While Piero della Francesca created his amazing works of perspective in Italy, Dirk (or Dieric) Bouts the Elder performed his own feats of perspective magic in The Netherlands. Bouts, who died on May 6, 1475, and della Francesca were both born in 1412, when such illusionary tricks were being used more and more to convey a sense of depth and realism in painting. Bouts’ Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament (above, from 1464-1467) shows The Last Supper at the center of the work, surrounded by scenes from the Old Testament presaging the Eucharist, including the gathering of the manna. Using these peripheral scenes and the single-point perspective of the central panel, Bouts draws every eye to the face of Jesus, creating a powerful nexus of divinity at the crucial moment when the bread became Christ’s body. Rather than focus on the moment when Judas betrays Christ, Bouts focuses on the moment when Christ bestows his gift of Communion upon the Apostles and all believers to follow. In that positive, life-affirming image, Bouts breathes life into Christology and frees it from the blood and gore of the Medieval period.
It’s really amazing how Bouts brings everything together on the face of Christ, seen better in the closeup of The Last Supper panel (above). Even the crossed panels of the window behind Christ’s head meet at the point between his eyes. The perfect trapezoidal white table leads you right to the face of Jesus like a runway. All the characters eyes, including servants peeking through a hatch in the back of the room, focus on Christ’s gestures. Artists such as Jan van Eyck and by Rogier van der Weyden had already worked wonders with perspective and greatly influenced Bouts, but Bouts takes their example and runs even further with it, creating a whole, complex world while they confined themselves mainly to interiors. Take a glimpse through the windows on the left, mere slivers of landscape, and the open window to Christ’s left showing a garden outside and recognize just how far Bouts takes his quest for perspective as a painterly equivalent for the theological idea of Christ’s own role as the center of the universe.
In this quest for realism through pictorial illusion, Bouts still maintains that surrealist touch found in many devotional works. Freud once told Dali that he always looked for the rational in modern Surrealist paintings and for the surreal in Old Master works. Bouts’ The Ordeal by Fire (above, from 1460), a panel from the diptych The Justice of Emperor III, shows a scene even Dali would have been proud of. When the Emperor’s wife fell in love with a count, approached him, and was spurned, she accused the count of assaulting her honor. The Emperor had the count beheaded. The count’s wife appears here with her husband’s head under her arm like a football, appealing to the Emperor to clear his name. The Emperor agrees to clear the count’s name if the countess accepts the ordeal by fire, shown here as a red-hot iron bar she holds in her hand. When the countess is unharmed, to the astonishment of those gathered before the throne, the Emperor knows that God has revealed that the Empress is a liar. The elongated figures and elaborate dress of the court members adds to the nightmarish quality of the image. Bouts, like della Francesca, remains one of those fascinating figures of the fifteenth century whose old works still strike us with their modern touches.