Public works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Kitty Hauser

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

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