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Alchemical Imagery in Bosch's "Garden of Delights" Triptych

Dixon 1980
Dixon, Laurinda S.
Genre: Nonfiction, art history
Aantal pagina's: 423
Uitgever: Ph. D. Dissertation, Boston University Graduate School, 1980 (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1980)
Uitgave datum: 1980

Dixon 1980


Alchemical Imagery in Bosch’s Garden of Delights Triptych (Laurinda S. Dixon) 1980

[Ph. D. dissertation, Boston University Graduate School, 1980 (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms, 1980), 423 pages]

[Also mentioned in Gibson 1983: 87 (E87)]


This is the dissertation of the American art historian Laurinda Dixon, who (A.D. 2004) is professor of art history at Syracuse University (New York).

Because this is a dissertation, I have to get something off my chest rightaway. In the Acknowledgments the name of the Bruges Gruuthuse Museum is spelled as ‘Gruithaus Museum’. Is this acceptable in a doctoral text? At the same time it is a symbolical confirmation of the arrogance and disdain of many foreign, in particular also American, Bosch scholars: they don’t master the Dutch cultural-historical context of Bosch, but can’t wait to present their own, often headstrong, approach of Bosch. Whether this is also true for Dixon’s dissertation, will be thoroughly checked out below.


Introduction [pp. 1-34]


Dixon states that in the past a number of art historians have already recognized alchemy as a possible source of some of Bosch’s images. She mainly refers to Van Lennep, who worked in the wake of Combe. Dixon then announces that she wants to continue Van Lennep’s approach by suggesting an all-round alchemical ‘programme’ for the Garden of Delights triptych. She will do this by relating Bosch to illustrations from medieval alchemical and pharmaceutical treatises that Bosch may have known. These illustrations cannot be properly understood without referring to the theories and allegories that accompany them.


Alchemy was the art of transmuting base substances into pure matter and its goal was to create life artificially and prolong it by stopping the natural aging of an organism. From the fifteenth century on more emphasis began to be placed on the practical aspects of the alchemical work, in which the concocting of medicines by doctors and pharmacists played an important part. In this respect Bosch scholars have overlooked the fact that Bosch’s family included pharmacists as well as painters.

In the accompanying footnote 7 this statement sounds less assertive: there we only read that the grandmother of Bosch’s wife was a pharmacist’s daughter. After reading this footnote the sentence ‘this fact establishes a link to the science of alchemy very close to Bosch’ [p. 4] suddenly sounds far less convincing. From the ’s-Hertogenbosch archival sources we know that this grandmother of Bosch’s wife was called Aleid (just like Bosch’s wife herself) and that she was indeed the daughter of pharmacist Gerit Jan Zebrechts, as can be checked in Van Dijck 2001a: 45/158 (document dated 17th August 1459). Apart from this Gerit Jan there is no further trace of pharmacists in Bosch’s family or with his in-laws, which obviously weakens Dixon’s argument to a large extent.


Hundreds of illustrated alchemical manuscripts (dating from early Arabic to modern times) exist today in collections all over the world: the problem for the researcher is the great multitude of information, not the lack of it. A particular manuscript source that could have influenced Bosch has not yet been isolated but the possibility remains that Bosch could have been familiar with some of them. So what, the reader is inclined to think, because such a statement is not very telling, let alone that it would prove anything.


Dixon then sums up the names of a number of important fifteenth-century alchemists [pp. 8-9] that Bosch may have known and further tries to make the link between Bosch and alchemy plausible. By signalling, for example, that Gerard Groote, the founder of the Modern Devotion, was a doctor and a former alchemist. The library of the Louvain university housed alchemical treatises and that is how Bosch, who was a part of the intellectual life of his home town (strongly influenced by the Modern Devotion), may have come into contact with alchemical works.


Alchemy used a symbolic and secret code language and pulled statements of the Ancients out of context. For this reason medieval alchemical literature is particularly profuse. Within the history of alchemy the fifteenth century was a time of intellectual stagnation: old sources were collected, printed and endlessly quoted and emphasis was put on the distilling of a healing elixir of life, no longer on the process of making gold. There was also an important Christian element: the alchemical work had to be devoted to God and so in the fifteenth century it had nothing to do with occult superstition (not until the seventeenth century when the science of alchemy began to be separated into the occult philosophy of Rosicrucianism and the practical science of chemistry as we know it). In Bosch’s time the domains of pharmacy, medicine, chemistry and astrology were not so demarcated.


