The Queen's Predicament: Christina of Sweden as Virgo, Virago, and Femme Philosophe

By Zirpolo, Lilian H. | Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

The Queen's Predicament: Christina of Sweden as Virgo, Virago, and Femme Philosophe


Zirpolo, Lilian H., Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art


During the Early Modern era, Europe saw an unprecedented number of women ascend the throne either as monarchs in their own right or as regents to their sons. Among them were Margaret of Scotland (regent to James V of Scotland from 1513 to 1514), Mary Stuart (queen of Scotland from 1552 to 1567), Mary Tudor (queen of England, France, and Ireland from 1553 to 1558), Catherine of Austria (regent to her grandson Sebastian of Portugal and Algarve from 1557 to 1562), Elizabeth I (queen of England, France, and Ireland from 1558 to 1603), Catherine de' Medici (regent to Francis II and Charles IX of France from 1560 to 1563), Marie de' Medici (regent to Louis XIII of France from 1610 to 1617), Anne of Austria (regent to Louis XIV of France from 1643 to 1651), and Luisa of Portugal (regent to Alphonse VI of Portugal from 1656 to 1662). As a result, great anxiety developed in the kingdoms of Europe over these women's ability to rule, a concern that rested on prevailing notions of womanhood. (1)

Since antiquity, women had been viewed as imperfect males, their genitalia considered to be a version of the male sexual organ turned inside out. It was also believed that women possessed a wandering uterus, perpetually hungry for copulation. These notions of a flawed female anatomy and insatiable appetite for sex, coupled by the theory of the humors that then governed the medical sciences and which held that women were cold and moist and therefore susceptible to moral inconstancy, substantiated society's view of women's propensity toward undesirable and even irrational behavior. (2) Women, moralists contended, were therefore to be confined to the domestic realm where they could neither cause harm to others nor to themselves and where they could be protected and controlled by men. The negative qualities of women signified their inability to function in the public arena and, more so, to rule an entire state. (3)

In view of their unusual condition, women who ruled had to construct visual symbols and images that asserted their power and authority and justified their position outside the realm of accepted female societal roles. They often did this by having themselves portrayed in paintings, engravings, and medals engaging in typically male activities or by linking themselves to mythical and allegorical figures that extolled the exceptional qualities they possessed and which qualified them for the royal function they were fulfilling. Elizabeth I, for example, paralleled herself in a painting executed by Quentin Massys the Younger in 1583 (Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale) to the ancient hero Aeneas who, like her, chose duty over love. (4) In an engraving by Crispijn van de Passe the Elder of 1596 (London, British Museum), she stands with scepter and orb in hand between the two pillars of Hercules, symbols of fortitude. Behind her is the English fleet to indicate British dominancy under her rulership. (5) Marie de' Medici adopted the persona of Astrea, goddess of justice, in Peter Paul Rubens' Felicity of the Regency (c. 1622-1625; Paris, Louvre), part of the Medici cycle commissioned by the queen for the Luxembourg Palace. (6) In the painting, she holds the scales of justice in her right hand and the scepter, symbol of royal power, in her left. Next to her are Minerva, goddess of wisdom, and Abundance to denote that her wise and just rulership has brought prosperity to the kingdom. Rubens' Marie de' Medici as Bellona (c. 1622-1625; Paris, Louvre) presents the queen as the goddess of war, dominating a battlefield that is shown littered with armors and weapons. Her manliness is denoted by the phallic cannon at her side, positioned at the height of her own (unexposed) genitalia. (7)

Among the women who had great understanding of the perils of female rulership and who knew how to manipulate the visual image effectively to articulate their extraordinary situation in a positive light, Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689; Fig. 1) stands out. …

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