“God in the Details: Bosch and Judgment(s)” (Larry Silver) 2001
[in: The Art Bulletin, vol. LXXXIII, nr. 4 (December 2001), pp. 626-650]
Larry Silver (an art historian of the University of Pennsylvania) announces that his article owes a lot to the ideas of and his discussions with Reindert Falkenburg and adds (apparently somewhat tongue-in-cheek): ‘Perhaps wisely, Falkenburg demurred from co-authorship of this article, and he cannot be held responsible for its shortcomings, but he deserves much of the credit for whatever validity it might have’ [p. 646]. Silver agrees with the approach that considers Bosch a Christian and moralizing painter and focuses on what is called Bosch’s iconographical style. This label, borrowed from Kurt Bauch, means: ‘The frequent variations on the consistent theme of sight, especially faulty sight on the part of his depicted characters, which presumably can be discerned and correctly assessed by the viewer. In that process of proper discernment lies the moral instruction by Bosch to his viewer and his didactic, if usually pessimistic, Christian vision of fallen human nature in general and the need for grace’ [p. 628].
In his article Silver surveys the most important paintings of Bosch, stressing the fact that Bosch’s message (avoid the Evil and do the Good) can only be understood by the viewer through alert observation and paying attention to important details. As Silver himself writes at the end of his article: ‘This essay has attempted to show how the artist provided clues to the understanding of his view of everyday life as well as the more hidden (and difficult) path of holiness by means of significant details…’ [p. 645]. What is being presented here as a revealing insight for Bosch scholarship is in fact nothing more than a statement of the obvious: as if we did not know that in the art of Bosch details are important and that one of the basic requirements of iconography is meticulous observation. Of course, if Silver’s approach (which in itself is not new at all) would lead to surprising, interesting observations, this could definitely benefit the study of Bosch. But this is not the case for in most instances Silver’s observations (at least in this article) are limited to the pointing out of things that every respectable Bosch iconographer has already noticed long before.
When he writes about the Rotterdam St Christopher, for example, Silver points out the naked bather running away from a dragon, the archer who is hanging a bear and the large jug in the tree, after which he concludes: ‘Few of these disturbing and inconsistent details have found convincing explanation (or even much discussion); however, their cumulative effect is to define the rest of the world as a dangerous place, and the empty, broken jug shelter recurs in Bosch scenes of Hell’ [p. 631]. Because Christopher is not paying attention to these negative details he is pointing out to the viewer which choice to make. And that’s it. Likewise, when Silver points out the blessing gesture of St Anthony (central panel of the Lisbon triptych) which at the same time directs the viewer’s gaze towards a blessing Christ, he does little more than follow a familiar avenue and the same is the case when he observes that in the Ghent Carrying of the Cross only Christ and Veronica have closed their eyes, whereas all the others around them are staring with wide-open eyes [p. 648, note 42)].
Elsewhere Silver’s approach leads to weak, far-fetched interpretations, for example when he states that the viewer should look at the sinfulness in the interior panels of the Garden of Delights from the point of view of God the Father in the exterior panels [p. 645]. More embarrassing are the sporadical passages in this article (focusing on correct observation) where Silver himself offers an erroneous observation: for example, when he sees a rosary under the feet of the woman in front of a mirror in the Superbia scene of the Madrid Seven Deadly Sins panel [p. 628].
Silver pays a lot of attention to the way in which some figures in Bosch’s paintings are looking, but again this only results in statements of the obvious (the fact that the figures in the Invidia scene of the Seven Deadly Sins panel look at each other in an envious way, for example [p. 628]) or the presentation of a weak thesis. A clear example of the latter can be found in Silver’s discussion of the Rotterdam Pedlar tondo: ‘The significance of two animals just beyond the gate, a cow and a magpie, remains unclear (and has been variously interpreted), but for our purposes it is evident that the wanderer continues to look backward instead of forward, mindful of the dog but not yet conscious of the obstacles in his path, let alone the owl above his head’ [p. 634]. That this owl is lying on the lurk for a great tit is not even mentioned and apparently Silver is not aware of the looking back gesture as a metaphor for meditation on the past (see De Bruyn 2001a).
Also in other respects this article is running behind. Apparently, Silver does not know yet that the peculiar plant in the Madrid St John the Baptist panel is the overpainting of a donor figure [p. 647, note 26]. All in all, this substantial article is in no way opening up new horizons.