Nevertheless, apart from the serious scientists there was also a large group of charlatans who gave alchemy a bad name. An echo of this could be heard in popular literature. Examples of this are Chaucer’s Canon Yeoman’s Tale and Sebastian Brant’s Das Narrenschiff. In Bosch’s time there were two kinds of alchemists, the charlatans and the true scholars. These true scholars compared their work with God’s creation of the world and divided the alchemical process into steps.

  • First stage: ‘conjunction’ or a marriage of opposites. Sulfur and mercury were joined in a ‘chemical marriage’ and allowed to produce ‘children’.
  • Second stage: ‘multiplication’ of the elements: the mixture of substances in heated flasks. This was sometimes likened to ‘child’s play’.
  • Third stage: ‘putrification’ or the rotting and blackening of substances. This was compared to death, hell and the end of the world.
  • Fourth stage: ‘resurrection’ or washing and whitening of the putrefied material in a round retort. The pure material settled in the bottom of the glass.

This alchemical distillation process was conceived as being cyclical and self-perpetuating.


Although so far Dixon has failed to make a reasonable case for a link between Bosch and alchemy, she suddenly suggests that the structure of the Garden of Delights triptych concurs with the alchemical allegory which sees distillation as the cyclical creation and destruction of the world. The left interior panel is said to depict the ‘chemical marriage’ as the marriage of Adam and Eve, the ‘multiplication’ (of Adam and Eve into the peoples of the earth) can be seen in the central panel, the right interior panel (hell) parallels the stage of ‘putrification’ and the washing of the elements is represented in the exterior panels. What immediately strikes the reader is that the exterior panels – the first panels that should be looked at within the triptych’s ‘normal’ chronological programme – end up last in Dixon’s analysis. Not a firm basis for her hypothesis, to say the least. In the next chapters she focuses on these separate parts of the triptych one by one.


Chapter I : Conjunction : the marriage of opposites and the joining of Adam and Eve [pp. 35-64]


In alchemical treatises the ‘conjunction of opposites’ was commonly represented as the joining of the two sexes, and sometimes as the joining of Adam and Eve. Practically speaking, the union was achieved by a mixture of materials containing the four elements in a gentle water bath. The imbalance of humors had to be restored into the normal ratio of wet, cold, hot and dry qualities, eventually resulting in a transmuting agent that could change ‘sick’ metals into gold and heal human bodies on contact. This ‘elixir’, sometimes called the ‘Lapis’ or ‘Mercurius’, was compared to Christ. Dixon then categorically suggests: ‘The story of the chemical marriage in religious disguise is told in Bosch’s Garden of Delights triptych, where it is celebrated in the “Joining of Adam and Eve” wing’ [p. 36].


This requires some time for reflection. Apparently, the alchemical ‘conjunction’ can be symbolized by Adam and Eve. But does that imply that every depiction of Adam and Eve is bound to symbolize a ‘conjunction’? Alchemy definitely uses religious symbolism but does this mean that every religious image has an alchemical nature? Obviously, the answer is: no. There are more examples of Hineininterpretierung in Dixon’s text, for example when she relates the blushing face of Bosch’s Christ to the red, glowing colour of the healing ‘Lapis’ (the philosophers’ stone), when she compares the way Christ is holding Eve’s hand to fifteenth-century doctors taking someone’s pulse, and when she interprets the circle on the brooch clasping Christ’s robe as the alchemical symbol for gold (gold was compared to Christ in alchemy). Arguments such as these are not really convincing.


Dixon says that according to alchemical legends Adam was the first adept of alchemy, but God took the secret of the art away from him. But Adam had engraved the secret knowledge on two tables of stone and after the Flood one of these was found by Moses. According to Dixon Christ is instructing Adam and Eve in the secret knowledge in the left interior panel. A categorical statement. And if this were the case at all, why didn’t Bosch depict the two tables of stone?

The three-headed bird just beneath Christ’s feet recalls the alchemical phoenix in that it has three heads, symbolizing the Trinity. An interesting idea?


