Sassetta, The Burning of a Heretic (1423-25), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with the assistance of the government of Victoria, 1976. It’s a marvel of the culture industry that people will queue and pay to see visiting exhibitions, especially of old masters, but pass by works from permanent collections without pausing.
The Burning of a Heretic by Stefano di Giovanni, known as Sassetta, is an incredible and strange painting. It comes from an altarpiece in the chapel of the wool merchants’ guild, or Arte della Lana, in the Italian city of Siena. The altarpiece was 3m wide and portable so it could be set up under a canopy in the piazza during the celebrations of the feast of Corpus Christi.
The tiny painting that has been at the National Gallery of Victoria since 1976 was one of several scenes that ran across the predella, or lower part of this altarpiece. In the 18th century the altarpiece was disassembled; the central painting was lost and the predella panels ended up in museums in Budapest, the Vatican, the north of England, Siena and Melbourne. Images conceived to be together were split up, their didactic function sidelined as they were reframed as art.
Looking at The Burning of a Heretic as a work of art it’s hard to believe an image can be so exquisite and appalling at the same time. This is an undeniably beautiful painting of a terrible event, the public burning to death of a heretic. It’s like a snuff film or an Islamic State execution in paint.
A crowd gathers outside the city under a blue sky; on the right, a priest elevates the host in the celebration of the Eucharist. In the centre, a bearded man stands bound to the stake in a bonfire. As he dolefully raises his eyes to the sky a tiny devil descends. Only a horse standing to the right seems interested.
In the foreground a man is bent over the fire, feeding it with faggots. He’s just doing his job, as though it were no business of his whether he were stoking the fire for an iron furnace or an execution. And the whole thing is beautifully painted: the foreshortened horse on the left; the upturned faces of the faithful on the right; the glimmer of light on the horizon; the curls of smoke, barely visible, rising up to the waist of the condemned man.
Sassetta’s altarpiece as a whole was meant to uphold the doctrine of transubstantiation — the conviction that the bread and wine of the Eucharist change into the real body and blood of Christ. The implication of this painting is that the heretic has disavowed this doctrine, a heated topic for centuries.
Burning was the favoured punishment for heretics. Partly this was for the edification of onlookers. The fires of execution represented the heretic’s fate, not so much for their benefit — they were going to hell anyway — but for spectators as a warning. The fire was the enactment in miniature of the fate of the damned: the temporary fire in this world consubstantial with the eternal fires in the next.
The fire in The Burning of a Heretic is icon and symbol: it’s the representation of a particular fire and of the fires of hell it symbolises. It’s meant to give us, the viewers of the painting, the same sort of pause for thought (if not terror) as those who saw the heretic burning. That, presumably, is why the fire is right at the foreground of the painting; there is nothing between us and it.
Tempera and gold leaf on wood panel, 24.6cm x 38.7cm