Cat. Saint-Germain-en-Laye 2016
Tours et Détours de L’Escamoteur de Bosch à Nos Jours (Blandine Landau, Patrick Le Chanu, Pierre Taillefer and Agnès Virole) 2016
[Exhibition catalogue (Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Espace Paul-et-André-Vera, 16th November – 31st December 2016), Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 2016, 52 pages]
At the end of 2016, this small catalogue accompanied a small exhibition focusing on the Boschian Conjurer panel which is preserved in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. It has four short contributions. In L’Escamoteur et son donateur Patrick Le Chanu and Agnès Virole tell something more about the man who bequeathed the panel to the city in 1872, the local notary Louis-Alexandre Ducastel. The painting dates from the sixteenth century and was most likely produced in Brabant (Antwerp). On December 13, 1978 the panel was stolen by the terrorist faction Action Directe. On February 2, 1979 it was regained.
L’Escamoteur est-il toujours une star en 2016? (is The Conjuror still a star in 2016?) is a question that Le Chanu then tries to answer. Most authors concur on the meaning of the panel: a satire on folly and credulity. Currently, the painting is attributed to a talented artist from the first half of the sixteenth century working in the manner of Bosch. According to dendrochronology, the wood may have been painted from 1498 on. Is the painting therefore less worth? In the sixteenth century, good copies were more valued than they are today.
In L’Escamoteur, les copies et le marché Blandine Landau offers an overview of the 18 versions of this Boschian Conjurer known to us today, 15 if we exclude repetitions (see the list on pp. 24-25). Apparently, since her lecture during the Bosch Conference in ’s-Hertogenbosch (April 2016) one new version has turned up.
Finally, in La figure de l’escamoteur de la Renaissance à nos jours Pierre Taillefer offers a concise overview of conjurers that appear in art and literature after 1500. In fact, the motif was already known in ancient Greece.
[explicit 17 April 2023]
Art as history, history as art – Jheronimus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Assembling knowledge not setting puzzles (Stephen Graham Hitchins) 2014
[Nijmegen Art Historical Studies – XXI, Brepols, Turnhout, 2014, 420 pages]
This is the commercial edition of Stephen Graham Hitchins’ (°Rochester, 1949) doctoral dissertation, which was defended at the Radboud University Nijmegen on 27th November 2014. The supervisor (promotor) was professor A.M. Koldeweij. The central thesis of the book, to which the main title refers, is that the works of Bosch (and Bruegel) reflect the political, religious, and economic climate of their time. Yet, no monograph on Bosch (and Bruegel) has ever carried a subtitle more ironical than this one (assembling knowledge not setting puzzles), at least when it is not applied to Bosch (and Bruegel), as the author intends it to be, but to the dissertation itself. To briefly and properly summarise the contents of this book is namely not possible. To assess its value for the study of Bosch (and Bruegel) certainly is, though. In this review, I will only focus on Hitchins’ approach to Bosch.
The Garden of Delights triptych
As a standard, monographs on Bosch can best be judged by what they tell us about the Garden of Delights. As is clearly shown by the style of writing used throughout this book, Hitchins seems to believe that he is an (art) philosopher and even a poet. He may be both, but then (unfortunately) a mediocre philosopher and a minor poet, at least in my opinion. The 25 pages dedicated to the Garden [pp. 135-150] are largely filled with pseudo-intellectual twaddle and conceited fine writing. In order to account for this harsh view, I will quote two passages, so the reader can judge for himself. On page 137 we read (about the male and female figures in the Garden’s central panel):
'The audience may recognise in the characters of this play a persistent and unrealisable pursuit of satisfaction and pleasure and where that might lead. The figures they stare at are mere shadows of time past, suspended moments that can only be possessed in memory, abstractions of past events and personalities, surrogates for lived experience: they are an acknowledgement of absence.'
And page 147 has the following lines:
'In that Bosch was attempting to transcend himself, to overcome his limitations, this work is not merely a reflection of anything, but has become something that transformed the artist and the recipient, unlocking the transcendental potential that resides in us all as he sought to open up his audience to another world.'
Roger Marijnissen liked to call verbal eruptions such as these Gelehrtenquatsch.
The paragraphs which make more sense than these two contain a lot of echoes from Falkenburg’s 2011 monograph on the Garden, including the use of the phrase conversation piece. Hitchins concurs with Falkenburg (and many others) on the interpretation of the central panel as a depiction of sinful lust, and when it is heralded (on the back flap, in the author’s summary, on pages iv and 145) that this central panel has always been misinterpreted, it hardly comes as a surprise that St Augustine (according to Falkenburg one of Bosch’s pivotal sources) and his De Civitate Dei are summoned up as the providers of a new ‘key’. Such a defiant claim raises the hope that finally someone has been able to solve the Garden’s manifold enigmas, based on sound research and convincing arguments. Alas, Hitchins’ new ‘key’ boils down to the following:
'The cycle of history is complete. As Augustine saw evil as a disorder in a good creation, a direct consequence of the misuse of human freedom, so with Bosch; as Augustine argued that evil was the result of human beings attempting to become something they were not, little gods with the power to give and take away the lives of others, so with Bosch. Augustine argued that we cannot diminish the moral responsibility for our actions, and should pray that good may come out of evil. Praying that good may come out of evil is a hard task, but that is the hope embodied in The Garden of Earthly Delights.' [p. 146]
By which Hitchins basically means – if I understand him correctly – that both St Augustine and Bosch brought an optimistic message: they both warned of sin and evil, and through this warning they both wanted mankind to stay away from evil and to follow the good path towards Salvation. Probably, I am not the only reader who had expected a ‘key’ with some more explanatory details instead of this general, albeit correct, observation.
