Jheronimus Bosch Art Center

Hieronymus Bosch - Malerei als Vision, Lehrbild und Kunstwerk

Fischer 2009
Fischer, Stefan
Serie: Atlas - Bonner Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte - Neue Folge Band 6
Genre: Nonfiction, art history
Aantal pagina's: 385
Uitgever: Böhlau Verlag, Cologne-Weimar-Vienna
Uitgave datum: 2009
ISBN: 978-3-412-20296-5

Fischer 2009



Hieronymus Bosch – Malerei als Vision, Lehrbild und Kunstwerk (Stefan Fischer) 2009


[Atlas – Bonner Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte – 6, Böhlau Verlag, Cologne-Weimar-Vienna, 2009, 385 pages]



This book is the commercial edition of Fischer’s doctoral dissertation, and as such it testifies to the author’s being widely-read and to his respectable mastery of the Bosch file. Absolutely positive as well is that the author joins in with the cultural-historical approach of Bosch by relating the painter to a broad scala of contemporary texts, images, and cultural contexts, even though sporadically this scala turns out to be very broad. Those who are more than averagely fascinated by Bosch will learn a lot from this book and will probably agree with what is written more than once, but because of the heavy, much-demanding stylus academicus (which unfortunately sounds quite emphatical and categorical every now and then) and because of the presence of quite a lot of ‘academic lumber’ (sometimes causing the actual Bosch paintings to disappear behind the horizon) it is clear that this text is not intended for the general public. Most readers will readily agree with what Pokorny observes in his review from 2011:


"In general, one can blame Fischer for starting too little from the object in his research, before he places this object in its spiritual-historical or social-historical context or works out parallels with rhetorical stylistic devices and literature. These interdisciplinary connections are undoubtedly Fischer’s actual stronghold, even though they also seduce him into moving away too far from the work of art." [my translation]


Furthermore, the act of reading is continuously interrupted by footnotes, which obviously allow verification of what is being said but at the same time point out that occasionally quite a lot of copying and pasting has been done based on secondary literature. Of course, this is a dissertation, and Fischer does not shy away at all from sharing his personal opinions, but in his review even Pokorny (a native speaker of the German language) mentions the ‘strongly academic choice of vocabulary’ in this ‘very ambitiously written dissertation’. After 2009 and within a short span of time, Fischer has published two more monographs on Bosch (written in a much lighter style, see Fischer 2013 and Fischer 2016), which have turned him into one of the two major writers on Bosch from Germany, together with Nils Büttner.


Another little minus of this dissertation is that it sometimes tends to complicate matters that are in fact quite simple. It is argued, for example, that the theory of rhetorics enables us to understand Bosch’s paintings in a better way. Actually, the reader’s impression is that examples from the Bosch oeuvre are used to clarify the teachings of rhetorics, rather than that the rhetorical notions clarify the art of Bosch. Do we get a better understanding of the Haywain triptych when the scenes in the central panel referring to greed and fraud are considered an example of accumulatio [p. 189], or when the ladder next to the haywain and the ladder next to the tower in the right interior panel are not simply called a visual echo but a form of rhetorical parallellism [p. 195]?


The introduction rejects the ‘esoterical’ approach of Bosch and joins in with the research method, pivotal in the Netherlands and Belgium, which approaches Bosch from a cultural-historical point of view, using contemporary spiritual texts and the literature of the rederijkers. Fischer argues that students of Bosch should not overlook the major role of religion in the late Middle Ages. The introduction further announces that this book will pay attention to the close connection between form and contents in innovating, moral-didactical and moral-satirical representations, as it was propagated in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature on art. Also, the fantastic and dream-like aspects of the art of Bosch will be placed back in their cultural-historical context. The rest of the book comprizes five large parts, which will be extensively summarized below, with some further critical comments (in italics).


