The Neues Palais in Potsdam houses a small panel painting by or after Peter Paul Rubens depicting a young man seated on a throne and closely surrounded by a dense group of figures, mainly soldiers and men in oriental dress. One of the bystanders seems to be taking what looks like a branch from the young man. Another offers him a rod, which the young man gazes at intensely while placing his left hand on the right-hand side of his chest.
The key to interpreting this scene is situated just above the top of the throne on which the young man is seated. There, suspended from the ceiling, hangs the skin of a bearded male figure, its mouth and the openings where the eyes used to be are stretched wide open. Rubens’ learned contemporaries will have immediately recognized in these human remains the figure of Sisamenes. The writings of both Herodotus and Valerius Maximus recount how this Persian judge (sixth-century BC) was skinned alive and then executed by his king Cambyses as a punishment for taking bribes. The young man sitting on the throne is Otanes, Sisamenes’ son and successor. Rubens’ scene depicts the moment when the dignity of the judge, as symbolized by the rod, is transferred to Otanes. The skin of Sisamenes hangs above his throne as a warning not to succumb to corruption like his father.
The Neues Palais panel is a preparatory version of a much larger painting that Rubens made for the town hall in Brussels somewhere between 1622 and 1626. It hung in the courtroom and was probably accompanied by two other paintings by the same master; Last Judgment and Judgment of Solomon. These three artworks were destroyed, together with most of the centre of Brussels, during the brutal bombing of the city by the troops of the French King Louis XIV on 13, 14, and 15 August 1695.11Unless mentioned otherwise, data about Rubens’ Justice of Cambyses is drawn from the analysis of the painting and its preparatory versions and copies in E. McGrath, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard 13. Subjects from history, London: Miller, 1997, vol. 1, pp. 39–47.
Rubens’ Justice of Cambyses can be situated in a Netherlandish tradition dating back to the fifteenth century of decorating city halls, and especially the rooms in which justice was administered, with juridical scenes. More specifically, it is an exempla iustitiae, whereby historical examples of just judgment were represented in painting, and to a lesser extent sculpture, stained glass, and tapestry. Such works were displayed within the city halls to urge the judges to perform their task with fairness and severity.22H. van der Velden, ‘Cambyses for example: the origins and functions of an “exemplum iustitiae” in Netherlandish art of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’, Simiolus, vol. 23, 1995a, pp. 5–39; H. van der Velden.‘Cambyses reconsidered: Gerard David’s exemplum iustitiae for Bruges town hall’, Simiolus, vol. 23, 1995b, pp. 40–62.
Exempla iustitiae constitute one of the most fascinating examples, possibly in the whole of Western art history, of art’s presumed capacity for agency.33A. Gell, Art and Agency: an Anthropological Theory, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998; cf. C. van Eck, Art, Agency and Living Presence: From the Animated Image to the Excessive Object, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2015.
These works were not made to divert, instruct, or provide aesthetic pleasure but to act upon their viewers, to actively shape and change their ideas and behaviour—even against the viewers’ own will. They did (or were believed to do) this by triggering that most uncontrollable but also most determinative part of the human psyche, namely memory. In the early 1400s, Jan Matthijsen, a clerk of the city of Den Briel in Holland, penned down advice on how to decorate a courtroom. It will be filled, Matthijsen wrote, ‘with paintings and inscribed with good old wise words, from which one can acquire wisdom and cleverness, as one says: to see is to remember’ [‘aensien doet ghedencken’] (my emphasis).44W. van Anrooij, ‘Middeleeuwse opschriften. Aanzien doet gedenken’, Literatuur, vol. 14, 1997, pp. 11–12.
The notion that, like the function of a metaphor in rhetorics, seeing a particular event or a person represented in images would spark related memories in the viewer’s mind and subsequently incite them to act was also a common motif in the drama of the time. In the early sixteenth century text Mariken van Nieumeghen [Mary of Nijmegen], a young girl is seduced by the devil and spends seven years in his company. It is only upon accidentally witnessing the performance of a wagon play dealing with God’s forgiveness to mankind that Mariken, as the commentator remarks, ‘wert haer sondich leven bedinckende’ [started reflecting on her sinful life], and decided to mend her ways.55D. Coigneau (ed.), Mariken van Nieumeghen, Hilversum: Verloren, 1996, pp. 114. In order to discover whether or not his uncle Claudius has murdered his father, Shakespeare’s Hamlet asks a group of actors to perform a play in front of Claudius in which a comparable killing takes place. He believes the purpose of playing to be ‘to hold, as ’twere, the / mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, / scorn her own image’ (act 3, scene 2). The ruse is successful because, at the moment of the killing, Claudius angrily stands up and leaves the performance, thus, for Hamlet, making a confession of his guilt.
How, then, might exempla iustitiae have triggered the memory of the early modern Netherlandish judges that sat in front of them? Besides extreme cruelty, most exempla iustitiae have a second remarkable feature in common: they involve corrupt behavior by a family member of a judge. Judicial offices were often hereditary in the early modern Netherlands. As numerous contemporary sources indicate, this frequently brought about nepotism and corruption in the judging of family and clan members.66B. Ridderbos, Schilderkunst in de Bourgondische Nederlanden, Leuven: Davidsfonds, 2014, pp. 288–289. Judges considering distributing favours to their next of kin had to have been scared off by the cautionary tales of Sisamenes and Otanes. Or inspired by that of Herkenbald, depicted by Rogier van der Weyden ca. 1450 for the same Brussels city hall (and also destroyed in the 1695 fire). Herkenbald was a local judge from the eleventh century who was on his deathbed but nevertheless found the energy to single-handedly cut the throat of a nephew who had raped a woman. A few decades later, Dirc Bouts painted the Justice of Otto III for the Leuven city hall (now in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels). This holy Roman emperor had his wife burnt at the stake after she had falsely accused a nobleman of Otto’s court of raping her and thus brought about his execution by being beheaded.
