Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan

Christina, younger daughter of Christian II of Denmark and Isabella of Austria, sister of Charles V, was born in 1522. In 1533 she married by proxy the Duke of Milan, who died in 1535.

Holbein visited Brussels in 1538, and for three hours Christina sat for a portrait. She wears mourning clothes. The English ambassador was arranging for Henry VIII to see the Duchess's likeness in connection with plans to marry her.

However, in 1541 she married François, Duc de Bar, who succeeded his father as Duc de Lorraine in 1544 and died in 1545, leaving Christina Regent of Lorraine. She died in 1590.

Personal response: Humphrey Ocean
Artist Humphrey Ocean on how Holbein captured Christina of Denmark's personality for Henry VIII - 5 mins 45 secs

Humphrey Ocean: Well, I think if you’re going to be, if you’re going to fall in love with somebody and I don’t know how long that takes – there’s some people who say it takes 17 seconds – then you’re taking in a staggering amount of information, but as one does when one looks at somebody, you meet somebody, you look first of all at the eyes, and Christina’s eyes are alluring and probably maddening as well. And in this case, one of the eyes is looking at you – her right eye – and the left eye seems to be wandering slightly as if it’s possibly interested in something else. And she has this in common with the ‘Mona Lisa’, which is, I think, what makes her very fascinating, and actually also the model, Kate Moss, who has a wall eye. I think it’s something that keeps one questioning – is she, isn’t she, is she, isn’t she? So I can imagine Henry being immediately engaged by this 16-year-old, who of course eventually turned him down, and that must have been even more maddening.

Leah Kharibian: And for a portrait that has such a specific job to do – I mean, Henry’s there, he’s looking for a new bride, he needs to know whether this is a woman he can find attractive, but he also needs to know that she’s got a mind, and somehow Holbein manages to communicate this. He seems to get the poise, the wit of the woman. I mean, she was somebody who said, I think slightly later, that if she had two heads she would gladly put one at the disposal of the King of England. I mean, she was smart.

Humphrey Ocean: Yes, and she looks it. There are all sorts of movements in the picture. She appears to be walking off to our left but she is almost full frontal, certainly in her face and in her torso. But then what Holbein has done… I mean, you look at the clarity of the drawing of the hat, which shifts over to the right and the way that her dress like a bell is shifting and swinging to our right, her left, and yet if she was going to walk, she’d be walking in the opposite direction. So there’s an immediate strain and conflict here and all the while she’s holding in her hands, the glove, and the glove is one of the things that shows she’s probably not a washerwoman – it’s an indication of her rank. And then the fur – oh dear – it’s a very, very alluring looking thing.

Leah Kharibian: I mean, it is, there is actually quite a strong erotic charge almost, with the hands, these beautiful hands with the gloves that have been taken off for the portrait. I mean we know that Holbein had only three hours with her. He was there – they’ve got very precise details about it – he went to see her on 12 March, 1538, and he was with her from 1 o’clock till 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and then he left Brussels, which is where he had to go to make this portrait that self-same evening, and went straight back to London with what we presume was a drawing for Henry to see, from which this portrait was made. But just in three hours…

Humphrey Ocean: Well, in a funny sort of way, I think there’s a wisdom in that. There’s a kind of impact you know, when one looks at something, you see something immediately and it makes an impression, it etches an image on your eye, and you don’t want to spend overly long analysing. And, I mean, he had this way, this economy of line. He was like… I kind of think of him as like Matisse, you know, the opposite to Picasso, the bull… you know, Matisse with his scientist’s coat on, when he was sitting three feet away from a nude model, you know, looking at her, drawing. And I think Holbein was something similar, although of course in the Northern tradition. It’s like Cormac McCarthy’s writing – there are no superlatives there, he just hands something to you on a plate, and you fill in the rest.

Certainly, he would have concentrated probably on the hands and the face; that’s where he would have put the hours in. He then would have got a dress – he would have taken notes, I would imagine – but he would have either designed a dress or certainly got a dress made up. He was a designer as well and did a lot of work for Henry VIII’s court, you know, he was designing jewellery, and shoes, and dresses, and robes and all that sort of thing. So he had this extraordinary range of knowledge that he could apply later, but those three hours, I would imagine, you know, a sharp dart went bulls-eye into his mind, and he’d carry that home. And then he thinks, ‘how can I do something that will get under Henry’s fingernails?’ And this is what he came up with.

Leah Kharibian: Well, that’s wonderful – thank you very much indeed.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Humphrey Ocean.

From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Twenty Six, December 2008

Key facts

Artist dates
1497/8 - 1543
Full title
Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan
Date made
Medium and support
Oil on oak
179.1 x 82.6 cm
Acquisition credit
Presented by The Art Fund with the aid of an anonymous donation, 1909
Inventory number
Location in Gallery