Jheronimus Bosch Art Center

Het verbond van heks en duivel - Een waandenkbeeld aan het begin van de moderne tijd als symptoom van een veranderende situatie van de vrouw en als middel tot hervorming der zeden

Dresen-Coenders 1983
Dresen-Coenders, Lène
Genre: Nonfiction, art history
Aantal pagina's: 328
Uitgever: Ambo, Baarn
Uitgave datum: 1983
ISBN: 90-263-0585-0

Dresen-Coenders 1983


Het verbond van heks en duivel. Een waandenkbeeld aan het begin van de moderne tijd als symptoom van een veranderende situatie van de vrouw en als middel tot hervorming der zeden (Lène Dresen-Coenders) 1983

[Ambo, Baarn, 1983, 328 pages]

[Not mentioned in Gibson 1983]


This commercial edition of the dissertation of the Dutch psychologist Lène Drese-Coenders discusses the doctrine of witchcraft in Middle and Northern-Western Europe between 1400 and 1600, focusing on the infamous Malleus Maleficarum (completed in 1486). In a number of elaborations the author tries to find traces of the doctrine of witchcraft in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.


According to Dresen-Coenders the writings of the Dominican Johannes Nider (+1438) bring into mind the paintings of Bosch, particularly the Garden of Delights [p. 39]. In Nider’s Formicarius the adepts of the sect of the Free Spirit are described as extremely dissolute and deceitful and this automatically reminds us of the central panel of the Garden, which is a representation of lechery. In the tenth chapter of his Praeceptorium divinae legis Nider describes the punishments of hell. The sinners are punished in those parts of the body with which they have sinned the most. Regarding the face it is said that there is sadness in the heart because of all the weeping, the tears have a weakening effect, the head and the eyes are confused and the inner is harmed. In a not very convincing way Dresen-Coenders associates this with the ‘not yet explained sad man’s face’ in the center of the Garden’s Hell wing (she refers to the head of the so-called Tree-Man): this could be a representation of the inner suffering resulting from sin (unchastity).


The Dominican Jacob Sprenger (+1495), one of the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum and active inside the Dominican reform movement (the so-called Observantism), which aimed at stricter rules, became vicar of the Brabantia ‘nation’ in 1474. The Burgundian dukes and their successors were in favour of the reform-minded Dominicans. In 1463 a Dominican monastery was established in Brussels at the request of Philip the Good and his wife. This monastery was observant from the very start. It became a powerful monastery that always entertained good relations with the court. The Dominican Michel of Lille, who had worked together with Sprenger in Cologne, was entrusted with the education of the young Philip the Fair. With the help of Maximilian (Philip the Fair’s father) Sprenger and Brixius Florentii (as commissioners of the Dominican general) reformed the Dominican monastery of ’s-Hertogenbosch after 1481. It was a troublesome process that was accompanied by some violence, as can be deducted from a few letters that have been preserved. Eventually the ’s-Hertogenbosch monastery was reformed, partly thanks to Maximilian’s influence. [pp. 74-76]


Hieronymus Bosch must have been a witness of the violent reform of the Dominican monastery. In any case: Sprenger was a well-known and probably also a controversial figure in ’s-Hertogenbosch. It is not surprising therefore that Bosch assimilated so many elements from the Malleus in his paintings (see below). The rosaries that are handled by a chubby monk and some nuns in the right bottom corner of the central panel of the Haywain triptych are seen by Dresen-Coenders as references to the Fraternity of the Rosary, which was supported by Sprenger. The author also sees references to manipulations with letters from the authorities in the scenes at the bottom of the left wing of the Lisbon St. Anthony triptych and at the bottom right of the right wing of the Garden. Whether Bosch is rebuking manipulations of the anti-reform-minded or manipulations of the reform-minded themselves here, is hard to say, ‘but Hieronymus Bosch could not be all that clear-cut himself’ [pp. 76-77]. It has to be commented that here Dresen-Coender’s interpretations are not all that clear-cut either.


According to Dresen-Coenders the central panel of the Haywain triptych is more than a symbolical representation of the craving for earthly possessions: it is also a protest against the ecclesiastical and worldy profiteers who in times of social-economic crisis abuse their power at the expense of the poor. Hay, which was becoming more expensive, was more suitable than grain for a symbolical representation of vain rapacity. In spontaneous popular revolts women often played a pivotal role: in the central panel of the Haywain Bosch clearly shows the anger of these protesting women. [pp. 80/123/146]


Bosch portrays the danger of witches less unambiguously than for example Dürer or Baldung Grien. Witch-like figures and witchcraft symbols often occur in his panels, though. Actually Bosch’s works are painted world views: they mirror the pessimistic world view of his days (man who is on the brink of perishing due to his sins) and the big social problems (the crisis of faith and morals, the social-economic crisis and the crisis in the relations between men and women), for which the doctrine of witchcraft suggested an explanation. In a long elaboration [pp. 128-144] Dresen-Coenders then analyzes the central panels of four Bosch triptychs: The Last Judgment (Vienna), The Temptations of St. Anthony (Lisbon), The Haywain (Madrid) and The Garden of Delights (Madrid). She is looking for traces of the doctrine of witchcraft as presented in the Formicarius and the Malleus. This does not mean that Bosch is supposed to have read these books: he can also have been familiar with their content in other ways (for instance through sermons). Furthermore Dresen-Coenders does not claim that these books are the only or the most important sources for a proper understanding of Bosch. What she does claim is that they are probably important sources. In Bosch’s ’s-Hertogenbosch the Malleus must have caught special attention, shortly after Sprenger’s drastical reform of the local Dominican monastery.


