The Mystic Betrothal of St Catherine (front of a panel painted on both sides), 1628

According to the legend, the Early Christian martyr Catherine was a princess of Cyprus. Beautiful and intellectually superior to all men, she converted to Christianity. The symbol of Catherine’s bond with Christ is her mystically experienced betrothal to the Christ child. The scene has been painted many times since the fourteenth century, but rarely in as dynamic a manner as by Rubens, or with such a wealth of detail. What is more, here we virtually watch him at work.

For with this oil sketch, Rubens planned the composition for the high altarpiece of the Church of St Augustine in Antwerp with a degree of exactness that would allow him to transfer the figures to the much larger painting surface – note the markings on the lower edge. What genius is reflected in the complex concept – as rich in personnel as it is in action – but also in the light, fluid brushstrokes! Every shadow, every heightening, every movement is perfect. Every line is alive; every nuance breathes the impulsiveness of a sketch, but is nevertheless precise, vivid, and confident in its expression.


Oak
64 × 49.2 cm
Inv. No. 464