Jheronimus Bosch Art Center

De demonen bij Jeroen Bosch - Zoektocht naar bronnen en betekenis

Dresen-Coenders 1994
Dresen-Coenders, Lène
Genre: Nonfiction, art history
Uitgave datum: 1994
Bron: Gerard Rooijakkers, Lène Dresen-Coenders and Magreet Geerdes (eds.), "Duivelsbeelden - Een cultuurhistorische speurtocht door de Lage Landen", Ambo, Baarn, 1994, pp. 168-197

Dresen-Coenders 1994


“De demonen bij Jeroen Bosch. Zoektocht naar bronnen en betekenis” (Lène Dresen-Coenders) 1994

[in: Gerard Rooijakkers, Lène Dresen-Coenders en Margreet Geerdes (eds.), Duivelsbeelden. Een cultuurhistorische speurtocht door de Lage Landen. Ambo, Baarn, 1994, pp. 168-197]


According to Bax (1949) Bosch’s devils can be understood by making use of the Dutch language. Furthermore his devils represent the vices (especially those of the lower classes) that Bosch could observe in his own times. But Bax rejected any link with the persecution of witches, which was on the rise during Bosch’s life. According to Dresen-Coenders Bax was right to a certain degree. Bosch’s devils do indeed represent contemporary vices but Bax’s interpretations fall short because he does not take into account the new ideas about witchcraft around 1500. An example is the toad that has been depicted together with an old and naked woman in the right wing of the Lisbon St. Anthony triptych: according to Bax the toad only refers to unchastity but Dresen-Coenders sees it as the devil who shows up here as the partner of old and young witches.


Very likely Bosch was aware of the new ideas about witchcraft around 1500: Jacob Sprenger (co-author of the Malleus Maleficarum) had the ‘s-Hertogenbosch Dominican monastery besieged with the help of Maximilian of Austria in 1483, because the monks resisted the reformations Sprenger was advocating. In this contribution Dresen-Coenders’ purport is to show that Bosch’s demonological repertoire was influenced by the new ideas about witchcraft as they were expressed in Latin demonological literature (especially in the 1487 Malleus Maleficarum) and in older sources (Cassian, Augustine) to which this literature can be traced back. She will do this by means of the Lisbon St. Anthony triptych and the Vienna Last Judgment triptych and she will also try to interpret the Rotterdam Flood panels.


Demonological literature


Around 1500 St. Anthony was very popular. This can be linked to the growing fear of devils: St. Anthony protected against demons and he himself had proven to be untouchable for their wiles. The popularity of St. Anthony is proven by the numerous copies of Bosch’s Lisbon triptych and by all the other depictions of this theme by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists. Written sources were Athanasius’ Vita (Life) of Anthony, the Golden Legend (which was translated in Middle Dutch) and the Vaderboek (Book of Fathers).


Johannes Nider’s Formicarius (1437) and the Malleus Maleficarum mention a further unknown episode from the life of St. Anthony, the source of which is Cassian’s Collationes (around 400): this episode tells about a quarrel between Anthony and two pagan philosophers who badger the saint by sending demons to him. But there was a problem: Cassian denies the idea that devils could copulate with women and this idea was pivotal in the new fifteenth-century approach of witches. St. Augustine’s authority was called in in order to correct Cassian.


Two of Cassian’s works, the Instituta Coenobiorum and the Collationes Patrum (written for monks in the south of Gaul between 420 and 426) exerted a lot of influence on medieval monasticism and also on fifteenth-century circles of the Modern Devotion. In 1476 the Brethren of the Common Life published a complete Latin edition of the Collationes. Earlier in the fifteenth century Dionysius the Carthusian already wrote a version in simple Latin that was also printed in the sixteenth century. Two Middle Dutch translations of the Collationes are known: one from the southern Netherlands (1360) that was not wide-spread, and one from the northern Netherlands (early fifteenth century?) from circles of the Modern Devotion. This latter translation was also printed as Der ouder vader collaciën (Antwerp, Michiel van Hoochstraten, 1506). In the fifteenth century there was also a lot of attention for Augustine’s De civitate Dei (illuminated manuscripts, printed books).


