Bosch & Bruegel – From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life (Joseph Leo Koerner) 2016
[Bollingen Series XXXV: Volume 57, Princeton University Press-The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts (National Gallery of Art) , Princeton-Oxford-Washington, 2016, 414 pages]
Joseph Leo Koerner is a Professor of Art History at Harvard University. His book Bosch & Bruegel, published in 2016 by Princeton University Press, presents a revised version of the talks which he delivered as part of the A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art (Washington) in 2007. According to the Preface, the book’s purpose is: ‘To communicate to a general public the achievements of two great painters of everyday life. Non-experts are an ideal audience for this, since with everyday life everyone is an expert. I have tried to meet works of art as one meets things in life: contingently, in the flow of experience’ [p. X]. The text, blesssed with a sumptuous design and an attractive layout thanks to the publishers, is divided in three parts, comprising eleven chapters. Chapters 1 to 4 introduce the ‘parallel worlds’ of Bosch and Bruegel, after which chapters 5-8 (Part I) and chapters 9-11 (Part II) deal with Bosch and Bruegel, respectively.
Bosch & Bruegel is not your common scholarly treatise. In fact, it is a collection of interlinked essays, written in an extremely polished, sophisticated style (the book won the Prose Award for Art and Art Criticism in 2017) and presenting to the reader a broad, impressionistic, learned, intelligent, often somewhat highbrow view on Bosch and Bruegel, in which art history tends to blend with art philosophy, anthropology, and observations on modern society (the pages 151-153, for example, deal with two movies, The Truman Show and The Matrix). As a result, this publication seems to meet with the highest academic standards, at least at first sight, and – in spite of its fluent style and partially due to numerous elaborations and excurses – requires a high level of concentration and even stamina from the reader. To such an extent, that one may wonder whether ‘non-experts are an ideal audience for this’.
The general purport of Koerner’s argument can be summarized as follows. Whereas Bosch produced religious paintings dominated by a medieval approach of the world, in which God is the wrathful spectator of sinful mankind, Bruegel belongs to the Renaissance and paints a more secular view of the world, in which there is still anger, pain, and deception but from which God is largely detached. With Bosch, scenes from everyday life are embedded in a context referring to the corruption of mankind and its hostile alienation from God. With Bruegel everyday life has become the main subject, resulting in what we call ‘genre painting’ today. In Koerner’s own words: ‘I have tried to place Bosch and Bruegel side by side, illuminating the one through his proximity to, and difference from, the other. But I also make an argument about artistic genealogy: how the history of art passed from Bosch to Bruegel, and – further – how a new form of painting devoted to ordinary life could begin with something altogether unordinary: a metaphysical struggle, waged through the medium of painted images, against the Old Enemy, Satan’ [p. 92]. That is why the upper part of the cover shows Christ at the Last Judgement (from Bosch’s Vienna triptych), whereas the lower part is a detail from Bruegel’s Battle Between Carnival and Lent (Vienna). ‘In Bosch’s world, the familiar is enemy territory, and those who befriend it are foes to God. However, brought down to earth and there portrayed as if “from life”, this cosmic hostility becomes the cradle of a painting of everyday life’ [pp. viii-ix].
In his review of Koerner’s book, Mitchell B. Merback writes: ‘How well Koerner’s interpretations will stand up to the scrutiny of Bosch and Bruegel’s scholarly partisans is another matter, and one that remains beyond the scope of this essay’. Matthijs Ilsink is definitely a scholarly partisan of Bosch and Bruegel, and he published an (in my opinion) excellent review in Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte. Ilsink notes:
"The essence (and value) of the book cannot be described by stripping the argument to the bone. The embellishment of the argument, the way that it is presented, forms part of the argument itself. As he says himself, the author’s subjective individual experience plays an important role in his readings of the art of Bosch and Bruegel. The account of that experience is full of artifice and elegance, and sometimes pomp. To summarize that experience in words other than the author’s is extremely difficult. On the one hand, this credits the singular character of the auteur. On the other hand, this complicates critical discourse with colleagues. It is difficult to disagree with someone’s experiences. At a certain point, one can only share them. Reading this book, reading it slowly, is an experience both pleasant and educational. Reading it slowly, however, also brings to the fore the sometimes casual causal argumentation. At certain points one feels that in order to make his point or to illustrate the point made, the author stretches the facts somewhat."
Not being a Bruegel specialist, I will further limit myself to two general remarks about Koerner’s approach to Bosch (one regarding style, the other regarding content), after which I will have a closer look at chapters 6 and 7/8, which deal with the Lisbon St Anthony triptych and the Prado Garden of Delights triptych. Everyone who has read Koerner’s book will agree that the author is extremely eloquent. Melion, in another review, calls the book ‘fluently written’, Merback considers the author an ‘exceptional prose stylist’, and Ilsink notes: ‘The text expresses an enormous enthusiasm for looking at art and, perhaps even more so, writing about it’. All of this is true, and yet every now and then what Koerner writes leans towards what in English is called purple prose. According to Wikipedia, purple prose ‘is prose text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself’. In his review, Ilsink calls it ‘pomp’. Let me just give one example. On page 49, Koerner is writing about the Haywain triptych and about the peddler in its exterior panels:
"A thing that is nothing, hay is our flesh. Lusting after itself, flesh withers and vanishes. Hay also stands for Bosch’s painting: a wooden object of no consequence, mere fuel for hell’s consuming flames. Thus the peddler, with his thing-filled backpack made of straw, mutates into the humanity grasping at straws, which mutates into the viewer gazing at painted straw."
This almost sounds like poetic prose, it is a nice train of thought, it makes a scholarly and learned impression, but does it bring us any closer to the actual scenes that were painted by Bosch? Obviously, whether it is ‘a joy’ to read passages such as these (and the book abounds with them), as Ilsink kindly pointed out, is up to every reader to decide for himself/herself.
A second general remark. ‘Enmity’ seems to be a key word in Koerner’s approach to Bosch (‘contingency’ is another one). ‘Bosch is the great master of Christian aggression’ [p. 111]. ‘Bosch was an expert in enmity. Hatred was his professional specialty’ [p. 133]. ‘Bosch pictures a world so structured by enmity that his own world pictures become hostile, as well’ [p. 362]. Although it cannot be denied that Bosch is partial to depicting man’s sins and folly, I sincerely believe that Koerner is pushing his argument too far by overstressing the ‘enmity’ aspect of Bosch’s paintings. A good example is what he writes about the Haywain: ‘At the head of the parade, monstrous demons, uncontested, lead humanity into their trap. And joining this ambush is God himself, who, facing universal hostility despite having come as a friend and preaching love, unleashes his wrath in hell’ [p. 67]. And on page 359: ‘In Bosch, God alone answers the question of human things, and his answer is war on them’. When Koerner writes things like these, he is not writing about the Bosch that I know. Koerner’s God reminds me of the Old Testament God: wrathful, merciless, easily provoked, always keen on revenge. ‘Where does all this enmity come from?’ Koerner asks on page 145. It is a good question, which could also be asked to Koerner himself. The answer may be related to Koerner’s Jewish background and his experiences as a young boy in Vienna during the Second World War (about which he writes in the Preface), but that is beyond the scope of this review. What matters here, is that in my opinion Bosch was far less pessimistic and misanthropic than Koerner wants us to believe.
The art of Bosch is basically didactic and moralizing, and the Haywain triptych is a painted sermon. It does not represent a reality but a virtual reality, at the same time warning of a potential ill-fated future (eternal punishment in Hell) and showing how to avoid that ill fate. In the upper centre panel we do not see a merciless God the Father who ‘unleashes his wrath in hell’, but a merciful God the Son, Jesus Christ, who is showing His wounds to remind the viewer that thanks to His death at the Cross every man can be saved and reach Heaven, on the condition that he avoids sin or – if he has already sinned – shows remorse. As I have argued elsewhere, the peddler in the exterior panels, keeping an aggressive diabolical dog at a distance with a stick, is an example of such a repentant sinner (the exterior panels of Bosch’s triptychs always show a good example). This is why I concur with Gary Schwartz, who published an interesting essay in a 2016 exhibition catalogue [Gary Schwartz, “Eine Welt ohne Sünde – Hieronymus Bosch als Visionär”, in: Michael Philipp (ed.), Verkehrte Welt – Das Jahrhundert von Hieronymus Bosch. Exhibition catalogue (Hamburg, Bucerius Kunst Forum, 4th June – 11th September 2016), Hamburg-München, 2016, pp. 8-17]. In this essay Schwartz compares the art of Bosch to the Vision of Tondal (written by a Brother Marcus), a text that more than likely was known to Bosch and inspired him. Schwartz notes (and I translate from the German):
"Brother Marcus and Hieronymus Bosch shared the intention to startle their fellow-man with their creative forces and to make them repent, and thus they tried to save him from Hell. (…) The more an artist or author is capable of representing the tortures of Hell, the more he contributes to the reader’s or viewer’s salvation." [pp. 11 / 12]
Neither Bosch nor the God that he depicts are ‘waging war’ on man. On the contrary: when Bosch paints the sins of mankind and their punishment in Hell, his goal is to show to his viewers the bad example, the potential consequences of that bad example, and the way to avoid those consequences. In simple English the message is: if you do not want to undergo terrible tortures in Hell, stay away from sin, and you will be saved. Exactly the same moralistic ‘trick’ can be found in late medieval edifying treatises which – just like Bosch – describe the infernal punishments in detail, such as for example the fifteenth-century Boeck vander Voirsienicheit Godes (The Book of God’s Providence). In his introduction the anonymous author writes (and I translate from the Middle Dutch):
"Because man is weak and prepared to sin, and because the fierce devils and the unreliable world constantly try to make mankind sin, I have written a little about the eternal pains and about the eternal life. But in many places in an allegorical way. So that the fear of the horrible pains will make him give up sin and protect him from further sins."
Koerner’s obsession with ‘enmity’ and ‘aggression’ in the art of Bosch leads to highly debatable interpretations when he writes about other paintings as well, often unnecessarily complicating things that are in fact quite simple. Two good examples of this can be found in Koerner’s analysis of the Prado Epiphany. On page 127 he writes about the three armies in the background of the centre panel: ‘Dressing the troops in Turkish and Mongol gear, Bosch portrays geopolitical enemies contending for Jerusalem but poised to turn their wrath on Europe’. But are these three armies not merely the trains of the three Magi on their way to meet each other, and does the ‘Turkish and Mongol gear’ not simply refer to the fact that they came from the East? Even the gifts presented to the Christ Child by the Magi do not escape Koerner’s mistrust. He writes:
"From the moment of his birth in Bethlehem, it seems, the world’s response to Christ will indeed be hostile. The first gift, the eldest Magus’s statuette, predicts this outcome by showing Abraham sacrificing his son at God’s inscrutable demand. An angel suspends the blow, but in the death that the old story foreshadows, God gives to the enemies his own son to be murdered. Death is the only peacemaking gift." [p. 129]
And on page 150 he adds: ‘In their strange facture and symbolism, the gifts of the Magi typify Bosch’s art. Were we to know why the artist gave the first Magus’s gift frogs for feet, we would understand much about his deepest intentions’. This interpretation is far too morbid. It is of course true that in the Middle Ages Abraham’s sacrificing his own son Isaac was seen as a prototype of Christ’s Crucifixion, but was (and is) this sacrifice of Christ not the reason why every sinner could (and can) hope for salvation? And what if the frogs are toads and refer to evil and to the devil, as they so often do with Bosch and with other artists and writers around 1500? If you put two and two together, does the fact that the Magus’s gift crushes the toads not simply mean that thanks to Christ’s death at the cross evil can be overcome? According to this interpretation, death is indeed a ‘peacemaking gift’ and not an act of war.
