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At the MFA, a large Flemish triptych depicts a martyred saint in vivid detail

“Martyrdom of Saint Hippolytus’’ is almost a yard high and more than 9 feet long. “Martyrdom of Saint Hippolytus’’ is almost a yard high and more than 9 feet long. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / February 1, 2011

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Hippolytus was, according to legend, a Roman legionary who converted to Christianity and paid a heavy price.

How heavy? This picture gives a fairly clear idea. Since its acquisition by the Museum of Fine Arts, in 1963, it has been one of the most amazing paintings in the museum’s collection. But because we don’t know who the artist is, it tends to get overlooked.

The painting, which is almost a yard high, more than 9 feet long, and in superb condition for its age, was given a full-color, full-page spread in the Oct. 18, 1963, issue of Time magazine, and a similar treatment in the same week’s issue of Life.

Coming across it in the MFA’s marvelous northern European galleries today, you involuntarily step back. The effect is like looking up at a movie screen after half an hour fiddling away on an iPhone.

Usually, a triptych like this would have a separate picture on each panel. This artist’s decision to paint a continuous image across all three panels was very unusual — though not unprecedented.

Of course, the stylized idiom of the Flemish primitives (this work was probably painted between 1480 and 1494) can look naive to modern eyes. These horses, for instance, have a Tinkertoy stiffness — none of the subtle gradations and atmospheric realism of a Raphael or a Titian. But here, the boldness and unblinking violence of the overall composition overwhelm disbelief.

The conception is diabolical. On the one hand, we’re presented with a master class in pictorial propriety: the geometrical symmetry of the three tightly joined panels; the centered figure of the martyred saint; the balancing figures on either side, and the deep, deep perspective, suggesting a world of harmony and order.

On the other, a spiraling, anti-clockwise movement threatens to tear the picture asunder. This centrifugal force is established by the careful placement of the horses and reinforced by the gestures and gazes of key figures. One thinks, involuntarily, of Yeats’s falcon “turning and turning in the widening gyre’’ or, as Time put it, “a deadly carousel.’’

The saint’s pale body, spread-eagled by taut ropes secured to the horses, floats weirdly above the bramble-covered ground. He tilts toward us, as if already severed from his earthly existence. (“the centre cannot hold,’’ wrote Yeats. “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.’’)

The effect is shocking. But the details are entrancing: Note the vivid contemporary costumes and individuated expressions, so typical of Flemish religious painting; as well, the small birds nesting in the brambles, one of them descending in the perfect shape of a cross; and the bulging veins in the torso and hind legs of the horse at far right.

We may not know the artist, but we know this triptych was commissioned by Hippolyte de Berthoz, a financial adviser at the court of Burgundy, who served under Charles the Bold, Margaret of York, and Philip the Fair. His and his wife’s joint coats-of-arms are visible on the outer wings of the triptych, and their patron saints, Hippolytus and Elizabeth of Hungary, have been depicted on the outer right wing.

Some scholars believe the painting was conceived by one artist and executed by an inferior talent. It hardly matters. The result is unforgettable.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

MARTYRDOM OF SAINT HIPPOLYTUS Unidentified artist, Flemish, 15th century

At: Museum of Fine Arts. 617-267-9300. www.mfa.org.