“Hieronymus Bosch: Der verlorene Sohn” (Wilhelm Fraenger) 1951
[in: Castrum peregrini, Heft 1 (1951), pp. 27-39]
[Reprinted in: Wilhelm Fraenger, Hieronymus Bosch. Prisma-Verlag, Gütersloh, 1975, pp. 257-266]
[Also mentioned in Gibson 1983: 120-121 (E276)]
Fraenger unambiguously supports the Prodigal Son interpretation of the Rotterdam Pedlar tondo. He doesn’t consider the tondo a genre painting but a painting of meditation and penance focusing on penitence and conversion. The fact that the Prodigal Son, whose hair has turned grey early, is looking back signals that he has realized the futility of his licentious life, the symbolic gesture of his left hand with the hat means that he has now chosen the righteous path, towards his Father’s house. According to Fraenger the tondo not only wants to represent the moral conversion of the protagonist, but also wants to stimulate a similar conversion with the spectator. That is why Fraenger calls it a Bussbild (painting of penance).
The German author detects a clear structure in the tondo. The protagonist is moving from left to right. The left half of the panel is filled with negative symbolism: the delapidated inn with the aggressive dog and rooting pigs is obviously a brothel, symbolically referring to ‘the World’. The right half of the panel only has positive symbolism: the peaceful landscape with the well-built gate, the protecting tree and the resting bovine animal, symbolically refers to the ‘good meadow’ from Psalm 23, in other words: to Heaven. When a vertical line is drawn from the hat upwards, a distant building can be seen between the trees: the house of the Father.
This global interpretation sounds very convincing: it closely agrees with the views of i.a. Glück, Friedländer, Tolnay and Combe and adds a few observations concerning the panel’s composition that are worth considering (the protagonist moves from the left, negative half of the panel towards the right, positive half). Unfortunately, the remaining part of Fraenger’s article offers a more detailed analysis that turns out to be rather weak, and towards the end even far-fetched. What follows below is a list of our objections.
More than once, Fraenger’s interpretations are superficial and arbitrary. According to him the ladle belonging to the protagonist not only refers to poverty (it is used to eat beggars’ soup) but also to licentious love. Fraenger explains this latter association by referring to the ‘contemporary linguistic usage’, but he only writes about the word löffel / leffel in texts by Geiler von Kaisersberg and Johannes Fischart. As Bosch’s native language was Middle Dutch, a reference to Middle German usage can at most function as an auxiliary interpretation regarding Bosch’s oeuvre and clearly not as a first-rate argument. A similar ad hoc line of reasoning is used by Fraenger when he focuses on the magpies that can be seen in the tondo. Fraenger categorically states that Bosch has borrowed this symbol from Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal, without wondering even for one moment about the question in which way Bosch may have known about Eschenbach’s text. Moreover, apart from the magpie in the cage and the magpie at the bottom of the gate Fraenger observes a third magpie on the high pole in the background landscape. This ‘pole’ (Stange) is a wheel on a stake, used to punish criminals. At the top of the wheel a small, white, oval spot can be seen. With the naked eye it is hard to tell whether this is a white bird or a small piece of the paint layer that has disappeared. But that the little white stripe would represent a magpie is out of the question. The owl above the Prodigal Son’s head is called the bird of wisdom, for with Bosch the owl is always a symbol of knowledge conquering death and here it not only warns the Prodigal Son himself but also the ‘wreckless great tit’ of the dangers of debauchery.
More than once, Fraenger’s interpretations are far-fetched. The Prodigal Son’s basket is (not unjustly) called a key symbol, but for a remarkable reason. According to Fraenger the basket is the only thing the Prodigal Son has preserved from his home and thus it is a ‘saving anchor’, a kind of pledge that allows the Prodigal Son to return this his Father’s house. Fraenger even believes that the Prodigal Son would collapse, if he were not held together by the sling of the basket. Fraenger does not notice (or ignores) that this basket is a pedlar’s basket and thus its owner a pedlar. In the posthumous reissue of his texts about Bosch a text from Fraenger’s estate, dated 12th March 1960, is published in footnote, in which he categorically rejects the titles Landstreicher (wayfarer) and Hausierier (pedlar) for the Rotterdam tondo [Fraenger 1975: 426-427 (note 103)]. But Fraenger’s argument is worthless: these titles are said to go back to the former owner of the tondo, Dr. Albert Figdor, who – according to Glück – admired the panel mainly because of its genre-like atmosphere. In passages such as these it is often hard to follow Fraenger’s line of reasoning, and these passages occur frequently, in particular towards the end of his 1951 article.
