Detail: Michiel Sittow, Portrait of King Christian II of Denmark, 1514/1515.
The Royal Collection of Paintings and Sculptures, SMK. 

Christian II is one of Denmark’s most fascinating kings – and the first Danish king to properly use visual art to promote himself and his political agendas. In the exhibition you could explore how he used art as a tool to aid his political strategies.

Christian II (1481-1559) is famous as the king who married into one of the most powerful noble houses of Europe, angered the aristocracy, lost his crown and was banished from the country. At the same time he had to navigate between the old Catholic Church and the new Lutheran faith. And Christian II was the first Danish king to extensively use pictures in his efforts to promote himself and his political agendas.

In the exhibition you could delve into and explore how Christian II used pictures strategically – both while he was still king and when he was exiled, striving in vain to reclaim his lost realms.

Christian II used paintings and prints – especially – to get his message out to all relevant persons. And he used the most famous artists of the age for his propaganda.

The exhibition featured paintings, drawings, engravings and woodcuts by artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Jan Gossart, Michiel Sittow and Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Pictures as weapons

Christian II was a man of vision. He wanted to bring the Nordic realms together as one. Indeed, by 1520 he had become ruler of Denmark, Norway and Sweden/Finland. However, he was deposed in 1523 and went into exile in the Netherlands, where he plotted to reclaim his realms.

During Christian II’s time in exile in the Netherlands from 1523 to 1531, his key goal was to reclaim power. He needed to persuade rulers as well as the bourgeoisie that he had been unjustly deposed, and that his noble efforts to reclaim the throne deserved support. Pictures became one of his most important tools in this struggle. 

Inspired by his Habsburg family, who were experts at communicating through pictures, Christian II used paintings and – especially – prints, both engravings and woodcuts, to get his message out to all relevant persons. And he used the most famous artists of the age for his propaganda.

Even though Christian II’s made extensive efforts to reclaim his throne, he never succeeded. During one of his attempts, in 1532, he was captured by the new king, Frederick I, and lived the rest of his life in captivity until his death in 1559.

Practical information

Exhibition period:
15 June 10 September 2017

Opening hours
Tuesdays – Sundays 11–17
Wednesdays 11–20
Mondays closed

Admission fee
Adults: DKK 110
Under 30: DKK 85
Under 18: Free
1 adult + 1 child: DKK 90
Annual pass holders: Free

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Delve into the story about Christian II and his use of visual art to promote himself and his political agendas. 

To coincide with the exhibition, SMK published a catalogue by curator and senior reseacher Hanne Kolind Poulsen.

Michiel Sittow, Portrait of King Christian II of Denmark, 1514/1515.
The Royal Collection of Paintings and Sculptures, SMK. 

Self representation

The forked, reddish-brown beard; the semi-long red hair; the long, distinctive nose with its slight bend; the prominent cheekbones; the large, black hat.

Michiel Sittow’s 1514/1515 portrait of Christian II establishes a range of distinctive visual characteristics that he can be recognised by – in subsequent portraits too.

However, these portraits were not accurate likenesses in the modern, photographic sense of the term. Other things were also at stake. The portraits of the elite were intended to establish, maintain and communicate social and political hierarchies, not necessary to convey a ‘real’ likeness.

The drawing below at the right shows a portrait of Christian II – a drawing Dürer created in 1521 as the basis for a painting.

The drawing shows the king's key facial features and is, in spite of Dürer's stylisation, one of the only portraits in which we get a sense og what Christian II may have looked like when he was not "dressed up" in his iconography.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Christian II (1481-1559), after 1523
The Museum of Southern Jutland – Sønderborg.

Albrecht Dürer, Christian II, 1521.


We usually only see a painting’s “skin” – its uppermost layer.

In this film you can delve down under the surface and explore what lies beneath the iconic portrait of Christian II painted by Michiel Sittow.

Unknown, after Jan Gossaert, Portrait of Christian II of Denmark, 1525. 
Graphische Sammlung, Städel Museum Frankfurt am Main.
Photo: Städel Museum - U. Edelmann - ARTOTHEK

The Family as Propaganda

Christian II did not only use his own image in his efforts to establish and, later, reclaim his power. He also promoted his immediate family in pictures. 

Portraits of queen Elisabeth are frequently seen as pendant pieces paired with portraits of the king, and his three children were also portrayed. All three children were excellent marriage material, and the right marriages could have a crucial impact – politically and financially – on Christian II's opportunities for reclaiming his throne.

Luther and the Protestant Reformation

The exhibition was produced on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation – the revolt against the old (“Catholic”) Church and the formation of the Protestant religious communities.

The exhibition demonstrated how Martin Luther, not only had a major impact on Christian II’s faith, but also on the king’s use of pictures.

Read about the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

About Christian II

1481: Christian II is born, son of king John of Denmark and queen Christine.

1513: Death of king John; Christian II accedes to the throne.

1514: Christian II marries Isabella of Austria (1501-1526), who becomes known as queen Elisabeth in Denmark. As a member of the powerful House of Habsburg, grandchild of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and sister of the next emperor Karl V, she was one of the most eligible women of her time.

1520: Christian II becomes king of Sweden/Finland. In order to quell all future Swedish resistance, he executes many members of the Swedish elite in the so-called Stockholm Bloodbath.

1522: Inspired by his Habsburg family in the Netherlands, Christian II improves conditions for the merchant bourgeoisie in the cities at the expense of the aristocracy's established privileges.

1523: The aristocracy denounce Christian II and appoint his uncle, Frederick I, as regent. Christian II escapes to the Netherlands with his family.

1532: Christian II sets sail for Denmark, where he has agreed to enter negotiations with Frederick I. Frederick breaks his promise and takes Christian II directly to Sønderborg Castle, where he is imprisoned.

1559: In January, Christian II dies in captivity at Kalundborg Castle.

Unknown, after Jan Gossart, Portrait of Queen Elisabeth of Denmark, c. 1525.
Det Kgl. Bibliotek, Copenhagen. 

Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of Christian II of Denmark, 1521. 
The Trustees of the British Museum.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portrait of Martin Luther, 1532.
The Royal Collection of Paintings and Sculptures, SMK.

The Royal Collection of Graphic Art

Pictures and Power. The Visual Politics of Christian II
was an exhibition of works from The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, which is one of the oldest collections of prints and drawings in the world.

The Royal Collections

Delve into the history about The Royal Collections – the cornerstone of the National Gallery of Denmark.