Also known as Dirk, Dirck, Dierick and, somewhat incongruously, Thierry de Haarlem, the painter Dieric Bouts was born in either 1410 or 1420 and died in 1475, at the ripe old age of 55 or 65, or somewhere in between: really, it doesn’t matter, because if you lasted that long in the 15th century, you were old.
Dieric, Dirk, Thierry Bouts de Haarlem — the original Haarlem, in the Netherlands, not the one north of 110th street in Manhattan — was kind of a big deal Northern Renaissance painter. Known for his figures’ length and their mournfully elongated faces, Bouts’s characters have always struck me as possibly being less representative of the characters he is painting than of his own state of mind. That Bouts was working during a period in which painters more or less had to paint religious subjects cannot be overlooked; if painters wanted to express themselves they had to do so through the medium of painting religious subjects. With this in mind, Bouts’s paintings, and all painting for that matter, can be seen (assuming one is comfortable with going out on a bit of a limb) as sorts of self-portraits. One cannot help but look at Bouts’s characters’ big sad eyes and thin, nearly-gaunt features, and wonder if he was not in fact painting characters at all but was instead painting himself. Following this, in Bouts’s work, there are media upon media. There is the medium of paint and brush, and there is the medium of the painting’s subject matter, then the subject matter’s subtext, and the wider world from which such subject matters and media are drawn. Ad infinitum.
Aside from their starts and finishes and, if we’re lucky, the particulars of a handful of business deals (so & so commissioned so & so, for which so & so #1 was paid X guilders, etc.), we don’t know much about the lives of many pre-modern Northern Renaissance painters. Bouts was probably born in Haarlem, and at some point in his early years Bouts made his way south, to Louvain, in what is now Belgium. I’m not sure why he did this — maybe he traveled to Louvain to act as an apprentice, or maybe to follow his father, who might have been the landscape painter Theodoric Bouts. By car the drive to Louvain is a little over two hours, but this is the 15th century we’re talking about, so no cars. Though we can assume Bouts’s family — let’s imagine he traveled to Louvain with his family, for fiction’s sake — wasn’t poor, with his father being the possible painter that he possibly was, they almost certainly wouldn’t have been wealthy, so they might have had to walk to Louvain. Or maybe they had horses, though they surely wouldn’t have been able to afford enough horses to seat the whole family, so they would have likely crowded the whole clan into a slow-moving horse-drawn wooden cart. I can see the scene now, the thin Dutch-Flemish people in their strange hats, wearing tunics and hose, making their way across a blue and green landscape accented by canals and windmills, vast fields of tulips undulating in soft spring breezes.
Such a trip to Louvain from Haarlem would have taken about three days, plus overnight stays in whatever inns or taverns or barns might have dotted the road. The trip, assuming it took place in the manner conjured, would have left quite an impression on young Dieric, despite the fact that he would have found Louvain to be similar to his hometown of Haarlem: both towns were walled affairs, defense-postured, Haarlem being on the River Spaarne, Louvain on the River Dijle. Unlike Haarlem, however, Louvain lies further inland (Haarlem is a mere five miles east of the North Sea), and Bouts surely would have noticed the change in the air and atmosphere as he and his family made their way south. Haarlem’s elevation, like much of the Netherlands’, is zero feet, while Louvain’s is 114.
Indeed, one cannot help but see reflections of such a trip’s landscape in Bouts’s work, as Bouts’s paintings’ backgrounds are often highly expansive, rolling hills and rocky crags jutting from the earth, the misty watchtowers of far-off cities, and often a lone tree or a copse of three or so trees reaching up into a sky deepening gradually into ever-darker shades of blue, baby blue to cerulean to navy, as if the land thinned & lightened the air which most closely surrounds it. Sometimes one must move through a place in order to truly appreciate that place. Moreover, many of Bouts’s scenes take place outdoors, often seemingly unnecessarily so. While a preponderance of vistas is characteristic of many Northern Renaissance paintings, Bouts’s use of landscape is particularly insistent. For example, his diptych (a two-paneled painting) The Justice of Emperor Otto III features landscape scenery in both its panels. On the left, we have the execution of a noble, which takes place just outside a city’s walls, in what looks to be a clearing; the location strikes one as being the perfect place for a picnic. The painting’s right panel shows an indoor scene — the aforementioned noble’s wife pleading for justice — while just outside, filling the top left quadrant of the painting, we have an outdoor scene of the emperor’s wife being burned at the stake. What’s interesting about the latter scene is the way Bouts moves the viewer’s eye up and away from the interior scene to the landscape outside, where the image of a woman being burned alive is less arresting than is the detail given to the hill on which her stake has been raised, the cityscape beyond, and a brilliant light-blue-to-dark-blue sky above.
