Wednesday, 14 October 2009

A Daughter of Denmark

Hans Holbein

Christina of Denmark - Duchess of Milan (1538)
Oak 179 x 82.5 cm
National Gallery, London

Last month we looked at the NGV's Princess Sophie, a Fille de France. The confident Princess Christina, en Datter af Danmark, had a very different life from the shy Sophie, who died a spinster. As a Victorian lady so famously remarked while watching Sarah Bernhardt portray Cleopatra: "How very, very different from the home life of our own dear Queen!"

Holbein's arresting portrait of Princess Christina is, sadly for us, not to be spotted at the NGV – it hangs in London's National Gallery, opposite his other fascinating masterpiece, "The Ambassadors", which we discussed in an earlier WASP.
In 1538, Henry VIII was window-shopping for a fourth wife, Jane Seymour having died in childbed after presenting him with a son. Christina, at sixteen the recently widowed Duchess of Milan, was one of the most eligible brides in Europe: the daughter of the Danish king and niece of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, she was of impeccable royal lineage, tall, blonde, beautiful and very wealthy. Henry became particularly interested in Christina after receiving a despatch from Cromwell's envoy in Brussels describing her: " She is of the age of sixteen years, very tall for that age — and a goodly personage of competent beauty, of favour excellent, soft of speech, and very gentle in countenance. She weareth mourning apparel, after the manner of Italy. The common saying here is that she is both widow and maid. (Her late husband was old and crippled, and the couple had no children: there was speculation that the marriage was unconsummated.) When she chanceth to smile, there appeareth two pits in her cheeks, the which becometh her right excellently well. She resembleth much one Mistress Skelton (Anne Boleyn's cousin Mary Skelton, who had been a great favourite with the King) She useth most to speak French, albeit it is reported that she can speak both Italian and High German."
Holbein, who had been appointed court painter to the Tudor king, was despatched forthwith to Brussels to paint her portrait. Christina graciously granted him a three-hour sitting, wearing her mourning clothes.

Henry insisted on a full-length frontal portrait in order that no blemishes should be concealed from him. Not that that helped him much, because he later married Anne of Cleves on the strength of a frontal Holbein painting, and look how that turned out! When he actually met her, he blenched at the sight, called her a "Flanders mare" and refused to consummate the marriage, which may well have been a blessing in disguise for Anne.

The king was charmed by Christina's portrait and vowed that he would marry the Duchess even if she came to him without a farthing! An ambassador to the Court of Saint James reported that “since he saw [the portrait] he has been in much better humour than he ever was, making musicians play on their instruments all day long".

Henry was not Christina's only suitor: many of the Great and the Good sought to ally themselves with the Emperor through a marriage to his niece. The king of France proposed his son, the Duc d'Angouleme; the Pope put in a good word for his niece's son, Count Bosia Sforza; the Scottish Ambassador opened negotiations on behalf of King James V; the Duke of Cleves pressed his suit, and the Prince of Orange also threw his hat into the ring.

King Henry VIII duly sent a proposal of marriage via the English Ambassador. Christina told the Ambassador that if she had two heads, she would gladly put one at the English King's disposal, but meanwhile she would prefer to keep the one she had. Derek Wilson suggests her portrait should be subtitled "The One That Got Away"!

It is fortunate for generations of viewers who have shared Henry's infatuation with this engaging portrait, that she sat for it, even though she had no intention of marrying him. She is a serene figure, confidently aware of her rank and wealth. Holding a pair of gloves, she stands out against the plain but brightly coloured background relieved only by shadows. 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.

Christina was 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 her slender fingers. Christina's faint smile seems at once demure and intimate.
Princess Christina was born in 1522, the daughter of Christian II of Denmark and Isabella of Burgundy. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was her maternal uncle and she counted among her ancestors such interestingly nicknamed luminaries as Joanna the Mad, Philip the Handsome, Charles the Bold and John the Fearless. Charles the Bold is a fine figure of a man, but you'd never cast Philip the Handsome as a leading man – his choice of hat alone would cause more sniggers than swoons. As for John the Fearless, he looks a right wimp: I suspect those nicknames were ironic!
King Christian II of Denmark was an early Lutheran sympathiser who lost his throne in 1523. The three royal children, Prince John, Princess Dorothea and Princess Christina were sent to be brought up in the Netherlands at the court of their great-aunt, Margaret of Austria, who was Governess of the Netherlands.
Sadly, the little Prince died young, of a fever. Bidding was brisk among the royal houses of Europe for the hands of the two young princesses: their Uncle Charles realised their worth as pawns in the game of politics. He settled on the Duke of Milan as the most suitable husband for Christina, which of course meant the most advantageous for himself.

She was only eleven years old at the time, and her aunt Margaret wrote an impassioned letter to the emperor asking him to postpone the marriage by a few years, as the bride was so young and the prospective bridegroom a middle-aged man. Margaret expressed her fear that Christina would, like so many child brides of the time, die in childbed while her body was still insufficiently developed to give birth to a full-term baby.

Charles, however, was adamant that the marriage should go ahead immediately, and the Duke of Milan's friend and proxy, Count Massimiliano Stampa, set out for the Netherlands, to wed the Princess in his name. He arrived after a journey of two months, but Margaret managed to delay the ceremony for six months, by claiming she had urgent government business in other parts of the Netherlands. The Count was left to cool his heels in Brussels.

When the ceremony was held at last, Christina had passed her twelfth birthday. Margaret managed to delay the new Duchess' meeting with her husband by still another six months, by insisting that the long journey to Milan was too arduous in the winter and the Duke would have to wait until spring to welcome his bride.

As it turned out, The Duke of Milan was a kind and indulgent husband and their marriage was a very happy one. They were married for only eighteen months when the Duke died, leaving his Duchess Christina a very wealthy widow at 14 years of age. As the Duke died childless, the Duchy of Milan reverted to Christina's uncle, the Emperor, with the exception of the city of Tortona and the town and Castello of Vigevano, which were bequeathed to her outright.

Christina remained in Milan, where she was very popular, for a couple of years before returning to her aunt in Brussels. People lined the streets to see her when she ventured forth; she broke with Royal tradition by being very accessible to her subjects – she would press a hand, pat a shoulder, hug a child. She took an interest in the common people, did a great deal of charitable work, and enjoyed the adulation of the populace … she was the original People's Princess, an early version of Diana!

She remained with her aunt in Brussels while the Emperor wheeled and dealed with all her noble suitors, until he eventually made a deal with the Duc de Lorraine for Christina to marry his son Fran├žois, the Duc de Bar. They were married in 1541 and Fran├žois succeeded his father as Duc de Lorraine in 1544. He died a year later, leaving his Duchess-Consort Christina to be Regent of Lorraine on behalf of their two-year-old son Charles.

Christina was also left with two little girls: one-year-old Renata and newborn Dorothea. She had produced three children in the four years of her marriage, so maybe it was just as well that the Duke popped his clogs when he did. No surprise that she declined to marry again!

During Christina's regency Lorraine became a pawn in her uncle the Holy Roman Emperor's ongoing conflicts with France. It must have been a relief to her when her son, the young Duke Charles III, became old enough to take over the reins. In due course he also made a very advantageous marriage: his bride was Princess Claude de Valois, the daughter of Henri II of France and Catherine de Medici.

Duchess Christina died in 1590 at age 68, and is buried at Nancy, in the unostentatious 15th century Church of the Cordeliers, the burial church of the ducal family of Lorraine.

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