The central panel of the Last Judgment triptych (Vienna) can be seen as a depiction of the final battle, in which the sins of the witches exceed those of the (fallen) angels and of the first couple (see the left inner wing). Women and diabolical figures dominate the central panel. According to Dresen-Coenders the blonde woman on the roof (bottom left) is a witch (because of her beautiful long hair that attracts lovers and incubi according to the Malleus and because of the ‘heretic’s candle’ the devil next to her is holding). She thinks the green horn-blowing devil to the left of this woman is an incubus and the she-devil with the two-pointed cap is a succubus. In the closed wings with St. Bavo some attributes of the beggars (the chopped-off foot, the woman with a baby) could refer to witchcraft and magic: Bavo could be interpreted here as a protector against witchcraft… The arguments that Dresen-Coenders uses to relate Bosch’s Vienna Last Judgment to the doctrine of witchcraft are not convincing.


According to the author Bosch’s St. Anthony triptych (Lisbon) also mirrors the doctrine of witchcraft. In the Malleus St. Anthony is mentioned more than once as an example of immunity against witchcraft. The central scene in the central panel could refer to a story by John Cassian, which is also told in the Malleus, about two pagan sorcerers who tried to tempt St. Anthony with diabolical delusions. The central scene could also refer to a story in Johannes Nider’s Formicarius about a sect of nudists (reminding us of the Adamites) who imitated the Eucharist in a blasphemous way. Dresen-Coenders sees all kinds of references to hereticism and witchcraft in the central panel, but her arguments are without exception very weak. The two armoured dogs to the left of the central scene could refer to hereticism because Nider compares heretics to dogs. The man with the cut-off foot and the high hat is probably a diabolical sorcerer or the devil himself who works with delusions. According to the Formicarius dead trees refer to sins and hereticism: the women in the central panel who have grown together with trees are therefore probably witches. The baby in the water (to the right) with a little bowl on his head could refer to the ointment that witches will prepare from his corpse. In the scene in the foreground with the two weird vessels all the important characteristics of witches are present: apostasy, pact with hell, unchastity and infanticide. At the same time Dresen-Coenders also wonders whether Bosch has also depicted doubt about the doctrine of witchcraft: if the fantastic creatures are diabolical delusions, the doctrine about witchcraft itself and the testimonies of the witches it appeals to, can be questioned.


In the foreground of the central panel of the Haywain some scenes can ‘maybe’ refer to witchcraft. Three women (bottom left) are busy with children, it is possible that two of them are midwife-witches (Dresen-Coenders does not see that they are gypsies). Next to them a sorcerer (identified as such by his typical cap) looks into the mouth of an apparently horny young woman (Dresen-Coenders does not see that this man is a quack-dentist). Very appropriately the author signals: ‘But all this remains speculation with a lower or higher degree of probability’.


In her analysis of the Garden of Delights triptych Dresen-Coenders rejects Fraenger’s hypothesis that Bosch may have been a member of a heretical sect, but yet she thinks that Bosch may have depicted the dissolute behaviour of this kind of heretical sects as part of his painted warning against contemporary unchastity in the central panel. The owl that is sitting on a ‘plumed stick’ as part of the circle of riders could refer to witches who, according to the Malleus, were able to cause an untameable lust in men. In his eschatological works Bosch emphasized the pernicious role of women as seductresses of men: the young women are seductresses, the older women are often repulsive brothel keepers or procuresses.


In 1948 Dirk Bax wrote about the paintings of Bosch: ‘There is absolutely no indication that the Malleus Maleficarum was a source of inspiration’ [Bax 1948: 279, Bax 1979: 366]. But from the accompanying footnote (nr. 112) we learn that Bax had not read the Malleus: he only read an extensive table of contents of it in a book about witchcraft. The way in which Dresen-Coenders attempts to relate the works of Bosch to the doctrine of witchcraft as we know it from the Formicarius and the Malleus, is very unsatisfactory and not very convincing. This does not mean that there are no interesting connections between these books and the works of Bosch, it only means that Dresen-Coenders has not been able to expose these possible connections. In this context renewed and further research is necessary. Also the link Dresen-Coenders signals between Jacob Sprenger and ’s-Hertogenbosch deserves further research. It is also worth mentioning that she writes that the Malleus does not tell a lot about flying witches and about the witches’ sabbath, but that the Dominican Nicolas Jaquier has done so in his Flagellum Haereticorum (1458) [pp. 16/215].



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