In chapter 6 [pp. 151-178] Koerner focuses on the Lisbon St Anthony triptych. In the first half of the chapter he writes about its four primary scenes (i.e. the scenes in which Anthony appears) and about the exterior panels. In the centre of the centre panel Anthony points at Christ, who is also the protagonist in the exterior panels. In the left interior panel Anthony is beaten up by devils, after which the saint is carried to his hermitage, which has been changed into a brothel by the devils. That ‘both events (are) described by Athanasius’ [p. 159] is not completely correct, for Athanasius’s Vita Antonii does not mention that the devils lifted Anthony up into the sky. And the right interior panel shows the devil queen (known to Bosch via a translated Arab source). These pages have some nice observations, for example when Koerner writes about the tiny Christ figure in the centre panel that looking at Him ‘feels like peering through the wrong end of a telescope’ [p. 171]. And the complete triptych ‘is the most amazing spectacle of painted devilry in all of art. The saint’s ascetic withdrawal has enraged these demons. Wrathfully they attack Anthony with a plague of phantasms’ [p. 157].
These phantasms fill up the larger part of the interior panels (some 21 scenes), but Koerner hardly spends a word on them. Instead, the second half of the chapter offers the reader an elaboration on Bosch’s technique (with again a nice sentence: ‘Instead of illusions of reality, Bosch makes real-looking illusions’, p. 163) and another one on idolatry, starting from the golden calf and a monkey-idol represented on the column in the centre panel. Koerner points out that Anthony waged a war on heresy, idolatry, and false images but used an image himself: the sign of the cross. And yet, when Anthony was beaten up by the devils (see the Vita Antonii), Christ did not help him but only appeared to the saint aftwerwards. Because Christ wanted to teach Anthony humility, writes Koerner. After which the last paragraph focuses on two tricks used by Bosch to convey his message: Anthony is placed at the absolute, geometric centre of the triptych, and he looks at us, the viewers, thus involving us in the painting and encouraging us to think about where we stand. ‘But what would have happened if instead of putting a tiny escape hatch at the center, in the form of Anthony’s true look, Bosch had made the center the most dangerous place of all?’ [p. 178].
This last sentence announces Koerner’s discussion of the Garden of Delights triptych in chapter 7 [pp. 179-222]. The first section of this chapter offers an excellent introduction to the Garden’s problematic position within the Bosch oeuvre, and its key passage is (referring to what is going on in the centre panel): ‘Are these paradisiacal pleasures free of painful consequences? Or are they sinful, with hell as their reward? To this day, no one has resolved this most basic question’ [p. 183]. But it does not tell us anything that we did not know already or cannot read elsewhere.
The next section first focuses on the exterior panels. Bosch portrays the third day of Creation when God separated earth from water. It was sometimes held that in this division good and evil were also separated and that on that day Lucifer and his minions were thrust out of heaven, which is perhaps symbolized by the atmospheric turbulence above the newly formed land. Again, this is nothing new, but then the author elaborates on hyle (an ancient Greek term for primal matter), starting from Hartmann Schedel’s 1493 Book of Chronicles, and on St Augustine’s comment on the verse from Psalm 33, which we can see in the upper exterior panels. In my opinion, these excurses boil down to what Roger Marijnissen liked to call Gelehrtenquatsch, but perhaps they are too high for my wit. In the left interior panel Eve is presented to Adam, whose blushing cheeks point out his desire for her. If we follow Adam’s gaze, the vector runs from Eve’s face through the centre panel (filled with lustful activities) until it reaches the Tree-Man in the right interior panel. Koerner provides a photo of the Garden with a red straight line in it to illustrate this.
Stripped from all erudite verbosity, the third section of the seventh chapter argues that the Garden tells a story of desire. ‘Aroused in Adam before the Fall, desire traverses a humanity that, kept inhuman by animal drives, burns itself out in hell’ [p. 197]. The exterior panels and the carnivorous beasts in the left interior panel suggest that before the Fall something about nature may already have been corrupt. As is well-known to Bosch experts, every author concurs on the erotic nature of the Garden’s centre panel. The question which haunts the on-going debate is: are these erotic acts and symbols to be interpreted in a negative or positive way?Apparently, Koerner is going to argue in favour of the former. Noteworthy: the scene with three men around a bursting seedpod at the base of the centre panel is said to insinuate masturbatory practices. Straightforward interpretations of separate scenes in the centre panel such as these are quite rare in the literature about Bosch. In my opinion, they should never be discouraged.