I Person, soziokultureller und religiöser Kontext [pp. 16-75]


Fischer first offers a short biography of Bosch. He belonged to the local elite and was a sworn brother of the Brotherhood of Our Lady. The cultural-historical context of his oeuvre can be found in his close environment. Fischer then discusses some aspects of this cultural-historical context. First, the monastic orders in ’s-Hertogenbosch. The art of Bosch has been inspired by the spiritual literature that was written or read by Dominicans, Franciscans, Carthusians (Dionysius the Carthusian) and the Brethren of the Common Life. Further: sermons and exempla (by Jan Brugman, Hendrik Herp, Bernt van Dinslaken), the Modern Devotion, the semi-religious, the Brethren of the Common Life, and the chambers of rhetoric. Bosch is a child of the late medieval urban culture. Fischer then discusses the standards and the Christian ideas of this urban culture, thereby referring to Paul Vandenbroeck and Herman Pleij.


II Stil, Anspruchsniveau und Innovation [pp. 76-138]


All too often, researchers of Bosch deal with style and iconography separately. The art of Bosch is characterized by a religious content and an anti-classical, grotesque style. Because the chronological order of Bosch’s works is very problematical, Fischer prefers a thematical approach using four categories, whose style and themes are influenced by the respective patrons and the intended function of the paintings…


  • Representations of Christ, focusing on the Passion
  • Representations of saints as ascetics and hermits
  • Eschatological works (among these The Garden of Delights and The Haywain)
  • Moralizing satires and exempla with the Capital Sins, among these the Pedlar triptych, of which only the wings have survived. Somewhat dubious is that Fischer seems to suppose that the lost central panel of this triptych represented the Wedding at Cana.


Bosch knew how to adapt to the wishes of his patrons. On the one hand, he painted simple works with quite traditional subjects for the local urban elite (the Brussels Calvary, the Ecce Homo of Frankfurt and Boston, the London Crowning with Thorns), on the other hand he produced paintings of much higher quality with a grotesque style and innovative themes (The Garden of Delights being the best example) for urban elites outside ’s-Hertogenbosch (the Prado Adoration of the Magi for example) and for – according to Fischer from 1500 on – the noblemen close to the Burgundian court. The essence of Bosch’s art always remains religious, although he also uses secular elements in order to generate curiositas.


Fischer then analyzes the Rotterdam Saint Christopher, a panel which diverges from the traditional iconography by using secondary motifs in the landscape which refer to Good and Evil and are opposed to each other. Bosch no longer represents the saint as a patron saint but as a pious example to follow. This moral-didactical intention triggers Bosch’s thematical approach (inventio) as well as his use of grotesque details (innovatio, see the tree to the right). Fischer argues that this shows that Bosch was inspired by reformational and humanist ideas. In the art of Bosch, form and content closely relate to each other.


Shortly after 1500, the number of portrayals of diableries and monsters increases, but this phenomenon is incorrectly only attributed to Bosch. Bosch’s ‘grotesques’ do not agree with the ideas of the renaissance-humanist, Italian art theory, but in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries his innovations in this field met with a large recognition and were widely spread. The Antwerp Bosch followers (Joachim Patinir, Quentin Massys, Peter Aertsen and also Lucas van Leyden) and the early modern art theory played a major role in this. From the mid-sixteenth century on, Bosch is considered a master of the fantastic and grotesque genre (grillen, drollen).


The iconography and structure of Bosch’s images can be understood in a better way by means of the Christian rhetorical ideas, in which the concepts docere (the presentation of useful messages concerning the religious truths, i.a. by means of terrere, deterring: see Bosch’s devils and hellscapes), delectare (to enertain), and movere (to propagate a different lifestyle) are important. In this respect, the art of Bosch can be compared to the works of Thomas Murner, Teofilo Folengo (Merlin Cocai), and François Rabelais. These writers also make use of grotesque-comical forms whose content focuses on the contemptus mundi idea.


III Die Kunst christlicher Bildrhetorik [pp. 139-214]


According to Fischer, the teachings of rhetoric lead to a better understanding of Bosch’s paintings. The basics of rhetoric were not only taught at the universities but also in the Latin schools, and people were also confronted with them through sermons and texts. A first phase of rhetoric is inventio, the search for material. Bosch makes use of imagery which he derives from nature and of exempla. Medieval allegories have four levels: the historical (literal) level, the allegorical level (concerning sacred history), the tropological or moralizing level, and the anagogical level (focusing on the End of Times). In the art of Bosch, the moralizing level, often combined with the anagogical level, is of major importance.


Bosch’s symbolism has also been inspired by popular sources (the festive culture and the culture of fools, for example: the May-branches). These symbols are mainly sexual and related to fertility, but they are always adapted to a Christian context: they are associated with the diabolical and with sin. The combination word / image also plays an important role in the art of Bosch. Fischer discusses works that contain a text, works that are inspired by the Bible and other literary sources, and works that make use of popular sayings, proverbs, and metaphors. Furthermore, Bosch was inspired by traditional iconography: model sheets, works by others artists (miniatures, paintings, sculptures), printed graphics. The examples which inspired Bosch could be widespread in time and space.


The second phase of rhetoric is dispositio: the choice and structuring of iconographic motifs and stylistic registers. In the The field has eyes drawing (Berlin), Bosch has added two topical motifs (owl attacked by birds, fox killing a rooster) to a well-known proverb. The art of Bosch has a Christian and persuasive character: the narratio selects space, time, characters, and actions, whereas the argumentatio uses these to convey a message. Bosch’s works with many figures in them comply with the rhetorical principles of varietas (wealth of variety) and of amplificatio (a theme is endorsed by the multiplication of motifs). In this latter case Bosch makes use of the droleries which we know from miniatures and choirstalls.


A third phase is elocutio (the application of design and style). Fischer discusses gestures and mimics, accumulatio (the elaboration of a theme by means of ‘paratactical’ – placed next to each other – motifs), parallellisms (based on similarities or contrasts of content and form, in the case of contrasts we are dealing with oppositio), and tropes such as allegory, metaphor, parody, and neologisms (by the latter Fischer means ‘hybrid visual motifs’ such as mixed creatures that are composed from familiar elements).


The fourth and last phase is memoria, in rhetoric the memorizing of a speech. This offers Fischer the occasion to deal with the underdrawings in the art of Bosch and the issue of the different hands in these, with painting technique and the use of color, and with the (early) written reception of Bosch.


IV Mittel bildlicher Moraldidaxe [pp. 215-284]


Most Bosch authors agree that the art of Bosch is of a moralizing and satirical nature. In this part of the book Fischer studies the means which Bosch uses to express this: physiognomy (grotesque heads and bodies), allegorical head coverings and clothing, legal practices, droleries, and hybrid creatures / monsters. Around 1500, triptychs were not always sacral paintings or altarpieces, but Bosch’s triptychs are never secular, they always deal with religious subjects. Fischer’s example is the reconstructed Pedlar triptych. With Johannes Hartau, he believes that the lost central panel of this triptych has come down to us through the boschian Wedding at Cana versions.


The next 32 pages are dedicated to an elaborate analysis of the Garden of Delights, not so much dealing with the question of which themes have been represented, but focusing on how they were represented  and on the question of how these themes fit in with a courtly context. The triptych, probably commissioned by Engelbrecht II of Nassau on the occasion of the wedding of his nephew and heir Henry III of Nassau, is meant to instruct and to entertain at the same time, and it is intended to be a wedding guide for noblemen. The institution of marriage by God in Eden (left interior panel) is perverted in a sinful way in the world before the Flood (central panel, the Sicut erat in diebus Noe theme), whereas the right interior panel shows the punishment in Hell.


