Jan Gossaert, also known as Mabuse (c.1478-1532)
The three children of Christian II of Denmark
Oil on panel
34 x 46 cm
Possibly acquired by Henry VIII
The provenance of this painting is complicated. The 1542 inventory of Henry VIII’s collection at Whitehall lists ‘oone table with the pictures of the 3 children of the King of Denmarks’. This may also be the Gossaert painting referred to by van Mander in 1604: ‘In the gallery in Whitehall there are, or were, two faces of boys, or noble children’. If so, then the present painting would appear to have been acquired by Henry VIII. The most likely moment for its acquisition would be during his marriage to Katherine of Aragon (divorced in 1533); she was great-aunt to the children depicted (their mother, Isabella of Habsburg, was the daughter of Joanna of Castile, Katherine’s sister). It remained at Whitehall during the reign of Charles I, but does not appear in the inventories of Charles II following the Restoration. It is possible that Queen Caroline, who collected historical portraits, acquired the painting when she was Consort to George II, mistakenly thinking that it depicted the children of Henry VII.
Prince John and Princesses Dorothea and Christina were the children of the exiled King Christian II of Denmark (1481-1559). Gossaert presents the figures as a closely knit unit. The three small children appear to draw strength from each other by the overlapping of their hands and bodies. Their mother died on 19 January 1526 when the children were aged 7, 5 and 3, and the portrait was perhaps commissioned in her honour. After their departure from Scandinavia in 1523, the children were brought up at the court of Margaret of Austria, Governor of the Netherlands, in Mechelen. As an informed patron of the arts, her court attracted the great humanists of the day. This may have influenced the symbolism in the painting, since the inclusion of cherries and quinces on the green table may be emblematic of a well-nurtured childhood (a metaphor suggested by Plutarch in De Liberis Educandis).
Due to his height and solemn outward gaze, John dominates the composition, acting as the brave protector of his two younger siblings. All three children wear the rich dark clothes of mourning, and the bloodless pallor of their faces may be an intentional device to indicate their sorrow. Gossaert’s illusionistic frame-within-a-frame composition has the effect of the sitters being projected from the constructed world of paint into the real world of the viewer, in this case perhaps to elicit our sympathy. The painting was evidently popular; there are seven surviving versions, of which this is the best. Due to a striking similarity in the facial features, Dorothea is thought to be the subject of another portrait by Gossaert painted about four years later, where she is shown holding an upside-down armillary sphere, possibly to symbolise the political upheavals in her father’s kingdom (National Gallery, London).
Catalogue entry adapted from The Northern Renaissance. Dürer to Holbein, London 2011