The tree to Adam’s right (a dragon tree or dracaena draco) is the Tree of Life, the palm tree with a snake curling around it is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the apple trees next to it provide Adam and Eve with nourishment. Bosch copied the three kinds of trees from Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), where they accompany the scene of the Fall of Man, but he gives more importance to the dragon tree and added a snake to the palm tree. Medical and pharmaceutical theory can explain this. The red sap of the dragon tree was made into a rare drug. Bosch’s dragon tree serves as host for a vine with bunches of reddish and white grapes, alchemical symbols of the Elixir of Life. Furthermore, grapes (wine) were transmuted into Christ’s blood during the Eucharist. In this sense, the dragon tree to Adam’s right refers to Christ and his role as universal healer. The palm tree to the right is a ‘Phoenix Palm’, which was believed to have a sex: there had to be both a male and a female tree to bring about reproduction. Thus it refers to (the sexual nature of) the Fall of Man, which is also confirmed by the snake and by the rock shaped like a monstrous human profile, ‘perhaps representing the image of Satan in Eden’ [p. 46]. Here Dixon offers some interesting ideas, although these ideas don’t have to be related to alchemy in a direct way.


The Fountain of Life resembles alchemical tree fountains representing the ‘fountain of science’, the source of all (alchemical) knowledge. The owl (the exact center point of the panel) is the bird of (alchemical) wisdom. The pearls and the mud at the fountain’s base refer to the prima materia, the base of the alchemical work.


According to Dixon the animals in the pool in the foreground are derived from the Hortus sanitatis or from its Middle Dutch version Der dieren palleys, a combined bestiary and medical treatise that was printed several times in the fifteenth century. These animals refer to the theory of ‘spontaneous generation’. Dixon’s determinations of the unusual animals are vague and superficial, though, and these creatures can also be found in other, ‘normal’ bestiaries (emoris, flying fish, combination of sea horse and aqueous winged unicorn). More interesting is the presence of a ‘sea monk’ both with Bosch and in the Hortus sanitatis but Dixon carries things too far when she writes: ‘The fact that the sea monk is reading points to the state of wisdom that existed before the fall of Man’ [p. 50]. Very striking, though, is the similarity of Bosch’s cat and mouse to the cat catching a mouse in the Hortus (edition Strassbourg, 1490, see Dixon’s illustration 31). There are more aggressive animals in the left interior panel and these signs of violence are interpreted as the beginning of the alchemical putrification stage or nigredo, which began with the conjunction of opposites.


The black birds flying up in the background and turning white when they come down, are alchemical foul gasses becoming cleansed during the distillation process. The mountains and ‘houses’ (the weird shapes) are alchemical furnaces. The ‘egg’ refers to the alchemical vessel with the same name in which the transmutation of the prima materia took place. These may be interesting ideas with regard to Bosch’s fantasy.


At the end of this chapter Dixon’s (important) conclusion is: ‘Though Bosch populates his scene with images that have dual Christian/scientific functions, some can only be understood in alchemical context’ [p. 54, underlined by me]. Is this indeed true for i.a. the birds in the background and the dragon tree with grapes? Are there only alchemical images that are similar to these motifs? If this were the case, Dixon would have a strong argument and at least a partial explanation for the left interior panel of Bosch’s triptych. But in this book Dixon does not provide the reader with fully convincing visual sources for those birds and for the dragon tree with bunches of grapes.


Chapter II : Multiplication : the Garden of Eden as a testament to perfect health [pp. 65-126]


The people in the central panel seem to be playing innocent games like children, nothing proves that they are sinners. This makes an alchemical interpretation plausible. The central panel represents the alchemical stage of conjunction resulting in the multiplication of the prima materia. In practical laboratory language this means that the mixtures of diverse substances are happily and playfully fermenting and bubbling in a flask. Allegorically, this stage was known as ‘child’s play’, when the elements joyfully couple in imitation of ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’. In alchemical images this stage was often illustrated by means of numerous exalted naked figures or playing naked children.

A consideration. The two illustrations (45 and 46) Dixon publishes here only show naked children at play. If Bosch’s central is indeed intended to represent the alchemical ‘child’s play’, why then don’t we see even a single child? This seems to be a weak point of Dixon’s argument.


