Jheronimus Bosch Art Center

Hieronymus Bosch's So-called Prodigal Son Tondo: The Pedlar as a Repentant Sinner

De Bruyn 2001c
De Bruyn, Eric
Genre: Nonfiction, art history
Uitgave datum: 2001
Bron: Jos Koldeweij, Bernard Vermet and Barbera van Kooij (eds.), "Hieronymus Bosch - New Insights Into His Life and Work", Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen-NAi Publishers-Ludion, Rotterdam, 2001, pp. 132-143
ISBN: 90-5662-214-5

De Bruyn 2001c


“Hieronymus Bosch’s So-called Prodigal Son Tondo: The Pedlar as a Repentant Sinner” (Eric De Bruyn) 2001

[in: Jos Koldeweij, Bernard Vermet and Barbera van Kooij (eds.), Hieronymus Bosch. New Insights Into His Life and Work. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen-NAi Publishers-Ludion, Rotterdam, 2001, pp. 132-143]


The Bosch tondo in Rotterdam was interpreted as a depiction of the Prodigal Son by Gustav Glück in 1904. In 1926 Ludwig von Baldass was the first to disagree with this interpretation. After the Second World War and especially after the 1967 Bosch Exhibition in ’s-Hertogenbosch the Prodigal Son interpretation has almost completely disappeared: it was replaced by interpretations which see the protagonist as a pedlar or wayfarer and as a homo viator (man undertaking the pilgrimage of life). It is remarkable, though, that the interpretation of the tondo is still in an impasse: some authors view the protagonist in a negative way as a sinner, others view him in a positive way as weak man penitently abjuring sin and still others adopt a neutral stance, interpreting him as man who is unable to choose between good and evil. The same is true for the similar protagonist on the closed wings of the Haywain triptych (known to us in two versions: Prado and Escorial).


In order to resolve this iconographical impasse it is essential to determine the identity of the two protagonists: they are pedlars. In the literature and art of the Netherlands around 1500 pedlars often had a negative, sinful image. But pedlars could also have a positive image and this is something that has gone unnoticed in the literature about Bosch. Furthermore, in some cases the pedlar has an ambiguous image: he is then presented as a negative, sinful character who repents after some time. The basic thesis of this contribution is the following: only a meticulous analysis of the ‘pedlar-stick-dog’ chain of images can provide a reliable answer to the question of how Bosch evaluated the figure of the pedlar.


It is very likely that the aggressive dogs in Rotterdam and Madrid were meant by Bosch as metaphorical depictions of the devil. This is not only made plausible by the dogs’ diabolical appearance (especially in the case of the dog on the closed wings of the Haywain) and by the reddish colour of their fur, but also by Middle Dutch literature. It can be derived from frequently recurring, similar textual passages or topoi that dogs could metaphorically refer to the devil, that barking dogs were compared to the devil who tries to lure mankind into sin and that being bitten by a dog could symbolize indulging to the devil’s temptations. The cloth at the pedlar’s leg in Rotterdam probably signals that this figure has been bitten by a dog in the past, and so: has sinned. The fact that the pedlars in Rotterdam and Madrid try to keep the aggressive dog at a distance with a stick, means that that they don’t sin anymore and so: that they are repenting. Here Bosch may have had in mind a proverbial expression that frequently occurs in Middle Dutch texts from the fifteenth and sixteenth century: al zijdij gebeten, ghij en zijt niet ghegheten (though you have been bitten, you have not been eaten), meaning that even though one has sinned, one can always show remorse and repent.


That Bosch’s pedlars are sinners, is further demonstrated by the basket on their back: in Middle Dutch literature around 1500 this object could metaphorically refer to the sins man has gathered in the course of his life and now has to carry with him. That we are dealing with repentant sinners is shown by the stick with which the dog (the devil) is being kept at a distance and by the ‘looking back’ gesture the pedlars are making: in Middle Dutch literature a stick was a topical reference to the hope for God’s mercy on which the sinner can trust, and ‘looking back’ could mean that a person is meditating on his past sins and wants to repent. The grey hair of Bosch’s pedlars can be linked to the ‘sinful youth’ topos: man is inclined to sin when he is still young and healthy, but when he is getting older and weaker he wants to repent. In Rotterdam the pedlar is carrying a hat in front of him: this can be interpreted as a depiction of the edifying topos voorhoedig zijn or met voorhoede handelen. Literally: to act with the hat in front, but in a figurative sense: to be on the alert for the devil’s wiles. The analysis of the ‘pedlar-stick-dog’ chain of images thus shows that Bosch’s pedlars are ambiguous characters: in the past they have sinned (which is why they have some negative features) but now they have repented and so they are essentially positive characters, more precisely: repentant sinners.


In the past the tavern in the background of the Rotterdam tondo has already been interpreted as a brothel. It is more than likely that this brothel refers to the sinful past of the pedlar. In several rederijkersspelen (rhetoricians’ plays) from the sixteenth century the life of sinful, weak man is represented in an allegorical way as a battle against the World, the Flesh and the Devil. In these plays the World and the Flesh are often represented by a brothel scene or by a scene with prostitutes. Probably the brothel was meant by Bosch as an allegorical depiction of the battle against World and Flesh, whereas the aggressive dog is referring to the Devil. On the closed wings of the Haywain the World and the Flesh are represented by means of a robbery scene and a dancing couple.


The protagonists of the Rotterdam tondo and of the closed wings of the Haywain triptych don’t represent the Prodigal Son, but humble pedlars who are allegories for sinful but repentant mankind. The edifying message Bosch wanted to convey in this way does not really differ from the message of the well-known parable, which probably explains the confusion of some earlier authors. As a matter of fact, Bosch’s pedlars were not unique: a late-fifteenth-century misericord in the Grote Kerk in Breda (The Netherlands) also represents a pedlar shooing away a dog with his stick.


This contribution partially summarizes De Bruyn’s doctoral dissertation (see also De Bruyn 2001a) in which he offers an iconological approach of Bosch’s Pedlar tondo and Haywain triptych, mainly (but not exclusively) by means of topoi from Middle Dutch texts.



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