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Holbein the Younger, Christina of Denmark

Hans Holbein the Younger, Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan, 1538, oil on oak, 179.1 x 82.6 cm (The National Gallery, London). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Male: Historically paintings were often made for specific purposes in the world. Female: Very specific. In this case we're looking at Holbein's Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan from 1538. This was commissioned by King Henry VIII. Male: Think about Henry's world for a moment. A world long before photography. When images were still fairly rare. He wanted to know what this young woman looked like. She lived in Brussels and he lived London. He didn't want to go. Female: He wanted to know what she looked like, because he was considering marring her. His third wife had just died, Jane Seymour. He was on a lookout for a new wife among the nobility of Europe. Male: She would have been an especially catch. She was the niece of the Holy Roman Emperor. That would have benefited him by creating of alliance. Female: That's right, of course, all marriages for people of that status in society had political purposes. Male: Nevertheless, Henry still wanted to know what she looked like. He sent his court painter Holbein to Brussels to paint her. Apparently, she sat for him three hours. Female: During that time he did drawings. Male: The painting was made back in London when he returned. Female: The story is he came with the drawings and showed them to the king, and the king thought she looked beautiful, and apparently kissed the drawings. Male: Importantly, he kept the painting even though the marriage was never actually arranged. Female: The marriage fell through for political reasons. Male: She was only 16 and, interestingly, she wears the gown of a woman in mourning. In fact, she had already been married. She was married at age 11, although she never lived with her husband. He was the duke of Milan. Female: That accounts for her black dress, and the spareness of the image. She stands in front of this turquoises-green background, and she cast a shadow behind her. Male: She does cut a very elegant silhouette. Female: She's elongated, but she's a little bit off center just a little bit to the left of the image. You can see more of her flowing, black, mourning dress and robe just to the right on the floor below her. Male: But it doesn't feel off center because of the shadow line on the right. It's off perhaps she's standing. Henry may have wanted to know tall she was. The length of her body is emphasized by linear quality especially the fur lining of her coat. Female: The emphasis and contour and line around her face. The line around her eyebrows and down to her nose. The contours of her lips. Male: I'm, actually, really taken by the hands, which are beautiful and elegant. The simplification of the elegance of those hands perhaps because of the gloves that she wears, and the sleeve that she wears with that very fine ruffle. Female: When her eye moves down we have her mouth pursed together. Then we move down her body and we see the bow that's tied. Then below that her hands which come together. Her lips which come together. The bow that comes together, and then her hands and gloves that come together down the center of the painting. Male: It is really beautiful and elegant and full of promise. It seems absolutely perfect for a representation of prepares of a future bride. (piano music)