The most learned, cultural, dynamic, and controversial woman of her generation, the arc of Kristina's life traced the complex political and cultural issues of the 1600s. During her lifetime she was equally legendary for her lavish patronage of artists and writers and her scandalous, unorthodox personal life.
Her father was the mighty Swedish warrior-king Gustavus Adolphus, champion of the Protestant cause and the king who established the framework of the modern Swedish state. Her mother, Maria of Brandenburg, suffered from serious mental illnesses during her lifetime. When Kristina was born in 1626, she was erroneously reported to be a boy. Her mother attempted to attack the newborn Kristina in a fit of madness when she learned she had actually given birth to a boy.
Carl Gustav ordered that Kristina be given a prince's education, but his untimely death in battle when Kristina was six years old meant that the kingdom passed into a regency period, overseen by Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna. Oxenstierna proved to be young Kristina's best political tutor, and there was a relatively smooth political reform and transition period as the young monarch prepared to take the throne under her own name. Young Kristina was an apt, brilliant pupil by all accounts, learning theology, politics, letters, and the rougher arts of riding, fencing, and military maneuvers. Kristina began attending state council at the age of fourteen. At eighteen she assumed the throne for herself.
With the waning of the religious violence of the Thirty Years' War, there was a considerable risk that Sweden might be plunged back into a maelstrom of violence when Kristina took the throne. She managed to keep the peace, and then turned her efforts to make Sweden the philosophical capital of Europe. She succeeded in recruiting Rene Descartes to her project—alas the venerable French philosopher and the queen disliked each other intensely, and the chilly climate sickened Descartes and he died in Stockholm in 1650. For her efforts, she came to be called “the Minerva of the North” throughout Europe. Unfortunately, the queen's project could only be funded through lavish and unsustainable expenditure by the crown, and she was forced to scale it back.
Kristina unexpectedly abdicated the Swedish throne after ten years of rule, and the reasons for this are still hotly debated to this day. Kristina herself pled illness and that, as a woman, she was inadequate to the role of ruler, but others claimed her deep aversion to marriage (and thus the matter of succession) was the result of her own sexual identity. She had secretly converted to Roman Catholicism, which also made her ineligible to the throne of Lutheran Sweden. Reign passed to her cousin, Carl X Gustav.
As a high-profile convert to Catholicism, Kristina was invited to Rome as the guest of Pope Alexander VII in 1655. She did not impress the pontiff. Her manners were rough (she enjoyed profanity, marksmanship, dressing in men's clothing, and some other activities seen as unbefitting the nobility), and she had a habit of practicing freelance statesmanship, including the unsuccessful attempt to get herself appointed Queen of Naples with the collusion of the French. She was also unwilling to serve as Pope Alexander's public pawn against Protestantism.
During her time in Rome, she patronized a number of outstanding artists and writers, amassing a collection of artwork that was the envy of Europe. Her court at the Palazzo Farnese was the epicenter of her artistic world, entertaining guests with music, drama, and intellectual discussions on great matters. This extravagance (and Kristina's general lack of propriety) scandalized and delighted the great people of Europe. Her painting collection included works by Raphael, Titian, Durer, Bruegel the Elder, Veronese, and Corregio. She founded the Arcadia Academy for philosophy and literature, which is still in Rome today. She discovered the composer Scarlatti and employed him as choirmaster, while Corelli directed her personal orchestra.
But she came to the end of tolerance by the courts of Europe. In 1657, on a visit to France, she had one of her household staff assassinated on suspicion that he was betraying her personal letters to Rome. She immediately took responsibility for the act, despite the French nobility offering to help cover up the affair. The scandal ruined her support back in Rome, and she spent a number of years shuttling between Sweden and Rome. Although privately friendly with a number of Popes, the political atmosphere turned against the bohemian stylings of Kristina's personal court.
She was centuries ahead of her time in many of her views, fiercely contrarian against the prevailing notions of the age. She was a stalwart defender of personal liberties, generous in her charity, and a staunch protector of the Jews of Rome. There has been considerable postmortem psychological examination of her life, with each succeeding generation claiming to have the key to her motivations. Her unorthodox lifestyle, disregard of gender norms, and her independence of thought make her a compelling subject of study. Even her historical detractors praise her contributions to the arts.
When she died in April, 1689, she was given an enormous funeral by the Vatican, and she is one of only three women buried in St. Peter's Basilica—contrary to her own wishes for a simpler burial in the Pantheon.