Holbein’s Portrait of Christina of Denmark | History Hit

Holbein’s Portrait of Christina of Denmark

'Portrait in mourning' (edited), Hans Holbein the Younger, 1538 National Gallery, London.
Image Credit: Hans Holbein the Younger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; History Hit

Christina of Denmark is often known as ‘the one that got away’: she played her part in British history as a potential wife of King Henry VIII.

Christina was the youngest daughter of King Christian of Denmark. In 1538, King Henry VIII of England was looking for a fourth wife after the death of Jane Seymour in October 1537. Henry sent his court painter – the great artist Hans Holbein the Younger – to the courts of Europe. Holbein’s job was to paint a portrait of the women who had taken the king’s interest as a possible future wife. 16-year-old Christina of Denmark was on the list, so in 1538, Holbein was sent to Brussels to capture her likeness.

The result is an exquisite portrait – a testament to the masterful talent of Holbein, and the reserved, gentle beauty of Christina.

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A masterpiece of realism 

This is a full-length portrait, which is unusual for the time. Perhaps Henry VIII followed the advice of his predecessor, Henry VI, who specified in 1446 that portraits of potential brides should be full-length, to reveal their ‘countenance and their stature’. Christina was tall for her age, and her contemporaries described as:

“Very pure, fair of colour she is not, but a mervelous good brownishe face she hathe, with fair red lippes, and ruddy chekes.”

Here, Holbein depicts Christina in sombre mourning dress, as she was recently widowed after the death of her husband, the Duke of Milan, in 1535. Despite this mourning attire, she is sumptuously dressed, befitting her social status. She wears a fur-lined satin gown over a black dress, and a black cap covers her hair. This presents a striking image: her face and hands are pale against the deep darkness of her clothing.

Self-portrait of Holbein (c. 1542/43); ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Family’, c. 1528

Image Credit: Hans Holbein the Younger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; History Hit

Christina here appears reserved and gentle – yet imposing in her calm majesty. This is enhanced by the simple, balanced composition of Holbein, and the striking symmetry of her features and body. Once more, it is a credit to Holbein’s ability to create a sense – even an illusion – of the sitter’s presence and the varying textures on show. After a close inspection of the portrait, we get a sense of the softness of the fur, or the weight of the drapery and how it might move when Christina walks out of frame. The black satin of the gown has a beautifully rendered silver sheen, just at the point where it catches the light, giving us a sense of the smoothness and coolness of the fabric.

A work of genius

So how did Holbein go about creating such a portrait? His sitting with Christina lasted from 1pm to 4 pm on 12 March 1538. During these three hours, Holbein would have created many sketches which would be used later for the basis of the painted image. Unfortunately, none of these sketches survive. When King Henry received a version of the painting a few days later, he was delighted. It was recorded that the king was ‘in better humour than he ever was, making musicians play on their instruments all day long’.

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Yet Henry was never to marry Christina. She was firmly against the match, supposedly remarking, ‘If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.’ Henry pursued the match until January 1539, but it was clearly a lost cause. Thomas Wriothesley, the English diplomat in Brussels, advised Thomas Cromwell that Henry should;

“fyxe his most noble stomacke in some such other place”.

Instead, Christina went on to marry Francis, Duke of Lorraine, at some points during which Christina referred to herself as the happiest woman in the world. After Francis’ death, she served as the regent of Lorraine from 1545 to 1552 during the minority of her son. Meanwhile, Henry VIII married three more times: Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Catherine Parr.

Although their marriage negotiations failed, Henry kept Christina’s portrait until his death in 1547. The painting passed into the collection of the Dukes of Arundel, and in 1880 the fifteenth Duke loaned the portrait to the National Gallery. The picture was purchased by an anonymous donor on behalf of the gallery. Christina’s portrait now hangs beside several other great Holbein masterpieces: The Ambassadors, Erasmus and A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling.

Alice Loxton