Jheronimus Bosch Art Center

Lijfelijke en geestelijke pelgrimage: materiële 'souvenirs' van spirituele pelgrimage

Koldeweij 2000
Koldeweij, A.M.
Genre: Nonfiction, art history
Uitgave datum: 2000
Bron: Kees Veelenturf (ed.), "Geen povere schoonheid - Laat-middeleeuwse kunst in verband met de Moderne Devotie", Uitgeverij Valkhof Pers, Nijmegen, 2000, pp. 222-252

Koldeweij 2000


“Lijfelijke en geestelijke pelgrimage: materiële ‘souvenirs’ van spirituele pelgrimage” (A.M. Koldeweij) 2000

[in: Kees Veelenturf (ed.), Geen povere schoonheeid – Laat-middeleeuwse kunst in verband met de Moderne Devotie. Uitgeverij Valkhof Pers, Nijmegen, 2000, pp. 222-252]


In this contribution Koldeweij describes the late-medieval ‘spiritual pilgrimage’ phenomenon, a counterpart of real pilgrimages. Both versions of Jheronimus Bosch’s so-called Vagabond (‘Landloper’) (in Rotterdam and Madrid) play a leading part in this story, as do the countless and massively produced late-medieval representations of the Vera Icon, the True Face of Christ.


A ‘spiritual pilgrimage’ implied the following: travelling in the mind in order to have the same religious experiences and to obtain the same religious yield as would be the case with real pilgrimages. This phenomenon could be found quite often in the Late Middle Ages, particularly in the circles of the Modern Devotion, but not only there (it also occurred in monasteries and urban circles that were not directly influenced by the Modern Devotion).


Bosch’s Vagabond paintings are supposed to play an important part in this story. According to Koldeweij Bosch’s vagabond figures should be interpreted as allegorical representations of man on his pilgrimage of life, implying that Bosch concurs with allegorical texts in which human life is considered a pilgrimage. But Bosch made sure not to depict his vagabonds with the typical paraphernalia of pilgrims, because he did not want to relate them to the negative associations of travelling pilgrims that were rather frequent in Bosch’s age. By not representing man on the pilgrimage of life as a common pilgrim, Bosch did not refer to common pilgrims but to the struggle of humanity as such. The stick held by Bosch’s vagabonds is not the typical long pilgrim’s staff (in order to avoid too direct associations) but an attribute that characterizes them as travelling men, as pilgrims that have to follow their path. Koldeweij then quotes a passage from the Middle Dutch version of the Speculum humanae salvationis in which the pilgrim’s staff is interpreted as a metaphor for the Christian’s faith in God (and the dogs who are kept at a distance by the staff, as devils).


If we properly understand Koldeweij’s line of reasoning here, Bosch’s vagabonds are pilgrims who are not represented as pilgrims. The author writes: ‘Not the real pilgrimage is described, but the ‘spiritual’ journey’ [p. 229]. But what Koldeweij means by this is not the same as what is meant by the ‘spiritual pilgrimages’ described in this article. These ‘spiritual pilgrimages’ were virtual substitutes for people that could not go on a physical pilgrimage (in particular to Rome or Jerusalem) for some reason or other. But what Koldeweij is referring to regarding Bosch’s vagabonds, is the medieval topos of the pilgrimage of life (which is supposed to lead to heaven). This topos is not directly related to ‘spiritual pilgrimages’ and thus one wonders how Bosch’s vagabonds could play a leading part in a discussion of ‘spiritual pilgrimages’. And even if Bosch’s vagabonds would represent a spiritual pilgrimage whereas they are not depicted as pilgrims because of the latter’s negative associations in the Middle Ages, the question arises: weren’t late-medieval vagabonds associated with negative things as well?


Koldeweij identifies the Bosch figures discussed here as vagabonds, and not as pedlars: ‘That their ‘basket’ would imply that they are travelling merchants, as is usually suggested in the literature about Bosch, cannot be proven. Here we have to shy away from a too specific interpretation. What matters, is that every Christian who carries the weight of his existence on earth has to follow his difficult path of life’ [p. 229]. Finally Koldeweij relates the basket carried by Bosch’s vagabonds to a figure on the cover of an Antwerp edition of The Imitation of Christ (1505): ‘His similarity to Bosch’s vagabonds is striking’ [p. 230]. On closer inspection, though, we have to conclude that this figure is not a pedlar carrying his basket, but a grape picker carrying a basket with grapes on his back.


[explicit 26th December 2006]

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