“Hieronymus Bosch – Homo viator at a Crossroads: A New Reading of the Rotterdam tondo” (Yona Pinson) 2005
[in: Artibus et Historiae, nr. 52 (XXVI), 2005, pp. 57-84]
According to Pinson Bosch’s Pedlar tondo (which she calls The Wayfarer) can be associated with the medieval topoi of life seen as a pilgrimage on earth and of the choice between the path of Good and the path of Evil. The bifurcated path in the Rotterdam tondo reminds us of the ‘Y’ motif (symbolizing the choice between Good and Evil). Pinson wants to show that Bosch ironically inverts the meaning of these topoi, ‘effectively parodying the idea of the pilgrim’s choice’ [p. 57].
De Bruyn sees the ‘looking back over one’s shoulder’ gesture of the protagonist as a metaphor for meditation on committed sins and therefore he interprets the wayfarer as a repentent sinner. Vandenbroeck agreed with De Bruyn’s interpretation, but Pinson doesn’t. She quotes a number of literary passages clearly showing that in the late Middle Ages ‘looking back’ had negative instead of positive connotations. One of the things this motif refers to is: persisting in sins that were committed in the past.
This is Pinson’s starting point and it will eventually lead to a negative interpretation of the protagonist in the Rotterdam tondo. That the ‘looking back’ gesture can have positive ànd negative meanings is explicitly mentioned in De Bruyn 2001a: 281-282. It should be noted that Pinson has only read De Bruyn 2001c: this is an English summary of a part of De Bruyn 2001a (written in Dutch). This is unfortunate as it is argued in De Bruyn 2001a that a positive reading of the ‘looking back’ gesture in the Rotterdam tondo is preferable, because a negative reading does not fit in with the allegorical meaning of the ‘pedlar/stick/dog’ chain of images. This chain of images signals that the growling dog represents the devil and the fact that the pedlar keeps the dog at a distance with a stick means that the pedlar is essentially a positive figure (although he hàs committed sins in his earlier life). In other words: the Rotterdam tondo cannot be properly interpreted without understanding the meaning of the fact that the protagonist uses a stick to keep an aggressive dog at a distance. In her article Pinson does not pay attention to the ‘pedlar/stick/dog’ chain of images, thus committing one of the methodological errors signalled in De Bruyn 2001a: 192: when interpreting Bosch’s pedlars in the Rotterdam tondo and in the closed wings of the Haywain many authors don’t recognize the allegorical ‘pedlar/stick/dog’ chain of images as a key symbol of both depictions.
It is remarkable that Pinson does mention the marginal illustration from the Luttrell Psalter with the reddish dog biting the calf of a pedlar and that she writes about this dog that it is ‘perhaps’ the devil [p. 62]. About the dog in the exterior wings of the Haywain she writes the following: ‘The ugly dog snapping at his heels might indicate the devil’. But about the dog in the Rotterdam tondo she says absolutely nothing. Because of this Pinson’s interpretation can only be unsatisfactory. When we read further, we learn that Pinson does seem to agree with De Bruyn in certain respects (but without her realizing this, because she has only read De Bruyn 2001c, and not De Bruyn 2001a).
The ambiguous facial expression of the ‘wayfarer’, the looking back while moving on at the same time, the footwear (a shoe and a slipper), the hair escaping through the headdress, the wooden spoon hanging from the basket and the knife penetrating the purse are interpreted by Pinson as signs of lability, folly and sinful behaviour. The wayfarer travels through an allegorical landscape: the inn of the swan refers to lust and prostitution, the overturned pitcher refers to sexual promiscuity and intemperance, the leaking barrel refers to unrestrained conduct, folly and vanity. The decaying condition of the inn refers to declining morals and the transience of earthly pleasures. In the exterior wings of the Haywain the moral warning and the ‘memento mori’ idea are more explicit than in the ‘later Rotterdam version’, where the emblematic language is much more elaborate and the protagonist more ambiguous. Bosch painted a closed gate and a gallows on a hill to point out that the wayfarer will be doomed after his death because of his sins (mainly unchastity). The caged magpie refers to lust, the magpie on the gate is a sign of misfortune and refers to death and the diabolical. The owl on a dry branch (= sin, folly, vanity) preying on a small bird (why not signal that it is a great tit?) means that the wayfarer is an easy prey for the devil. The tree in which the owl is sitting has a foliated and a defoliated part: the choice between Good and Evil, between redemption and perdition. In the background we also see a dry and a blossoming tree: the same idea.
Because of all this Pinson interprets the Rotterdam tondo as a ‘memento mori’. The advanced age of the wayfarer signals that his end is near. The circular form of the tondo alludes to the world and has the function of a mirror. The spectator is forced to recognize himself in the foolish wayfarer or ‘homo viator’ who is standing at a crossroads. ‘Bosch employs the mirror imagery ironically, turning it towards the viewer, enabling him to recognize his own reflection in the fool-wayfarer’ [p. 74]. It is not very clear what Pinson means with the word ‘ironically’ here. What she writes next, is also rather weird: ‘ (…) at the same time, the vagrant wayfarer’s facial expression relates him paradoxically to the opposite category, of the wise-fool’ [p. 74].
The last paragraphs of Pinson’s article are very muddled. She calls Bosch’s message ‘complex and confusing’, because on the one hand the wayfarer is a fool, but on the other hand he possesses shrewdness and self-knowledge and he is not blind to the dangers of sin. The author summarizes her argument as follows: ‘The traveler on the Madrid outer shutters is journeying straight along the dangerous path of sin towards the broken bridge leading him to Hell. On the Rotterdam tondo, however, because the wayfarer is reflected through a mirror, he becomes the viewer’s own self-reflection and thus embodies both the individual beholder and the universal wanderer, representing the whole society of human wanderers, temporal passengers in this world. Following a long tradition of didactic mirrors of morals, Bosch warns his viewers not to follow the hesitant fool-wayfarer if he really wishes to avoid perdition’ [p. 75].
Apparently Pinson sees the protagonist of the Rotterdam tondo as a person who is in doubt and more precisely as a person in doubt whose life is probably going to turn out badly. A good question would then be: why is he keeping a diabolical dog at a distance with his stick? Pinson’s starting point was of course wrong (see supra) and that explains the confusion at the end of her article. And besides: why all the fuss about this ‘mirror function’? Whereas in fact this function is very simple: we see a repentent sinner and we (as viewers and sinful humans) are advised to take the pedlar as an example and to do the same as he, namely to be repentent and to turn away from sin. Pinson says nothing about the bovine behind the closed gate. And finally: if indeed the Rotterdam tondo was once the exterior of a triptych, then this is an additional argument to interpret its protagonist in a positive way. On the exterior wings of all his preserved triptychs Bosch always used to paint positive representations and examples worthy of imitation. The interior panels, on the other hand, often focus on the sinfulness of man.