After a rather woolly elaboration on the question of whether evil already existed before the Fall in section four, section five deals with the centre panel. And again, Koerner goes a step further than other authors before him when interpreting the scene in the ‘hole’ underneath the blue ball floating on the water:
"A man seems to penetrate a woman from the rear. His arm position suggests he is guiding his member into her right now. Meanwhile, dashing all hopes that the triptych celebrates marital vows, a second man fondles the woman’s genitals. His fingertips, with the hidden member of the other man, may now be reaching into the woman precisely below the water’s surface." [p. 208]
Koerner associates this ‘abject hole at the garden’s center’ with the structure of Earth in the triptych’s shutters and its similar low, watery horizon. He then points out the presence of numerous behinds (Koerner uses the word ‘asses’) in the centre panel and concludes that quite a number of its scenes can be associated with the vitium contra naturam, the sin against nature or sodomy, which in the Middle Ages referred to every sexual act that did not lead to procreation. Thus, the people in the centre panel are disobeying God’s command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’: ‘A sexually perverse and thoroughly heretical un-humanity rebels against creation itself’ [p. 215]. In my opinion, these pages [208-218] are very strong and show us Koerner at his best: as a keen observer and a clever interpreter, as soon as he dispenses with all redundant pomp.
Unfortunately, after having reiterated the unchaste purport of the scenes in the centre panel, in the sixth and last section of chapter seven Koerner again loses himself (and many readers, I assume) in yet another woolly elaboration, this time dealing with the colours of the centre panel, which fascinate us and cause us to behold the world through ‘idolatrous eyes’, culminating in the last sentences of the chapter: ‘Painter of enemies, Bosch shows what it looks like to see through idolatrous eyes. He makes me into the enemy, into my own enemy’ [p. 222]. By which the author means (I think) that whereas other paintings by Bosch more or less explicitly warn the viewer of the sinful character of what is represented (like the ‘cave cave dominus videt’ in the Prado Tabletop), in the case of the Garden the viewer has to find out about this on his/her own and should not erroneously think that what he/she sees is ‘good’ because it has been painted in such a beautiful way.
The first two sections of chapter 8 also deal with the Garden, but they only offer a rhapsodic series of elaborations (i.a. on Nature’s and artists’ capacity to create novel things, on the probable commissioner and later owner of the Garden Engelbert II of Nassau and Henry III of Nassau and their Brussels palace, and on Jan Gossart). There is nothing here that brings us any closer to the centre panel’s deeper meaning, except for one short passage on page 233: ‘Bosch’s Hell panel does place a bold question mark after his image of a garden of delight. But it evidently has not sufficed to denounce the whole, since some viewers continue to take the center to be a positive statement about sex or marriage’. Thus, Koerner has given his personal answer to the question ‘are the paradisiacal pleasures shown in the centre panel sinful or not’ without producing too many convincing arguments. On the contrary, he is one more author who has succeeded in writing about the Garden’s centre panel without spending a single word on the group of three persons in the cave in the lower right corner. And we would also have welcomed an answer to the question of why there are black men and women in the centre panel.
Koerner’s Bosch & Bruegel is a beautiful book. It is written in an elegant and erudite style. It offers the reader a mixture of nice observations, of cultural-historical information based on a wide range of primary and secondary literature, and of often somewhat tedious or hard-to-follow elaborations. But when it comes down to a correct understanding of the world of Bosch, it is – in my opinion – certainly not impeccable. For a discussion of Koerner’s approach to Bruegel, I refer the reader to Ilsink’s review.
[explicit 1 February 2021]
Van Dijck 1973
De Bossche Optimaten – Geschiedenis van de Illustere Lieve Vrouwebroederschap te ’s-Hertogenbosch, 1318-1973 (G.C.M. van Dijck) 1973
[Bijdragen tot de Geschiedenis van het Zuiden van Nederland XXVII, Stichtelijk Zuidelijk Historisch Contact, Tilburg, 1973, 499 pages]
[Not mentioned in Gibson 1983]
Van Dijck’s dissertation is still a standard work on the ’s-Hertogenbosch Brotherhood of Our Lady, of which Jheronimus Bosch was a member during the major part of his life. The book has three parts: the establishment and palmy days (1318-1518), the period of consolidation and crisis (1518-1629), and the period after the fall of ’s-Hertogenbosch (1629-1973). In 1629, the city, which had been Spanish and Catholic, was conquered by the Protestant anti-Spanish troops. Because the Brotherhood played such an important role in the life of Jheronimus Bosch (circa 1450-1516), a lot of what is said in this book, in particular in the first two parts, is interesting for the students of Bosch. An overview of things that are worth remembering follows.
Van Dijck regularly mentions Jheronimus Bosch or matters that are related to the painter and his art. An overview…
[explicit 24 November 2020]
Wie van de drie? Rondom een tondo van Jheronimus Bosch (Paul Claes) 2020
[Compagnie Paul Verrept, s.l., 2020, 46 pages]
After a brief introductory chapter, Claes presents three interpretations of the protagonist in Jheronimus Bosch’s Pedlar tondo (Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen). He does this by letting the protagonist introduce himself, respectively as the Prodigal Son, as a pedlar representing the repentant sinner, and as the pilgrim of life on his way between vice and virtue. In a final brief chapter the mirror form of the tondo says that those who look at the tondo see themselves. The size of this booklet is small, the text is short, simple, and somewhat superficial, and the content relies heavily on the existing literature about the Rotterdam tondo.
[explicit 22 November 2020]
’s-Hertogenbosch – stad in het hertogdom Brabant ca. 1185-1629 (P.Th.J. Kuijer) 2000
[Waanders Uitgevers-Stadsarchief ’s-Hertogenbosch-Boekhandel Adr. Heinen, Zwolle-’s-Hertogenbosch, 2000, 720 pages]
This standard work of reference about the history of ’s-Hertogenbosch until 1629 (the year in which the city fell to the Protestant troops of the Dutch Republic) spends only a few pages on Hieronymus Bosch. On the pages 228-230 Kuijer notes that apparently the interest of Bosch’s contemporary fellow-citizens in his work was rather meagre. He was a ‘sworn brother’ of the local Brotherhood of Our Lady. Through this Brotherhood he probably got in touch with some of his patrons (eminent Spaniards and important noblemen). More than likely, Bosch’s being a member of the Brotherhood’s inner circle is not explained by his being famous (circa 1488) but by his marriage to Aleid van de Meervenne, whose family belonged to the city’s higher circles. A similar case is represented by Jan Heyns, who may have become a sworn member of the Brotherhood because he was the highly-respected master builder of the St John’s Church.
