This is one of those nights wherein I ought to sleep instead of holding tryst with my computer keyboard in the dark hours of the night but in which I find that my mind is o'er brimming with words, though I am exhausted by my day. Hence, I take upon myself to write a short post. Hah! A hopefully short post which I may expand upon later.
I'm going to try to explain why I like the painting The Justice of Emperor Otto III by Dirc Bouts C 1460.
This particular diptych moved me greatly and I've developed a deep admiration for and attachment to it. In fact, I selected it as one of the paintings on which I wrote for my Augustine College Art final exam. Yet, when I mention my appreciation for this painting to family and acquaintances, I'm met at first with curiosity and then with, after I mention the subject of the painting, a sort of aversion and incredulity. You see, the two panels are titled, The Wrongful Execution of a Count and Ordeal by Fire.
What do I see in a work of art with such titles? First, take a look.
Prior to Augustine College, I probably would have barely glanced at these images or simply passed over them in disgust at the subject matter. But, thanks to Dr. Tingley, I was not able to treat this diptych so.
Such pictures, one would suspect, must certainly tell a story. As Dr. Tingley explained to the class, this diptych was painted for the wall of a hall of justice in the Lowlands. Strangely, the first panel depicts a miscarriage of justice - apparently historical.
Otto III, shown with his wife, gazing from the wall, has just sentenced a count, depicted in white below, to death. Otto's wife accused the nobleman of attentions to her after the count refused her overtures. The count walks to his death attended by executioners, priest, and his own wife who listens to him with downcast face. He swears his faithfulness to her and charges her to vindicate him. As the apathetic courtiers watch, the count is beheaded and the countess receives his head from the executioner.
In the second panel, the scene changes as the countess pleads her husband's innocence. To decide the point, she undergoes an ordeal by fire, meant to test in her own body the word of her husband against the Emperor's queen. If she is hurt by the red hot iron bar, her husband has played her false and deserved his death. If she is unharmed, he will be vindicated. The hot iron mars her not, the Emperor is aghast and his court astonished. In the background, the false wife of the Emperor burns at the stake for her slander and unfaithfulness.
At this point, please don't be repulsed by the tragic tale. True, it is tragic. It is sobering. But it is also beautiful in two points. One of these, Dr. Tingley brought out in his lecture: Human Justice ultimately accountable to Divine Justice.
Human Justice may be miscarried. Human Justice may be executed in anger and from false witness. Human Justice is fallible and may be twisted. Human Justice may condemn the innocent instead of aquitting him.
But Divine Justice will not and does not falter. Human Justice is accountable to Divine Justice. It is to Divine Justice and not Otto's Justice that the Countess appeals to as she confidently enters her ordeal. (Not that I'm advocating ordeals to determine guilt or innocence. Though, come to think of it, imagine how many criminals would continue to plead innocent if guilt were determined by ordeal!) Those who administer Human Justice ought to tremble before the Divine Justice to which they will be called to account. For those who such ministers condemn, fully believing them guilty though they were actually innocent, will be vindicated by the One who entrusted the sword to them.
Imagine being the judge who had to hear cases sitting before this diptych! What serious weight would it add to your judgements by its silent reminder of both the frailty of your justice and the Divine Court of appeal.
But there's another beauty to this painting-narrative which Dr. Tingley didn't touch on. This diptych could also be dubbed "A Tale of Two Wives" - one a faithless adulterer, the other a trusting, obedient wife. Both husbands trusted their wives. One betrayed and used his trust while the other upheld him even in his death.
Frankly, I'm quite amazed at the Count's wife. Her acts testify to a marriage of implicit trust between the partners. Honestly, how many women would first of all, believe a husband's assurance of fidelity when he had been condemned to death for unfaithfulness? And after that, how many women would trust such a husband to the extreme of testing his word in their own flesh?
Yet, this woman doesn't merely "trust" her husband in thought alone, or "hope" that he was faithful. She hears his promise as he's led out to die for breaking it and believes him. Not only does she believe him, but she quietly receives his final charge to prove his innocence. Her loyalty remains even after her husband's execution, nor does the shame deter her from keeping his trust. She appeals Otto's judgement and, moreover, does not satisfy herself with mere pleading. She offers her very body to test the Count's innocence. She trusts him not with her words alone, but with actively, she still trusts her very flesh to her husband just as she did in his life. The Countess enters the ordeal with a double confidence: a confidence in her husbands truthfulness, and a confidence in God as the just confirmer of the truth and vindicator of the innocent. Without such confidence, she would have reason indeed to tremble for her body. Yet neither of her confidences betray her - the faithful wife, obedient to her husband's last charge, passes the trial scatheless.
It is this unquestioning, undoubting trust and confidence in God and husband which marks the Countess' marriage in this pictoral narrative and so endears the diptych to me.
My brain isn't working well tonight, but I hope that was intelligible. Am not going to review before posting.