Text by Geoffrey Smith
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This is a remarkable painting for many reasons. It displays the usual array of Holbein’s prodigious talents but it is also a fascinating historical document.
Christina was the daughter of King Christian of Denmark and at sixteen years of age she was already the widowed wife of the Duke of Milan. After his death she had lived in Brussels at the court of her aunt Mary of Hungary who was regent of the Netherlands, ruling this corner of the sprawling Habsburg possessions on behalf of her brother, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Across the North Sea, Henry VIII of England had just lost his third wife Jane Seymour after the birth of a son. Henry now eyed Christina as a candidate for his fourth queen. Holbein was therefore dispatched to Brussels in March 1538 and he was given a three-hour sitting in which to capture the spirit of the intended bride in one or more drawings. He then produced this full length portrait on his return to London.
How could Henry have turned her down? Looking at this portrait, she appears to have been just the sort of demure and submissive young woman Henry was looking for. Indeed it seems that Henry liked what he saw, but negotiations appear to have foundered, perhaps on the terms of the prospective financial settlement. Nevertheless, Henry kept the painting.
The eyes of the young duchess gaze out of the picture and engage the viewer head on. She stands against an unadorned background painted in the same shade of dark blue-green that Holbein used for A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling also owned by the National Gallery and displayed nearby. It seems that Christina was proud of her slim feminine hands and the simplicity of her black widow’s clothes concentrates our attention on her hands and on her face. But it is this very simplicity together with Holbein’s unsurpassed skills as a portraitist which makes looking at this picture such a moving experience.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1534 Paris Bordone: Presentation of the Ring to the Doge, Venice, Galleria dell’Accademia
1538 Titian: Portrait of François I, King of France, Paris, Musée du Louvre