Furthermore, Kuijer makes the plausible suggestion that the nocturnal scene with the burning village in the centre panel of the Lisbon St Anthony triptych [p. 109] and the background of the right inner panel of the Garden of Delights [p. 280] were inspired by the recurrent military violence during the war with the nearby Duchy of Guelders (Gelderland) in the period 1492-1528. On page 293, the author suggests that Bosch had various opportunities to watch fires and ransacked villages in the Meierij (the region situated northeasterly of ’s-Hertogenbosch) from the city walls. On page 280, the hellscape in the Garden of Delights reminds the author of the cruel way in which the Burgundian duke Charles the Bold punished the cities of Dinant and Liège in 1466 and 1468.
[explicit 16th August 2020]
Jheronimus Bosch – Étude des Trois Grands Triptyques et de l’Escamoteur (Jean Doré) 1991
[L’Arche d’Or, Talant, 1991, 24 pages + 10 ill.]
Doré believes that the man hanging from a giant key in the right interior panel of the Garden of Delights leads to a correct interpretation of the triptych. The detail reminds him of the insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece, which is why he sees a number of allusions to the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts in the triptych. Because Frederick III (the German emperor behind the haywain) had died in 1494, and because Alexander VI (the pope behind the haywain) was not a pope yet in 1491, the Haywain triptych dates from 1492 or 1493. Two of the figures atop the haywain are Philip the Fair and his sister Margareth, who in 1493 was sent back to her father Maximilian by the French king (who no longer wanted to marry her). The haywain is in fact a triumphal chariot which commemorates this happy event. Doré even draws a litte map with the presumed route followed by the haywain (from St Quentin to Treves). The figure in the exterior panels is said to be king David with the outlooks of Charles the Bold.
The figure who is bending over in the The Conjuror panel is Jean Molinet, the Burgundian chronicler. As for the centre panel of the Lisbon St Anthony triptych: the harp-playing creature riding a ‘plucked peacock’ is Philip the Fair representing King David. The white lady and the man with the cup behind the table are Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian. The beggar with the severed foot is Frederick III, and the young woman next to Anthony is Margareth of Austria, Philip the Fair’s sister. Complete madness, this (fortunately very thin) booklet.
[explicit 24th June 2020]
Im Irrgarten der Bilder – Die Welt des Hieronymus Bosch (Stefan Fischer) 2016
[Reclam, Stuttgart, 2016, 237 pages]
This very sound Bosch monograph addresses the general reader and comprises thirteen chapters.
Der Fürst und der Maler [pp. 7-13]
This chapter focuses on Bosch’s cultural-historical context. The highest nobility in the Netherlands (Maximilian I, Philip the Fair) was responsible for some major commissions, and yet Bosch’s art was produced far away from the centres of nobility, namely in ’s-Hertogenbosch. At the end of the fifteenth century, though, this city went through an economic and cultural growing process. ’s-Hertogenbosch had closer ties with the East than with the South. Clergy was strongly present in ’s-Hertogenbosch. Of major importance were the Modern Devotion (with its admiration for early Christian ascetics such as St Anthony and St Hieronymus), the Dominicans, the Brethren of the Common Life, and the Latin school. Typical of the urban early Humanism in ’s-Hertogenbosch were the interest in parody and comical satire, and also a predilection for monstrous, hybrid, grotesque, and fantastic motifs, which could function as allegorical references to the works of the devil and to the consequences of sin.
Jeroen van Aken – Spross einer Malerdynastie [pp. 14-32]
First an overview of the biographical data regarding Bosch and his family. The Brussels Crucifixion and the Ghent St Hieronymus are considered Bosch’s oldest paintings that have come down to us. According to Fischer, the patron represented in the Crucifixion is an executioner. Striking – in the paragraphs dedicated to Bosch’s presumed Latin education – is the attention (inspired by Paul Vandenbroeck’s research) paid to the Latin treatise De disciplina scholarium, which is the source for the Latin line in the The field has eyes drawing.
Eine keineswegs geheime Bruderschaft [pp. 33-47]
Bosch probably attended the Latin school in ’s-Hertogenbosch and joined the local Brotherhood of Our Lady in 1486/87. In 1488/89, he already joined the inner circle of ‘sworn brothers’ of this elite society, which means that Bosch was a cleric and had received one of the minor orders. The Brotherhood’s contacts with the local Dominicans were good. Considering this social context, it is absurd to claim that Bosch would have painted for a heretical sect. The architect Jan Heyns was also a member of the Brotherhood. Bosch’s St John on Patmos (Berlin) and St John the Baptist (Madrid) were painted for the altarpiece of the Brotherhood’s chapel in the Church of St John (Fischer presents this as a proven fact, whereas it is a hypothesis). The apostle St John and St John the Baptist were the patron saints of the Church of St John and of the Brotherhood. The strange plant in the St John the Baptist panel hides a male patron. Stylistic analysis leads to the conclusion that it was Bosch himself who overpainted the patron. The motif of a devil stealing St John’s inkpot in the Berlin St John on Patmos can also be seen elsewhere and is borrowed from the legend of a local saint who was also called Johannes (John). No further information about this is given. The little devil in Berlin clearly makes a comical impression. The Berlin panel probably shows Bosch’s oldest signature that has come down to us. Of course, the name ‘Bosch’ refers to ’s-Hertogenbosch. In their engravings, Alart du Hameel and the ‘Master Bosch with the knife’ also referred to the city where their art was produced. The Brotherhood showed a lot of interest in national and international contacts.
