Text by Collections Assistant Trine Nordkvelle
The National Museum’s collection contains an intriguing portrait of Queen Christina of Sweden (1626–1689). She is depicted as a living bust with a helmet, accompanied by an owl, books and an olive branch. She is gazing into space with an absent-minded look. What does this portrait seek to express? What can a single engraving tell us about one of history’s most fascinating women?
On 8 December 1626, a joyful announcement echoes through the corridors of the Tre Kronor castle in Stockholm. The Queen has given birth to a son! No, wait … a daughter! Scraps of foetal membrane still cover the child between the head and the knee and the new-born has a robust and powerful voice. At first the midwives think it’s a boy.
The king takes the child in his arms and smiles:
She’ll be a clever one; she’s fooled us already!
At the age of six, Christina succeeds to the Swedish throne. She is treated like a young prince. In a male-dominated environment, she is allowed to conceal her gender. She is an exception. The established expectations for a woman’s upbringing do not apply in her case.
Christina is highly intelligent and has a good ear for languages. From the age of eight, she studies religion, philosophy, Swedish history and classical languages. By the age of fourteen, she can read and speak French, Latin and Greek. She enjoys fencing and shooting and can handle a horse. Statecraft and politics are essential elements of her education and she listens attentively to her royal counsellors. In 1644 she turns eighteen and assumes her royal duties. As a sovereign monarch, she answers to none but God.
The Minerva of the North
Queen Christina pursues a policy of independence. In the early years of her reign her main goal is to end the Thirty Years War that has been ravaging Europe. Her desire for peace makes her popular with the people. In 1648, peace is achieved and Queen Christina is celebrated as a heroine. She is hailed as the goddess of wisdom, Minerva, or Pallas Athene. It was a name the art-loving queen was happy to adopt, for Minerva is also the patroness of the arts. She orders medals to be minted depicting her in the guise of Minerva.
Minerva / Pallas Athena
- In Roman mythology, Minerva is the goddess not just of wisdom and warfare, but also of poetry, the visual arts and music.
- Minerva is equated with the Greek goddess Athena, or Pallas Athena, likewise the goddess of righteous warfare and wisdom.
- She was the daughter of Jupiter – or, in Greek mythology, of Zeus – from whose forehead she burst forth dressed in full armour.
- Minerva/Athena is often depicted wearing armour and equipped with a spear, shield and helmet, and with an image of the Medusa’s head on either her shield, cape or breastplate. She is often accompanied by an owl perched on a stack of books, both symbols of wisdom.
- In the 17th and 18th centuries, allegorical portraits that depict the subject as a god or goddess were a common device. Being portrayed as Minerva was especially popular for women in the public eye who worked to promote the arts.
Baroque image sharing
A portrait tells us something not just about a person’s appearance, but also about their character. It must be drawn with care. The advantage of engravings is that they can be printed in large numbers and distributed widely. For the young queen, the printed portrait is therefore an important political tool for spreading her “image” to the outside world. She engages the artist Michel Le Blon as a political agent. The German-Polish artist Jeremias Falck is appointed as court engraver. In 1649 he prepares an engraving based on a portrait painted by Christina’s private portrait painter, David Beck.
There are also plans for an engraved portrait that will consolidate the Queen’s reputation as the Minerva of the North. Le Blon travels to Antwerp. In September 1649 he returns with four painted designs from which Christina should choose one as the basis for the engraving to be made by Falck. She chooses the design by Erasmus Quellinus – one of the most reputable Flemish artists after Rubens. Quellinus has based his depiction of Christina on Beck’s portrait, perhaps using the engraving by Falck, which Le Blon is likely to have had with him on his journey.
