Trial by Fire by Dieric Bouts

Justice of Otto III The Trial by Fire panel by Dieiric Bouts (1470-75)

Yesterday we looked at the left hand panel of the Justice of Emperor Otto diptych entitled The Execution of the Innocent Count.  Today I want to show you the right-hand panel which is entitled Trial by Fire.

To follow on from yesterday’s story regarding the execution of the innocent nobleman we delve further into the legendary tale The Golden Legend  written by Jacobus de Voragine in the late Middle Ages to seek out the consequences of that execution and discover the meaning behind Bout’s painting.   The nobleman’s widow, convinced of her dead husband’s innocence, asked for an audience with Emperor Otto so that she be allowed to prove the truth of her husband’s claim of innocence and clear her husband of the stain of adultery by suffering an ordeal of fire.   The Golden Legend tells of the event as follows:

 “…In the year of the Lord 984 Otto III, surnamed the Wonder of the World, succeeded Otto II. According to one chronicle his wife wanted to prostitute herself to a certain count. When the count refused to perpetrate so gross a crime, the woman spitefully denounced him to the emperor, who had him beheaded without a hearing. Before he was executed, the count prayed his wife to undergo the ordeal of the red-hot iron after his death, and thus to prove his innocence. Came the day when the emperor declared that he was about to render justice to widows and orphans, and the count’s widow was present carrying her husband’s head in her arms. She asked the ruler what death anyone who killed a man unjustly was worthy of. He answered that such a one deserved to lose his head. She responded: “You are that man! You believed your wife’s accusation and ordered my husband to be put to death. Now, so that you may be sure that I am speaking the truth, I shall prove it by enduring the ordeal of the burning iron.”

Seeing this done the emperor was overwhelmed and surrendered himself to the woman to be punished. The prelates and princes intervened, however, and the widow agreed to delays of ten, eight, seven, and six days successively. Then the emperor, having examined the case and discovered the truth, condemned his wife to death by fire, and as ransom for himself gave the widow four burgs, naming them Ten, Eight, Seven, and Six after the above-mentioned delays….”

So now look at the painting which depicts the scene described in the passage from the book.  As was the case with yesterday’s left panel, the painting on the right panel is split into two different scenes.  The main scene is featured in the foreground and middle-ground and features the widow kneeling before the emperor with the head of her dead husband, cradled by her right arm. In her left hand she defiantly holds the red-hot iron bar and by this action has, according to the emperor’s dictate, passed the test.    Otto sits on his throne surrounded by six courtiers.  He wears his red and gold brocaded robe with its sumptuous brown ermine lining.  A crown sits upon his head and he holds his sceptre of office in his right hand.  His eyes are transfixed on the poor woman before him as she pleads with him.   He realises with some disconcert that he has ordered the death of an innocent and loyal man.  His left hand is placed over his heart acknowledging his heartfelt contrition.  He is dumbstruck at the realisation he has condemned an innocent man to death and has discovered the truth about his wife’s infidelity and perjury.  He knows he has to try and rectify the wrong and orders the execution of his wife. 

In the second scene we see the burning of his wife at the stake, watched by crowds, and is depicted in the background of the painting.  She is bound to a pole watched over by a white-frocked cleric, who has been with her during her last few moments extending God’s mercy to the hapless woman.  The place of execution appears to be on the hillside in the country, outside the walls of the town.

 The diptych on view for the magistrates of Louvin to see each day was to act as a salutary lesson of the consequences of hasty and ill-thought out judgements and the perils of not hearing both sides in a case.  It also reminds them that no matter how powerful they may be they should not sit in judgement in cases in which they are personally involved for fear of bias.  Some historians believe Bouts was putting forward the idea that such errors of judgement ultimately cause the judges great anguish.

To end on an historical note Emperor Otto III in reality lived a very short life, dying of the plague or malaria at the age of twenty-one in the year 1002 during one of his military campaigns.  So what of his wife?   Actually Otto never married and had never had any children and on his death the great Ottonian Dynasty ended.