For Cassian sexuality was not the most important vice. But for Augustine it was: according to him sexuality was the cause of the Fall of Man and of the Original Sin. The Formicarius and the Malleus refer more often to Augustine and to Thomas Aquinas than to Cassian. In these two texts Cassian’s opinion (sexual intercourse between women and incubi is not possible) is rejected with the help of Augustine (an incubus can collect human sperm as the succubus of a man and then ejaculate it into a woman). Both the Formicarius and the Malleus contain a doctrine about witchcraft. The main difference is: voluntary sexual intercourse with the devil as the confirmation of a diabolical pact is not yet mentioned in the Formicarius. According to Augustine magic is always accompanied by a pact with demons. Thomas Aquinas distinguished an implicit and an explicit pact. Old legends sometimes mention a written pact. According to the Malleus there are more women than men who conclude a pact with the devil. The treaty between devil and witch reminds of the celebration of a marriage. In this context an evil part is being played by old women as procuresses.


Dresen-Coenders then analyses the traces of Cassian in the works of Bosch. Cassian had two talks with the abbot Serenus: in these talks there are a lot of expressive statements about demons, it is said that every demon has his own ‘specialty’, his own vice. This agrees with the opinion of Bax that Bosch’s devils are representations of contemporary vices. Serenus also tells about the vision of a monk who saw a diabolical ‘prince’ conduct an examination of conscience with a number of demons (the question being: have the demons done their diabolical job well). This would agree with the infernal administration of justice in the foreground of the right inner wing of the Vienna Last Judgment.

These so-called ‘traces’ can only be called weak and little convincing.


Traces of the doctrine about witchcraft in the Lisbon St. Anthony triptych


  • The two failing aposteles in the left outer wing (Peter and Judas) are said to correspond with the diabolical prelates in the left inner wing (criticism directed at the Church). A weak and doubtful interpretation.
  • The ‘woman’ with two kids in the right outer wing has to be related to the naked woman, the toad-devil and the old woman in the right inner wing. One wonders: why?
  • The naked woman in the right inner wing is standing in a hollow, bald tree. According to Nider (Formicarius) barren landscapes refer to sin and heresy. This is a late-medieval topos, though. Why should there be a specific reference to Nider?
  • In the right inner wing Anthony is looking away from the naked woman, in the direction of a gula scene (the set table). According to Cassian gula leads to luxuria. Again this is a very wide-spread late-medieval topos. Why a specific reference to Cassian? Furthermore: doesn’t this suggest that Anthony would be gluttonous?
  • At the top of the right inner wing a couple is riding a flying fish. According to the Malleus witches can travel large distances with the help of the devil. The fish and the red clothes are said to refer to unchastity. This observation is correct, but can this idea only be found in the Malleus?
  • In the central panel we see a ‘tree-woman’ with a baby, and next to her a baby with a bowl and a spoon on its head. This is a witchcraft scene. The bowl refers to the ointment made by witches out of murdered children. This is a weak interpretation. The ‘tree-woman’ may well be a witch: the Malleus links witches to midwives (the tree-woman is sitting in a bakermat, a kind of mat for dry-nurses!), but this is something that Dresen-Coenders does not mention.
  • The man behind the ‘tree-woman’ is wearing a blue cap (treachery) and a red shield (unchastity). This man is said to have delivered his sperm to a succubus and this succubus has impregnated the witch (tree-woman) in the form of an incubus. A weak and far-fetched interpretation.
  • The scene with the boat at the right bottom of the central panel: a bird is pointing its beak at a ‘baby’ that is being ‘dragged along’. Dresen-Coenders sees a link with witches-midwives who kill children by putting a needle in their head (according to the Malleus). Weak and far-fetched.
  • In the central panel, the negress-she-devil with a toad and an egg on a plate: related to witches who abuse the host in a blasphemous way (according to the Malleus). This observation seems to be stating the obvious.
  • In the central panel, the succubus in the red fruit: a harmless demon (according to Cassian’s classification). The approaching demons above this scene are said to belong to Cassian’s next category. Weak and far-fetched.
  • The magician-devil in the foreground of the central panel could mean that all magic has a diabolical origin. Again a statement of the obvious.