Unfortunately, when the author does offer some rare, more detailed observations regarding Bosch’s painting, a number of them are clearly wrong. The Christ in the left interior panel is not the only figure in the triptych to look back at the viewer [p. 138]. Obscenity and perversions are definitely not absent in the central panel [p. 140]. And the Garden was not located ‘in a room with an enormous bed’ inside Henry III’s Brussels palace in 1517, at least not as far as we know [p. 147].
The reviews of Fischer and Rothstein
Hitchins’ approach to the Garden is confused and confusing, superficial, and at the same time far too categorical. The same is true for the remainder of the text. In his 2015 review of the book, Stefan Fischer points out that this is not ‘a real work of research’ (keine Forschungsarbeit im eigentlichen Sinne), but rather some kind of essay (eine Art Essay) with a philosophical-esthetical (philosophisch-ästhetische) character. He writes:
'Der rote Faden ist die Grundthese, die schon der Titel des Buches deutlich artikuliert: Bosch und Bruegel sammeln das Wissen ihrer Zeit, vor allem das religiöse und allgemein menschliche, in ihrem jeweiligen zeitpolitischen Kontext. Im Vergleich der beiden Künstler sieht Graham Hitchins Bosch als denjenigen, der die Dinge noch fast ausschliesslich aus dem Blickwinkel der Religion wahrnimmt, während er Bruegel für den Realistischen hält, ja fast für einen politischen Künstler.'
[The leitmotiv is the basic thesis which is already clearly announced by the title: Bosch and Bruegel assemble the knowledge of their times, particularly the religious and the universal humane knowledge, within their contemporary political context. When he compares both artists, Graham Hitchins sees Bosch as the one who observes things almost exclusively from the perspective of religion, whereas he considers Bruegel the realistic, almost political artist.]
Fischer is being friendly when he calls Hitchins’ book ‘inspiring’ (anregend), but he also thinks that a lot of patience and effort are needed to discover the connections between all the themes and ideas (man muss schon viel Geduld und Musse mitbringen, um Verbindungen zwischen all den Themen und Materialien herzustellen), and he also points out that the author only rarely focuses on Bosch’s works in detail (relativ selten steigt der Autor in eine detaillierte Deutung von Werken ein).
In his 2017 review, Bret Rothstein is even more friendly. He writes:
'While some may find (his) answers unpersuasive, Stephen Graham Hitchins deserves praise for defining his discipline as an instrument with which to address the world emphatically, rather than as one with which to perform ever-finer sorts of cultural dissection in the service of ever more recondite abstraction.'
He calls the depth of Hitchins’ research ‘striking’, at the same time pointing out that many readers will find the book ‘maddening’, and that ‘it will undoubtedly come in for its share of hammering’ (referring to the colloquial U.S. saying that ‘the nail that stands up gets hammered down’).
It is never a pleasure to ‘hammer down’ a doctoral dissertation, yet in this case it is impossible not to write down the following critical remarks. From the start, the author announces that he will principally focus, as far as Bosch is concerned, on the Vienna Last Judgement, the Lisbon Tribulations of St Anthony, and the Prado Garden of Delights. Isn’t that a bit strange for a monograph on the art of Bosch? And calling the Lisbon triptych The Tribulations of St Anthony, whereas everybody refers to this painting as The Temptations of St Anthony, isn’t that a little bit arrogant?
Hitchins starts from a premise which sounds fair enough: The historical framework that is essential for an understanding of any period of art history is a prerequisite for an examination of Netherlandish art from 1450 to 1550 [p. iii]. And: I have always thought, and still believe, that to comprehend what Bosch and Bruegel were painting, it is essential to have the social, political, and religious context [p. vi]. Yet, in my opinion, the way in which this premise is worked out for Bosch is indeed ‘maddening’. The structure of the book is hopeless, with its accumulation of (often obscure and woolly) titles for each chapter, accompanied by mottos that in most cases do not enlighten what follows and have nothing to do with Bosch but are apparently only intended to demonstrate the author’s widely-read erudition. References to and (often redundant) quotes from other writers (Bosch authors, but also modern novelists such as Proust, Einstein, even Miep Gies, the ‘helper’ of Anne Frank, is mentioned, see p. 157, note 196) are strewn all across the text itself, and so are the omnipresent references to endnotes, in some cases running over half a page or more, in which the reader can easily drown.
And then there is also the style of writing, always partial to the use of difficult words, to hazy formulations, and to endless digressions. It is a perfect example of what in English is called purple prose: ‘Overly ornate prose text that may disrupt a narrative flow by drawing undesirable attention to its own extravagant style of writing’ (Wikipedia). It makes very tiresome reading, and in Art as History, History as Art it does not bring us much closer to Bosch, apart from a few observations that may inspire further discussion (such as the question of whether the art of Bosch is basically of an optimistic or pessimistic nature).
There are definitely far too many words that say far too little in this dissertation, causing a reader’s indigestion. In fact, this is not a book about Bosch. This is a book about an author writing on Bosch while he is looking into the mirror standing on his writing desk. The result is an almost impenetrable stronghold of (pseudo-) scholarship. I am not a fan of this type of Bosch books.