The way in which he links the Prodigal Son to the urinating man (to the right of the brothel) – because they both have bent knees – in order to conclude that the latter symbolizes the former’s physical and mental catharsis is far from lucid. After several rereadings I still don’t understand the passage in which he links the gate to the Holy Trinity and the Six Days of Creation with the help of clever numerology. But the crowning touch is Fraenger’s suggestion that the tondo’s octagonal form refers to Christ’s Resurrection and thus to the resurrection to divine perfection (see the tondo’s circular form): this octagonal shape is not the original one!
Far-fetched is also the way in which Fraenger links the Rotterdam tondo to the heretical Adamite sect of Jacob van Aelmangiën. This is not to be found in the actual text of the article, but – half-hidden and for that reason all the more surprising – in a footnote [see Fraenger 1975: 427 (note 104)]. Fraenger’s starting point is the protagonist’s way of walking with special focus on the half-bent knees. Fraenger points out that this typical pose also occurs in other Bosch panels that, as he ‘demonstrated’ in earlier publications, have been painted for the leader of the sect Jacob van Aelmangiën. Fraenger then explains this Knielaufschema with the help of the Jewish author Philo, who wrote that standing upright refers to a good, virtuous life. The Prodigal Son’s almost-falling pose is some kind of hyphen between the asymmetrical left part of the tondo (the oblique roof of the brothel, the leaning lance) and the vertical structure of the right part (the tree, the ‘pole’ in the far distance), symbolizing that the Prodigal Son has almost ‘fallen’, but is still able to stand ‘upright’.
Although it may be admitted that basically this hypothesis is a not unclever observation of what can be seen in the tondo, the final conclusion that the Rotterdom tondo is heretical because of this reason, is not very convincing, to say the least. Fraenger’s analysis becomes even more remarkable when his discussion of the exterior panels of the Haywain triptych is also taken into account. This discussion was found in the author’s estate as part of a text about the Haywain [Fraenger 1975: 466-467]. The exterior panels of the Haywain, Fraenger writes, clearly anticipate the Rotterdam tondo because both protagonists are depicted in a similar way. Nevertheless, the protagonist in the exterior panels is not the Prodigal Son but a general representation of man travelling through the world. This figure, who is going to enter the other world (the crossing of the bridge), is aware of evil (the assault, the barking dog) and the futility of earthly vanities (the skeleton, the stream) and is the only one (as opposed to the dancing, careless shepherds) to think about the Last Judgment, symbolized by the gallows in the background. Although at first glance this global interpretation of the exterior panels seems very fortunate, the total lack of arguments makes it highly subjective and unreliable. Furthermore, Fraenger’s iconographic analysis of these exterior panels is the best proof that his approach of the Rotterdam tondo is built on a weak foundation. Why would the Rotterdam protagonist represent the Prodigal Son and the (in Fraenger’s own words) almost similar figure in the exterior panels of the Haywain not? And how to explain the heretical inspiration of the tondo when the exterior panels (whose protagonist displays the same Knielaufschema as the ‘Prodigal Son’ in Rotterdam) is not heretical?
In the end, the conclusion is obvious: Fraenger’s 1951 analysis of the Rotterdam tondo has been of little help to Bosch scholarship. And yet, his text offers a number of detailed observations that are worth remembering: behind the urinating man we see a little blossoming tree, the tree behind the protagonist has a bifurcation and the birds in the cage and at the bottom of the gate are indeed both magpies, suggesting some kind of link between them. The interpretations given by Fraenger to these details, are to be rejected, but to ignore the details themselves is not advisable either.
About this article, also compare Bax 1956: 178 and De Bruyn 2001a: 175-176.