In the fall of 2015, Flemish television aired a short documentary in which the comedian and artist Kamagurka visited the then recently opened refugee camp in the village of Sijsele in Western Flanders. Kamagurka invited a small group of Syrians and Iraqis to join him on a visit to the Groeninge Museum in nearby Bruges. Most of the documentary focuses on the confrontation of the refugees with another version of the Judgment of Cambyses, painted at the end of the fifteenth century for the Bruges city hall by the Flemish painter Gerard David. Contrary to the Rubens version, one of the panels of this diptych shows the flaying of Sisamenes in explicit detail. The reaction of the refugees to the painting was as immediate as it was perhaps predictable: ‘Islamic State’. The scene depicted reminded them of horrors they had witnessed in the countries they had fled from. ‘Same thing exactly’, one of the refugees insistently repeats.77K. Jonckheere, ‘The Power of Iconic Memory: Iconoclasm as a Mental Marker’, BMGN—Low Countries Historical Review, 2016, vol. 131(1), pp. 141–154.
From a semiotic point of view, we could say that the refugees didn’t read Gerard David’s exempla justitiae correctly. For the fifteenth-century painter and his patrons the execution of the corrupt Persian judge symbolized the opposite of the chaos, terror, and anarchy that we associate IS with. Whether or not the refugees were oblivious of this original meaning is left unclear in the documentary. What it does show, however, is that the ‘erroneous’ reading of the painting by the refugees did not lessen the strength of its impact on these viewers—or make their reading any less correct or true, for that matter. The reaction of the refugees is an indicator that agency transcends both temporal and cultural boundaries. Works of art very often survive the specific material and symbolic context for which they were made but in doing so do not necessarily lose their ability to bring about a form of agency in the present day. You do not need to know what a work of art is about, or what the intention of its maker was, for it to have an impact on you. Why and how a work of art will act on a particular viewer is highly unpredictable, however, and depends as much on the viewer, and the context, as it does the artist’s intentions.
Rubens’s version of the Cambyses story is known in no less than eleven documented preparatory works or copies. Since the painter’s day the work has travelled through numerous public and private collections around the world. Scores of individuals have admired the work. Possibly one of the greatest, surely one of the most famous enthusiasts of the painting was Frederick the Great, King of Prussia (1712–1786). He had in his possession not only the sketch that is still in the Neues Palais today and that was bought on Frederick’s orders from a Dutch collector in 1763, but also a much larger (possibly studio) copy on canvas (220 x 274 cm), which hung in the same palace.
We do not know why the Justice of Cambyses appealed to Frederick, or whether its appeal extended any further than its close link to Rubens, a painter of whom the king owned several works. It is hard to imagine, however, that the central theme of the Cambyses scene, namely the heavy and unavoidable responsibilities brought about by a hereditary office, would have left the Prussian king unaffected. But perhaps even more poignant for Frederick was the very agency that underlies exempla justitiae, the visual force that also brought about the reaction of the refugees in the Bruges Groeninge Museum. As a painful anecdote from Frederick’s childhood indicates, looking and exemplary punishment were an integral part of Prussian education. When still a boy Frederick fled the Prussian court with his best friend Hans Hermann von Katte. They were caught and as a chastisement Frederick’s father, Frederick William I, forced the young boy to watch the decapitation of his friend. To see is to remember.
Frederick the Great’s two versions of Rubens’ Justice of Cambyses remained in Potsdam until 1942. In that year the large canvas copy was moved from the Neues Palais to Schloss Rheinsberg, further away from Berlin and from allied air raids, where it was last seen in 1947. For a long time it was believed to have been destroyed during the war (Kriegsverlust, as it is called in German), like its original two and a half centuries earlier. Only recently have new data about the work’s whereabouts come to the surface. Actually it wasn’t destroyed but taken to the Soviet Union by the Red Army and subsequently bought by a private collector in Moscow, who donated the work to the Russian state. Today the canvas is conserved in The Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, although the online catalogue of the museum does not mention it.88RDK Netherlands Institute for Art History, RDKimages. Available HTTP: <https://rkd.nl/explore/images/184700> (accessed 4 July 2016).
Frederick’s oil sketch seems to have never left Potsdam since it was bought by the king. Of all the versions still available it is probably the closest to the original that Rubens painted for the city hall of Brussels. It is, today, also the most easily accessible version, up there to see for anyone prepared to pay the small entry fee to the Neues Palais. As such, it has sucked into its modest dimensions and sketchy way of painting the entire history of all the different versions of the work. Standing in front of the painting one can only be amazed at the degree by which a single artwork can get entangled into history. It is both a fragile material object at the mercy of fire, vandalism, and theft, but also an active and powerful agent that, far removed from its original function and context, can continue to grip deep into people’s lives.