Wein statt Wasser – Essen und Trinken bei Jheronimus Bosch (Gerd Unverfehrt) 2003
[Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, 2003, 138 pages]
For Bosch scholars the name Gerd Unverfehrt is well-known. In 1980 this German art historian (professor at the University of Göttingen) published his dissertation: a very thorough and reliable analysis of early Bosch imitators from the first three decades of the sixteenth century (Hieronymus Bosch – Die Rezeption seiner Kunst im frühen 16. Jahrhundert). During the congress Jheronimus Bosch revealed? The painter and his world (’s-Hertogenbosch, November 2001) Unverfehrt delivered a lecture about ‘eating and drinking’ in the art of Bosch, with the title Dinners for sinners. His new book, Wein statt Wasser [Wine instead of Water], comprizing an introduction, seven short chapters, an afterword and an appendix, is partially based on this lecture but has been expanded with a number of facts and insights that regularly refer to other lectures delivered during the congress and to research results that were published on the occasion of the Bosch exhibitions in Rotterdam and ’s-Hertogenbosch (2001).
In the introduction Unverfehrt disapproves of those authors who consider Bosch a heretic, an alchemist or a psychopathic user of drugs, thus agreeing with Dirk Bax, R.H. Marijnissen, Paul Vandenbroeck, Jos Koldeweij and most recently Eric De Bruyn who have demonstrated that the roots of Bosch’s oeuvre can be found in late-medieval Netherlandish culture. Then he announces his programme. In a footnote [nr. 5, pp. 8/107] he points out that during the 2001 Bosch congress three speakers interpreted the Garden of Delights and that these interpretations were contradicting each other. Therefore, Unverfehrt writes: ‘Apart from technological research aimed at solving the issues of authenticity and chronology, it seems to me that one of the most urgent tasks of Bosch scholarship is to create a reliable basis for future iconographic interpretations by identifying and recognizing the painted and drawn objects and actions, instead of further stimulating the inflationary tendency to present interpretations that hover in the thin air of speculation’ [pp. 7-8]. This desideratum has been advocated by ourselves for years on end.
The second item of Unverfehrt’s programme is the suggestion that more conclusions can be drawn from the archival sources concerning Bosch and the Confraternity of Our Lady than has hitherto been done, in particular regarding food and drink. According to Unverfehrt these conclusions may lead to a better understanding of Bosch’s social status, but ‘it is left to the experts to adapt their theories to the results of a basic research of the available facts’ [p. 8]. Furthermore, Unverfehrt has added some observations about ‘eating and drinking in the art of Bosch’ to his insights.
The short first chapter, Bosch und das Alltägliche [Bosch and the little everyday things of life] focuses on tableware, such as jars, knives and spoons, that can frequently be seen in the art of Bosch. The shape and the colour of everyday objects were represented by Bosch in a very realistic way but by giving them an abnormally huge size or an unusual function he created surprising effects [p. 11]. In ’s-Hertogenbosch archaeologists have found a jar of the same type as the one that can be seen in the Rotterdam St Christopher. The hole in this jar is said to allude to the use of jars for the catching of starlings (spreeuwpotten). Unverfehrt also mentions the big knive with a capital M in the right interior panel of the Garden of Delights, a motif that also appears elsewhere. Knives that were excavated in ’s-Hertogenbosch prove that this letter M was the logo of a local producer of knives (’s-Hertogenbosch was internationally renowned for its production of knives). The large spoon attached to the pedlar’s basket (Rotterdam) refers to the medieval habit of bringing along your own cutlery.
Obviously, this chapter doesn’t tell anything new. As a whole, it makes a rather messy and superficial impression. Regarding the jar and the ‘spreeuwpotten’, the following passage (based on our article about the jar in Bosch’s St Christopher, published in Desipientia and correctly mentioned by Unverfehrt in a footnote) is somewhat surprising: ‘Symbolically a ‘broken jar’ is a Middle Dutch synonym for ‘lost innocence’ and also for ‘whore’. Is the tree-house a brothel? What is the link with St Christopher? Or is it the saint’s ‘tree-hermitage’ that has been occupied by the devil in order to tempt the pious giant? A satisfactory explanation for this motif has not yet been suggested’ [pp. 12-13]. Nevertheless, in the Desipientia article we have demonstrated, in the wake of Bax and with sound arguments, that St Christopher’s tree-hermitage has indeed been diabolized by the devil and has been transformed in an allegorical allusion to prostitution, thus referring to the saint’s legend according to which two prostitutes tried to seduce St Christopher (captured in a prison), of course in vain.
The second chapter is called Erdbeeren – Zur Geschichte eines Irrtums [Strawberries – The history of an error]. It deals with the fruit that can be seen in the central panel of the Garden of Delights: the fruit of the arbutus unedo, Erdbeerbaum in German, madroño in Spanish, strawberry-tree in English. In his description of the Garden (1605) the Spanish author José de Siguença already mentioned this fruit. Here Unverfehrt expands on the lecture delivered by H.Th. Colenbrander during the November 2001 Bosch congress. In the past the word madroño in Siguença’s text has often been translated as ‘strawberry’ but this is wrong. In fact, this is not about a Spanish variant of our strawberries, but about the arbutus unedo, a tree that grows in the Mediterranean and can grow up to twelve meters high. The fruits of this tree grow in pairs and look like a pair of cherries but their stalk is not shaped like a reversed V, but like a reversed Y. One of the naked women in the lower part of the Garden’s central panel is indeed carrying such a pair of fruits on her head (see Unverfehrt’s illustrations 7 and 8). Pliny and Dioskurides (whose texts Bosch may have been familiar with through contemporary editions) describe these fruits as bitter and hard to digest.
Siguença described the madroño as a fruit with an attractive appearance but at the same time hiding a deceptive, unpleasurable and harmful content. Unverfehrt duly remarks: ‘This observation may well apply to the Garden’s central panel whose beauty hides the consequences of superficial lust. These consequences are revealed in the hell of the right interior panel’ [p. 24]. Unverfehrt signals that today the madroño is also grown in Brabant. Furthermore, two botanists from the University of Göttingen have provided him with the information that in the Garden’s central panel the capsule of the Martyniaceae (Gemshorn, devils-claw), a plant originating from South America, has been depicted (compare illustrations 9 and 10). This plant only came to Europe after Columbus’ discovery of America and this would prove that Vermet’s attempt to date the Garden circa 1480 has to be rejected [p. 25]. As opposed to the preceding chapter, this second chapter is very interesting, although it has to be admitted that this is largely due to Colenbrander, at least as far as the information about the madroño is concerned.
In the third chapter, Die Hochzeit zu Kana – Nahrungsmittel und Tafelsitten [The Wedding at Cana – comestibles and table manners], Unverfehrt focuses on the Rotterdam Wedding at Cana panel, according to dendrochronological research (see Rotterdam 2001) a panel that can only have been painted after Bosch’s death (perhaps by his pupil Gielis Panhedel). Possibly this panel is a copy of a Bosch prototype. Most interpretations recognize hermetical, or at least strange symbolism in it. But the fire-spitting swan that is being served can be traced back to a real late-medieval festive custom: wool drenched in camphor was put in a roasted swan’s throat and then set on fire in order to serve a fire-spitting swan [p. 33, see also pp. 35 and 101 ff.]. Something similar was done with pig’s heads. Therefore, these details need not have a demonic meaning in the Rotterdam panel. Moreover, the combination pig-swan was not unusual in late-medieval menus.
In the Rotterdam panel the swan is marked with a crescent moon: according to Unverfehrt swan and crescent moon can be interpreted as symbols referring to the veneration of the Virgin Mary as practised by the Confraternity of Our Lady [p. 41]. The sideboard with the remarkable dinnerware was not unusual in middle-class houses: it was a kind of display cabinet with the old name of tritsoor (buffet) [p. 42]. The musicians in the upper left corner are playing a bagpipe and a Platerspiel, two instruments that could appear both in a lower-class and in a noble context in the Late Middle Ages [p. 45]. The two little creatures (one of them is shooting an arrow at the other’s bottom) have to be interpreted as a joke that also frequently occurred in the margins of secular and religious manuscripts [p. 47]. Gerlach has already pointed out that the men to Jesus’ left and right are wearing the contemporary clothing of priests [p. 48] and the child that is raising a cup in the foreground is interpreted by Unverfehrt as a dwarf who is playing the role of the master of ceremonies who is mentioned in John 2: 9 ff. [p. 49]. In the wake of others Unverfehrt also points out the physical likeness between the bridegroom and St John in Bosch’ St John on Patmos (Berlin). According to a medieval tradition the bridegroom at Cana was St John and probably Gielis Panhedel was inspired by the Bosch panel that – according to recent redearch (Rotterdam 2001) – may have been the upper right wing of the Confraternity of Our Lady altarpiece whose lower wings were painted by Panhedel in the sixteenth century… [p. 51].
In this chapter Unverfehrt tries to demonstrate that there is no demonic or heretic symbolism in the Rotterdam Wedding at Cana panel. He makes some noteworthy remarks in this respect (in particular those concerning the fire-spitting swan and pig’s head) but he does not succeed in offering a convincing overall interpretation. Besides, Unverfehrt does pay quite a lot of attention to a panel that has been removed from the list of authentic Bosch works since Rotterdam 2001.
In the fourth chapter, Mit Jheronimus zu Tisch – Urkunden zu Bosch Ernährung [With Hieronymus at the table – archival sources about Bosch’s food] Unverfehrt looks for information about what Bosch may have eaten and drunk in archival sources about meals and feasts. Beside swans the menus also contained spices such as pepper and saffron, and fruits such as figs, raisins and grapes: these were luxury articles that don’t agree with the idea, based on Bosch’s paintings, that Bosch was an ascetic who rejected all worldly pleasures [p. 63]. Obviously a less interesting chapter, that is only a few steps away from ‘fooling around with Hieronymus Bosch’ (see father Gerlach’s ‘sollen met Jeroen Bosch’).
The very brief fifth chapter is called Brei und Brot [Porridge and bread]. Here Unverfehrt writes about ‘ergotism’, a disease caused by a mould in rye bread whose symptoms were sometimes depicted in Temptations of St Anthony (the medieval Antonite order treated ergotism patients), and about the catching of little birds with the help of an owl functioning as a decoy. This chapter is also less interesting and does not tell anything new.
Essen und Trinken gemalt [Painted food and drinks], the sixth chapter, discusses a number of details in the art of Bosch depicting eating and drinking. Unverfehrt concludes that with Bosch eating and drinking is always related to sins leading to death and damnation. With Bruegel (see his Seven Deadly Sins print series, in particular the Gula print) something similar is the case. The explanatory captions that go with these prints and that, according to Unverfehrt, may have been written by D.V. Coornhert (who also worked for Hieronymus Cock), tell something different, although in each case they propagate moderation. With Bosch and Bruegel intemperance means a sinful rejection of God’s command, whereas with Coornhert it means foolish denial of nature’s rules. Again, these pages are not really breaking fresh ground.
In Anmerkungen zu Boschs sozialer Stellung [Remarks about Bosch’s social position] Unverfehrt discusses Bosch’s social status. Half of the sworn brothers of the Confraternity of Our Lady were priests. The other half were important craftsmen and rich merchants, landowners, courtiers and noblemen: these were the circles in which Bosch moved around [p. 86]. During the 2001 Rotterdam exhibition the ‘family workshop’ hypothesis surfaced: Bosch is said to have worked together with family members in his workshop and this workshop was located in his father’s house at the Market Place (today house number 29). In Rotterdam this family workshop regularly functioned as a deus ex machina, whenever dubious works had to be attributed to Bosch. Nevertheless, Bosch’s own house at the Market Place, which he got thanks to his well-to-do wife, was large enough to have its own workshop [p. 90].
Financially, Bosch belonged to the top layer of ’s-Hertogenbosch. This independent financial position partially explains why Bosch’s art could follow such original paths: he painted what and how he wanted [pp. 92-93]. Unverfehrt then raises the question whether Bosch was a hypocrite: aren’t his social status and the luxurious meals of the confraternity to which he belonged contradictory with his message of moderation, opposing wealth and abundance? ‘Did Bosch preach water while drinking wine?’ Unverfehrt’s answer is negative, but also rather vague: on the one hand, Bosch’s criticism was mainly directed at the lower classes and at the high nobility, and on the other hand he adapted to his high-class environment whose prestige was partially supported by laying on luxurious meals.
In a brief afterword (Rückkehr ins Mittelalter) [Back to the Middle Ages] Unverfehrt signals that today the flesh of swans is still being eaten in Germany (although it is not very tasteful and only young swans can be digested) and that there are still (but very rarely) cases of ergotism. And the ’s-Hertogenbosch Confraternity of Our Lady still exists. An appendix offers the reader some medieval recipes for the preparation of swans and pig’s heads.
All in all, this rather messily-structured book mainly consists of superficial and civilized talk about some aspects of Bosch’s life and art. Worth remembering are the findings about the madroño and about the Martyniaceae capsule in the Garden’s central panel, and also the recipes regarding the fire-spitting roasted swans and pig’s heads. Although Unverfehrt’s ideas about Bosch are sound and reliable (he stays away from blurry, alternative Bosch approaches and is well-read in recent Bosch literature), they don’t help us much further practically. It may be regretted that Unverfehrt did not spend more attention to Bosch’s imitators (a field in which he was an absolute expert, see his dissertation), instead of presenting a mixture of petty facts and suppositions, as is the case in this book.
Professor Gerd Unverfehrt deceased in the year 2010.
[explicit 11th April 2003]