You are here


How to Execute a Dead Man

Early modern artists used portraiture to immortalize a wide range of individuals, from the most exalted heroes to the most reviled criminals. In his day, Gillis van Ledenberg was definitely the latter. His portrait and an extensively captioned depiction of his execution are currently on view in gallery 127B, as part of the Van Dyck, Rembrandt, and the Portrait Print exhibition.

On the night of September 28, 1618, Ledenberg made an ill-fated decision. The Dutchman was on trial for treason and although he was innocent, he knew he would be convicted. Worse, he would soon be tortured and made to give false evidence against his friends. Desperate to escape the situation, Ledenberg went “to God by a shorter route,” as he explained in his suicide note, and he killed himself.

With this desperate act, Ledenburg hoped to protect his family. He believed the court could not seize his property if he died before the trial was over. He was wrong. The judges convicted him and sentenced him to a posthumous execution. 

But how does one execute a dead man? For early modern Europeans, a criminal’s death was only part of the execution ritual. Once dead, an offender's remains could be publicly displayed, which was a significant and deeply shameful aspect of their punishment.

As you can see in the etching by Claes Jansz. Visscher, Ledenberg’s execution was an elaborate affair. His body, which had been embalmed and stored in a wooden coffin, was dragged to the gallows field on a hurdle, or woven mat. In the etching, a crowd watches the executioner suspend Ledenberg’s coffin from a gibbet. Others gaze at the skeletal remains of Jean de la Vigne and Jean de Paris, two thieves who were executed in 1616 for the murder of a prominent jeweler. Ledenberg, who the caption says “wickedly murdered himself,” is literally counted among these vicious killers. The two thieves are labeled “3” and “4.”  Ledenberg, number “2,” is positioned between another criminal hanging from the gallows and an empty gibbet, which is labeled “1.” The caption tells us this gibbet used to hold the remains of a would-be assassin.

Every aspect of the execution ritual—the hurdle, hanging from a gibbet, the proximity to infamous criminals—was deeply shameful. Ledenberg’s portrait and this etching not only reported these events but also spread his notoriety far and wide. 

These impressions of Visscher’s prints have survived as part of a book that consists of forty prints and pamphlets about Dutch religious and political turmoil in the 1610s, which a collector had bound together.

Visit gallery 127B to see this and other political portrait prints, on display through August 7, 2016.

—Maureen Warren, former Chicago Objects Study Initiative Mellon Fellow at the Art Institute of Chicago, and current Curator of European and American Art, Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign