The publication of this remarkable portrait in 2015 by Micha Leeflang marked a momentous addition to the oeuvre of Joos van Cleve, one of the most important painters working in the Netherlands during the early sixteenth century. Christian II of Denmark, a controversial figure during his lifetime, married into the Habsburg Imperial family in 1514 and became a prominent patron of Netherlandish art, taking a special interest in commissioning his own portraits. The king was one of the first Scandinavian rulers to actively cultivate the visual arts and his own image as a means of promoting and assuring his position and his power, and van Cleve’s portrait represents a crucial stage of this use of visual propaganda, made at a key moment during the king’s troubled reign. This portrait, painted in circa 1521, was a central loan to the 2017 exhibition of Christian’s portraits and propaganda, held at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, which explored the ways in which the king used art to articulate his royal and political ambitions, as seen through his portraits by some of the leading painters of the early sixteenth century.
Throughout his kingship, Christian II was strongly aware of the power of art and its possibilities for the promotion of his self-image and his political agendas. The first, and one of the most important images of the king, commissioned after his ascension to the Danish and Norwegian thrones, was made in circa 1514 by Michiel Sittow, one of the most significant painters of his day. Sittow had been the revered court painter of Isabella of Castile until her death in 1504 and had then worked intermittently at the Habsburg Court of her son-in-law Philip the Handsome (1478-1506) and his sister Margaret of Austria (1480-1530). His portrait of Christian II was made in Copenhagen, perhaps as part of the betrothal negotiations for the hand of Isabella of Austria, the niece of Sittow’s Habsburg patrons. Two versions appear to have been painted, with one (now lost) recorded in Margaret of Austria’s library in 1514, and another autograph version probably taken to Denmark by Isabella on the occasion of her marriage (fig. 1). Sittow’s portrait established the king’s iconography, setting a type for how he wished to be depicted which the majority of subsequent artists would later follow.
Christian evidently recognised the prestige which came with being painted by leading Netherlandish artists. During a trip he made to the Netherlands in the summer of 1521, he made a conscious effort to have his likeness recorded by established artists with close connections with the Habsburg Court. In this context, it is hardly surprising that Christian II sought to have his portrait painted by Joos van Cleve. At the moment of the king’s visit, the painter had just finished a year serving as co-dean of the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke, and had become prominently established as a leading painter of religious art works as well as portraits in the city.
Joos van Cleve excelled as a portraitist, and his depiction of the king bears all the hallmarks which typify the finest examples of portraits made in the Netherlands during the early sixteenth century. Following in the traditions established by leading painters of the previous generation, like Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling, the portrait is closely cropped around the figure, allowing for an incisive concentration of the sitter’s face and expression, imbuing him with great psychological depth. The positioning of the sitter’s hands at the extreme edge of the panel likewise serves to direct the viewer’s attention to his face.
In the present portrait, van Cleve confers a sense of introspection to his sitter. Rather than the bold, direct gaze of Sittow’s likeness, which presents such a bold assertion of his position and power, here Christian is shown with his eyes averted, conveying an air of melancholy. First discussed in medical texts of the ancient Greek world, melancholy in the late Middle Ages had begun to assume wider meanings and had begun to be used as a literary trope. Famous writers, like the Burgundian chronicler and poet Georges Chastellain identified himself in the prologue of one of his books as a ‘man of sadness, born in an eclipse of darkness, and thick fogs of lamentation’ and expounded on the trials of life as, ‘at the close of the Middle Ages, a sombre melancholy weighs on people’s souls’ (J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, London, 1928, pp. 22ff). Ideas of the melancholy quickly came to be associated with the weight of duty which went with serious occupations of the mind and the tribulations of power and responsibility. Perhaps here, the pervading sense of melancholia in van Cleve’s portrait can be read as an expression of Christian II’s own concerns for his kingship, presenting a more vulnerable image of the monarch.
The king is shown wearing the large black hat he almost invariably wears in his portraits, here ornamented by a large pin. He is further dressed in a white shirt with a high collar over which he wears a doublet of grey, trimmed with black fur, and flashed to reveal the lining of cloth-of-gold beneath. The sitter is shown wearing the emblem of Order of the Golden Fleece, which he was awarded in 1519. The Order, established by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy on the occasion of his marriage to Isabella of Portugal in 1430, had become by the turn of the sixteenth century, one of the most significant chivalric orders in Europe, given to leading noble families in the Burgundian territories and, after the death of Mary of Burgundy in 1482, across Habsburg lands and alliances. This inclusion provides a terminus post quem date for the portrait. Dendrochronological analysis of the oak support of the portrait suggests that the earliest possible date the work could have been painted was in around 1504. However, the evidence of the sitter’s biography and life confirm that the portrait must have been painted after 1519 and most likely was painted in around 1521 when the king visited Antwerp.
