Universal Storytelling: Rubens’ Biblical Masterpiece

Copenhague. Among the treasures of The National Gallery of Denmark (SMK), an impressive oil painting, The Judgment of Salomon (c.1617), attributed to artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), one of the most influential artists in the Flemish Baroque tradition, tells an intriguing story.


With its large dimensions (234 cm x 303 cm), the most famous paintings of the Statens Museum for Kunst demands the viewers’ attention and, for that reason, is centrally located in the main hall. Two benches are placed in front of the canvas, inviting the public to sit down and reflect on the scenery that takes place in front of them.

Paul Rubens, The Judgment of Salomon, c.1617 @Public Domain @ SMK

The motif is religious in nature and was inspired by a scene from the First Book of Kings in the Bible (3:16-28). The story is about two harlots living in one house. Both women give birth to a child almost at the same time but shortly after, one of the children dies. As both women claim the living boy as their own, they turn to King Solomon hoping he will resolve their quandary. With his sense of justice, he produces a sword and demands that the child be cut in half. The logic being that the only fair solution is for each woman to get one half of the boy. One of the women does not disagree with this decision, but the other gives up her half in the hope that it will save her son. Solomon’s judgment had produced the anticipated reaction. Now the King is able to determine the identity of his real mother.

The painting is of great artistic value and is in the Baroque tradition with its emphasis on drama, passion, emotion and the richness of the colors used. Rubens is a genius when it comes to organizing his composition in a narrative yet natural sequence, and this painting is no exception.

This painting is not only a great exercise in technique and skill, but also provides an amazing narrative. The composition shows the most dramatic moment of the story, where the action reaches its climax, right before the plot twist of Solomon’s judgement. The executioner stands with one hand around the boy’s ankle and the other around the hilt of his sword, about to cut the child in half. The real mother desperately stretches out her arm to save the child, turning her head away from the viewer so that one can only imagine the emotional expression on her face. Solomon sits on his throne above the other figures, looking down on them and raising his hand as he is the one with the clear sight in the situation about to stop the executioner from cleaving the child in two.

This biblical story has served as inspiration for many, and it has been interpreted and depicted by some of the world’s greatest artists, who often chose the exact same moment as Rubens. In fact, this precise scene is the first to be depicted from the Bible (Feder, 2022). In the past, biblical episodes served to visually illustrate and spiritually stimulate illiterate audiences (McEwan, 2018). This is no longer necessary, but the stories told with images are still fascinating to modern audiences. Even though this story is set in a religious context, similar fables are found in folklore around the world, leading to the conclusion that the morality and justice of the story must have universal appeal.

Rubens’ version of The Judgement of Solomon is part of the exhibition ‘European Art 1300-1800 and can be seen in Hall 204.

Lea Jannike Bjerrum-Bohr (étudiante en master 2)          
Cours Literature and the Media: Representations, Adaptations, Exhibitions
Master 2 MC2L, Médias, Culture, 2 languesUniversité Paris 8 



OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
achassagnol (3 mars 2023). Universal Storytelling: Rubens’ Biblical Masterpiece. . Consulté le 22 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/ropw

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