Quellinus has transferred Christina’s image onto a bust like those that portrayed philosophers in antiquity. On her head she is wearing Minerva’s helmet with an encircling laurel wreath and a sphinx on the crest as a symbol of power and watchfulness. On her breastplate is the head of Medusa, with the locks of hair that Minerva transformed into snakes. Like Minerva, Christina is strategic and wise in her pursuit of warfare. The all-seeing owl on a pile of books represents her wisdom. The carefully selected symbolism is completed by the olive branch – the symbol of peace. Everything fits perfectly with the image Christina and her political agent wish to convey. The engraving is produced and published by Falck together with a humble dedication in Latin from Le Blon to the Queen.
A queen without a realm
The representation of a woman with accentuated breasts, coiffured hair and pearl necklace creates an impression of greater feminine allure than Christina usually projects. Here she is depicted as women are expected to look.
As a child, Christina was dropped to the floor and suffered from uneven shoulders and a twisted torso for the rest of her life. She prefers clothes that provide ample covering and rarely cares about arranging her hair. She wears flat shoes and has a coarse voice. Even so, it is said that her face is attractive and she possesses charm.
As Queen of Sweden, Christina has many suitors. But were she to marry, she would lose her freedom. She resolves to remain single.
I want no man to manage me the way the peasant manages his field.
– Christina of Sweden
Christina nevertheless feels a great responsibility to ensure the royal succession. With her shrewd sense of politics, she persuades the Riksdag, Sweden’s legislative assembly, to approve her cousin Carl Gustav as her successor to the throne.
Christina invites the famous philosopher Descartes to Stockholm. Together they discuss reason and the freedom of the will. Unfortunately, the Nordic winter proves too much for the Frenchman, who contracts pneumonia, leading to his death in Stockholm in 1650. Christina is plagued by her conscience for summoning him to Sweden.
That same year she is crowned queen in a magnificent ceremony. But she remains sceptical. Her interest in Catholicism grows. How can she reconcile this interest with her responsibility as head of Europe’s most Protestant country?
In 1654, Christina shocks Sweden by abdicating and leaving the country. Dressed as a man, she rides across Europe. Her destination is Rome, where she hopes to find more tolerant and liberal attitudes than in Sweden. A new chapter in her eventful life begins. Despite financial problems, she is now free to immerse herself in what she enjoys most – literature, art and theatre.
Even without a realm, she is treated as a sovereign monarch. In another engraving in the National Museum’s collection, made in 1668 by Pierre Lombart, Christina’s bust stands on a pedestal, with a crown and sceptre lying in front of her. These are meant as reminders that she has forsaken her throne, but despite this, she still has a crown on her head. Once a queen, always a queen!
- Aasen, Elisabeth. Barokke damer. Dronning Christinas europeiske reise. Oslo 2005.
- Englund, Peter. Sølvmasken. En kort biografi om dronning Kristina av Sverige. Oslo 2009.
- Steneberg, Karl Erik. “Le Blon, Quellinus, Millich och ‘den svenska hovparnassen’”. In Särtryck ur Svenska skulpturidéer I. Tidskrift för konstvetenskap XXVIII. Malmö 1952.
- Kristina. Självbiografi och aforismer. Published by Magnus von Platen, translated to Swedish by Marianne Rappe. Stockholm: Natur och kultur 1957.
- Popp, Nathan Alan. Expressions of power: Queen Christina of Sweden and patronage in Baroque Europe. Phd-avhandling, University of Iowa 2015.
The portrait collection
- The National Museum’s collection of prints and drawings contains around 3 000 portrait prints. Roughly 130 of these are of women.
- The portrait of Queen Christina as Minerva was part of a large consignment of graphic prints donated by Valborg Stang and her son Christian Sissener when the Christiania Collection of Engravings and Drawings was established in 1877. These prints were formerly the property of the philologist Carl Melchior Stang (1811–73).
- In the 1880s and 1890s, conservator Fredrik Gundersen took the initiative to expand the portrait collection. A collection of historical and contemporary portraits was something every national gallery should have.
- In 1969, large parts of the portrait collection were placed in the keeping of the University of Oslo Library. Since then they have been transferred to the National Library of Norway.