[explicit 1st October 2022 – Eric De Bruyn]
Cat. Budapest 2022
Between Hell and Paradise – The Enigmatic World of Hieronymus Bosch [Bernadett Tóth and Ágota Varga (eds.)] 2022
[Exhibition catalogue (Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts, 8 April- 17 July 2022), Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, 2022]
The lavishly illustrated and attractively presented catalogue of the 2022 Bosch exhibition in the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts (Szépmüvészeti Múzeum). The actual catalogue of items on display is preceded by four introductory essays (see Silver 2022, Pokorny 2022, De Bruyn 2022c, and Falkenburg 2022) and has seven sections with comments by various authors (Bernadett Tòth, Larry Silver, Erwin Pokorny, Nils Büttner, Reindert Falkenburg, Eric De Bruyn, and others). Some of the entries on display in the exhibition are presented without a comment in the catalogue.
Because the large triptychs were lacking, this exhibition was not as rich as the ones in ’s-Hertogenbosch and Madrid (both 2016), but with 16 Bosch originals (11 paintings and 5 drawings), 28 works by followers (18 paintings, 4 drawings, 1 tapestry, 5 engravings), and many other works of art, a visit to Budapest was definitely worthwhile, and so is the information in the catalogue. Because the copy of the Garden’s central panel in a private collection is hard to access, its display in Budapest offered an excellent opportunity to get more acquainted with this highly remarkable painting.
[explicit 6th September 2022 – Eric De Bruyn]
Utopia’s Doom – The Graal as Paradise of Lust, the Sect of the Free Spirit and Jheronimus Bosch’s so-called Garden of Delights (Paul Vandenbroeck – edited by Barbara Baert) 2017
[Art & Religion – 8, Peeters, Louvain-Paris-Bristol (CT), 2017, 345 pages]
This important book (important if only because a number of ideas and interpretations of an important Bosch author are now available in English) only deals with the iconography of the central panel of Bosch’s Garden of Delights triptych. It is an addition to and a partial revision (and translation) of Vandenbroeck 1990a (an article of 193 pages in the annual of the Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts), with lots of new material. The author points out that his analyses of the exterior panels, of the left interior panel, of twelve major details of the central panel, and of the right interior panel have already been published in Dutch (see i.a. Vandenbroeck 1989) or have yet to be published. According to the preface by Barbara Baert and Jan Van der Stock Vandenbroeck’s interpretation method combines ‘art history with cultural anthropology and civilization history in its broadest sense’ [p. 1]. This means that Vandenbroeck’s approach is basically of a cultural-historical nature, a choice that can only be endorsed, as more than 100 years of modern Bosch exegesis have taught us.
I Dreams of boundless pleasure: the medieval folk myth of the paradise of delights or ‘grail’ [pp. 7-48]
In this first chapter (an adaptation of and addition to Vandenbroeck 1990a: 133-140, VDB 1990a from now on) the author elaborately and convincingly argues that from the thirteenth until the sixteenth centuries there was a widespread popular belief in a semi-worldly, semi-supernatural sex paradise (sexual utopia), which was originally called ‘graal’ (not the Holy Grail from Arthurian literature!) and later also ‘Venusberg’ (Mountain of Venus) and ‘mountain of Sibyl’. It was situated inside a mountain (sometimes also on a plain) and was ruled by a fairy or queen who was usually called ‘Venus’ (in particular in the Germanic-speaking countries) or ‘Sibyl’ (in particular in the Romanic-speaking regions), but sometimes also ‘Frau Vrene’, ‘Abondia’, ‘Satia’, ‘Saelde’, ‘the mistress of the game’, or ‘abbess’. In this paradise, one could indulge in sexual pleasures, but those who stayed there longer than one year, could no longer escape from it until Doomsday, and after that ended up in Hell. About fifty allusions to this sexual paradise have been found in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Dutch and German literature. Virtually all contemporary descriptions written by highly-educated (learned, non-popular) authors stress the pagan, sinful and diabolical nature of this imaginary sexual utopia.
That is one thing. Another thing then is that Vandenbroeck argues that in the central panel of his Garden Bosch painted such a graal or false love paradise. Bosch was inspired by popular culture, but approached this popular subject matter from the perspective of the elite culture. In other words: he depicted a false love paradise (graal, Venusberg), but thought of it as something diabolical.
Some questions can be asked regarding the second point. Why should the central panel represent precisely a ‘graal’, when the majority of the textual sources situate this ‘graal’ inside a mountain, whereas with Bosch we see a plain? And where did Bosch represent Venus or queen Sibyl? Could she be the hirsute woman who is pointed at in the lower right corner? Vandenbroeck says nothing about this. Furthermore, we know about other medieval false love paradises. In chapters 40-41 of his Divisament dou Monde (1298-1299), Marco Polo already writes about an erotic pleasure garden near the Caspian Sea. Other Christian sources tell with malicious delight about the sexual paradise promised by Muhammed to his followers. And in his long poem De uure vander doot (The Hour of Death, circa 1516), the Brussels rederijker Jan van den Dale allegorically describes his sinful youth as a wonderful garden in which he meets five charming young ladies (his five senses). Van den Dale calls this garden a dobbel eerts paradijs (false earthly paradise).
II The amoral utopia here and now: the ‘Sect of the Free Spirit’ in the late middle ages and their ‘worldly paradise’ [pp. 49-79]
This chapter offers new material. From the thirteenth till the fifteenth century there were heretical groups in Europa that wanted to create a concrete ‘love paradise’ in real life. These were different movements that can all be brought together under one name: the Sect of the Free Spirit. Its members wanted to reach an ideal life here on earth, wished for absolute freedom and pleasure, speculated about the original status of man in Eden, had fantasies about the end of the world, and were looking for the true identity of God and man. The use of violence was not uncommon. Vandenbroeck explicitly notes the ‘masculinism’ and phallocentrism of these groups, for whom women were merely objects of pleasure and utility. Of course, we know these sects from the writings of Wilhelm Fraenger, the German Bosch author who argued in 1947 and later that Bosch was a member of a Free Spirit sect. It is noteworthy that in this chapter the name Fraenger does not appear, not even in the footnotes (also see infra, though).
