Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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The Church Triumphant
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Peter Paul Rubens
The Martyrdom of St. Paul, ca. 1637
Oil on panel, 38 x 22.9 cm
Private collection

Catalog Entry by Peter C. Sutton

The story of St. Paul's martyrdom is told in Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea) for June 30. Condemned to death by Emperor Nero, Paul was taken to the place of his execution outside the Ostia Gate in Rome, hence the appearance of Pyramid of Cestius in the background. On his way he not only converted three of the Roman soldiers who were his captors (here represented by the soldiers in armor at the bottom and to the left of the scene) but also drew the sympathy of a Roman matron named Plautilla, or Lemobia, who was a Christian. She asked him to pray for her and he responded by asking her for her veil with which to cover his eyes, assuring her that she could have it back when the grisly execution was over. The executioners mocked her, saying, "How canst thou give this precious object to such an imposter." In depicting the story, Rubens has taken creative license for dramatic effect in having the saint already kneeling and bound with rope so that Plautilla must blindfold him herself. At the center of the composition, St. Paul is in gray-violet drapery, Plautilla extends her veil while wearing deeper purple drapery, and the powerful executioner seen from the rear wears an olive green tunic. At the bottom are soldiers and women and children, and at the left two centurions, one in red with a helmet, holding spears witness the event. Over the brow of the hill, a mounted soldier in rose on a white steed is glimpsed beyond the executioner. A genius hovers in the air above, poised to award Paul the martyr's laurel wreath, while two putti carry his palm...

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