Duivelse doedelzakken en Hemelse harpen – De instrumenten van Jheronimus Bosch in context (Philomea Ruiter) 2016
[Huinder publicaties, ’s-Hertogenbosch, 2016, 85 pages]
Philomea Ruiter is a curator at the Museum Slager in ’s-Hertogenbosch. This book is the commercial edition of her master thesis (art history, University of Amsterdam) and focuses on the musical instruments in the Bosch oeuvre. In the first chapter the author explains in which ways Bosch could come into touch with music in his native town. The second chapter analyses the pictorial tradition and the cultural-historical context of musical companies and of a number of musical intruments (bagpipe, harp, horn, lituus, trumpet, lute and hurdy-gurdy). The third chapter deals with the question which meanings can be attributed to the musical instruments in five Bosch paintings: the Ship of Fools/Allegory of Gluttony panel (Paris/New Haven), the Adoration of the Magi triptych (Madrid), the Haywain triptych (Madrid), the Garden of Delights triptych and the St Anthony triptych (Lisbon).
Ruiter conludes that the interpretation of a musical instrument always depends on the context in which it appears and that Bosch followed pictorial, literary and linguistic traditions, borrowing certain elements but also adapting them according to his own needs: ‘He did this by changing and transforming traditional iconography in an innovative way and using his unique approach. But did the way in which he depicted musical instruments really differ that much from what was traditional in the fifteenth century? An important difference between the depiction of musical instruments in the fifteenth century and Bosch’s approach is the general context in which these instruments are placed by him. In the fifteenth century most musical instruments appear in a religious context. They celebrate the joys of the Holy Virgin, of other saints or are part of a religious context, as in the case of the trumpet, the harp or the lute. Almost every of Bosch’s musical instruments appears in a negative or sinful context’ (p. 79). Not really a surprising conclusion, it might be added.
The first and the second chapter make a sound (though not really penetrating) impression but the text as a whole and in particular the third chapter can be criticised in some respects. A more rigorous final editing could have made the style of this book less cumbersome (see the numerous reiterations) and less sloppy (see the clumsy sentences and often incorrect grammar) and could also have prevented the frequent linguistic errors that are scattered over almost every page (the most striking example to be found on page 61 where the angel on top of the haywain is referred to as a ‘she’).
The book could also have taken profit from a proofreader with a more profound general erudition. As long as the text deals with music and musical instruments everything goes quite smoothly but as soon as other things are at stake quite a number of gaffes are popping up. The allegorical rhymed treatise Le Roman de la Rose is called a ‘collection of poems’ (p. 42) and even the Middle Dutch farce Truwanten is presented as a ‘collection of poems’ (pp. 51-52). Illustration 3 on page 15 does not show a detail from Bruegel’s Dutch Proverbs but from his Mad Meg. But when she writes about Bosch in particular the author often strays from the right path: six months of research (see the back jacket) are obviously not enough to prevent someone from losing the way in the massive bulk of literature on Bosch. These are the most striking flaws…
When focusing on the musical instruments in Bosch’s paintings and on the context in which they appear there, the author often jumps from one author to the other without presenting her own cohesive (let alone ground-breaking) approach. Automatically, this leads to a superficial text and to a confused reader. Of course, a master thesis is not supposed to break new ground but a lot more can be written about Bosch’s musical instruments than has been done here (a good example is the lute player on top of the haywain – pp. 60-61). All in all, it would have been better if this text had undergone a maturing process before it was published.
[explicit 18th November 2016]