Dixon poins out that the alchemical marriage of opposite elements agrees with God’s command ‘be fruitful and multiply’ but that Bosch’s central panel also alludes to bawdy old Dutch slang and folklore as interpreted by Bax. Obviously, Dixon does not want to commit herself here: when she is unable to explain certain details, Bax is being sent for. How these erotic allusions to language and folklore concur with alchemy, she doesn’t explain. Bosch’s central panel also reflects many of the preventive measures prescribed by fifteenth-century doctors for aging, plague and fevers: the people in Bosch’s Garden are swimming, bathing, rowing, horse-riding and enjoying themselves.


But then Dixon introduces a stronger argument: some of the remarkable objects and buildings in the central panel can be identified as slightly distorted alchemical apparatus, such as furnaces, retorts and flasks.

  • The shape of the blue fountain in the upper part of the panel combines the retort called ‘marriage chamber’ with two other allegorical representations of the ‘marriage chamber’: the Philosopher’s Tree and the Chemical Fountain. It has to be admitted that in this case there is indeed a certain similarity to alchemical apparatus. In this way, Bosch’s middle fountain symbolizes the multiplication of Adam and Eve’s offspring (= the fermentation following the joining of opposite elements). Images of the alchemical ‘marriage chamber’ often show a naked, mating couple and at the bottom of Bosch’s fountain a man and a woman are engaged in erotic activities. Alchemical images also show people performing acrobatic tricks and in Bosch’s panel some people do handstands forming ‘V’ shapes with their legs: an allusion to the ‘V’ stage of the alchemical process (according to Raymond Lull).
  • The crystal ball with a love couple in it (lower left) is also a ‘marriage chamber’. This crystal or glass ball looks like an alchemical glass flask.
  • The column with glass head (in which we see two birds) in the lower right is very similar to a ‘bain Marie’. The illustrations Dixon publishes seem to put her in the right again.
  • The central panel has more shapes that remind us of alchemical apparatus: i.a. the glass retorts and the ‘cucurbit’ (some sort of melting pot) (lower center).



And then a crucial sentence [p. 78]: ‘None of these objects actually fulfills its practical function: rather, they serve as toys for the children of Adam and Eve, attesting to the frivolous character of the particular stage of the work known as “child’s play”’. A number of the shapes and buildings in Bosch’s central panel do indeed remind us of alchemical apparatus. But in each of these cases Dixon offers a detailed explanation of how these things work within the alchemical process, and that is where it goes wrong. Bosch’s basic message in this triptych has nothing to do with alchemy and so all this information about how alchemy works is in fact unnecessary. The proof: these recognizable shapes don’t fulfill their actual function. Dixon says so herself. For some (as yet to be discovered) reason Bosch put allusions to alchemy in his central panel, but apparently this was done in a rather haphazard way. Probably, Bosch’s imagination was stimulated by alchemy, not to provide his triptych with an alchemical programme but to create weird shapes and perhaps also for a reason concerning content, which we do not fully understand yet (something like: the people of the First Age, between Adam and Noach, had a profound knowledge of secret sciences such as alchemy, knowledge that was lost because of the Flood…).


Other details are also said to agree with the ‘health garden’ function of the central panel. The red spheres refer to the Elixir of Life (the philosophers’ stone) bringing health and joy of life and in medical texts strawberries, cherries, apples, blackberries and melons were praised for their healing characteristics as well. Even the thistle was praised, i.a. as an aphrodisiac. Precious and semi-precious stones (see for instance the ‘buildings’ in the background) were used as drugs in Bosch’s time. The central panel also has some ‘structures’ that look like alchemical furnaces and the ‘red tent’ construction looks like a triangular ‘helmet’, also some kind of alchemical furnace.