The mutual relations between all these heretical groups and their ideas (sometimes differing, sometimes not) are of a complex nature, yet Vandenbroeck points out that the way in which they organized their orgies is strongly remindful of the free love fantasies focusing on the Venusberg and the mountain of Sibyl. Mainly active in the Netherlands and in Bohemia were the homines intelligentiae or Adamites, who wanted to live here on earth as Adam was believed to have lived. They practised nudism, praying and gathering in the nude, and sexual promiscuity, although we know less about the Adamites in the Netherlands than about those in Bohemia. In Bohemia they clearly had revolutionary objectives: they combined extreme sexual libertinism with extreme violence, condemned all ecclesiastical and civil institutions, and rejected the most sacred elements of Catholic doctrine.
During Bosch’s lifetime these heretical Free Spirit ideas were still well-known. These ideas and the popular belief in a ‘Graal’ shared a preference for total sexual freedom, which played an important role in fantasies about both the earliest history of mankind (the period from Adam till Noach) and the end times.
Before we move on to the (much longer) third chapter, some words about the style, the approach, and the method of Vandenbroeck. In chapters 1 and 2, the author has brought together an overwhelming amount of knowledge in an admirable way, based on wide reading, regarding the popular Graal myth and the Free Spirit sects. The well-documented information about the Free Spirit sects in the second chapter will vainly be looked for in the writings of Wilhelm Fraenger, who receives a (be it posthumous) lesson in thorough research from Vandenbroeck here. A problem, though, is the fact that Vandenbroeck largely relies on secondary sources, which are continuously referred to in footnotes but (once again) are so numerous (and sometimes also hard to access) that it is virtually impossible to control and double-check everything that the author writes.
Furthermore, the information gathered from secondary sources is presented to the reader in a very compact and meandering style, which sometimes makes it difficult to follow the argument in a concentrated way. Here and there, the reader would have benefitted from a clearer and more concrete approach (more analyses and examples, less synthesis and fewer concise statements). This goes for both chapter 1 and chapter 2. One example of such a hard to access (modern) book, yet constantly used by Vandenbroeck in chapter 1, is: Philip Barto, Tannhäuser and the Mountain of Venus – A study in the legend of the Germanic paradise, New York, 1916. I have not been able yet to lay hands on it (although I did try). Of minor importance is that the first two chapters, in particular chapter 2, are livened up by a number of illustrations, among them details from the Garden and depictions of naked dancers, of which it is not really clear what they have to do with the running text.
III Utopia dreamed and castigated: Jheronimus Bosch’s Triptych of the Grail or False Love Paradise, commonly called the Garden of Delights (c. 1480-5) [pp. 80-291]
This (long) chapter is a translation of Vandenbroeck 1990a: 11-166, with some small adaptations but sometimes also with major changes. Some authors interpret the Garden’s central panel negatively as a representation of luxuria, according to others we see the innocent joys of (earthly) paradise. Vandenbroeck informs the reader that in 1989 he published an article (Vandenbroeck 1989) in which he focused on twelve details from the central panel. A number of these details could only be interpreted in a negative way, whereas some other motifs alluded (positively) to a paradisaical state. Therefore the conclusion was, so Vandenbroeck writes in 2017, that the central panel cannot have a sheer positive nor a sheer negative meaning.
For Bosch black people, wild men, mermaids, and sea-knights were negative figures. He associated them with an asocial and cultureless life, far from his own (late medieval, bourgeois) society, and with instinctive behaviour, in particular regarding sexuality [pp. 82-106 = VDB 1990a: 11-30]. In the central panel a circle of naked riders is turning around a pond with naked women. The men behave in a wild way because of the women. Their wildness is shown by the fact that they ride animals without reins, which refers to their passions, and by the fact that they move around within a circle turning anti-clockwise, which refers to sinfulness and wrongness [pp. 106-116 = VDB 1990a: 30-43]. The women stand in the centre and the men turn around them, which confirms the medieval (male) idea that woman is en eternal seductress. The visual motif was probably inspired by i.a. representations of morris dancers in which male dancers are circling around a desired woman [pp. 116-121 = VDB 1990a: 43-47].
Dealing with the ‘wild man’ motif, Vandenbroeck also focuses on the hirsute figures in the lower right corner (on pp. 96-100). Here we notice an essential deviation from Vandenbroeck 1990a. In 1990 we read (translated from the Dutch):
'To the hirsute wild people also belongs a couple in a cave in the lower right corner. Since Bax, these have been interpreted as Adam and Eve. (…) Apparently, the humans’ ‘becoming wild’ is traced back to the first couple: it is the result of the Fall of Man for which woman is to blame (Adam is pointing at Eve).'
In 2017 this has become:
'The couple in the cave has been identified since Bax as Adam and Eve. (…) It is questionable, though,whether the ‘wild woman’ in the cave is actually a woman at all.' [pp. 96-97]
And three pages further the figure is suddenly bound to be a man:
'The young wild man with the apple is partially hidden behind a hollow glass cylinder.' [p. 100]
Because in 1990 the figure behind ‘Adam’ was identified as Noach, again following Bax, and the apple was linked up with the Fall of Man, Vandenbroeck’s argument back then was sound: Adam and Noach were the founding fathers of humanity and the central panel represented the period between Adam and Noach. In 2017 Eve is no longer Eve, but Adam is still Adam, Noach is still Noach, the apple is still the apple of the Fall of Man, and the central panel still represents the period Adam-Noach (the Sicut erat in diebus Noe theme). It is clear that the argument is no longer sound in 2017, for who is now this ‘young wild man with the apple’ and why is ‘he’ being pointed at?
