Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens
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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.

This modello is the only complete study for the large painting for the high altar of the church of the Augustinian priory of Rood Klooster (also Rooklooster) near Brussels, of which St. Paul was the patron saint. (The monastery is where the great Northern Renaissance painter, Hugo van der Goes, spent his final days.) The painting was probably commissioned by Adriaan van der Reest (d. 1648), who became the twenty-fifth prior of the monastery in 1635. The altarpiece in all likelihood was installed in 1638 because that year Rubens was paid 1,500 Rhenish florins by the monastery. Thus the modello is logically dated about 1637. Unfortunately, the final painting was destroyed during the French bombardment of Brussels in 1695. The altarpiece probably resembled the sketch closely. It too had an arched top, conformed according to early descriptions to the sketch, and to judge from its architectural frame that survives in Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-ten-Poel in Tienen, Brabant, measured no less than 420 by 270 centimeters; the frame was acquired at auction when the Rood Kloster was suppressed by Joseph II, the Austrian emperor, in 1784.

The sketch was acquired in the nineteenth century by Sir George Lindsay Holford, one of the most distinguished collectors and connoisseurs of his day, as a work by Anthony van Dyck. Its attribution was changed to Rubens by Max Rooses in 1888 and has never since been challenged. The dispersal of the Holford collection in 1927 and 1928 was one of the most important sales of old masters of the twentieth century and held the record for the total value of a single sale for more than two decades. When the curator of the National Gallery in London, William Gibson, reviewed the sale in 1928 he was especially flattering in his praise of this work, commending the picture's "very great pictorial idea," and added that "in a study like this one sees what profundity, what subtlety Rubens was capable of, that he was not merely an amazingly powerful rhetorician, and perhaps the greatest executant [sic] in paint, but a very great artist."

The altarpiece in the Rood Klooster inspired another large altarpiece originally in the Dominican church of Antwerp and now in the Madeleine at Aix-en-Provence (Vlieghe 1972-73, vol. 2, no. 138). It was originally attributed in early descriptions to Rubens's pupil Theodor Boeyermans (1620-1678), then assigned to Gaspar de Crayer and at times promoted to Rubens himself, before being plausibly assigned once again by Leo van Puyvelde ("La Décollation de Saint Paul d'Aix en Provence, non de Rubens mais de Boeyermans," Revue Belge d'Archéologie et d'Histoire de l'Art 27 [1958], pp. 29ff.) to Boeyermans, an attribution supported by Hans Vlieghe (1972-73), and dated 1670, the date that appears on the frame. The chief difference between the altarpiece in Aix and the composition of the present sketch is that in the former the figures in the foreground are viewed full-length. In this regard the painting in Aix closely resembles a drawing in the British Museum in London, the authorship of which has been much disputed (Burchard and d'Hulst 1963, vol. 1, no. 195 [as Rubens]; Vlieghe 1972-73, p. 136, no. 138a [as Boeyermans]; Rowlands, in exh cat. London 1977, cat. 190 [as Rubens with an assistant]; Held 1980, vol. 1, p. 583 ["Rubens had a hand in it"]). The drawing has gone through multiple reworkings, possibly by more than one hand, and further complicating matters, has been cut up and pasted together to create the image with full-length figures in the foreground that corresponds most closely to the painting in Aix. Clearly, Rubens's original conception documented in the present sketch was a work of enduring influence.

As Vlieghe (1972-73), Held (1980), and others have pointed out, Rubens recycled several figural motifs in the present work: the executioner's pose appeared in the Martyrdom of St. Catherine of 1615 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille) and in reverse in the Judgment of Solomon of about 1611-12 (Museo del Madrid, Prado); the soldier leaning on his lance figured in Decius Mus Relating His Dreams of about 1617; and the group of the Christian spectators and a Roman soldier viewed half-length in the foreground recalls the organization of the group of soldiers in the Bearing of the Cross completed in 1637 for the Benedictine monastery of Sts. Paul and Peter at Afflighem (see the related sketches, Held 1980, vol. 1, nos. 347, 348, vol. 2, pls. 341, 342). The pose of the executioner may ultimately be derived from Raphael's fresco in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican.

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