Okay: Bouts moved. Okay. A lot of people move and always have, and in the 15th century artisans likely moved around often from court to court and city to city as their patrons changed, or were deposed, or were replaced by other rich people who had the money and inclination to support painters. Surely then, this move — which was only of 150 miles, no big deal, even by 15th century standards — can’t be entirely responsible for the sadness which so pervades Bouts’s work. Where else might it have come from? You, reader, can amuse yourself by filling in the blanks with the myriad woeful possibilities. Life is, after all, full of wonder & surprise.
Whatever it was that happened, it certainly left its impression on Bouts. I can think of no other reason for why all of Bouts’s paintings are populated by such dour, dead-eyed sadsacks: he must be saying something. Take his triptych (a three-paneled painting) of The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus. Flanked on both sides by images of saints — Jerome (translator of the Bible into Latin) being on the left, Bernard (scholar-monk, instigator of the 2nd Crusade) on the right — the actual scene of the martyrdom is as fine an example of Bouts’s droopy-eyed, dead-faced characters as you’ll find.
St. Erasmus, born at some point in the third century, is less famous for his life and works than he is for the manner in which he died. Accounts vary, but supposedly Erasmus was beaten, he was befouled with excrement, thrown into a pit of serpents, had boiling oil thrown on him, enclosed in a spiked barrel (as in, the spikes pointed inward) and rolled down a hill, had his teeth pulled out, was roasted, and had nails driven through his fingernails. Last but not least, and the subject of the Bouts’s painting in question, Erasmus was disemboweled. Per Bouts’s painting, he was disemboweled slowly: a small incision was made in his stomach and up through the incision his intestines were wound round a windlass (“a machine for raising weights by winding a rope or chain upon a barrel or drum driven by a crank, motor, etc.”) and so out of his body. Altogether (small + large) one has over twenty-five feet of intestines in one’s body.
Let’s say you were to paint a painting of this scene, of a man being eviscerated. Wouldn’t you paint it resplendent with gore and pain, with Erasmus’s face contorted into a writhing rictus of agony? You would surely use lots of red and pink and brown; the intestines in question would be shiny & slick with fresh blood. Above all, the image would be shockingly violent and terrifying, because there’s no way to get around the terrible violence that eviscerating a living person entails. One imagines, after all, that having one’s entrails removed slowly (via a crank, nonetheless, as if one’s entrails were not entrails but were instead rope) would be so painful as to be unreal, and any image concerned with the depiction thereof should at least make an attempt to embody some of that terror and violence. Right?
Bouts’s painting takes a different approach. As Sir Joseph Arthur Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle say about another of Bouts’s paintings, The Last Supper, in their book The Early Flemish Painters (1857), “[m]uch melancholy stillness pervades…” The same could be said for this painting. Erasmus lies naked but for a loincloth, bound only by the thinnest of ropes, on a wooden table at the center-bottom of the painting; his face looks less aggrieved than bored: certainly not the face one would think he’d be making. Most of the painting’s characters’ faces, in fact, share the same expression of unaffected boredom, mixed with a degree of oh-let’s-get-this-over-with. Additionally, there is no blood or gore whatsoever. The only indication Erasmus is being disemboweled is the strange grayish string-looking thing connecting his abdomen to the rod above him; were Erasmus not a grown man, one could almost confuse his intestines for an umbilical cord.
However, of extremely interesting note are the two men in the painting who are being affected by this gruesome scene: the two men working the intestines-removal crank. The man on the viewers’ right — he of the snappy orange tights, his crank at the apex of its cranking — looks vaguely down toward Erasmus’s prone figure and bites his lip; the man on the left, his end of the crank at its base, the crown of his head hairless in a classic example of male-pattern baldness, he, he, well he looks downright distraught. Not only is his face suffused with sadness, guilt, empathy, what have you — his eyebrows are arched and his brow furrowed, and one can easily imagine him grimacing under that beard of his — but his body language also betrays his state of mind. Unlike the painting’s other characters, the man-on-the-left-side-of-the-crank seems to be physically exerting himself. He is bending his knees into the effort of cranking, his thigh muscles bulge from his legs, and the way he is leaning over far forward signifies not only that he is cranking an awkwardly-designed crank but also that he might have put as much distance between himself and the table on which a seemingly unaffected man is experiencing great, great pain.
The sad cranking man, who seems to be acting as the painting’s conscience — and as Bouts’s way of making a comment on just how terrible the subject of this painting is without resorting to the usual histrionics of extras beating their breasts or crying silently into their robes — the man looks as if he might spring away at any moment (and so too the viewer should from such violence), running wildly away from the grisly business at hand into the verdant hills behind him. Because while bad things do happen, there are also hills in this world, and roads leading to the tops of those hills, from which vantage points one can, leaning against a tree, safe now, away from the horror, catch one’s breath and, gazing over the valley below, dotted and patched with the multicolored and quilted geometry of husbandry, see the other part of the world, the peaceful half, the one more seen but less often appreciated for its unassuming beauty: oh look, the morning mist is just now beginning to burn off, look.