HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger
(b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London)

Christina of Denmark, Ducchess of Milan

Oil on oak, 179 x 83 cm
National Gallery, London

Holbein's painting of the sixteen-year-old Christina of Denmark, widowed Duchess of Milan, is his only surviving full-length portrait of a woman. Remarkably for a work of this period, we know precisely how and when it came to be made. The younger daughter of King Christian II of Denmark, an early Lutheran sympathiser who lost his throne in 1523, she had been brought up in the Netherlands at the courts of her great-aunt, Margaret of Austria, Governess of the Netherlands until her death in 1530, and her aunt, Mary of Hungary, Margaret's successor and sister of the Emperor Charles V. After her husband's death in 1535, Christina returned to Brussels. Henry VIII of England attempted, unsuccessfully in the event, to marry her as his fourth wife after the death of Jane Seymour. On 12 March 1538 she agreed to sit for Holbein for three hours, and the English envoy judged the resulting drawing or drawings to be `very perfect'. Holbein must have worked up the painted portrait after his return to London, and the king was said to be `in love' with Christina, whom of course he had never met except through Holbein's art. It has been suggested that the full-face pose, characteristic of Holbein's other portraits of Henry's prospective brides, was chosen on instructions from the king, who may have felt that any other view might allow blemishes to be concealed from him.

The figure stands out isolated against the plain but brightly coloured background relieved only by shadows, cast not merely by Christina herself but by an unseen window frame. Since the black mourning dress carried no ornament, Holbein stressed the three-dimensional modelling, creating enlivening patterns from the reflection of light on the folds of the silken robe. Not known as a great beauty, Christina was, however, much praised for the elegance of her hands, and in this area of the painting Holbein suggests the different textures of linen, velvet, fur, leather, gold and gemstone to set off the delicate beauty of the flesh. Christina's faint smile seems at once demure and intimate. Generations of viewers have shared Henry's infatuation with this engaging portrait.