The next pages deal with the intermingling of natural and artificial forms and elements in the central panel. In 2017 the author adds that some have related this to alchemy, that he does not believe that Bosch depicted alchemical theories, but that probably some parallels with alchemy may be present [pp. 123-124]. The combination of organic and anorganic elements refers to the sexual and according to Bosch diabolical character of Nature. Nature has been corrupted by man (at the instigation of the devil), because the whole of Nature obeys to God’s laws and commands, except man (since the Fall of Man): mankind does not only have sexual intercourse in order to procreate. How the upper region of the central panel is composed (four ‘buildings’ and a central fountain) is remindful of descriptions of the heavenly and earthly paradise. And yet, Bosch cannot have represented the heavenly paradise here, because too many chaotic and negative things can be observed [pp. 123-156 = VDB 1990a: 47-72].
These pages, which we have very briefly summarized in the above paragraph, make tough reading and sound very abstract and theoretical, although in the end all this does seem to lead to correct general conclusions, at least in my opinion. The ‘heaviness’ of these pages is mainly due to the fact that the author continuously confronts the reader with dry enumerations of textual and in particular visual sources which show similarities to what Bosch painted or may have inspired him, not always showing illustrations of all these (visual) sources. Footnotes do signal where such illustrations can be found, but their number is so large that not many will feel inclined to double-check everything, supposing that this immense secondary literature would be easily accessible, which is not (always) the case. Unfortunately, reading about visual sources that cannot be seen at the same time, is tiresome.
Vandenbroeck argues that a lot can be said in favour of the hypothesis according to which the central panel depicts the Sicut erat in diebus Noe theme (compare Matthew 24, 37-39) and thus mankind before the Flood. By representing sinful mankind from the times of Noach, Bosch wanted to warn the viewer and incite him to a vigilant and more virtuous life. According to medieval sources this period was dominated by the sin of unchastity. Circa 1600 the Sicut erat in diebus Noe theme was very popular in the Low Countries. There is no evidence that Bosch was influenced by astrological and prophetic predictions of the end of the world around 1500 [pp. 157-182 = VDB 1990a: 72-91]. When on page 175 Vandenbroeck suddenly writes: ‘All the same, it is still doubtful whether this really is the subject of Bosch’s panel’ (a sentence lacking in VDB 1990a: 87), the reader is bound to feel confused.
The left interior panel focuses on the idea of marriage (Adam and Eve). According to the author the figures in the lower left corner of the central panel are pointing at the scene with Christ, Adam, and Eve. The Sicut erat and false paradise themes shed a negative light on human sexuality. The author points out that in the Middle Ages God’s order ‘be fruitful and multiply’ was often abused in order to account for licentious sex, whereas actually sexuality should serve as a means of procreation. Bosch’s view on this matter is traditional: marriage was instituted by God in Eden but perverted by mankind [pp. 182-188 = VDB 1990a: 91-98].
In Bosch’s times some people still believed in the function of earthly paradise as some sort of waiting room before Heaven and as the final phase of Purgatory. Bosch painted this in panels in Bruges and Venice, with some details referring to sinfulness and pointing out that these souls have not been fully liberated from their desire for earthly vanities. New is that in 2017 Vandenbroeck thinks that these souls will also have to atone for their sins after the Last Judgment, thus avoiding the problem that in Bruges and Venice the earthly paradise appears within a Last Judgment context, whereas all medieval sources confirm that after Doomsday there will no longer be a Purgatory [see pp. 199 / 201, and compare VDB 1990a: 109]. The plain which Bosch painted in the central panel is not a garden: there is no wall around the plain and it is not cultivated. It is a false paradise in which sexuality plays a pivotal role. The pursuit of lust in the present (and in the days before the Last Judgment) was compared to a similar pursuit ‘in the days of Noach’ and considered a fall-back on uncontrolled, primitive instincts. The scene in the lower part of the central blue fountain (a man touches a woman’s genitals) points out that the central panel is dominated by the idea of sinful lust. The mermaids, the sea-knights, and the phallus-shaped animal in the circle with male riders point out the same [pp. 188-228 = VDB 1990a: 98-129].
The pages 229-237 (in 2017) add new elements to the argument of 1990. This time, Vandenbroeck signals a number of scenes referring to group sex and sodomy. He also elaborates on Lorenzo Valla’s treatise De voluptate, which may have inspired Bosch, and he rebukes those authors who consider the central panel a depiction of a hypothetical paradise, the earthly paradise as it could have been without the Fall of Man.
The pages 237-256 then match VDB 1990a: 140-153. Similarities are pointed out between the Sicut erat theme and the Golden Age topos (the mythical primaeval age of mankind), which was popular again in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The author argues that Bosch (in the Garden) linked life in primaeval times to the Golden Age, but that he (and some of his contemporaries) also associated this Golden Age with sinfulness, in particular with luxuria (unchastity) and with the supposedly sinful life of mankind in the End of Times which ‘just as in the days of Noah’ will believe to live in some sort of paradisaical state. The link primaeval times / End of Times is already present in the quotation from Matthew with the Sicut erat line. Again, these pages (which we have summarized here in a very concise way) testify to an impressive wide reading and knowledge concerning the Middle Ages, but on the other hand the numerous facts and references often burden the argument, making Bosch’s Garden disappear behind the horizon. Anyway, these pages will not be enjoyed by the average reader, and the more specialized reader also has to make an effort.
