Jheronimus Bosch Art Center

De bedoelingen van Bosch

Van Puyvelde 1956
Van Puyvelde, Leo
Serie: Mededelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen - Afd. Letterkunde, Nieuwe Reeks - deel 19 - nr. 2
Genre: Nonfiction, art history
Aantal pagina's: 30
Uitgever: Noordhollandsche Uitgevers Maatschappij, Amsterdam
Uitgave datum: 1956

Van Puyvelde 1956


De bedoelingen van Bosch (Leo Van Puyvelde) 1956

[Mededelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen – Afd. Letterkunde, Nieuwe Reeks – deel 19 – nr. 2, Noordhollandsche Uitgevers Maatschappij, Amsterdam, 1956, 30 pages]

[Also mentioned in Gibson 1983: 149 (G85)]


The present art historians (Tolnay, Baldass, Brion, Combe, Fraenger, Bax) suggest that the art of Bosch is abounding with ‘hidden meanings and vague symbols’, with ‘rebuses’. Fraenger has gone furthest in this respect. Van Puyvelde has now studied the direct sources that Bosch may have known and most of the time he has not found the things the art historians want to derive from them. In the art of Bosch nothing can be detected about the heretical Sect of the Free Spirit. The Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life were not a heretical sect. Nothing in the life or the art of Bosch proves that he was involved with magic or sorcery.


Van Puyvelde then introduces three theses.

  1. Bosch was a normal man of his age who had nothing to do with superstition or hereticism.
  2. He painted in a simple and clear way for the common people of his age. We can still easily understand his art, if we use our common sense.
  3. Bosch was gifted with an extraordinary creativity (apparently creating new forms was a pleasant game for the painter) and his humour was sophisticated.

One by one Van Puyvelde tries to produce arguments for these three theses.


Ad (1).

See the historical facts (the patronage of ecclesiastical and worldly authorities): apparently Bosch was a faithful Christian. See also his works, although here caution is needed because the catalogue of his oeuvre is uncertain (Van Puyvelde offers a list of paintings that are definitely authentic, according to him). These paintings show that Bosch was not an aloof loner: his art is timely. Although he is more realistic than his predecessors (the Flemish Primitives): he adds folkloristic details and is often humorous. An example: the Ghent Carrying of the Cross. The only thing Bosch wants to do is ‘to tell a story in a comprehensible way’. Examples: the Rotterdam Wedding at Cana and Prodigal Son, the Lisbon St Anthony triptych and the Ghent St Hieronymus.


That Bosch sometimes pokes fun at the clergy (in the Ship of Fools for instance) is typical of his age. Bosch believed in the spirit of Evil, but pokes fun at it to show that Evil can be conquered. This was also done in the Dutch plays of his age. Bosch would be understood in a far better way if the saints’ lives and plays of his century were studied (in 1912 the author wrote a book about this, but it was only used by Bax…).


Ad (2).

Bosch was a moralist who used satire and mockery to convey his message. He tried to convince people by emphasizing their ludicrous and wrong behaviour. He preaches in the common people’s language, not using an artificial bookish language. Example: The Ship of Fools. His depictions of hell are simply warning of the danger by which sinners are threatened. The Visio Tondali and St Patrick’s Purgatory did not influence him. The Garden of Earthly Delights is also easy to understand: it is a moralizing sermon about the danger to forget about God by indulging in earthly vanities. Another example is The Haywain.


Ad (3).

In order to understand Bosch’s monsters one should not study old books. Pivotal is to follow and recognize the artist’s creativity. Image after image is born, one image leads to another, without special intentions. The artist enjoys the process of creating. Bosch also possessed a sophisticated sense of humour. There are two kinds: on the one hand his ironical, standoffish humour that understands the futility of human behaviour, on the other the serious treatment of bizarre things (a cocktail of mockery and seriousness). Conclusion: Bosch can be understood without all the intellectual pedantry he is approached with today.


That Bosch was a moralist and that modern Bosch scholars often produce far-fetched and pedantic theories are undoubtedly two things that Van Puyvelde has seen correctly. But that modern spectators can still understand Bosch without much trouble is a thesis that cannot be accepted, in particular where the iconographic analysis of details is concerned. Regarding this last aspect Van Puyvelde takes things a bit too easy. About the Lisbon St Anthony triptych he writes for example: ‘The description of all the forms in which the devil appears here, would lead too far. Why should every scene have a particular meaning?’ That Bosch would have painted for the common people of his age, is another unacceptable thesis.



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