The portrait displays many of the hallmarks of the painter’s technique; from the use of softly blended accents of light and shade, and smooth contours, to the masterful use of thin glazes to depict the hair, enlivened with highlights, found in many of the painter’s depictions of the Virgin and Child. Infrared reflectography also shows van Cleve’s characteristic practice in not using any underdrawing in his portraits, a practice which can be observed in a number of the artist’s portraits, like that of Stefano Raggio (fig. 2; Genoa, Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Spinola) painted between 1516 and 1520. This practice suggests that the painter may have worked directly from life, or at least from preliminary ad vivum sketches or drawings.
Van Cleve was not the only painter to receive patronage from the king during this 1521 trip. On 2 July, for example, Christian sent for Albrecht Dürer to come to Antwerp where he asked the artist to ‘sketch his portrait. This I [Dürer] did in charcoal…He made me eat with him and was very frank and gracious’. Dürer later presented Christian II with a ‘portrait finished in oil’ (now lost) for which the drawing, now in the British Museum, was evidently made in preparation (W.B. Scott, Albert Durer: His Life and Works, including Autobiographical Papers…, London, 1869, pp. 165-6). The Scandinavian monarch’s presence in the Netherlands, his clear enthusiasm for the visual arts and his ‘great manly beauty’ (ibid., p. 165) all combined to attract other painters to work for him and to fulfil his desire for portrait commissions. At around the same time, portraits of the king were made by Quentin Massys in Antwerp (Kromerí?, Archdiocesan Museum) and Bernard van Orley in Brussels (fig. 3; Madrid, Museo Lazaro Galdiano). In 1523, Christian II returned to the Netherlands after his exile from Scandinavia. His interest in portraiture remained strong, with Jan Gossaert producing a drawing (and subsequent prints) of the king around that time (Paris, Fondation Custodia) and later receiving a commission to paint the famous group portrait of the Children of Christian II (c. 1526; Royal Collection, Windsor Castle). Lucas Cranach the Elder and his workshop also produced at least three portraits of the king (Nuremburg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum; Leipzig, Museum der bildenden Künste; and Sønderborg Slot, Museum Sønderborg) around the time of his exile in the Netherlands.
Christian II was recognised as king of Denmark and Norway at Copenhagen in 1513, after the death of his father. Since 1397, the Scandinavian countries had been tenuously bound together under the Kalmar Union, though problems in Sweden had threatened its stability with the country renouncing Christian’s father, John II of Denmark, as king in 1501. Christian’s place on the Swedish throne therefore was immediately called into doubt upon his ascension, with the delegation from the country declaring that they had the ‘choice between peace at home and strife here, or peace here and civil war at home’ (R. Nisbet Bain, Scandinavia: A Political History of Denmark, Norway and Sweden from 1513 to 1900, Cambridge, 1905 p. 14). Preferring the latter, the question of the Swedish succession was postponed. In 1514, the year of his official coronation in Denmark and Norway, Christian was married by proxy to Isabella of Austria, daughter of Philip the Handsome. Christian’s reign was overshadowed by his desire to bring Sweden back into the Union, and to wrest control from the regent of the country, Sten Sture the Younger (1493-1520). Increasing tensions inevitably led to the outbreak of war between these factions in 1517. Christian eventually succeeded in his venture, conquering Sweden in 1520 and in November of that year, was crowned king. Concerns, however, were still rife about the defeated rebel faction. Only a few days after his coronation, the group was accused of heresy by Gustav Eriksson Trolle, Archbishop of Uppsala (1488–1535) and Christian seized the opportunity to cement his control and to remove any threat from his enemies. Convening an ecclesiastical court, the offending nobles were condemned and on the 8 and 9 November 1520, eighty-two Swedish noblemen were executed at Stockholm. Rather than cementing his kingship, however, Christian’s aggressive actions rapidly saw Sweden again secede from the Union and elect Gustav Vasa (1496-1560) as their new king.
In the summer of 1521, Christian II travelled to the Netherlands, visiting the Court of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Upon his return to Scandinavia in September of that year, he instituted two sets of radical new reforms, known as the Town Law (strengthening the rights of merchants and peasants at the expense of the nobility and reorganising trade through specific towns overseen by officials appointed by the king) and the Land Law (permitting the clergy to marry and passing some control of the Church to the State). These actions decreased the powers of the clergy and the Scandinavian nobility and proved widely unpopular. In 1523, Christian was forced to cede his throne to his cousin Frederick, Duke of Holstein. He retreated into exile at Lier in the Netherlands where he later converted to Lutheranism. After the death of his wife Isabella in 1526, the couple’s children were taken to live at the Habsburg court so that they could be raised in the Catholic faith. Christian himself later reverted to Catholicism and in 1531 launched a fleet to reclaim his lost throne. His failure in this venture led to his arrest and imprisonment first at Sønderborg Castle, and later at Kalundborg Castle, where he died in 1559.