The pages 257-267 largely correspond with VDB 1990a: 129-140 (which pages have been put in a different place in 2017). The central panel represents a pagan earthly paradise, a ‘Graal’ or ‘Venusberg’ where people can enjoy unbounded sexual pleasure. A Venusberg was not always described as a mountain, it could also be a plain. No depictions of it have come down to us, but archival sources do mention performances of Venusberg celebrations in the late Middle Ages. We do not know any visual or textual sources which are similar to what Bosch painted in the central panel of the Garden, but Vandenbroeck argues that some analogies can be observed in Triumphus Veneris (The Triumph of Venus, printed in 1509), a treatise by the German humanist Heinrich Bebel. The author offers a large summary of this text, which is considered a failure by historians of literature because of the chaotic amount of incorporated material (!). Judging by this summary and with the best will of the world, I myself can discern few or no similarities to Bosch’s central panel.
Meanwhile, we have arrived at the eighth section of chapter II (title: The purpose and patron of Bosch’s Grail triptych). As compared to VDB 1990a: 153-166, the pages 267-291 have been adapted, changed, and expanded in such a way that we are dealing here with new material and as far as the patron is concerned even with a completely new hypothesis. Vandenbroeck rejects Fraenger’s approach: in many places Bosch’s oeuvre shows that Bosch can never have been a member of a Free Spirit sect. The Garden theme comprizes a conglomerate of ideas focusing on the primaeval age, marriage (sexuality) and the End of Times. The manifest main subject is perhaps (!) the Sicut erat in diebus Noah idea: Bosch considered the period from Adam till Noah a (pseudo-) paradisaical age during which mankind interpreted marriage and sexuality in a wrong way (as a means of lust and not of procreation). If this interpretation would prove to be incorrect, Vandenbroeck writes [p. 271], the idea of a false love paradise still remains valid.
It is remarkable how Vandenbroeck after 270 pages or erudite analyses is still keeping his options open, which he already did in 1990: see VDB 1990a: 162-163 where literally the same can be read… The pages 271 and 273 (in 2017) inform us that ‘recent research suggests’ that the Garden was painted in 1480-85 (a footnote explaining that this ‘research’ concerns the dendrochronological and stylistic findings of Bernard Vermet and Peter Klein). In 1990 it was still claimed that the triptych was probably painted in 1503 or 1511 (on the occasion of the first or of the second marriage of Henry III of Nassau). Now we read [p. 273]: ‘This hypothesis has to be rejected’.
The pages 273-291, where the author discusses the potential patron of the Garden, are among the most interesting of the entire book. They have also been written in a clearer style than many preceding passages (because they were written at a more mature age?). With some sound arguments, Vandenbroeck argues that it is not very probable either that Engelbrecht II of Nassau, Henry III’s uncle, was the patron. He then introduces a new hypothesis, again with some sound arguments: Engelbrecht’s wife, Cimburga of Baden, may have commissioned the triptych with Bosch. With the painting she may have wanted to rebuke her husband’s licentious walk of life, and thus the triptych could be considered a ‘marriage mirror sub specie aeternitatis’ after all, but in another way than argued by the author in 1990. Furthermore, Vandenbroeck shows that Cimburga may very well have been aware of the Graal story by referring to the books in her possession, in particular to the Middle German text Daniel von dem Blühenden Tal by Der Stricker. Today, this Daniel is better known as Tannhäuser.
Vandenbroeck also points out a miniature in another manuscript (circa 1449) showing naked men and women flirting with each other between green vines who look like prefigurations of Bosch’s nudes, and among the figures in Bosch’s central panel he spots a man who indeed shows some vague resemblance to the portrait of Engelbrecht in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum. Meanwhile, the author seems to concur with Reindert Falkenburg, who in 2011 argued that the Garden functioned as a ‘conversation piece’ around 1500. Personally, I am very partial to Vandenbroeck’s new hypothesis, even though for now there is no conclusive evidence. I know for sure that long before 2017 I discussed this idea off the record with Jos Koldeweij, and I seem to remember that somewhere in the nineties I also talked about it with Vandenbroeck himself, of course without the nice argument which he delivers here.
IV The repression of physical experience and the rise of new artistic genres. Beauty and/from madness. An existential and aesthetic connection, fifteenth-sixteenth century [pp. 293-314]
In this short and last chapter (with a title that is much too long), which partially harks back to Vandenbroeck’s (Dutch-written) books from 1987 and 2002, the author no longer deals with the Garden’s iconography (what did Bosch paint?) but with its iconology (why did Bosch paint what he painted?). Vandenbroeck thinks that in the Garden Bosch’s fantasy worked in an associative way and that the triptych contains elements referring to dreams, to the ‘topsy-turvy world’, to the themes of folly and madness, and to ideas about uncontrollably proliferating nature. He argues that this shows similarities to contemporary culture (in popular dances, in absurd poetry, in grotesque marginal illuminations, in humanist word play, but also in micro-architecture, in metal work and sculptures, in Gothic polyphony).
Around 1500 aesthetics were dominated by two desires: the desire to imitate and emulate the generative powers of nature in works of art, and the desire to suspend reason through dreams and folly. The context of all this is the late medieval bourgeois culture whose ideas on art were influenced and inspired by lower, popular, ‘subaltern’ cultural layers which at the same time it assessed in a negative way. Thus, folly could lead to beauty. According to Vandenbroeck Bosch did exactly the same: his phantasmagorical, irrational, non-sensical images were often inspired by popular culture, but being a moralist he eventually made these influences fit in with his bourgeois-urban set of values and his Christian message.
