for princes are
A model which heaven makes like to itself:
As jewels lose their glory if neglected,
So princes their renowns if not respected.
'Tis now your honour, daughter, to explain
The labour of each knight in his device.

THAISA: Which, to preserve mine honour, I'll perform.

[Enter a Knight; he passes over, and his Squire
presents his shield to the Princess]

SIMONIDES: Who is the first that doth prefer himself?

THAISA: A knight of Sparta, my renowned father;
And the device he bears upon his shield
Is a black Ethiope reaching at the sun
The word, 'Lux tua vita mihi.'

SIMONIDES: He loves you well that holds his life of you.

[The Second Knight passes over]

Who is the second that presents himself?

THAISA: A prince of Macedon, my royal father;
And the device he bears upon his shield
Is an arm'd knight that's conquer'd by a lady;
The motto thus, in Spanish, 'Piu por dulzura que por fuerza.' *

[The Third Knight passes over]

SIMONIDES: And what's the third?

THAISA: The third of Antioch;
And his device, a wreath of chivalry;
The word, 'Me pompae provexit apex.'

[The Fourth Knight passes over]

SIMONIDES: What is the fourth?

THAISA: A burning torch that's turned upside down;
The word, 'Quod me alit, me extinguit.'

SIMONIDES: Which shows that beauty hath his power and will,
Which can as well inflame as it can kill.

[The Fifth Knight passes over]

THAISA: The fifth, an hand environed with clouds,
Holding out gold that's by the touchstone tried;
The motto thus, 'Sic spectanda fides.'

[The Sixth Knight, PERICLES, passes over]
{'Sic spectanda fides: So is faith to be tried.}

SIMONIDES: And what's
The sixth and last, the which the knight himself
With such a graceful courtesy deliver'd?

THAISA: He seems to be a stranger; but his present is
A wither'd branch, that's only green at top;
The motto, 'In hac spe vivo.'
{In hac spe vivo: In this hope, I live.}

SIMONIDES: A pretty moral;
From the dejected state wherein he is,
He hopes by you his fortunes yet may flourish.

First Lord: He had need mean better than his outward show
Can any way speak in his just commend;
For by his rusty outside he appears
To have practised more the whipstock than the lance.

Second Lord: He well may be a stranger, for he comes
To an honour'd triumph strangely furnished.

Third Lord: And on set purpose let his armour rust
Until this day, to scour it in the dust.

SIMONIDES: Opinion's but a fool, that makes us scan
The outward habit by the inward man.
But stay, the knights are coming: we will withdraw
Into the gallery.


* More by gentleness than by force.