In the Netherlands the three-sided gallows/gibbet with a circular base was often elaborately decorated and seems more important than a gallows with just one cross piece. I understand that both the three-sided and single crosspiece gallows/gibbet served to display the corpses of the condemned after they were executed. Was there some special significance to the three-sided gallows. enter image description here

enter image description here Rijksmuseum

enter image description here Rijksmuseum

enter image description here Utrecht University

enter image description here Rijksmuseum

In England a specific three-sided gallows was known as the Tyburn Tree and was not decorated. Was there a specific name for the three-sided gallows in the Netherlands?

enter image description here Article about Tyburn Tree

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    I wouldn't know about historical or symbolic significance, but purely from point of view of physics, 3 "legs" would be the minimum for a stable structure to be erected, perhaps easier to construct than the regular ones, so if you had to hang several criminals, you'd opt for these purely out of convenience and later on used also in settings where they were not strictly necessary?
    – Gnudiff
    Nov 10, 2023 at 21:39
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    @Gnudiff In the maps I've studied from that time period I've seen more single crosspiece gallows than three-sided ones.
    – Bob516
    Nov 10, 2023 at 21:46
  • even in the places where there were more people hanged at the same place/in the same event? If there was a public execution place for semi regular hanging of criminals, it'd perhaps make more sense for a more permanent structure - building the circular base and more stable gallows structure less susceptible to being demolished in a storm. After all it probably counted as entertainment spot.
    – Gnudiff
    Nov 10, 2023 at 22:07
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    Making it stable, as the comments suggest, might be a reason, although we know that there are options, which make stable widely used two-legged structures. One-legged structures, like crosses, have been also on the record.
    – Roger V.
    Nov 13, 2023 at 10:42
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    From my brief search, it looks like shapes of gallows were a matter of macabre artistic inspiration of executioners/public officials. It could be also a way of economic use of construction materials.
    – Roger V.
    Nov 13, 2023 at 11:16

1 Answer 1


Variety of gallows structures
Mechanical stability likely wasn't the principal determining factor for the shape of a gallows. While it is true that three or more support points are needed for an object to remain erect without being fixed, the variety of structures with two or one supporting pole have been used:
enter image description here

The screenshot above is taken from the presentation Les lieux de justice parisiens à la fin du Moyen Âge. Structures, usages et symboliques (Places of justice in Paris at the end of Middle Ages. Structures, use and symbols.) , based on the book with the same name by Lucie Ecorchard (likely based on a PhD thesis.)

Nevertheless, the presentation points out that the structures in the bottom row were more likely to be used when the bodies were supposed to be displayed for a very long period of time (the presentation speaks of the total decomposition of the body, but Victor Hugo in The Man who Laughs speaks of using tar to preserve bodies on display for years of even decades.

Purpose of gallows
The gallows were intended principally for displaying the bodies - the execution could have taken place elsewhere. They thus served as a symbol of the firm authority, which in Netherlands was that of the city/town. The gallows thus served in stick and carrot way - warning the potential offenders about the harsh punishment that expects them, but also demonstrating the protection that the town provided to its inhabitants and travelers.

The executions took place inside the town, but the gallows were located outside, in the Gallows field (Galgenveld.)

My principal sources regarding the gallows and the related practices in Netherlands are blog post The Gallows Field of Amsterdam, based on article Picturing Liminal Spaces and Bodies: Rituals of Punishment and the Limits of Control at the Gallows Field, both based on the thesis Representing the Criminal Body in the City: Knowledge, Publics and Power in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic by Anuradha Gobin.

A selection of images of gallows can be found on Wikipedia: Category:Gallows in the Netherlands.

As the purpose of gallows was to display the bodies, triangular structure could be used to make them visible from all directions. This is notably the case for Tyburn gallows in London, constructed on a junction of three roads.

Decorating gallows
The sources cited outline that executions and placement on the gallows followed an elaborate ritual, related to the nature of the crime, its importance, and the manner of execution. According to the Gobin's thesis:

Official images depicting the criminal body on the gallows were not only found on maps that served as a physical assertion of civic authority. Images were also used to ensure the legibility of punishment rituals, for the manner in which a criminal corpse was displayed after death could indicate what type of crime was being punished. Typically, criminals who were executed via hanging were subsequently strung from the gallows; those who were strangled were placed on a pole; and those who had their bodies broken were placed on the wheel or rack. A surviving text containing the registration of judgments on criminal matters includes accompanying drawings to some of the entries made concerning executions (Figs. 68 and 69). These drawings demonstrate the importance placed by officials on the exact manner in which the criminal corpse was either disposed of or presented to the public following death.

(emphasis is mine)

The objects representing the nature of the crime, the weapons used in the crime and the execution weapon could be also placed near the body, as well as its severed body parts.

De Steenen Galg in Arnhem likely has lions at the top of the poles, symbolizing the city authority (lions are present in its coat of arms, below)
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(another image of Gallows in Arnhem)
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Citing again Gobin's thesis:

These [figures] could have had symbolic significance to the city or may be allegorical references to law and justice.

However, in other cases the figures on the top of the poles are simply vultures or similar birds, as in Galgenveld Volewijk te Amsterdam:
enter image description here

Another representation of the same site again shows birds, although in poses where they could be mistaken for carved figures:
enter image description here

Gallows in the Dutch art
As the gallows were permanent features of the landscape over decades or even centuries, they had gradually acquired meaning going beyond their original purpose: they became a place where people would come to spend their free time in contemplation or with families. They have also inspired artists, who would reflect on people's indifference to such displays (due to their being commonplace) or the links to protestant faith, etc. The notable Dutch painters in this category are:
Gerrit lamberts, Galgenveld Amsterdam
enter image description here

Esaias van de Velde, Gallows in a landscape
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Anthonie van Borssom, Galgenveld aan de rand van de Volewijk
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In this sense the fact that gallows in the existing images are often elaborately decorated might be not the consequence of the commonplace practice at the time, but because the decorated ones were more likely to be chosen for depiction (It seems that Lamberts' and Brossom's paintings represent the same object.)


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