Dieric Bouts: The Justice of Holy Roman Emperor Otto III (1471-1475)

(Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, Belgium)

Dieric Bouts was a painter from the 15th century. This diptych is a so-called justice scene. The story itself comes from a 12th-century chronicle written by Godefroy, Bishop of Viterbo (the story is not historical but a Medieval legend).

The left part of the diptych  is the first part of the story. Otto III (980-1002), King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor, was married to the daughter of the King of Aragon. His wife however was unfaithful and became enchanted by a nobleman of Otto’s imperial court, and made advances toward him. The count however remained faithful to his master (Otto III) and his wife. The unfaithful wife of Otto III, angry that the count refused her advances, falsely accused the count of having made advances towards her. Emperor Otto III, acting in hasty judgment, immediately ordered the count to be beheaded without a hearing. On the left panel we can see this. On the upper right we can see Otto III with his wife standing behind a wall in a garden - they are witnessing the execution. The condemned count is barefoot with his hands tied, and wears a simple white robe of a man condemned to die. The wife of the count is walking behind him in a red dress. The count is sharing some last words with his wife, as he walks towards the Franciscan friar who will hear his last confession. The friar already has his right hand raised ready to make a sign of the cross over the innocent penitent. In the lower part the count is beheaded and the executioner gives the head to the wife of the count.

The right part of the painting shows the second part of the story. The wife of the count, convinced of her dead husband’s innocence, asked to 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. After a while Otto III declared that he was about to render justice to widows and orphans. The wife of the beheaded count was present and asked Otto III "what death anyone who killed a man unjustly was worthy of". Otto answered that such a one deserved to lose his head. The wife of the count 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". After the wife of the count survived the ordeal of the burning iron, Otto III was overwhelmed and surrendered himself to the wife of the count to be punished. The court intervened however and the emperor had the case examined. The truth now came out and Otto condemned his wife to death by fire. On the second panel we can see this story. The wife of th count is kneeling before Otto, she holds the head of her husband and has the burning iron in her other hand. Otto himself is holding his left hand over his heart - he is touched by the wife of the count and on the edge of repentance. In the background we can see the execution of the wife of the emperor. Notice also the small lion on the red brick wall, this is a symbol of Justice. Painting from 1471-75.

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