Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Murder of Godelieve from The Life and Miracles of Saint Godelieve
  • Creator: Master of the Saint Godelieve Legend, painter
  • Description:

    These panels are part of the seven scenes illustrating the life of Godelieve of Gistel. The narrative of her unhappy marriage and murder at her husband’s orders begins on the far left where Godelieve, marked by a halo, appears with her parents and two sisters. In all the scenes the other characters wear identical outfits throughout, while Godelieve changes clothing with her roles: maiden, bride, noble lady, murder victim, and miracle worker. The second panel provides evidence of Godelieve’s sanctity, showing her feeding the poor from household supplies. When a servant checks, on her father’s orders, the stolen food hidden in her dress has turned into wood chips. In the third panel Godelieve’s parents entertain the count of Boulogne who has come to urge Godelieve’s marriage to the knight Bertolf. In the background Godelieve has given delicacies intended for the guest to the poor and prays for God’s help; angels bring dishes of food for the feast.

    In the center panel Godelieve weds Bertolf. The next section features Bertolf and his mother who hates Godelieve and turns her son against his new wife. The servant girl is set to spy on Godelieve’s activities. In the subsequent panel Godelieve is murdered by Bertolf’s two men, Lambert and Hacca. In the background the events leading up to the climactic scene lend further pathos: (1)Bertolf pretends affection for his wife in order to persuade her to meet with an old woman who will supposedly bring love to their marriage and (2) a vulnerable Godelieve is led from her bed by the two murderers who don’t give her time to put anything over her shift. In the final panel, the two men lower Godelieve's body head first into a well to wash away any signs of struggle and verify that she is dead. Next they arrange her corpse in bed to pass off the death as natural. In the background the painter presents four miracles posthumously performed by the saint. When the altarpiece is closed, the two exterior panels portray four male saints: Saint Josse, Saint Nicholas of Bari, Saint Quirinus and Saint John the Baptist. Details suggest that the altarpiece may have been commissioned by the Guild of Load Bearers to celebrate their patron Godelieve at their chapel in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady) in Bruges.

    Godelieve was an historic figure who was born around 1050, married in her early teens, died at 18 and was made a saint 14 years later. Devotion to her cult began quickly, as the first account of her Life was written just a few years following her death by Drogo of Sint-Winoksbergen, a monk with long experience in writing biography and stories of miracles. He gathered reminiscences of Godelieve from family and acquaintances to make her Vita more detailed and compelling. A modern day reader takes pause at the repeated instances of abuse from Godelieve's husband. Domestic violence figures in other medieval saints' lives including those of Dorothy of Montau and Catherine of Genoa. The women's sanctity is enhanced by their patient submission to the excessive actions of their husbands. These cases of violence need to be contextualized in daily practice where husbands were expected to physically "correct" their wives when they made mistakes.

  • Source: flickr - Photograph taken by Ricardo Zappala.
  • Rights: Creative Commons License - Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
  • Subject (See Also): Altarpieces Crime and Criminals Godelieve of Gistel, Saint Hagiography Lay Piety Miracles Murder Violence Wife Abuse Wives Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: Low Countries
  • Century: 15
  • Date: Last quarter of the 15th century
  • Related Work: See the painting on the exterior panels of the Godelieve altarpiece. The figures from left to right are: Saints Josse, Nicholas of Bari, Quirinus, and John the Baptist, with two male donors.
    Other works by the Master of the Saint Godelieve Legend include:
    The Miracles of Santiago (Indianapolis Museum of Art);
    Triptych of the Passion (Vitoria, Spain, Museo Diocesano de Arte Sacro);
    Triptych of the Virgin among virgins (Abbeville, Musée Boucher de Perthes)
  • Current Location: New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 12.79
  • Original Location:
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Oil; Wood panel
  • Donor: Laymen (?); Guild of the Load Bearers in Bruges (?)
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 125.1/311 (when open)/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Burroughs, Bryson. “A Polyptych Representing the Life of Saint Godelieve,” Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 7 (July 1912): 126-128;
    Ainsworth, Maryan W., and Keith Christiansen, eds. From van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum of art, 1998. Pages 125-128;
    Defries, David. “Godeliph of Gistel and the Politics of Innocent Martyrdom in Eleventh-century Flanders,” Hagiographica 15 (2008): 31-61;
    Drogo of Sint-Winoksbergen. “The Life of Godelieve.” Translated by Bruce L. Venarde. In Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology. Edited by Thomas Head. Online in Monastic Matrix;
    Kienzle, Beverly Mayne and Nancy Nienhuis. “Battered Women and the Construction of Sanctity,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 17, 1 (Spring 2001): 33-61:
    Nip, Renée. “The Canonization of Godelieve of Giste,” Hagiographica 2 (1995): 145-155;
    Nip, Renée. “Godelieve of Gistel and Ida of Boulogne.”In Sanctity and Motherhood: Essays on Holy Mothers in the Middle Ages. Edited by Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker. Garland Publishing, 1995. Pages 191-223;
    Nip, Renée. “Life and Afterlife: Arnulf of Oudenburg, Bishop of Soissons, and Godelieve of Gistel. Their Function as Intercessors in Medieval Flanders.” In The Invention of Saintliness. Edited by Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker. Routledge, 2002. Pages 58-76.