Jheronimus Bosch Art Center

Some Symbols in Bosch's Paintings - An interpretation

Rooth 1986
Rooth, Anna Birgitta
Genre: Nonfiction, art history
Uitgave datum: 1986
Bron: Arsbok - Kungliga Humanistiska Vetenskaps-Samfundet i Uppsala, Uppsala, 1986, pp. 33-68

Rooth 1986


“Some Symbols in Bosch’s Paintings. An interpretation” (Anna Birgitta Rooth) 1986

[in: Arsbok – Kungliga Humanistiska Vetenskaps-Samfundet i Uppsala, Upssala, 1986, pp. 33-68. Also published in Etnologiska Institutionen vid Uppsala Universitetet – Meddelanden, 24 (1986/1987)]


It seems that Bosch used many more symbols expressed in common proverbial phrases than we are aware of. The folk wisdom in fables and proverbs seems to have fascinated him. In this article Rooth mainly focuses on the giant bells, knife and ears in the right inner wing of Bosch’s Garden of Delights. Rooth refers to some proverbs and idioms (English, German, Swedish) in which bells, knives and ears are associated with lying and slandering. She thinks the bells, ears and knife in the Garden are intended to represent the punishment of lying and slandering in The Vision of Tundalus.


Bosch’s use of contemporary stereotypes, fables, exempla, religious legends, proverbs and symbols is of importance for the whole concept of his work. Rooth regards Bosch as one of the great humanists of his time. Bosch painted some of the proverbs and stereotypes in which medieval scholars were so interested. In this way much which seemed mystic or fantastic turns out to be common symbols and stereotypes that Bosch turned into new and interesting compositions.


Unfortunately this Swedish article is not an example of lucid and meticulous art-historical analysis. The argumentation is extremely messy and the author’s way of thinking and reasoning is often superficial and careless. When she signals the widely divergent approaches of Bosch, she concludes that they annihilate each other because they differ so much [p. 65]. Obviously a very weak argument: when four different people call a white wall black, blue, white and green respectively, of course this does not mean they are all wrong just because they don’t agree. Some errors, though only minor, are aggravating nevertheless and enhance the sloppy impression the whole article makes. When Rooth is writing about the Garden she refers to it as ‘Bosch’s triptych in Vienna’ (should be: Madrid) [p. 46]. On page 59 she states that Hollman tried to prove that The Conjuror (St. Germain-en-Laye) represents an act of castration, but the title of the article (in footnote 32) signals that Hollman was writing about The Cutting of the Stone (Madrid). Rooth’s approach of Bosch lacks a sound method. Cynically enough, she blames other authors for their ‘lack of method’ [p. 65].


[explicit 3rd August 2013]

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