Furthermore, we see numerous animals and birds: they all have medicinal virtues. On the exact center point of the central panel Bosch has put an egg [p. 92]! The importance of the four temperaments to the making of medicines is illustrated by the group of four in the lower right corner: the negro refers to the melancholy humour, the blonde person to the phlegmatic humour, the gesturing man to the choleric and the woman to the sanguine humour. The entire body of this last person is covered with hair, a typical characteristic of the sanguine type, and a remedy for this was the eating of oranges: and indeed, an orange is attached to the lady’s hair. This is again one of Dixon’s keen observations signalling that her approach should not be completely ignored, in particular when certain details are concerned. By representing the four temperaments in his garden Bosch points out that the Fall of Man has taken place: only Adam and Eve before the Fall of Man were perfectly in balance, later the humours were out of balance and sickness came into the world. Dixon also signals the colour combination black-white-red that can be seen several times: because the alchemist did not know how to measure heat, he had to pay attention to the changes of colour during the Work, and the sequence of those changes was indeed black-white-red.


The central panel represents the stage of multiplication by means of a garden that is focused on procreation and health. The next stage of putrefaction or ‘nigredo’, under the influence of Saturn and melancholia and seen as negative, will dominate the right interior panel but is already announced in the central panel. This is being done by the numerous black people (see, for instance, the negro in the lower right with two bunches of grapes, a white one and a red one, that are connected with a red ball on the negro’s head: the result of the joining of opposites is the ‘nigredo’ and this further leads to the Elixir of Life), by the owls, the hoopoo, the mermaids and the merknights: they are all symbols of putrefaction and evil. All these things refer to the Saturnine influence necessary to cause putrefaction during the transmutation process. The crescents refer to the dominance of the moon during this process.


All in all, Dixon has analyzed the entire central panel without spending even one word on the two men and one woman in the lower right corner (according to us a crucial detail for a proper understanding of the triptych).


Chapter III : Putrification: the hell of Saturn [pp. 127-171]


Why should those sweet ‘children’ of Bosch’s central panel have to end up in hell? Only an alchemical approach can answer that question. The right interior panel represents the stage of putrificatio (putrefaction), the third important step of the alchemical Work during which the ingredients are almost ready to produce the Elixir: they only have to be ‘punished’ in a hot furnace, before the purified substance can appear (the fourth and last stage). According to Dixon Bosch’s right interior panel is dominated by Saturn and melancholy. During the stage of putrefaction the alchemist was threatened by attacks of melancholy (under the influence of the planet Saturn) and the remedy for this was listening to stringed instruments. This explains the presence of these instruments in Bosch’s hell. Obviously, this is a very weak argument, because these instruments clearly have a negative meaning: their function is to torture. Furthermore, we do not only see stringed instruments in the right interior panel.


The body of the so-called Treeman is a broken egg, a well-known alchemical symbol. At the bottom this Treeman is blackish-blue (actually mainly blue, not black…), his middle is white and at the top he is red (the bagpipe): the three alchemical colours referring to the heat of the cooking substance. The bagpipe refers to an alchemical instrument that was called cornamuse. This instrument had to rest on a flat disk: Bosch’s bagpipe is resting on a flat round disk. The ladder refers to the alchemical ladder with eight rungs symbolizing the eight divisions of the Work. But Bosch’s ladder does not have eight rungs… Bosch’s Treeman, or Alchemical Man as Dixon calls him, refers to the stage of putrefaction, both sought after (as an intermediary stage leading to the Elixir) and feared by alchemists (because the alchemists often failed in their quest for the Elixir). But it were only the charlatan-alchemists that suffered from the evil Saturnine forces and from melancholy during this stage. The Alchemical Man symbolizes these fake alchemists. Saturn was also associated with lepra, which explains the bandage on the Treeman’s leg. The big devil in the potty-chair is Saturn, who was often represented with a hawk’s head sitting on a throne.


As a whole this is a very weak chapter. The things Dixon says about the musical notation, the musical instruments and the knives are not even worth mentioning. Except the following: the dismembered foot in the bottom right corner is said to refer to the alchemical expression ‘the cutting of the foot’ (= the fixing of mercury) and the heart pierced with a knife is supposed to be a well-known alchemical symbol referring to the violence of the putrefaction stage. Dixon’s interpretative urge often takes things too far in this chapter: the knight who is being attacked by hell hounds, for example, is said to be a symbol of the cleansing of gold during which the impurities are ‘devoured’ and the chalice with a host in his hand is said to be the Holy Grail, a symbol of the Stone. Typical statements like the following put her in the wrong: ‘Although many vices are depicted, such as gambling, overeating, etc… the most prominent objects represent music and alchemy’. But about this gambling and overeating Dixon says nothing, because that does not agree with her approach. Whereas in details like these it is very obvious that Bosch simply painted the punishment of sinful people in hell, without alchemical mumbo jumbo.


