The Ultimate Test of Love and Justice in this Painting

Rubens’ tale of two mothers and a king

Christopher P Jones
5 min readMay 4, 2023

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The Judgement of Solomon (c. 1617) by Peter Paul Rubens and workshop. Oil on canvas. 234 × 303 cm. National Gallery of Denmark (Statens Museum for Kunst), Copenhagen, Denmark. Image source SMK OPEN (open access)

At the heart of this painting is one of the great biblical tales of truth and justice, as told in the first Book of Kings (3:16–28).

Amid shimmering satins and baroque architecture, the image shows the moment when King Solomon was asked to settle a torrid dispute between two women.

Both women lived in the same house and had given birth to babies around the same time. However, one of the babies had passed away during the night, and both women claimed that the surviving baby was theirs.

Unable to determine who the true mother was, Solomon devised a test to reveal the real mother. He ordered that the baby be cut in half, so each woman would receive an equal portion. The first woman agreed to this, saying that if she couldn’t have the baby, then neither could the other woman. The second woman, however, immediately begged Solomon not to harm the child and offered to let the first woman have him.

Solomon then knew that the second woman was the true mother, because she was willing to give up the baby in order to save his life. He decreed that the child be given to her —and so the story of the Judgement of Solomon became a classic example of wisdom and shrewd judgement.

The Judgement of Solomon (c. 1617) by Peter Paul Rubens and workshop. Oil on canvas. 234 × 303 cm. National Gallery of Denmark (Statens Museum for Kunst), Copenhagen, Denmark. Image source SMK OPEN (open access)

Telling a story like this in a painting is no easy task, not least because there are several protagonists each with opposing points of view to capture.

To solve the dilemma, the artist Peter Paul Rubens embellished the image with signals and indications pertaining to the intricacies of the narrative.

The Scene

King Solomon sits on a throne amid an architecturally rich setting. In the background of the court are a series of twisted columns. This style of column is known as a Solomonic column, which became popular in the Baroque era — tradition has it that the Temple of Solomon was constructed with such spiralling, twisting shafts. His throne is raised on a platform beneath a structure known as a baldachin, consisting of a canopy placed…

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