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Queen Elizabeth I

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Queen Elizabeth I and subsequently Catherine the Great have captured the attention and the imaginations of people over the centuries, but there was another such extraordinary woman whom I had never heard of until last Saturday night. She was Queen Christina of Sweden, born in 1626, and she was the monarch technically from the time she was 6 until she abdicated her throne in 1654.

Her father was King Gustav II Adolph, and he died on the battlefield at the Battle of Lützen during the Thirty Years’ War. Close to his daughter, his only legitimate child, as she was to him, he decreed that in the event of his death, she was to be educated as a prince — to receive a boy’s tutoring and instruction. Except for a brief, three-year period when she was raised by her father’s half-sister, Catherine, who then died, Christina was always in the company of men and was effectively overseen by the governing regency council and the chancellor. She took to her books eagerly, and throughout her early years she energetically studied 10 hours a day. Her education ranged from religion, mathematics, Greek and Latin, philosophy and alchemy, and she eventually learned at least eight languages: German, Dutch, Danish, French, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew and her own Swedish. She was also deeply interested in the arts and filled her palace and her kingdom with books, manuscripts, sculptures and statues, while encouraging theater and ballet.

When her chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, wanted to continue the war, she sued for peace. Christina was interested in bringing scholars and artists from throughout Europe and surrounded herself and her court with learned men.

In 1648, Christina commissioned 35 pieces of art. By 1649, 760 artworks, 170 marble and 100 bronze statues, 33,000 coins and medallions, 600 pieces of crystal, 300 scientific instruments, manuscripts and books were forthcoming. Christina was widely viewed throughout Europe as one of the most educated women of the 1600s, nicknamed “Minerva of the North.” She was also regarded as eccentric since she often dressed in the most comfortable clothing, including pants and men’s shoes.

Christina stunned the royals throughout Europe by announcing she would never marry, although constantly pressed to do so by her regency council to produce an heir, and that she would abdicate her throne in favor of her first cousin Charles, with whom she had been secretly betrothed when she was 16. Impressed by a biography she had read of Elizabeth I, known as “The Virgin Queen,” and taken with the idea of Roman Catholicism celibacy — although Christina was rumored not to have been celibate, rather the contrary — she sailed from Sweden for Rome.

The pope, who pronounced her a “queen without a realm, a Christian without faith and a woman without shame,” welcomed her elaborately. As the eventual guest of five consecutive popes, Christina is thought to have been a symbol of the Counter-Reformation since she converted from Lutheranism and became a Roman Catholic. For the most part, she lived in high style throughout the rest of her life, mainly in her beloved Rome, and she certainly influenced continental Europe profoundly with her taste and protectionism of the arts. She militantly advocated on behalf of personal freedom, of charities and, interestingly, of Jews in Rome who were sometimes taunted on the streets.

So how did I come to learn of her remarkable life? I am a fan of Saturday night classic movies hosted by Columbia University arts professor Richard Peña on Channel 13 at 9 p.m., and caught the showing of “Queen Christina” (1933) starring Greta Garbo. From what I have subsequent read, the story is surprisingly faithful to the broader outlines of Christina’s life. She died in 1689 and is buried in a Vatican grotto.