Kristian Zahrtmann, Queen Christina in Palazzo Corsini (1908). Image from the National Gallery of Denmark.

On a recent trip to Copenhagen I was fascinated by this painting by Kristian Zahrtmann that I saw in the Statens Museum for Kunst (the National Gallery of Denmark). It was painted in 1908, and is an imagined scene showing Queen Christina of Sweden smoking a pipe and surrounded by her courtiers.

What first drew my eye were the Pre-Raphaelite-esque colours and handling of the paint. The intense blue of Queen Christina’s dress is almost jewel-like in the flesh. Secondly, I was fascinated by the subject of the painting. What was going on here? Who was this woman, and why is she smoking a pipe?

Christina (born Kristina Augusta Wasa, 1626-1689) was Queen of Sweden from 1632-1654. She received the same education a male heir would have, and became interested in politics, religion and languages. Her father the King died when she was six and she inherited the throne, and began ruling at age 18.

She collected books, objects and paintings, as well as ‘collecting’ intellectuals of the age who would visit her – notable scientists, musicians and philosophers, including Descartes. She is described as being obsessed with her studies, which left her little time to sleep or care for her appearance. She is said to have had unruly hair and often wore men’s clothes for convenience.

Inspired by Queen Elizabeth I of England, Queen Christina rejected the mere idea of marriage and refused to ever produce an heir to her throne. Historians are not sure what Christina may have looked and sounded like; it is believed accounts of her irregular shoulders and masculine voice may be unreliable.

During her lifetime and since, Queen Christina’s gender identity and sexuality have come into question. Modern biographers generally consider her to be a lesbian, as affairs with women were noted during her lifetime.

In this painting, Zahrtmann has played on her ambiguous gender identity by having her smoke a phallic-looking pipe, and surrounded by men in a clearly spiritual and intellectual sphere, as characterized by the dress of the men, the open book and the statue.

Christina abdicated the throne in 1654, when she adopted Roman Catholicism, adopted the named Christina Alexandra, and moved to Rome, where she befriended many poets, composers and artists, and was the guest of five successive Popes. She is one of the few women buried in the Vatican grotto.

It is fascinating to me that her father’s desire for her to have a ‘male’ education may have led to hundreds of years of speculation about her gender, and that her intellectualism was seen as so masculine as to call into question her biology.

-Jocelyn Anderson-Wood
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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