Again, the tone of this last chapter is very erudite, compact, and heavy, and only few readers will read it from a to z, let alone understand it. Personally, I also find that here Vandenbroeck sounds as if he can teach the fish to swim and that he often goes too far. In these pages, only the reference to grotesque marginal illuminations seems really relevant to me. In my opinion, the author had better left this last chapter away. The book would then have ended on page 291 with the following nicely phrased passage:
'Although Bosch clearly propounded and fiercely defended a particular set of values throughout his oeuvre, he left scope – in spite of himself – for him to express himself ambiguously and for us to read between the lines. This irreducible paradox makes Bosch a figure not only of half a millennium ago, but also of our own time.'
In the last chapter (and not only there) Vandenbroeck reads a bit too often ‘between the lines’. Meanwhile, it is nice to see that on page 310 Vandenbroeck approvingly refers to Falkenburg’s ‘discovery’ [2011: 88] that the lower part of the Fountain of Paradise in the Garden’s left interior panel shows a ‘grimace’.
Let us first clearly point out that after 2017 no author will be able to write about Bosch’s Garden of Delights without referring to this extremely rich and important book (the same was already true for the article in the Antwerp annual from 1990). At the same time it is also a fact that this monograph contains an abundance of material that stupefies the reader, and because of which the argument sometimes becomes silted up and Bosch himself disappears behind the horizon. Yet, in spite of the high academic purport and in spite of the fact that the author sometimes writes debatable things, one can only observe that here Vandenbroeck is doing at least one hundred times better than many other Bosch researchers. Which is why it can only be applauded that this book is published in English.
Unfortunately, one of the results of the high ‘academic’ purport is that very few authors in the past have felt the need to engage upon a dialogue with Vandenbroeck. This sometimes leads to halfhearted passages such as this one:
'I admit freely that I have not attempted to incorporate, let alone compete with, the magistral contributions of Paul Vandenbroeck to this essential subject, in writings many times the length of the present book' [Schwartz 2016: 240 (endnote 5 to page 233)].
For now, I have only been able to find two reviews of Vandenbroeck 2017. Lynn Jacobs’ review (2018) is positive and superficial (she only points out the book’s meagre illustrations department). Michael Meinhard’s review (also 2018) is less shallow and also more critical, but his summary of Vandenbroeck’s ideas makes a somewhat confusing impression (admittedly, it is not easy to summarize those ideas).
Neither can it go unmentioned that since 1990 not a single Bosch author has been prepared to concur on Vandenbroeck’s proposal to change the Garden’s title into Triptych of the Grail. If I understand Vandenbroeck correctly in spite of the ‘oscillations’ in his argument mentioned above, his interpretation basically boils down to this: thematically the central panel represents the period of mankind before the Flood, whereas the formal depiction was inspired by the false paradise tradition, in particular by the Graal subject matter. Without adducing a long argument here, in my opinion Vandenbroeck’s interpretation is largely correct. I am also convinced that the central panel shows a false love paradise, but I do not see why it should be more precisely a Graal (or Venusberg). ‘Venus mountains’ are not the only medieval ‘false paradises’ known to us. To round off, let us reiterate and stress once more: Vandenbroeck 2017 is indispensable lecture for whoever wants to venture on an interpretation of the (so-called!) Garden of Delights.
[explicit 29th July 2023 – Eric De Bruyn]
Van Wamel 2021
Opdrachtgevers en vroege eigenaren van het werk van Jheronimus Bosch (Marieke van Wamel) 2021
[SPA-uitgevers, Nijmeegse Kunsthistorische Studies – vol. XXVII, Zwolle, 2021, 315 pages]
On 20th September 2021 Marieke van Wamel was awarded her Ph.D. in Art History at the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen. Jos Koldeweij and Ron Spronk were the supervisors (promotor), Matthijs Ilsink was the co-promotor (third supervisor). This is the commercial edition of her dissertation, presented to the reader with an attractive layout. The introduction announces that this study is dedicated to the commissioners and early owners of the art of Bosch, all of them contemporaries of the painter or members of the following generations (up to around 1600) and belonging to three varying social ranks: the urban burgher elite, ecclesiastical institutions, and the high nobility. Almost four pages of the introduction deal with the theories on the reception of (modern) art drawn up by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (died 2002) and the museum curator Edward B. Henning (died 1993). However, in Van Wamel’s book the ideas of these two authors do not seem to play an important role, and it takes until chapter 11 before they are briefly mentioned again. Apparently, this boils down to little more than some academic trimmings.
Academic trimmings have completely disappeared from the rest of this dissertation. Using a very clear style of writing and with a lot of critical sense, Van Wamel analyzes the reception of Bosch’s art in the late fifteenth and in the sixteenth century. As was announed in the introduction, the various social groups are discussed one by one. Chapters 1-4 focus on the burghers. After an introductory chapter on the tradition of the bourgeois devotional portrait, chapter 2 deals with four works of Bosch in which the portraits of unknown patrons were once overpainted: the Ecce Homo panel from Frankfurt (with additional information on the copies), the St John the Baptist panel (Madrid), the Calvary panel (Brussels), and the St Wilgefortis triptych (Venice). Chapter 3 focuses on a number of works in which burghers can be identified through their portraits and/or coats of arms. These works are the Adoration of the Magi triptych in the Prado (with additional notice of some copies), the Ecce Homo triptych from Boston (produced by Bosch’s workshop), the Job triptych from Bruges (another workshop piece), and the copy of the Lisbon St Anthony’s interior panels from Berlin. In these chapters, the author more than once pays special attention to the clothes worn by some of the represented figures and to the wale of fabrics.