Reformatio! [pp. 48-67]
The life and the Passion of Christ and the Imitation of Christ idea are major themes in the art of Bosch. This chapter focuses on six paintings. The Frankfurt Ecce Homo was probably commissioned by patrons from or near ’s-Hertogenbosch. The typological details, the Antichrist figure, and the patrons in the Prado Adoration of the Magi are discussed. According to Fischer, the black king and his helper carry negative attributes referring to unchastity, the dancers in the left interior panel are part of a landscape which is represented as pagan and dangerous, and the animals in the right interior panel are bears attacking humans. Then follow the Boston Ecce Homo triptych (a workshop product), the large and the small Carrying of the Cross (Madrid / Vienna), and the London Crowning with Thorns. The child on the reverse of the Vienna Carrying of the Cross panel is the Christ Child. Bosch’s representation of the Passion agrees with the reformatio idea that was on the rise around 1500: the ritual character of religion was replaced more and more by a reformation of the individual and of society, with a focus on a practical way of life bound by religious standards and moral correctness.
Der Wald hat Ohren, das Feld hat Augen [pp. 68-80]
Eight drawings by Bosch have come down to us. Fischer discusses the Rotterdam Owls’ Nest and the Berlin The field has eyes. He points out that in this latter drawing the fox underneath the tree has killed (erlegt) a rooster. Fox and owl refer to evil, of which the represented proverb warns. Also the birds in the owl’s neighbourhood are seen as referring to sin and evil. An elaboration on the owl points out the poly-interpretability of symbols in the Middle Ages. In most cases, the owl was a negative symbol, but it could also refer to Christ. Bosch’s oeuvre has a moral component (probably inspired by his school training and by early Humanism), but this is not the major goal, it supports a religious message aimed at the End of Times.
The Rotterdam St Christopher (according to Fischer shortened at the top) was also inspired by early Humanism and announces the Reformation. Christopher is no longer represented as a patron saint (as in popular superstition), but as an example for the pious Christian. The weird tree is said to allude to gluttony, a sin committed by Christopher according to his legend. The three small figures to the right (underneath, in, and atop the tree) are three hermits, and Fischer relates this number to the use of the number three in mystical literature from the Low Countries (Modern Devotion, Ruusbroec, Brugman).
Schöpferische Kraft und Bilderlabyrinthe [pp. 80-91]
This chapter is more theoretical and deals with Bosch’s method and style. The art of Bosch is based on the combination of familiar things, resulting in the creation of something new. Bosch made use of rhetorical stylistic devices such as accumulatio, exemplum, parallellism, opposition, alienation, and neology. According to Fischer, this was a result of Bosch’s Latin school training. Bosch’s devils are grotesque hybrids: from a moralistic point of view, they are the opposite of Christ and of the divine world order. Two drawings with monsters and the Vienna Treeman drawing are discussed in this context. Bosch also used the varying registers which we know from literary texts (high, medium, low). The low register often functions as a parody of the high register, which explains why Bosch’s devils and droleries also have a humoristic aspect. Bosch’s painting and drawing technique was also innovative because he worked in a swift and direct way. In this context, Fischer discusses the two Berlin drawings with The Battle between the Birds and the Mammals that have recently been added to the Bosch catalogue. These drawings show that Bosch’s iconographical repertoire also comprised profane elements.
Das Schmunzeln des Antonius [pp. 92-106]
This chapter deals with the Lisbon St Anthony triptych. The triptych reveals a sound knowledge of St Anthony’s life, based on the Vitas Patrum texts. According to Fischer, Bosch may have read such a text himself, copies of it were available in ’s-Hertogenbosch with the Brothers of the Common Life and in the monastery of the Wilhelmites. Fischer points out several passages from Anthony’s vita that may have inspired details in the triptych. Bosch’s triptych, often imitated in the sixteenth century, offers a new interpretation of the St Anthony theme. Fischer relates the painting to grotesque-absurd literary texts (Mürner, Rabelais, Folengo).
Im (Irr-)Garten der Lüste [pp. 107-128]
A complete chapter is dedicated to the Garden of Delights as well. This triptych is said to have been painted around 1503 and to have been commissioned by Engelbrecht II of Nassau on the occasion of the marriage of his cousin Henry III of Nassau (p. 124). Just as the St Anthony triptych, this painting aims at ‘learning and educating’. The centre panel represents Mankind before the Flood. The black people are the offspring of Cain. The Sicut erat in diebus Noe theme was inspired by the Gospel of Matthew (24, 37-39). The figures and objects in the right interior panel (Hell) refer to Bosch’s own times.
Die Rückkehr der Habsburger oder das Weltgericht [pp. 129-146]
Fisher focuses on the Vienna Last Judgement triptych. This is perhaps the triptych which was commissioned by Philip the Fair in 1504. The saints in the exterior panels, St James and St Bavo, refer to Spain and Flanders. The patron in the lower left corner of the centre panel, only visible in the underdrawing, may be Charles the Bold. In this painting, Bosch’s devils often have a comical effect. To make this more plausible, two letters written by Philip II are quoted. The end of this chapter pays quite some attenttion to Alart Du Hameel.
