Judgement of Cambyses and the Flaying of Sisamnes by Gerard David

The Judgment of Cambyses and the Flaying of Sisamnes by Gerard David (1498)

Once again I apologise to all of you who do not like the sight of blood as today’s offering is not for the squeamish !   My Daily Art Display painting for today is a diptych consisting of two oil on wood panel paintings, hinged together.  The left panel painting is entitled Judgement of Cambyses and the right hand panel is entitled Flaying of Sisamnes.  The diptych painted in 1498 by Gerard David, the Netherlandish painter can be seen at the Groeninge Museum in Bruges.

The paintings are based on a story concerning the trial and execution of an unjust and corrupt judge, Sisamnes which occurred in the 6th BC.  The great Greek historian Herodotus preserved for posterity the story of the harsh judgment of the Persian King Cambyses II, who reigned 529-522 B.C.,  against the corrupt judge Sisamnes. It is a story that for both its moral and its horror is not easily forgotten. The story is succinctly presented in the fifth book of Herodotus’s Histories.

Sisamnes, Herodotus tells us, was a royal judge under the reign of King Cambyses II. Sisamnes accepted a bribe from a party in a lawsuit, and therefore rendered an unjust judgment. King Cambyses learned of the bribe, accused Sisamnes, and had him arrested and punished, but by no ordinary punishment. The punishment was as creative as it was cruel:

King Cambyses slit his throat and flayed off all his skin and he strung the chair, on which Sisamnes had used to sit to deliver his verdicts, with these thongs.

Cambyses’s creativity did not stop there. To replace Judge Sisamnes whom he had killed and flayed, Cambyses appointed Sisamnes’s son, Otanes, as the new judge. Cambyses warned Otanes to bear in mind the source of the leather of the bench upon which he would sit to hear evidence, deliberate, and deliver his decisions. Without doubt, King Cambyses’s warning buttressed by the reupholstered seat left a lingering impression on his new judge.

Judgement of Cambyses by Gerard David

In 1498, Gerard David was commissioned by the aldermen of the town of Bruges to paint two panels depicting this ancient tale and the finished work was to hang in the chambers of the aldermen in the town hall.  This was then a warning to the local magistrates, who would see the painting every day, that the town expected them to uphold their duty to render justice free of the corruption of outside financial interests.  So that this 6th century BC story had any relevance to 15th century society, David used the technique known as “actualisation”, in which his painting was representative of that period by having the characters dressed in 15th century Flemish clothing. 

Burghers's Lodge

As was the case in yesterday’s painting, I would like you to focus on the details of the painting and by so doing, understand how David’s attempts to tell the story without the use of words.   Look under the arch of the loggia.  There we see Sisamnes’s crime taking place – that of a litigant or his servant handing over a purse of money to him as a payment for a bribe and this was the basis of the crime.  Through the left hand arch of the loggia we can see David’s depiction of the Burgher’s Lodge in Bruges.  Above the judge’s bench where Sisamnes sits one can see the crests of Phillip the Handsome and his wife Joanna of Castille.

The bearded central character in the group who stand before Sisamnes is Cambyses, the accuser.  Look how he seems to be counting on his fingers.  This could well be him counting off the acts of Sisamnes’s bribery on his fingers as he angrily regales him with the accusations.  One can see the concern on Sisamnes’s face as he realises his fate has been sealed.  One thing David had to achieve with this painting was to conjure up a hate for Sisamnes and he did this by giving him the likeness of Pieter Lanchals, a conspirator who betrayed the City of Bruges to Maximillian I of Austria in his dispute with the Council of Bruges.  The group of people, some of which were portraits of the then Bruges aldermen, represented the fact that the whole town was witnessing Cambyses’s accusation.  The man, wearing the red cap, on the left of the seated Sisamnes is the young Phillip the Handsome, the ruler of Burgundy and the Burgundian Netherlands.