Chapter 5 deals with the ecclesiastical authorities, religious institutions, and clerics. The connection of most works discussed here with Bosch can only be derived from entries in chronicles and archival sources. These works were produced for the ’s-Hertogenbosch Church of St John, for the ’s-Hertogenbosch Fraternity of Our Lady, for the Dominican Order, for the Munster Church in Bonn (Germany), and for the Venetian Cardinal Domenico Grimani. There are also a number of works produced by followers of Bosch which have clerical devotional portraits: two wings with a Flagellation of Christ and a Carrying of the Cross (Philadelphia), the Crowning with Thorns panel (Antwerp), some versions of the Wedding at Cana, and the Jesus with the Pharisees panel (Castle Opocno).
The high nobility is the subject of chapters 6-11. This part of the book only uses the word ‘owners’, because in none of the cases it has been attested who were the commissioners of the works discussed here. These owners were mainly members of the Houses of Burgundy, Habsburg, and Trastámara, but also diplomats and advisers who were linked to their courts. Van Wamel’s study makes it very clear that most of these noble owners of Bosch works and their careers were very closely intertwined, so much so that one may readily speak of one or more networks within the early reception of Bosch’s art. In chapters 7 and 8 we read about: the counts of Nassau (Engelbrecht II / Henry III) and their relation to the Garden of Delights triptych,, Philip the Fair and courtier Hippolyte de Berthoz and their relation to the Vienna Last Judgement triptych and the Lisbon St Anthony triptych, the De Guevara family (in particular father Diego and son Felipe) and their relation to the Haywain triptych. Chapter 9 sums up the early owners of Bosch works that have been lost: Margareth of Austria, Mencía de Mendoza, the Van Bronckhorst-Van Boshuysen family, and Damião de Goís. Chapter 10 focuses on works which are attributed to Bosch in inventories of the possessions of noble persons, without us being able to check whether these attributions are correct today. Van Wamel notes: ‘The attribution of paintings to artists by means of inventories is a tricky affair’ [p. 252]. In this chapter we read about Isabella of Castile, Philips of Burgundy-Blatôn, the Van Croÿ family, and Juan Manuel (one of Philip the Fair’s advisers). Chapter 12 rounds off the book with some concluding observations.
Opdrachtgevers en vroege eigenaren van het werk van Jheronimus Bosch (Patrons and early owners of the art of Jheronimus Bosch) is a very praiseworthy book, which is not aiming at the general reader but will be read by most Bosch students with pleasure and attention. Definitely meeting up with a high academic standard, Van Wamel has read through an impressive amount of secondary literature, which resulted in a very handy and welcome survey of what we know or think we know today about the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century reception of the art of Bosch. The biographies of noble Bosch owners and enthusiasts in the third part of the book, for example, are outstanding and bring us closer to the world of Bosch than many other publications on the painter.
Deserving praise is also the fact that Van Wamel does not hesitate to critically comment on other authors, when necessary. On Stefan Fischer’s social positioning of the portrayed patron in the Brussels Calvary, for example [p. 70]. On Hannele Klemmetilä, who incorrectly states that only executioners wore striped clothing in the Middle Ages [p. 71]. On Paul Vandenbroeck, whose claim that Peter Col was tortured by the Duke of Alba because he did not want to reveal the hiding place of the Garden of Delights in the Brussels palace of William of Orange, is questioned by Van Wamel, and rightly so it seems [p. 188]. Even her supervisor Jos Koldeweij does not escape her critical-objective eye, when doubt is thrown on his theory that the St John the Baptist and St John on Patmos panels were meant for the altarpiece of the Fraternity of Our Lady [pp. 64-65 / 162], or when we read on page 206 that ‘some authors’ positioning of Hippolyte de Berthoz as one of the major patrons of Bosch is incorrect, or at least incomplete’.
As far as the debit side of this dissertation is concerned, it could be mentioned that Van Wamel almost exclusively falls back upon existing secondary literature and not on personal archival research for example (even though the way in which this secondary literature has been collected and adopted is admirable). Furthermore, when it comes down to final conclusions (relating to the closer identification of patrons, the original function of some paintings, or the precise role of early owners), we often read ‘maybe’, ‘possibly’, ‘it is probable’, and ‘it is not unlikely’, but this is something to which every reader of books on Bosch has long been accustomed. Other points of criticism are nothing but small faultfindings. On page 48, for example, Pontius Pilate with his judge’s staff in the Frankfurt Ecce Homo is incorrectly called an ‘executioner with stick’ (beul met roede), although on page 54 this same figure is correclty referred to as Pontius Pilate. And when we read on page 225 that the iconography of the Haywain ‘has been thoroughly analyzed in many publications’, whereas the accompanying endnote does refer to Vandenbroeck 2002 but not to De Bruyn 2001a (a dissertation dealing with precisely this topic), this seems – said in all (false?) modesty – a bit strange.
Unfortunate, though, and not exactly small faultfindings, are the typing errors, incorrect grammar, and not-corrected textual inaccuracies, which (admittedly) do not appear on every page but do show up constantly throughout the book, something one does not expect when dealing with a doctoral dissertation. Nevertheless, and in spite of these flaws, no one who wishes to write or speak about the early reception of the art of Bosch in the future will be able to ignore Van Wamel’s study.
[explicit 20 April 2022]
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]