Höllen und Eremiten für den Markt [pp. 147-160]
This chapter deals with the Bosch paintings that have been located in Venice for ages: the St Ontcommer triptych, the Hermits triptych, and the wings with Paradise and Hell scenes. Perhaps these paintings reached Italy through the international art market. Bosch’s cousin Jan (a son of Bosch’s brother Goessen) was married to a bastard daughter of Lodewijk Beys, one of Bosch’s neighbours who travelled as a pilgrim to Jerusalem several times: this Beys could be the link between Bosch and Venice. Perhaps the Antwerp art market also played a role. After 1500, when his fame had spread abroad, Bosch was more and more in need of assistants. That is why Fischer now focuses on Bosch’s workshop. The only family member that could have been a workshop assistant is Bosch’s cousin Anthonis van Aken, the youngest son of Bosch’s brother Goessen. Goessen’s eldest son Jan was a sculptor. The Bruges Job triptych is a product of Bosch’s workshop. The escutcheons in the exterior panels allow for a link between ’s-Hertogenbosch and Antwerp.
Die Erfindung der Genre-Malerei [pp. 161-184]
Bosch was not a fanatical moralist or pessimist and did not only paint devils and hells. Another component of his art is genre painting, with depictions of daily life representing moral ideas and the teachings of the Church and often revealing a comical note. Probably, this tendency in the art of Bosch is related to the growing Humanist character of the intellectual elite in the Low Countries and in Germany after 1500, also in ’s-Hertogenbosch. Paintings such as The Cutting of the Stone and The Juggler are dominated by the principle of negative self-defining: the viewer is confronted with examples of improper behaviour. Fischer uses the German phrase Negativ-Exempla for this. But with Bosch, the genre-like details keep functioning within an eschatological frame, for example in the Seven Deadly Sins panel (Madrid).
In this context, the reconstructed Pedlar triptych is discussed as well. The triptych shape is pivotal in the art of Bosch, and although Bosch’s triptychs have a religious character, it would be unhistorical to see them as altarpieces by definition. According to Fischer, the (lost) centre panel of the Pedlar triptych probably showed The Wedding at Cana (copies: Rotterdam and a drawing in the Louvre). The pedlar figure in the exterior panels of this triptych (and of the Haywain triptych) is a repentful sinner and symbolises man as a pilgrim of life. In the Rotterdam tondo the pedlar walks toward a red cow that stands for Christ. The aggressive dog is an image of the devil. It is useless to call Bosch’s triptychs profane paintings: even though they were not necessarily sacral cult objects, they still had a religious function.
>>Des Menschen Tage sind wie Grass<< [pp. 185-202]
The Haywain, ‘one of Bosch’s latest works’, confirms the success of Bosch’s innovative pictorial themes with the high nobility. The Christ figure in the upper part of the centre panel shows His wounds, He is both the Man of Sorrows and the Judge of the World. The Escorial Haywain is a copy dating from around 1550. In this chapter, Fischer also discusses the Rotterdam Flood panels. The tondos in the exterior panels probably represent The Temptation and Salvation of Job. Attention is also paid to Bosch’s use of colours. At the end of his life, Bosch’s rich use of colours and the grotesque character of his art diminished (fewer monsters and devils). Bosch’s spiritual message is not based on pessimism but on the desire to show the viewers of his panels the right path to the Hereafter. Bosch died in 1516, possibly due to an epidemic of pleuritis.
Kunst im Namen Boschs [pp. 202-224]
This chapter deals with the imitation and the afterlife of Bosch’s art. The ‘copy, imitation, or forgery’ issue causes a lot of problems. The Bruges Last Judgement triptych is the work of a talented workshop assistant, perhaps the famous discipulo mentioned by Felipe de Guevara. The imitations of Bosch multiplied as soon as his works were also accessible to painters who were not workshop assistants. In the majority of cases, these imitations represent hell scenes and grotesque monsters. Antwerp in particular yielded numerous Bosch followers: Jan Wellens de Cock, Hieronymus Cock, Peter Huys, Jan Mandijn, Peter Bruegel the Elder. Fischer wonders whether the Bruegel family had access to study sheets by Bosch. Philip II and Rudolf II were renowned collectors of the art of Bosch. In Mechelen (Malinois), the Verbeeck family worked in the wake of Bosch. Because of the moral and didactic message and using aesthetic-parodical means, Bosch plays the role of the devil in his paintings, which allowed him to paint delicate things, whereas it is in fact the devil who ‘generates’ the diableries. This can be compared to the role of the fool adopted by Erasmus in his Praise of Folly. Bosch painted moralising, satirical, and grotesque works. Early Spanish authors such as Felipe de Guevara and José de Siguënza were convinced that Bosch’s grotesque creations and monsters served a religious purpose.
Some things that I agree with
Some things that I do not agree with
[explicit 7th June 2019]
Cat. Berlin 2016
Hieronymus Bosch und seine Bildwelt im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert – Für die Gemäldegalerie und das Kupferstichkabinett der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin herausgegeben (Stephan Kemperdick et al.) 2016
[Exhibition catalogue (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie und Kupferstichkabinett der Staatlichen Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, 11th November 2016 – 19th February 2017), Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preussischer Kulturbesitz-Michael Imhof Verlag, Berlin-Petersberg, 2016, 184 pages]
The catalogue of the Hieronymus Bosch und seine Bildwelt im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert exhibition (Berlin, Staatliche Museen) has seven introductory essays and 34 catalogue numbers. For the introductory essays, see Kemperdick 2016, Dyballa 2016, Rössler 2016, Seidel 2016, Bevers 2016, and Lorenz 2016. The seventh essay focuses on Goya’s Capricho 43 print and is less important for the study of Bosch. The major items of the exhibition and of the catalogue are Bosch’s St John on Patmos panel, Lucas Cranach’s copy of Bosch’s Vienna Last Judgement, a copy of the interior panels of Bosch’s Lisbon St Anthony triptych, a copy of the central panel of Bosch’s Adoration of the Magi triptych (Prado), and a copy of the central panel of the Garden of Delights. Except for this last painting, all these works are owned by the Staatliche Museen. Other items are: five Temptations of St Anthony by Bosch followers, eight drawings by Bosch and/or his workshop, a copper engraving by Alart Duhameel, some ten drawings by Bosch followers, and four engravings published by Hieronymys Cock.
