Stefano di Giovanni Sassetta’s Burning of a Heretic lives in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, and I have never seen it in the flesh. I have, however, spent a lot of time admiring its image. Reproductions of paintings have always been important sources of inspiration for me, and now with so many institutions joining the open access movement and making high quality digital images available to anyone via the web, even more so.
One of my favorite aspects of European painting in the early fifteenth century is how groupings of objects, figures, and elements of the landscape create clusters of form that become very abstract at times. Part of this is due to the overlapping of figures, for example, that serves as a mechanism for a sort of flattened suggestion of perspective. This is evident in much Northern European painting from the early Renaissance as well as Italian examples like Sassetta’s Sienese masterpiece. These visual clusters create new form and thus the potential for new meaning. I particularly like how the horseman seen from the rear on the left becomes almost unrecognizable as a figure.
The other soldiers on horse are the only figures to break the horizon with its cut-out like mountains and occasional tree. The curvy edge of those hills keep the people and most of the action embedded below, with the exception of what appears to be a lone demon swooping down from above. The flags of the horsemen to the right of center pierce the top edge of the panel, making a convenient formal divide in the picture.
The columnar priests in the right foreground are equal parts human and architecture, and they are the only figures with their backs turned to the burning man.
Somehow we are elevated but close by as we look on what should be a very gruesome (though the flat expressions of the faces in the crowd make everything seem rather casual) scene. The unfortunate heretic looks to the sky, and his is the most expressive face in the painting. He is resolute and calm. Together with the bundled twigs, the flames consuming him, and the faint spirals of smoke, the heretic takes on new form and is transcendent. Meanwhile, the golden-clad stoker remains faceless.