De Verzoeking van Sint Antonius. Het Lissabonse drieluik in het licht van de Malleus Maleficarum (Maria Heijmans) 1991
[Unpublished master thesis, Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen, 1991, 72 pages + 32 illustrations]
To understand the work of Bosch properly we have to become familiar with the age and the environment in which that work was produced. The monsters and devils Bosch painted in the Lisbon St. Anthony triptych can be related to the demonology and doctrine of witchcraft that were developed in the late Middle Ages by theologians, philosophers and lawyers, and particularly to the ideas of the Malleus Maleficarum. But the Malleus is not the only possible source of this triptych: other literature, everyday language and folklore are equally important in this context.
Heijmans’ text consists of two parts. Part I provides us with background information about Bosch’s triptych. Chapter 1 tells something about Bosch’s life and work: ‘Although sometimes it is claimed otherwise, Hieronymus Bosch was a religious artist’ [p. 6]. Chapter 2 deals with the sources about the life of St. Anthony (Athanasius’ Vita, the Golden Legend and the Book of Fathers), briefly summarizes the life of the saint and tells something about the worship of Anthony and about his role as a protector against witchcraft. In 1491 the saint’s relics were transported from the priory St.-Didier-de-la-Motte (France) to the parish church of St. Julie in Arles. Chapter 3 discusses the ‘witchcraft’ phenomenon in the Middle Ages, the Dominicans in their role of inquisitors and the reform of the ’s-Hertogenbosch Dominican monastery in 1483. Finally chapter 4 focuses on the Malleus Maleficarum: the author offers brief biographies of Jacob Sprenger and Henricus Institoris and a partial summary of the Malleus’ contents.
In Part II the scenes in Bosch’s St. Anthony triptych are interpreted, with the focus on the doctrine of witchcraft. Chapter 1 offers some details about the triptych and about the faithful copy that is preserved in Brussels (Royal Museums of Fine Art). Chapter 2 discusses the iconography of the closed wings. There is a close harmony between the closed wings and the inner panels: the complete triptych represents Christ as the Redeemer of sinful mankind and as the protector of Anthony who is tempted by devils. Chapter 3 analyzes the iconography of the opened triptych.
Generally speaking Heijmans’ analysis of the left inner wing heavily leans upon Bax 1948, although she sporadically corrects this author, for example when she is writing about the erotic impact of the scene at the top of the wing (Anthony carried away by devils into the sky). But when she attempts to relate the scenes of the left wing to the Malleus, without exception her arguments sound extremely weak. She refers to the Malleus because there are a toad and a wolf in the left wing, she relates the monstrous bird eating its own young (bottom left) to witches who kill and eat children and she points out that according to the Malleus people who are changed into animals and witches who fly through the air are diabolical illusions (although the flying could also happen in reality).
Heijmans’ analysis of the central panel and the right inner wing also leans heavily upon Bax 1948, and on Dresen-Coenders 1983. When she does go her own way, not only is she inclined to focus too much on erotic symbolism but also to see too many influences of the doctrine of witchcraft and of the Malleus. She interprets the old woman in the central scene of the central panel as a witch and a procuress because according to the Malleus lechery is an instrument of the devil. The supposed signs of poverty of this woman and of the monster next to her are related to the negative opinion of the Malleus about the poor, who are very susceptible to hereticism. When painting the central scene Bosch possibly had in mind a witches’ sabbath, mocking at the Eucharist. The man with the high hat and a hook instead of a foot is either a witch master or the devil himself. The circle with signs from the Zodiac in his immediate neighbourhood is said to echo the Malleus’ opinion that astrology is mostly connected to the work of the devil or of witches. The candle on the altar next to Christ could be a ‘heretic’s candle’. In the group to the left of the central scene Heijmans recognizes representatives of the Inquisition, but at the same time Bosch criticizes the contemporary jurisdiction. She interprets the two armoured dogs as ‘domini canes’. The scene with the large red fruit is said to refer to the lechery of witches and (because of the basket) to their punishment. The bird that is pointing its sharp beak at ‘a little child’ in the boat scene (bottom right) is interpreted as a midwife-witch who tries to put a needle in the head of an unbaptized baby. She also sees a reference to midwife-witches (this time rightly so, in our opinion) in the scene around the big rat.
In the right inner wing Bosch has expanded on the motif of the seductive devil-queen (known from the legends about St. Anthony) by adding references to the doctrine of witchcraft. The toad-like animal that is obviously bisexual, refers to the bisexuality of devils (who could be both incubus and succubus). Bosch has turned the devil-queen into a witch because of the idea in the Malleus that women are more inclined to lechery than men. That is also why he has added an old procuress. In the couple on the flying fish (at the top of the right wing) she sees a devil and a witch who are on their way to a witches’ sabbath.
Heijmans concludes that in this triptych St. Anthony is meant to be an example for the faithful: by turning to Christ every man, just like St. Anthony, can withstand the temptations of the devil. It is a clear fact that Bosh was familiar with demonology and with the doctrine of witchcraft. He borrowed motifs from the Malleus, but he need not have read this book himself. He was probably influenced by sermons based on the Malleus. The ’s-Hertogenbosch Dominicans, who were entitled to preaching in the wide environment of the town, are bound to have owned a copy of the Malleus.
Although Heijmans says some things worthy of consideration and although her text often offers interesting information (particularly in the first part), she leans too much upon other authors and she is often too superficial in order to sound convincing when the interpretation of the St. Anthony triptych itself is at stake. In many places she erroneously sees connections with the Malleus and with the doctrine of witchcraft. The only connections that are convincing are the references to midwife-witches in the scene around the big rat in the central panel and to the flight of witches at the top of the right inner wing.
[explicit 12th August 2014]