[explicit 24th February 2018]
The Art of Laughter in the Age of Bosch and Bruegel (Walter S. Gibson) 2003
[The Gerson Lectures Foundation, Groningen, 2003, 48 pages]
This is the text of a lecture delivered by Gibson at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands) on November 20, 2003. The main subjects of the lecture are the ideas about laughing in the sixteenth century and the humour in the art of Bruegel. Laughter, for example as a remedy against melancholia, was more important in the sixteenth century than some modern authors think. Although the art of Bruegel, for example his Seven Deadly Sins drawings, conveys serious moral messages, it combines these messages with undeniably comical elements. Bruegel was not the only sixteenth-century artist to do so. In spite of its title, this lecture does not focus on Bosch at all. What it does mention, are the numerous sixteenth-century Bosch imitations that were produced in Antwerp. Bosch’s followers seem to be less inclined to warn of sin and its punishment in the Hereafter. Their primary goal seems to be to entertain by creating amusing diabolical figures.
[explicit 29th May 2019]
Jheronimus Bosch – Biografie van een Bosschenaar (Siggi Weidemann) 2017
[Omniboek, Utrecht, 2017, 382 pages]
Because the things that we know for certain about the life of Jheronimus Bosch are quite rare, it is somewhat surprising that someone is capable of writing a biography of 382 pages about this late medieval painter. Obviously, the word ‘biography’ in the title has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Closer to the truth is that this book is an attempt to situate Bosch broadly within the culture of his times and environment. Weidemann does this in 34 chapters, preceded by a prologue.
Unfortunately, this prologue does not make a very good impression. It has quite a lot of obscure sentences and superficial, often pointless statements. An example of this is the following (I translate from the Dutch): ‘Jheronimus Bosch was born at the right spot and at the right time. The Reformation upset the whole world, because it became clear that the world was not only a stage’ [p. 14]. Another example: ‘He [Bosch] created scenes in which there was a lot to see, with a lot of frivolities and exaggerations, which he used to arouse curiosity and certain other feelings as a déjà vu’ [p. 15]. And another one: ‘He was somebody who was obsessed by getting a grip on the unintelligible moment between birth and death’ [p. 16]. Furthermore, when on page 15 we read that a ‘wonderful cathedral’ was built in ’s-Hertogenbosch during Bosch’s lifetime (the St John’s was a church and became a cathedral during the second half of the sixteenth century), and that two giant ears ‘are separated from each other’ by a knife in the right interior panel of the Garden of Delights, this does not really sound promising (to put it mildly) for what is going to follow.
The 34 chapters of the actual text offer quite a lot of correct information, but new insights or formerly unknown things should not be expected. Of course, in itself this is not bad, but more than once the book also offers highly subjective and historically unaccounted for information, which leads to the question whether this is okay for a biography that wants to be taken seriously from a scholarly point of view. I give some examples of this (again translating from the Dutch).
Furthermore, the reader is often (too often, in fact) confronted with obscure sentences which are hard to understand, as was also the case in the prologue. Because the text has quite a lot of linguistic errors, in some (but definitely not all) cases this could be due to the fact that the text was translated from German. A few examples.
Simply wrong are the following statements.
Bottom line: Jheronimus Bosch – Biografie van een Bosschenaar offers the reader a number of correct facts, collected from here and there, but also mixed together clumsily (incoherently) and sometimes erroneously, and showered with a lot of fantasy. As a ‘biography’, this book is highly untrustworthy.
[explicit 20th August 2019]
Jérôme Bosch ou la Fourmilière éventrée (Pierre Sterckx) 2014
[La Lettre volée, Brussels, 2014, 133 pages]
Unfortunately, my opinion (and I suppose that of many other readers) about this little book of the Belgian art critic Pierre Sterckx (1935-2015) cannot be very positive. On page 55 the author writes (I translate from the original French): ‘All the attempts to interpret the art of Bosch have failed because they wanted to lock him up inside some sort of measuring system. But the space of this art does not stop mutating while dividing itself, it is chaotic and not measurable’. This explains the title: The turned-over ant hill. Sterckx seems to have been inspired by a number of modern philosophers and writers (Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Houellebecq) but the only result is 124 pages of uninterrupted, pseudo-intellectual mumbo jumbo making the reader wonder what on earth Sterckx is actually talking about. Sterckx is (was) one of those authors about whom Roger Marijnissen would have said that they are writing about Bosch with a mirror in front of them. Which is to say: they only write about themselves. It is a fact that Bosch’s paintings can hardly be discerned in this pulp of Gelehrtenquatsch (another favourite epitheton – be it not ornans – of Marijnissen). To top it all, in footnote 10 on page 127 Sterckx writes about Marijnissen: ‘qui jouit d’une réputation à mon sens immeritée’ (who enjoys a reputation that is in my opinion undeserved). An arrogant, very tedious and utterly redundant little book. Reading it boils down to a sheer waste of time.
[explicit 31st May 2019]