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Peter Paul Rubens, Three Female Witnesses

Key facts
Full title Three Female Witnesses
Artist Peter Paul Rubens
Artist dates 1577 - 1640
Group Oil Sketch for High Altarpiece, St Bavo, Ghent
Date made 1611-12
Medium and support Oil on oak
Dimensions 107.6 × 41.1 cm
Acquisition credit Holwell Carr Bequest, 1831
Inventory number NG57.2
Location Not on display
Collection Main Collection
Previous owners
Three Female Witnesses
Peter Paul Rubens

This is an oil sketch Rubens made in preparation for an altarpiece for St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent; it shows the scene that appeared on the left panel. The two women wearing gold crowns are Saints Gertrude and Begga, the sisters of Saint Bavo (who appears in the central panel). Saint Bavo was a Roman solider, but he left the military to become a monk; his sisters followed his example by becoming nuns. Judging by her closeness and familiarity, the woman in the white headdress is probably a companion of the sisters, possibly Saint Bavo’s daughter.

Saint Gertrude clutches her necklace as she goes to discard it, just as her brother in the central panel gives away his wealth before entering the monastery. Her head is tipped back and her eyes are raised as if towards heaven. Her gown, its gold embroidery visible on the hem, shimmers in the light, emphasising the wealth that the family are about to give up.

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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.