Chapter IV : Purification: the exterior [pp. 172-184]


The alchemical Work is based on a permanent cyclic repetition of coniunctio, multiplicatio, putrificatio and finally ablutio (ablution = the washing and separation of heavy and light elements within the egg vessel, which took place just before the final transmutation, with the colour changing from black to grey and then to white), a stage that is represented in Bosch’s exterior panels. This meant that the last step of the cyclic distillation process was also the first one and this last/first step stands for the final creation of a new and perfect world in which man would become immortal. Imitating God the alchemist hoped to find the secret of creating life. In alchemical texts the stage of ablution was referred to as the Flood, and this agrees with the views of Lindberg and Gombrich who see references to the Flood in the exterior panels. Unfortunately these views have proven to be erroneous, so Dixon’s reference to the Flood in this context boils down to nothing. Here again, it looks like Dixon is trying to cover herself by concurring as much as possible with other authors, thus making her own (far-fetched) interpretations more plausible. In alchemical treatises the stage of ablution is represented by a barren, water-logged landscape devoid of all living things, nestled within a round glass flask. In this respect, Vandenbroeck has signalled that these flasks are always open at the top whereas Bosch’s firmament is closed. Bosch’s triptych thus refers to both the Biblical past and the ideal future. The transparant sphere in the exterior panels looks like the alchemical ‘egg’: a round laboratory instrument often made by fitting together two hemispheres. The curved white strokes don’t indicate a rainbow, but are reflections of the light.


Eventually, Dixon has analyzed the exterior panels without saying anything essential about the quotation from the Psalms. A crucial methodological error.




Dixon has interpreted the Garden of Delights according to medieval alchemical, medical and pharmaceutical tradition and believes to have found the deeper meaning of the triptych: the holy quest for a universal medicine capable of creating a new Eden. The alchemists equated the stage of conjunction with the marriage of Adam and Eve, the stage of multiplication with the multiplication of Adam and Eve into the peoples of the earth, the stage of putrefaction with the punishment of sins and the stage of ablution with the redemption of mankind. Dixon then surveys the triptych’s panels once more and points out that each of them can be related to a stage of the alchemical transmutation process. Regarding the right interior panel she writes: ‘It is very possible that Bosch experienced visions induced by a drug given in good faith for the treatment of some illness’ [p. 198].


Books and manuscripts about alchemy were certainly available to Bosch. In the fifteenth century alchemy was a popular pastime and a respected form of knowledge. Dixon’s alchemical approach does not exclude other approaches. Alchemy was an all-embracing philosophy and that is why Bosch’s triptych can also be interpreted with the help of Christian religion, sociology, Netherlandish proverbs, witchcraft and astrology and even Freudian dream symbolism [p. 208]. Reading this last remark, we are no longer with the author and it seems that here Dixon does not want to commit herself. The remaining part of Dixon’s book has 165 illustrations, a handy appendix with short biographies of medieval (mainly alchemical) authors that have often been mentioned in the text, a bibliography and a curriculum vitae.


Some considerations about Dixon’s all-round interpretation of the Garden of Delights. Bosch is said to have painted some sort of alchemical course-in-images. For whom and why? Were Henry III of Nassau or Engelbert II of Nassau interested in alchemy? Dixon writes nothing about the function and destination of the triptych. As a matter of fact, what was the use of such an alchemical triptych? Why was this alchemical dimension not recognized by the oldest sources about Bosch that we know? Why does Dixon totally ignore the bottom right corner of the central panel and the meaning of the Psalm quotation in the exterior panels?

In order to explain certain weird details of the Garden of Delights Dixon’s approach seems to be valid to a certain degree (alchemy as a trigger of Bosch’s imagination). But her alchemical all-round interpretation is too monolithic-selective in order to be convincing. What has to be mentioned, though, is that Dixon’s text tells us a lot of interesting things about the medieval alchemical tradition.


[explicit 8th September 2004]

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