Although the iconography of this painting is unclear - it is surely a group portrait of identifiable figures, but their identities are now unknown - the ostensible subject is The Justice of Cambyses. That story - of the Emperor Cambyses' punishment of a corrupt judge - was one that was highly popular amongst the elite of sixteenth-century Bruges, reflecting the degree to which humanism had become a central part of its culture - indeed Erasmus had compared the citizens of Bruges to those of ancient Athens (letter to Leonard Casembroot, Basle, 4 October 1525).
Claeissens has here taken as the basis for his composition what must have been one of the most celebrated works of art of his day, Gerard David's eponymous masterpiece that had been painted in 1498 for the Aldermen's Chambers of Bruges Town Hall. David's composition has been reversed, but the general arrangement of the figures is clearly linked, including the guard taking the judge's far arm, the Emperor placed centrally amongst the group on the far side, and even the scene depicting the judge accepting his bribe in the far background. Claeissens appears, however, to have represented the figures as real portraits, presumably a particular group of civic dignitaries, a practice that he used in at least one other work, the Banquet of circa 1536-1613, in the Groeningemuseum, Bruges, thought possibly to portray the members of the city council. We are grateful to Mr. Dirk de Vos for pointing out that J.B. Descamps described in 1769 a painting hanging in the meeting-room of Bruges Town Hall thus: 'A l'Hôtel-de-Ville. Dans la Salle d'assemblée se voit le Jugement de Cambyse: Tableau peint par Antoine Claissens' (see A. Janssens de Bisthoven, Corpus Groeningemuseum, 1981, p. 124). Given the relative rarity of Claeissens' work, it would seem highly probable that this is the same painting; Mr. de Vos suggests that it may therefore, like the Banquet, depict members of the city council.