As was customary in other cities, and as prescribed in certain laws, it was decided to ornament the Aldermen’s Chamber in the new City Hall of Leuven with instructive tableaux. On 20 May 1468 this prestigious task was entrusted to Dirk Bouts, with the Augustinian theologian Jan van Haeght appointed to find a suitable theme. He opted for the legendary judgement of Emperor Otto III. According to legend Otto III ordered the beheading of a count who had been falsely accused by the empress of indecent assault, after she herself had vainly attempted to seduce him. Prior to the execution the count’s wife promised to prove his innocence by means of trial by fire. After the execution she delivered the proof of the false accusation by holding a glowing rod of metal in her hand unharmed. Realising that an innocent man had been executed, Otto III condemned his wife to death at the stake. He is the judge that takes justice to its extreme, even if it means sacrificing his wife. This example reminds the Leuven authorities of their duty to judge fairly, without respect of persons, true to their oath of office. The mise en scène emphasises the public character of justice, including the presence of witnesses and the spiritual support of the clergy. The condemned count, bareheaded, barefoot and clothed only in a penitent’s shirt, is depicted as a 15th century penitent whose rights have been taken away along with his clothes. The ordeal by fire is conceived as a contemporary, public audience of Charles the Bold. This bringing into the present day can also be seen in the contemporary Burgundian clothing, references to the Leuven cityscape and what are probably portraits of contemporary persons. The original project, a cycle of four panels, remained uncompleted at Dirk Bouts’ death in 1475. One of the four panels, the Ordeal by Fire, had been fully completed, another was judged to be almost so (by nae volmaect). Given that the entire story was depicted on two panels, at least one more theme must have been planned. The complete cycle is reminiscent of the work that Rogier van der Weyden undertook in ca. 1440 for the Council Chamber of the Brussels City Hall, consisting of four panels with the exemplary Justice of Trajan and Herkinbald.
Text: Cyriel Stroo, Museum of Ancient Art. A Selection of Works, Brussels, 2001, p. 28 © Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels