Jheronimus Bosch Art Center

Hieronymus Bosch

Silver 2006
Silver, Larry
Genre: Nonfiction, art history
Aantal pagina's: 424
Uitgever: Abbeville Press Publishers, New York-London
Uitgave datum: 2006
ISBN: 978-0-7892-0901-6

Silver 2006


Hieronymus Bosch (Larry Silver) 2006

[Abbeville Press Publishers, New York-London, 2006, 424 pages]


In the Preface professor Larry Silver (art historian at the University of Pennsylvania) accounts for the publication of this highly attractive monograph with its many beautiful and high-quality colour illustrations. The Bosch exhibition in Rotterdam (2001) and the symposium Jheronimus Bosch Revealed? at ’s-Hertogenbosch in the same year have generated new approaches of Bosch and recently a number of monographs have been published presenting new material, which is why the need has grown “to synthesize and assess these findings within an overall understanding of Bosch” [p. 17]. Apparently it was not Silver’s primary aim to break new research ground, but rather to present an up-to-date state of affairs to the general reader by making him acquainted with the most recent findings of Bosch scholarship.


The first chapter (The Garden of Earthly Delights – and Mortal Sins), comprising 60 pages, is dedicated to the Garden of Delights triptych. It is somewhat unusual to begin a monograph on Bosch with this triptych. The only reason for this seems to be that Peter Klein’s dendrochronological research has shown that the wood of the Garden panels was cut around 1460-66, so that the Garden is “possibly” one of Bosch’s first works [p. 399, note 9]. Silver himself notes that the Garden should have been discussed in chapter 6, together with the other morality triptychs [p. 245].


The central panel refers to luxuria and Ernst Gombrich pointed out the link with the Sicut erat in diebus Noe motif (Matthew 24: 37-39). Silver does not believe that the triptych was painted for the marriage of Henry III of Nassau, as has been argued by Paul Vandenbroeck, but for the interpretation it is important to place the triptych in a noble, courtly context rather than in a religious one [p. 56]. When dealing with the scene in the bottom right corner of the central panel, Silver only talks about ‘wild people’ [pp. 58-66]. That the central panel depicts sinfulness is proven by the fact that a number of motifs pop up again in Bruegel’s Luxuria drawing [pp. 68-69]. That the triptych was intended for a public of noblemen becomes clear from the right inner wing (see for instance the knight’s helmet in the bottom right corner and the references to wealth and hunting) [p. 70]. The quotation from the Psalms on the closed wings anticipates the Last Judgement, which is implicitly present on the Hell panel (right inner wing) [p. 75].

As a whole this first chapter makes a sound and instructive impression, without opening any new horizons (but – as mentioned above – this was not Silver’s intention). Some minor mistakes are the following. The Death of a Miser panel is not in the Groeninge Museum at Bruges, but in Washington [p. 29]. The weird plant on the St. John the Baptist panel (Madrid) [p. 44] is the result of an overpainting, as is correctly signalled in note 23 on page 404). The cat on the left inner wing has not caught an amphibian but a rat or a mouse [p. 49]. And in the background of the left inner wing there really is a second owl surrounded by birds, as Vandenbroeck claimed, although Silver writes he simply cannot see it [p. 400, note 29].


In the second chapter (Artistic Foundations: The Spiritual World of Fifteenth-Century Netherlandish Art) Silver discusses fifteenth-century Netherlandish works of art that may have influenced Bosch. We read about Hans Memling (and his broad landscapes with scattered scenes), miniatures, Hugo van der Goes, Geertgen tot Sint-Jans, the Master of Alkmaar, Israhel van Meckenem and sculptured altarpieces (especially Adriaen van Wesel who made an altarpiece for the Confraternity of Our Lady in ’s-Hertogenbosch). Silver stresses the religious character of this fifteenth-century art [p. 123]. Bosch’s works also have a religious character, but with him the atmosphere is different: no longer sunny optimism but rather a darker, more pessimistic approach [p. 125].


Chapter 3 (Documents and Early Works) deals with the biographical context and Bosch’s earliest works. Silver first writes about Bosch’s signature and supposed portraits, about the archival biographical documents (at the end of his life Bosch was one of the wealthiest citizens of ’s-Hertogenbosch [pp. 130-131]), about the Confraternity of Our Lady, about the city of ’s-Hertogenbosch and its cathedral, and about Bosch’s patrons. These patrons were noblemen and wealthy patricians and in many cases they came into contact with Bosch through the Confraternity of Our Lady. This time the patrons on the Adoration of the Magi (Madrid) are correctly identified as Peeter Scheyfve and Agnes de Gramme (compare Silver 2005) [p. 139, note 25]. In the beginning Bosch could fall back on the money of his wealthy spouse, later he became successful as a painter and he lived a life of moderate luxury thanks to his rich patrons [p. 159].


The supposed early Bosch works are next: the Brussels Crucifixion, the Frankfurt Ecce Homo, the Christ and the Pharisees and Wedding at Cana panels (having come down to us only as copies or replicas) and a number of doubtful attributions: the Philadelphia Adoration of the Magi panel, the New York Adoration of the Magi panel and the Madrid St. Anthony panel. Silver also pays attention to the Madrid Cutting of the Stone panel. In spite of the recent dendrochronological findings there is still a lot of confusion concerning the dating of Bosch’s works [p. 159].


Chapter 4 (The Infancy and Passion of Christ: Gospel Triptychs) is about the paintings focusing on Christ. Silver points out that in the fifteenth-century Netherlands triptychs usually functioned as altarpieces [p. 161] but we can be “almost sure” that the Garden of Delights was not an altarpiece [p. 164]. The Madrid Adoration of the Magi triptych is far more traditional than the Garden. Silver further discusses the Magi’s presents and clothes, the weird figure at the back of the stable (Silver agrees with Brand Philip in identifying him as the Antichrist) and the closed wings. Without suggesting any remarkable or new things he also deals with the backside of the Berlin St. John on Patmos panel, the Philadelphia wings of an Adoration, the Anderlecht Adoration of the Magi triptych (attributed to Bosch’s workshop), the closed wings of the Lisbon St. Anthony triptych and the Vienna Carrying of the Cross wing.


Chapter 5 (Voices in the Wilderness: Bosch’s Saints) focuses on the saints in Bosch’s works. The analysis of the Rotterdam St. Christopher panel is rather superficial. That the St. John on Patmos and St. John the Baptist panels (Berlin/Madrid) were once part of the altarpiece in the chapel of the Confraternity of Our Lady (a thesis that was presented at Rotterdam 2001) is now considered to be a proven fact [p. 198] whereas in chapter 4 this was only “plausible” [p. 179, but also compare further]. Although the front and back of the St. John on Patmos panel are discussed in different chapters, Silver does attempt to point out the relationship between both [p. 201]. Once again the fact that the large plant on the St. John the Baptist panel is an overpainting, is being ignored [p. 201].


Agreeing with the views of Henry Luttikhuizen en Laurinda Dixon (2003) the female protagonist of the Venice Crucified Martyr triptych is identified as St. Eulalia, and not as St. Julia or St. Wilgefortis [p. 208, note 21]. The owl near St. Hieronymus on the central panel of the Venice Hermits triptych is interpreted as a symbol of Christ, whereas the owl on the Ghent St. Hieronymus panel is seen as a symbol of evil [pp. 218/220]. Silver does not agree with Wendy Ruppel who links the Ghent painting to Matthew 8: 20, because the fox in the bottom left corner doesn’t lie in its hole [p. 408, note 32]. A lot of attention is spent on the Lisbon St. Anthony triptych. Silver does not hold Dixon’s alchemical approach (2003) in high esteem, although at least in one case he seems to misunderstand her (when he states that Dixon gives a positive interpretation to the woman on the giant rat, part of whose body is a mandragora [p. 230]). Silver also discusses the Bruges Job triptych, a workshop painting, and the closed wings of the Vienna Last Judgement triptych. According to Silver the link between these closed wings and Philip the Fair is an idea of Dixon (2003), whereas this link was first signalled by Dirk Bax (1983).


In chapter 6 (Allegories of Avarice and Lust: Morality Triptychs) the focus is on Bosch’s moralizing triptychs, one of them being the Garden of Delights which was already dealt with in chapter 1. By painting triptychs with a moralizing content Bosch introduced something new. Silver first discusses the wings of the recently (on the occasion of Rotterdam 2001) restored triptych the central panel of which has been lost. The Washington Death of a Miser represents avarice by means of a dying pawnbroker (as Vandenbroeck interpreted the protagonist). In the Paris Ship of Fools and the New Haven Allegory of Gluttony, two paintings that once made up one panel, the sin of luxuria is being criticized. The protagonist of the Rotterdam Pedlar tondo (once the closed wings of the dismantled triptych) is not the prodigal son. With De Bruyn (2001) Silver sees this man as a repentant sinner [p. 259] who represents the pilgrimage of life as a kind of Everyman. This tondo was once the outside of the three panels mentioned above and can be understood as a representation of the same vices (avarice and unchastity) to which a call for repentance was added. On the Brussels Prodigal Son painting by Jan van Hemessen Silver signals the presence of a pedlar [p. 254]. Bernet Kempers (1973a / 1973b) has convincingly argued that this man is not a pedlar, but an ‘oblieman’ (an itinerant seller of waffles whose clients could gamble for his merchandise).


Silver’s analysis of the Haywain triptych makes a rather weak impression. Sporadically the author presents the reader with categorical and therefore superficial statements: the roasted pig’s head near the gypsy women on the central panel refers to vices, especially gluttony and avarice [p. 266], the ox and the chalice (see the man on the ox (?) at the bottom of the right inner wing) are well-known symbols of the Church [p. 270]. Silver concludes that the central theme of the Haywain is avarice whereas that of the Garden of Delights is unchastity. That Bosch was a pessimistic moralist can be derived from the fact that on both triptychs he painted God the Father as a very small figure [p. 273].


Chapter 7 (Drawings and Development) deals with the drawings and the chronology of Bosch’s works. Some fourty Bosch drawings have come down to us, but the issue of authenticity is a difficult one [p. 275]. Silver first focuses on three drawings that seem to form a unity: the Rotterdam Owls’ Nest, the Berlin The Field has Eyes, the Wood has Ears and the Vienna Tree-Man. The discussion of the other drawings is again rather superficial, which means that the author mainly limits himself to a description of what can be seen in the drawings without offering any new observations. But when he discusses the chronology the art historian in him suddenly seems to warm up to his subject.


First he rejects the hypothetical chronology of Frédéric Elsig (2004) because it is too subjective. Then he spends some critical thoughts on the recent dendrochronological analyses of Peter Klein that have attracted a lot of attention in recent years [pp. 296-298]. Silver notes that the dendrochronological method is based on a number of premises and that Klein’s research has not been double-checked by another scholar, which calls for caution. When dating a painting the dendrochronological method can be useful in ascertaining a terminus post quem. In this way the following paintings cannot be considered to be authentic works any longer: the Madrid Crowning with Thorns, the Rotterdam Wedding at Cana, the Philadelphia and Indianopolis Ecce Homo panels and the Cologne Adoration of the Child. Both Haywain triptychs (Prado/Escorial) have to be dated quite late (after 1500) but perhaps they both depend on a lost common model.


The chronologies that have been suggested by Baldass and Elsig are too hypothetical and suddenly the author does no longer seem to grant much credibility to Koldeweij’s hypothesis (the St. John on Patmos and St. John the Baptist panels as parts of the altarpiece of the Confraternity of Our Lady, both painted shortly after 1488-89) [p. 300]. Silver then presents his own relative chronology, taking as his starting-point the Bosch panels in Venice which he dates around 1500, together with the Haywain. This need not imply that Bosch made a trip to Italy, as these works may have been exported to Italy by merchants [p. 301]. Basing his arguments on style, on the signature Jheronimus bosch and on Klein’s dendrochronological research Silver dates the Lisbon St. Anthony and the Ghent St. Hieronymus somewhat later, and the Garden of Delights, the Vienna Last Judgement, the three drawings mentioned earlier and the Bruges Last Judgement (here assigned to Bosch’s workshop) somewhat later still. After 1510 then follow the London Crowning with Thorns and the Ghent Carrying of the Cross. The Madrid Adoration of the Magi and the Rotterdam Flood wings are considered to be Bosch’s most mature works.

On these pages Silver tries to break new ground, for the first time in this monograph. But his chronology also makes a highly subjective and hypothetical impression. The title of this section then is well-chosen: Suggestions Toward a Relative Chronology, in which the first word is the most important one.


Chapter 8 (Conclusion: Late-Medieval End-Time) deals with the remaining Bosch paintings and stresses Bosch’s pessimistic view on man. Silver sees the Madrid Seven Deadly Sins panel as an authentic work with sporadic workshop contributions of inferior quality. This painting is a summary of all Bosch themes: on the one hand the Four Last Things, on the other hand man’s sinfulness and folly. This last theme is also present in the St. Germain-en-Laye Conjuror, according to Silver a good copy of a Bosch original, and in the Lille Concert in an Egg. Whether this last painting is a copy or an imitation is not clear. It has no hidden alchemical meaning, but is meant as a satire. The Rotterdam Flood wings are definitely authentic. On their outside (with the four tondos) Everyman fights against the devil. Silver’s analysis of the insides is rather vague.


Are also discussed in this chapter: the Escorial Carrying of the Cross, the London Crowning with Thorns, the Crowning with Thorns that only came down to us through copies (Madrid and Valencia), the copies of Christ before Pilate and the Ghent Carrying of the Cross. The Vienna Last Judgement triptych once again confirms Bosch’s pessimistic view on mankind: only few souls are allowed to go to Heaven. (The picture on pages 342-343 is not taken from the Vienna Last Judgement, as is erroneously stated in the caption, but from the right wing of the Garden of Delights.) With their focus on the saved souls the Venice Visions of the Hereafter are less pessimistic but in the Bruges Last Judgement triptych, a high-quality workshop painting, the diabolical again overrules the heavenly aspect. Silver’s conclusion is that sin, guilt and fear of the Last Judgement dominate Bosch’s view on man and world [p. 358].


The ninth and last chapter (Bosch’s Afterlife in Sixteenth-Century Art) is integrally allotted to Bosch’s afterlife in the sixteenth century. Silver signals two trends here: on the one hand the servile borrowing and imitation of Boschian monsters and motifs, on the other hand the witty adaptation of Bosch’s way of dealing with moral issues and spiritual worries [p. 361]. In this chapter we read about the Alart Du Hameel engravings, Jan Provoost, Joachim Patinir, Quinten Massys, Jan van Hemessen, Jan Mandijn and Peeter Huys, the Hieronymus Cock prints, the drawings and paintings of Peeter Bruegel the Elder and finally Jan Brueghel. A survey which can hardly be called complete: Herri met de Bles, the Malines Verbeeck family, the Bosch influences in Italy and numerous sixteenth-century imitations are lacking.




As already mentioned above Silver’s first aim was to synthesize and assess the recent results of Bosch research (since 2001) [p. 17, Preface]. Overlooking the complete text we may conclude that the first part of this objective (to signal and summarize new findings) has been worked out in a satisfactory way. Silver’s text and especially his endnotes bear witness to an admirable knowledge of the secondary literature on Bosch: almost anyone who has been publishing about the painter or his surroundings recently is mentioned somewhere in this book. Whether this has led to a coherent and clarifying overall understanding of Bosch is another thing, though. To claim that Silver never defends a personal point of view would manifestly be stretching the truth. His approach to Bosch is clearly a ‘moderate’ one (Bosch as a Christian moralist and pessemistic satirist), he rejects the ‘alternative’ interpretations (alchemy, heresy, astrology) and at the end of chapter 7 he tries to break new grounds regarding the Bosch chronology. On the other hand it cannot be denied that Silver’s treatment of Bosch’s works often remains somewhat superficial. In the Preface [p. 17] he warns of the wild theories about Bosch and of the “monolithic interpretations” that belong to specialized angles of analysis (too easily – at least in our opinion – sweeping together in a pile the influence of Middle Dutch idioms and culture with the supposed influences of alchemy and astrology). What we need, Silver writes, “is a combination of historical sense and some inclusive common sense”.


If this last sentence is meant to be read as the foreboding of a personal overall understanding at all (it rather sounds as a double statement of the obvious), then it can only too rarely be found in this monograph. It must be admitted that now and again Silver has some striking observations to offer, for instance by not only linking the little devil using a child’s walker and a whirligig on the right wing of the Lisbon St. Anthony with the child on the outside of the Vienna Carrying of the Cross wing, but also with the Carrying of the Cross depiction on the other side of the Lisbon right wing [pp. 232-234]. Quite often, however, he may be critizised because of categorical statements (such as “here the pitcher refers to debauchery”, without any further explanation), or because of accepting manifestly weaker interpretations taken from the secondary literature (a good example of this on pages 325 and 414, note 25). On other occasions the author misses wonderful opportunities to bring the reader closer to Bosch, for instance when the motif of the dovecote is only linked with seventeenth-century landscape paintings [p. 413, note 16]. About the dovecote as a metaphorical brothel and about the relevance of the Middle Dutch language in this context: not a single word.


What also strikes the reader is that in many cases Silver limits his text to a rather dry description of what can be seen on Bosch’s panels and drawings, without making the effort of giving elucidating comments. Silver’s choice for a thematic approach of Bosch also leads to the fact that the outer wings of a triptych are often discussed in one chapter and the inner panels in another. Obviously this does not really open a lucid discussion of the coherent program of these triptychs, although it must be admitted that in most cases Silver tries (be it in a concise way) to signal the existence of such coherences.


It is beyond any dispute that this monograph is a breathtakingly illustrated book that offers the reader the opportunity to explore the fascinating imagery of Hieronymus Bosch (and of many other artists) in detail. Moreover, for those who have never read anything on Bosch, Silver’s text can be seen as a sound introduction that reliably shows the way to a lot of further information. But inevitably an impressive publication such as this one prompts the well-read Bosch scholar to expect something more than a sumptuous form with a content that is only partially convincing.




  • Eric De Bruyn, in: Mediaevistik, Band 22 (2009), pp. 596-600.


  • Stefan Fischer, “Larry Silver: Hieronymus Bosch”, in: sehepunkte 8 (2008), nr. 6 (15.06.2008) [www.sehepunkte.de/2008/06/11886.html – consulted 27th January 2012]. Zwar hat er [Silver] mit diesem Buch ein aüsserst reichhaltiges Kompendium vorgelegt, dass dem neusten Forschungsstand weitgehend Rechnung trägt, innovativ ist es jedoch nicht [although with this book Silver has presented a very rich compendium that pays a lot of attention to the most recent state of affairs, it is not innovative].


[explicit 22nd September 2012]

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