The Justice of Emperor Otto III: Trial by Fire

Dieric Bouts1471-1473

Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
Brussels, Belgium

Dirk Bouts was the most famous painter in the city when, in 1468, the local authorities of Leuven commissioned these two justice panels. It was customary to decorate the justice room of town halls with an edifying painting representing a famous judicial decision. In this case the painting depicts a legal error, a story which comes to us by legend, but whose protagonist is a historical character: Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor. The tale of "The Justice of Otto" is centred around two episodes detailed on two panels. "The Execution of the Innocent Count" (on the left): Otto listens to his wife accusing a count from her court of having seduced her. It's a false accusation, but the emperor doesn't suspect anything: the courtier is condemned to death. The central scene shows the final conversation between the innocent being taken to his execution and his dismayed wife. The foreground depicts the decapitation, a sombre celebration of injustice. The countess accepts the severed head from the hands of the executioner and nurses her wrath. "Trial by Fire" (on the right) The countess begs the emperor to reason, submitting herself to God's judgement to prove the dead count's innocence. The glowing fire that she holds without pain is evidence of divine intervention in her favour. Proven wrong and horrified by his irrevocable sentence, Otto condemns his own wife, who we see being burned to death in the background of the painting.


  • Title: The Justice of Emperor Otto III: Trial by Fire
  • Creator: Dieric Bouts
  • Date: 1471-1473
  • support: oak
  • origin: Acquired from John Nieuwenhuys, trader, Brussels, 1862
  • Physical Dimensions: w182 x h324.5 cm (without frame)
  • Provenance: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels
  • Type: painting (panel)
  • Rights: © Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo : J. Geleyns / Ro scan

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