Duhaime's LawGallery - The Law In Pictures


The Flaying of Judge Sisamnes

  • Object type: Painting
  • Formal Title: The Flaying of Judge Sisamnes - Judgment of Cambyses
  • Creator: Gerard David (Dutch)
  • Date Created: 1498
  • Origin: Bruges (now in Belgium)
  • Current Location: Bruges

Cambyses II was the son of Cyrus the Great. Cambyses lived from about 559 to 522 B.C. and he was present when his father, Cyrus defeated Babylon and created his famous cylinder of law dated 539 BC (and still preserved in the British Museum). Historical records suggest that Cyrus named his son as governor of the defaeted Babylon.

There have been chronicles of the following story from impressive sources including Herodotus.

In any event, the horrific punishment of flaying (skinning alive) was not routine and was reserved only for the most egregious offenses such as treason and in the case of judges, excepting of a bribe.

It is only because of the initiative of the Dutch painter Gerard David (1460-1523) that we have a pictoral record of the arrest and of the flaying of a judge of this Persian king Cambyses. These two famous paintings, The Arrest of Sisamnes and The Flaying of Sisamnes are known together as the Judgment of Cambyses (part 1 and part 2). The artwork was commissioned by the city of Bruges (now part of Belgium) to hang in the chambers of the local government, presumably as a stark reminder of the importance of independence and integrity.

The name of the flayed judge was Sisamnes.

Apparently, Cambyses wanted to ensure that his throne would still be there when he returned from a military expedition to Egypt. He had his brother killed, after receiving some kind of vision in a dream. Cambyses conquered Egypt but things did not work out that well for hise judge who, historians say, he ordered flayed.

One of several oddities of these two paintings is that the characters are not dressed in clothing of Camyses' time but, instead, are presented in clothing more typical of the Renaissance era (the painting was done in 1498, almost 2,00 years later).

In the upper part of The Arrest, Sisamnes can be seen in a doorway, under a canopy, in his red robe, receiving the bribe. In the bottom part of the same painting, he is being arrested right off his judge's bench.

It is the second of the two paintings which is the most dramatic as it shows the judge stripped naked and tied down to a wooden table in the public square. There, he is skinned alive as his sentence for compromising the delivery of justice.

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