The Execution of the Innocent Count by Dieric Bouts

The Execution of the Innocent Man by Dieric Bouts (1470-5)

On January 27th  I showed you two painting by Gerard David entitled the Judgement of Cambyses and the Flaying of Sisamnes which was originally hung in the magistrates chambers in Bruges to act as a salutary warning to all those who dispensed justice in that city.  Town halls were often decorated with justice scenes in those days and today and tomorrow I want to look at two more examples of this artistic genre.  Our artist featured in today’s My Daily Art Display is the Dutch artist, Dieric Bouts the Elder.

Bouts was born in Haarlem around 1420 where he spent most of his early life.  Little is known about his childhood and early life except to say that most of his work was carried out whilst he was living in Louvain from 1457 until his death in 1475.  It was in this town that Bouts became city painter in 1468.  We know that he was influenced by the works of Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, the latter at one time being his tutor.  Art critics talk of a certain stiffness to his drawing and drew attention to the disproportionate length and angular nature of the figures in his paintings.  However they do concede that his figures are extremely expressive and that there is a richness of colour in all his works especially the backgrounds of his landscapes.

 Our painting today is one half of the diptych known as the Justice of the Emperor Otto or simply the Justice Panels which he commenced in 1470 and which he was still working on at the time of his death five years later.  He had completed one of the two panels and had begun on the second one.  There were to be four panels in all but the third and fourth panel were never completed.  The two panels that exist and now form a diptych are now on view at the Musées Royaux, Brussels.  In 1468, Bouts who was at the height of his career had just completed his greatest masterpiece, The Last Supper.  He was approached by the town council of Louvain to paint a series of four panels for the town hall.  The town council’s reason behind such a commission was that they believed that their magistrates would benefit from the depictions of this old moral story – a judicial exemplum.

 Today I am going to look at the left hand panel which is entitled The Execution of the Innocent Count.  First let me relate the background to this painting.  The tale which is wholly legendary comes from the 12th century chronicle of Gottfried the then Bishop of Viterbo.  The story is also mentioned in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend or Aurea Legenda.  It tells of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III whose wife was the daughter of the King of Aragon.  According to the story Otto’s wife was a very hot-blooded and feisty young Aragonese woman.  She became captivated by a married nobleman of Otto’s imperial court and without a care of the consequences tried to seduce him.  However, to her horror and anger, the nobleman rejected her amorous approaches and remained faithful to his wife and loyal to his lord, Otto.  The woman had been scorned and was furious and sought revenge on the noble who had rebuffed her.  She immediately went to her husband, Otto, and falsely accused the nobleman of having raped her and this set in motion a terrible set of events and a great injustice.  The emperor was furious and without even listening to the pleas of innocence from the nobleman ordered his execution by beheading. 

Otto and his wife

This oil on panel painting which is very large, measuring 325cms tall and 182cms wide and the people depicted in the scene are life-sized.    There are three distinct scenes to this painting and they are arranged in chronological order.  To the right, in the middle-ground, behind a stone wall, in their Imperial garden, we have the Emperor and his wife.  Their high position in the painting symbolises the fact that they were present, overseeing the proceedings.  They are witnessing the execution of the innocent man solely condemned by the perjury of the emperor’s wife.  She is emotionless and even seems bored with the event unfolding before her.

The condemned man and his wife.

On the left hand side of the middle-ground we have the accused, barefooted, with his hands tied before him.  He is dressed in a simple white robe and stands next to his wife who is dressed in red, with clasped hands praying for the soul of her husband.   The nobleman shows no emotion and seems resigned to his fate.  A Franciscan monk walks ahead of the man and his wife as they share their last words.  He is the confessor.  His hand is raised as he begins to make the sign of the cross.  He will listen to the nobleman’s last wishes and will pray with him at the end and offer him absolution for his sins.

Executioner and the severed head

In the foreground we see the aftermath of the execution.  The executioner is dressed in green and yellow tights which show splashes of blood.   His bloodied sword is held behind his back as he hands the severed head of the nobleman to the grieving wife.  She lovingly cradles the head in a white shroud.  The decapitated body of her husband with blood pouring from the severed neck lies on the green grass.  This stark contrast of the two colours intensifies the painting.   The scene is witnessed by townspeople, merchants and the clergy and probably some of them would be portraits of actual people of Louvain at the time of Bouts.

The moral of the tale depicted in this painting and what the burgers of Louvain wanted to stress to their magistrates was that one should not judge top hastily.  One should not judge a case without hearing the other side of a story and finally a judge should not make a judgement on a case in which he is personally involved.   The tale and the painting also highlight the damage which can be done through perjury and defamation.

This is just the first part of the story depicted by Bouts on one of the two panels.  Tomorrow I will focus on and discuss the second panel which deals with the repercussions of the execution of the innocent man.