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.

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.