BOUTS, Dieric the Elder
(b. ca. 1415, Haarlem, d. 1475, Leuven)

Martyrdom of St Erasmus (triptych)

c. 1458
Oil on wood, 34 x 148 cm
Sint-Pieterskerk, Leuven

St Erasmus was the bishop of Formia, near Gaeta in Italy, during the 5th century. According to legend, he was put to death by the Arian Lombards and died in the most terrible agony. Bouts represents St Erasmus virtually naked and stretched out on a board, to which he is bound by his hands and feet. A hole has been cut in his belly and one end of his intestines tied to a winch. Two executioners are busy disembowelling him. One is old and bald, and works with his sleeves rolled up, winding the handle of the winch with great vigour. The other is young; he seems to be disturbed by what is happening, and goes about his task with less enthusiasm. Behind them is a bearded figure, wearing a rich coat of blue and gold brocade trimmed with fur. He surveys the torturers with an attitude that is both simple and dignified. From the way he leans on his stick, you might think he was overseeing some administrative formality. Of the three men with him, only one looks directly towards the scene, while the other two ignore it as if it were an event of no importance. Despite the horrific nature of the act, there is no sign of any blood anywhere. The wings of the triptych show, on the left, St Jerome resplendent in his cardinal's robes, with his emblematic lion at his feet, and on the right, St Bernard wearing a plain habit, and holding his abbot's crook in one hand.

Behind the figures, a landscape extends across all three panels of the triptych. The green hills and the roads that run between them have been identified with the rolling countryside around Leuven. The brilliance of the light and colours in which nature is rendered here is so extraordinary that one feels this must be the result of the first-ever exercise in open-air painting. Bouts was a master of landscape art, as his contemporary Johannus Molanus was already aware. Even such a brutal subject as the disembowelling of Erasmus, when cloaked in Bouts's ethereal light, is invested with a certain tranquillity. Nature is no longer an artificial decor, an obviously false theatrical backdrop, as it appears in 15th century Italian painting, but an atmosphere rendered down to the finest detail, where close attention has been paid to every nuance of colour.