“A Last Judgment to Scare the Hell out of You” (Gary Schwartz) 2020
[in: Julia M. Nauhaus (ed.), Hieronymus Bosch’s Last Judgment Triptych in the 1500s – Publication of the proceedings of the international conference held from 21 – 23 November 2019 in the Paintings Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna, 2020, pp. 149-167]
After he has introduced twelve works by Bosch followers which can be related to the medieval text Visio Tondali, the first part of Schwartz’s essay focuses on De Bruyn’s contribution to the 2016 Prado catalogue [De Bruyn 2016a: 77-78], which states that earlier authors only related two details from Bosch’s oeuvre (the soldier on a bovine in the right interior panel of the Haywain and the devil who is defecating souls in the right interior panel of the Garden of Delights) to this text, and that this is ‘not a rich harvest’, because there are quite some differences between what Bosch painted and what the text tells. Schwartz is surprised that De Bruyn seems to expect a literal transposition and that ‘De Bruyn implies, there is no need to take serious the similarities that do exist’ [p. 157]. ‘How likely is it,’ Schwartz asks somewhat later, ‘that Bosch would have come up with this image [the devil defecating souls] without knowing and having been impressed by Tondal’s vision?’ [pp. 161-162].
Because Schwartz’s comment involves myself, I will spend some more words on it here. The word ‘implies’ in the above quotation suggests that Schwartz thinks that he knows what I think, but what he thinks is not correct. The way how Schwartz presents things seems to insinuate that in my opinion Bosch was not inspired by the Visio Tondali at all. Quod non. Obviously, Bosch knew the Visio Tondali. It was even printed in his own city in 1484. Schwartz did not have to guess what my 2016 text implied, for the text itself is explicit enough. But although Schwartz literally quotes large parts of my text dealing with the similarities and differences between Bosch and Tondal’s vision, he ignores the crucial paragraph which concludes my 2016 discussion of the Visio Tondali. For the record, I repeat the complete paragraph here again:
Obviously, this observation cannot be taken as a reproach to Bosch, at worst it can be a ‘disappointment’ only for those who are committed to finding unambiguous external sources determining Bosch’s imagery. Instead it should be seen as a clear positive: the fact that Bosch always assimilated and adapted his sources according to his own ideas and imagination confirms “Bosch’s independence as a creative artist and demonstrates the importance of his oeuvre as the synthesis of an epoch”, as Roger Marijnissen concluded in 1987. Bosch was simply too much of a creative spirit literally to copy and imitate what others had invented before him. [De Bruyn 2016a: 78]
Does this say that Bosch did not know the Visio Tondali because there are too many differences between what the text tells and what the artist painted? I rest my case.
The second part of Schwartz’s essay develops two further thoughts. First, he points out that the Visio Tondali brings a hopeful, positive message: the sinful knight Tondal is saved from his infernal visions because God shows His Grace to him, and so that he can repent and turn away from sin. According to Schwartz, Bosch’s Hell panels convey a similar message: they are meant as a deterrent, as a warning addressing the sinful spectator and reminding him of the fact that he too can be saved (if he is remorseful and does not sin anymore). So, Bosch was not a pessimist or a misanthrope, but a worried optimist. ‘I propose,’ Schwartz writes elegantly, ‘that Bosch’s hells are not cruel but an expression of tough love.’
A second idea concerns the Vienna Last Judgment triptych. In the central panel’s lower left corner a male and a female soul near a bed seem to be untouched by the torments. With their closed eyes, they remind the viewer of Adam and Eve in the left interior panel, and that is why Schwartz argues that what we see in the central and right interior panels is a warning vision of the End of Times, granted by God to (the sleeping) Adam. The lonely male soul who is saved by an angel in the upper left corner could then be some sort of ‘Everyman’, representing all spectators who have understood Bosch’s message.
I totally concur on the first idea. In my opinion, the second idea is a bridge too far, though.
[explicit 5th January 2023 – Eric De Bruyn]