It seems obvious that in Bosch’s St. Anthony triptych references to witches and devils can be found. But whoever tries to interpret the various details in such a little convincing, arbitrary and superficial way as is the case here, is bound to lose the right track. Dresen-Coender’s arguments don’t convince the reader of the thesis that Bosch specifically consulted the Malleus Maleficarum. Which of course does not automatically mean that the Malleus was not one of Bosch’s sources. The possible link between Bosch and the Malleus definitely deserves further research.


Traces of the doctrine about witchcraft in the Vienna Last Judgment triptych


According to Dresen-Coenders the central panel does not depict the Last Judgment itself, but rather its annunciation, more specifically the final battle that precedes the Last Judgment (as described in book XX of Augustine’s De civitate Dei.


  • In the left inner wing we see Eve: in the Malleus she is pointed out as the main culprit of the Fall in the notorious indictment against women. This is interesting, but at the same time it is also a late-medieval topos.
  • The roof in the left bottom corner of the central panel can be related to Gog and Magog in Revelations 20: 7. Augustine translated Gog and Magog as ‘roof’ and ‘coming from the roof’. This sounds little convincing. The naked woman with the beautiful hair: the Formicarius and the Malleus signal that women’s beautiful hair attracts incubi. Interesting, but criticism on women’s hair and headdress is topical in the late Middle Ages. Next to the women we see a devil with a ‘heretical candle’. Isn’t the candle rather an allusion at prostitution (see Bax)?
  • To the left of the blond naked woman a naked man is sleeping: according to Dresen-Coenders a sinful man who has to deliver sperm for the voluntary copulation between witch and devil. Weak and far-fetched.
  • Under the roof we see a kettle with a human hand sticking out. A she-devil is stirring the content of the kettle: perhaps an allusion at the preparation of ointment made from children’s corpses. But the hand is the hand of an adult person!


Perhaps this is the Last Judgment that was commissioned by Philip the Fair in 1504. He must have been familiar with the doctrine about witches, because he was educated by a colleague and assistant of Sprenger, namely Michel de Lille. This hypothesis, as presented here, sounds very little convincing.


The so-called Flood panels in Rotterdam


A passage in Cassian (with observations by the abbot Serenus) teaches us that magic already existed before the Flood, as a result of the sexual intermingling of Seth’s offspring with Cain’s offspring and with devils. Cham (son of Noah) engraved that knowledge in metal plates and stones so that they could survive the Flood and after the Flood he looked for them again. In the foreground of the left inner wing we see a mannikin with something in his lap: this could well be Cham. At the bottom of the right inner wing (depicting the situation after the Flood) we see a mannikin that looks like the other mannikin: is this Cham who is looking for the metal and stone plates?


On the backside of the wings (the closed wings) Bosch painted allusions at the magic of demons.


  • The tondo with the burning house: the Formicarius and the Malleus refer to Isaiah 13 and 14, where the glosses explain that these chapters deal with demons (a locus terribilis is being described). Is this tondo a depiction of the complaint in Isaiah 47? The woman could then be the desperate virgin Babel, and the man on his knees the Jewish people. This interpretation seems rather far-fetched and weak.
  • The tondo at the left bottom is said to refer to the parable of the sower (Matthew 13).
  • The tondo at the right bottom: Christ blesses a soul, an angel welcomes a blessed soul.
  • The tondo at the right top: every man is being harassed by devils during his life. The city could be Jerusalem and the opposite of the sinful Babel (in the tondo at the left top).


The four tondos form a unit: they show the possibility of salvation by Christ, in spite of all the devil’s wiles. There is also a relation with the inner wings: according to Augustine the Flood refers to the Last Judgment, Noah’s Ark refers to the Church and Noah’s salvation refers to the faithful and good. In the way they are presented here, these interpretations are not really convincing. The matter needs further iconographical research.


Did the lost central panel (Dresen-Coenders erroneously speaks of a ‘central wing’) depict the sins of Bosch’s own times or of the Last Days with a lot of ‘modern’ witches, and is that the reason why it got lost? Until the nineteenth century the wings were in Spain, where the belief in witchcraft disappeared earlier. This is not very likely. The bad conservational shape of the wings is more likely due to a fire or some other sort of damage.


Dresen-Coenders' text is highly interesting because of the information it gives about fifteenth-century demonological literature. But as soon as she starts to analyse Bosch’s paintings, she does not sound convincing at all.


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