Marriage is meant to function in the service of God and of procreation, but in the central panel humanity is living in a topsy-turvy world, for which woman is to blame. Animals are outside their natural habitat, figures are standing on their head, everything is fragile and unstable, motifs from the left interior panel are picked up again, the circle motif is repeated in every panel pointing out that mankind turns round in a sinful circle forever. It is a pity that Fischer’s Sicut erat in diebus Noe interpretation is only based on a quote from Dirc van Delf (borrowed from Vandenbroeck), and that his claim that the black women are offspring of Cain only refers to Gombrich, without adducing further arguments for these theses. Furthermore, the exterior panels of the triptych are totally ignored by him.


This part of the book ends with an analysis of Bosch’s landscapes, which are said to have a moralizing function. They refer to the sinful world in which man travels like a pilgrim of life. The Prado Adoration of the Magi receives special attention here.


V Eschatologie, Vision und Bildlichkeit [pp. 285-345]


In a number of his paintings Bosch deals with the ‘visions’ theme. Although the combination of didactic morality and eschatology can be seen before Bosch at the church entrances with representations of the Last Judgement, this is not the case in paintings. With Bosch, this combination, strongly focusing on Evil, is pivotal but this does not mean that Bosch was a pessimist. On the contrary, he wanted to convey a message: through the depiction of negative, sinful things and their punishment Bosch wishes to lead the spectator toward the positive, namely toward God. He makes use of parody to achieve this goal. The sinful and negative motifs in the art of Bosch are a parody of positive, higher things. Being a negation of the divine, Evil at the same time also refers to God. Thus, the spectator who understands this, is aroused to do Good.


The art of Bosch is not heretical, least so as far as content is concerned, but he does treat traditional religious themes in a free way, something that can also be found in contemporary literature. To do this, Bosch uses allegory, allegorical fiction, and satire. The most popular literary vision, the Visio Tundali, has not inspired Bosch in a direct, literal way. He shares a common trait with the eschatological literature of visions, though: by means of terrere (deterring) docere (to bring a message) and movere (to propagate pious behaviour). The innovative structure of the Vienna Last Judgement triptych (according to Fischer commissioned by Philip the Fair), which shows the history of the world from Creation to Doomsday, is similar to what we read in contemporary literary texts such as Eloy d’Amerval’s Livre de la Deablerie (Paris, 1508). Concerning Bosch’s focus on the damned, the following observation is interesting:


The iconographical concept in the Last Judgement with its all too obvious focus on the damned souls (…) should (…) in no way be considered pessimistic or fatalistic. Bosch’s images make it very clear that man can find Salvation through God. [p. 303, my translation]


In his review, Pokorny writes: ‘The widespread but rarely well-motivated opinion that Bosch’s dark visual contents can be traced back to a pessimistic world view will hopefully belong to the past after this book’ (my translation).


Next follows an elaborate discussion of the Lisbon St Anthony triptych. This painting agrees with one of the principles of the Reformation: the saint is no longer seen as a protector but as an example of self-knowledge leading to a Christian attitude in life. In order to paint this, Bosch was inspired by the literary sources dealing with Anthony’s life and by the droleries. Starting from the Berlin St John on Patmos panel, Fischer then writes about the difference between inner and outer viewing, about the window and mirror metaphors in representations of visions, and about the use of colours and grisailles in the art of Bosch. Finally, referring to imagery describing the rise of the soul in three phases, Fischer wishes to see a parallel between Bosch and mystical texts and sermons (among them those by Ruusbroec).


Parallels between Bosch and mystical literature are also pointed out by Fischer elsewhere in this book. I have read a number of those texts myself (Ruusbroec, Hadewijch), and my impression has always been that the world of Bosch is totally different from the vague world of mysticism. Peter Dinzelbacher, in his comment on Pokorny’s review of Fischer 2009, seems to be of the same opinion: ‘For with motifs from theoretical mysticism à la Ruusbroec Bosch has no connection at all, and with those from practical mysticism à la Hadewijch even less so’ (my translation).





[explicit 7th August 2022 – Eric De Bruyn]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

searchclosebarssort-desc linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram