A young girl, her clothes sewn with hundreds of pearls, gazes out at us. She seems to be playing with a golden object made of concentric rings. This is an armillary sphere, a celestial globe showing the movement of heavenly bodies. Its interlocking circles are echoed in the decoration of her clothes.
She holds the sphere upside down, which is not an accident: it may be a clue to her identity. The girl is probably Dorothea, daughter of Christian II, deposed King of Denmark, and she could be making a political point. She indicates a point approximately 55° north of the equator on the sphere’s outer ring. The latitude of Copenhagen is 56° north; she may be directing our attention to her father’s lost kingdom. Her sphere – and the world – might be upside down because of the political turmoil which drove her family out of Scandinavia.
A young girl, her clothes sewn with hundreds of pearls, gazes out at us. She seems to be playing with a golden object made of concentric rings. This is an armillary sphere, a celestial globe showing the movement of the heavenly bodies. Its interlocking circles are echoed in the decoration of her clothes.
The girl seems to be about nine or ten years old. The richness of her dress shows that she was royalty, and the blue parts of the sleeves were originally purple – a royal colour. The shape of the sleeves and the curve of the neckline suggest a date of around 1530. The only young girls in the Low Countries who might have appeared in such splendid clothes at this date were Dorothea and Christina, daughters of Christian II, exiled King of Denmark. The family came to the Netherlands in 1523 when their father was deposed, and were cared for by Margaret of Austria. Gossart painted Dorothea with her siblings in 1526. In that picture (now in the Royal Collection, London) she has a high forehead, widely spaced eyes and frizzy hair – like the sitter here.
Dorothea indicates a point approximately 55° north of the equator on the outer ring of her sphere. The latitude of Copenhagen is 56° north; she may well be directing our attention to her father’s lost kingdom. Her sphere – and the world – might be upside down because of political turmoil which drove Christian and his family out of Scandinavia. These kind of visual puns and riddles were very popular in Renaissance painting.
Around the broad band in the middle of the sphere is a row of letters, with vowels and consonants grouped separately. This may be an anagram of the artist’s name, although some of its letters are missing and others are included which do not appear in it. Gossart plays spatial games, too: Dorothea’s bulky sleeves and cap overlap the fictive frame. The contrast between the flat green background and the three-dimensional modelling of her figure makes her seem to project outwards towards us, as though she has escaped the confines of the painting.
In 1535 Dorothea married the Count Palatine, Frederick II. Its possible that this painting was commissioned by Margaret of Austria, or one of the Habsburgs, for whom the artist often worked. Dorothea might have taken it with her to the Palatinate; a portrait of her attributed to Gossart was mentioned in an 1685 inventory of the castle of Heidelberg, hanging next to one of her husband. Heidelberg was sacked by the French in 1689, and the painting might have gone to France; French inscriptions on the back show it was in the country in about 1800.
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