The lozenge shaped medallions on either side of the judge’s bench illustrate scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  On the left are Hercules and Delaneira, the wife he betrayed, and who then gave him a robe to wear which was soaked in the blood of the Centaur, which caused the flesh of Hercules to fall from his body.  The crime perpetrated by Sisamnes was a betrayal of justice – a betrayal of the people of Bruges and the outcome of his punishment was going to be similar to that which happened to Hercules. 

The medallion on the right shows the god Apollo and the satyr Marsyas, who in the contest between them, the terms stated that the winner could treat the defeated party any way he wanted. Since the contest was judged by the Muses, Marsyas naturally lost and was flayed alive in a cave near Celaenae for his challenge of a god.  Marsyas was the symbol of hypocrisy.  David’s addition of this medallion was presumably a reminder of that salutary tale and that justice, which Sisamnes dabbled with, was a gift of the Gods, a gift to the public and his acceptance of a bribe to change the course of justice was a sin against his people as justice did not belong to him, it belonged to the people.

The Flaying of Sisamnes by Gerard David

The right hand panel of the diptych illustrates the fate of Sisamnes after being convicted of bribery.  The punishment was brutal, and yet not uncommon in the fifteenth century, that of flaying.  David’s portrayal of the flaying is graphic and shocking. We see Sisamnes lying naked on a table, his judicial red robes cast aside on the ground below.  One can quite clearly see the grimace of excruciating pain on Sisamnes’s contorted face as the four flayers busy themselves methodically with the gruesome task at hand.  The skin of the body is carefully removed as it will be turned into leather strips to be used as upholstery for the judge’s chair.  

Otanes seated on judge's chair

Look in the background and one can see seated on the judge’s chair, which is draped with flayed skin, Otanes, who is the son of the dying Sisamnes and who Cambryses has appointed to succeed his father.  According to the book Gesta Romanorum, the Latin book of anecdotes and tales, Cambryses said to Otana on making him a judge:

“  You will sit, to administer justice, upon the skin of your delinquent father: should any one incite you to do evil, remember his fate. Look down upon your  father’s skin, lest his fate befall you ”

 Those words were also meant to act as a deterrent to all future magistrates of Bruges, who may foolishly consider repeating the sins of Sisamnes.  The paintings reminded them in a most abhorent way that they needed to be mindful that any betrayal of the trust given to them would be severely dealt with.

These two paintings, although gruesome, are rich in colour and detail and worthy of a place in My Daily Art Display.

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

6 thoughts on “Judgement of Cambyses and the Flaying of Sisamnes by Gerard David”

  1. I’m reading your excellent explanation standing in front of the painting itself in Bruges. You have brought the period vividly to life – Thank you!

  2. I am someone who is not easily shocked but during my recent visit to the Groeninge Museum I was truly stopped in my tracks when I saw this painting. It is a really thought provoking painting not only because of its symbolism but also its humanity, in a very dark sense. Thank you for explaining it so well. It disturbed me greatly and is a great reminder of how cruel we can be.

  3. The painting raised so many questions when I saw it in the Groeningen Museum two days ago that I had to find out more. Thank you for your explanation.

  4. Thank you, very well told and presented. Have you considered making a practice of posting a simple source attribution? I am not imagining any elaborate citation apparatus, but it would be helpful for readers to pursue more — some of my students have discovered your blog and really enjoy it as a guide. I am aware of some bloggers who simply maintain a separate area where all the source listing are compiled, without mucking up the appearance of a beautiful page.

  5. In the Fall 2016 issue of the Renaissance Quarterly there is a review of a book titled “Death, Torture and the Broken Body in European Art, 1300-1650” edited by John R. Decker and Mitzi Kirkland-Ives. Gerard David’s work is referred to in the book’s intro written by Decker as The Justice of Cambyses, not Judgement of Cambyses. The reviewer mentioned how graphic the torture was depicted in The Justice. But it is in the Flaying of Sisamnes that we see the torture. Perhaps both pictures are referred to by the Justice or Judgement title? It might be an interesting book to read, though.

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