Oil Sketch for High Altarpiece, St Bavo, Ghent
These three oil sketches, or modelli, were made by Rubens in preparation for an altarpiece for St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, which was commissioned by Bishop Maes around 1611. The central panel shows Saint Bavo, a Roman solider who left the military to join the Christian Church, standing on the steps of St Peter’s Church, Ghent. Having given away all his money, he is being received by Saints Amand and Floribert as a monk. The left panel shows Saint Bavo’s sisters, Gertrude and Begga, who followed their brother’s example by becoming nuns. On the right panel, King Clothar and his son King Dagobert argue with a herald of the Roman Emperor Mauritius about a rule that forbade soldiers from becoming monks.
These three oil paintings are preliminary sketches, or modelli, for an altarpiece that was commissioned by Bishop Maes around 1611 for St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent. Although it was used as a plan, the central panel is highly detailed and vividly coloured. It is thought this is the sketch Rubens referred to in 1614 when he wrote to the Archduke Albert, asking for his help in securing the commission after the death of Bishop Maes caused a delay to its progress.
The central panel shows Saint Bavo, a Roman solider who defied the edict of the Emperor Mauritius by renouncing his role in the military and becoming a monk in the Christian Church (before his conversion, he was called Count Allowin of Haspengouw). This story was recounted in a biography of the saint that appeared in 1583, written by the theologian Joannes Molanus. In Rubens’s picture, Saint Bavo’s worldly possessions are given away – his riches are being offered to a group of beggars – as he is received into the Benedictine Order by Saints Amand and Floribert. A cleric holds a black habit for him to wear instead of his armour.
The left panel of the altarpiece depicts Saint Bavo’s sisters, Saints Gertrude and Begga, who followed in their brother’s footsteps by becoming nuns. Gertrude tilts her head back and raises her eyes as if towards heaven; Begga leans towards her companion, who wears a white headdress; this may be Saint Bavo’s daughter, Saint Agletrude. The women are surrounded by a group of onlookers, most of whom gaze towards the scene in the central panel. In the right panel, King Clothar and his son King Dagobert argue with a herald of the Emperor. The man thrusts a scroll towards the kings that contains an edict from Mauritius, forbidding his soldiers from entering the Church.
There are some pentimenti in the oil sketches, which can primarily be seen using X-radiography and infrared reflectography. In the central panel, for example, the face of the deacon who stands behind Saint Amand has been altered, and there may have been the head and hand of another beggar just to the left of the man who hands out Saint Bavo’s money. The positions of some of the children surrounding the mother in the foreground have also been changed.