Jheronimus Bosch Art Center

De 'geheimtaal' van Jheronimus Bosch - Een interpretatie van zijn werk

Van Waadenoijen 2007
Van Waadenoijen, Jeanne
Genre: Nonfiction, art history
Aantal pagina's: 280
Uitgever: Verloren, Hilversum
Uitgave datum: 2007
ISBN: 978-90-6550-965-9

Van Waadenoijen 2007


De ‘geheimtaal’ van Jheronimus Bosch. Een interpretatie van zijn werk (Jeanne van Waadenoijen) 2007

[Verloren, Hilversum, 2007, 280 pages]


Writing a monograph about Hieronymus Bosch is no sinecure. The preserved works of this late-medieval painter are generally known as being fascinating and intriguing but at the same time as very difficult to interpret (not to mention the oeuvre’s catalogue). The last 100 years this has generated an elaborate and widely divergent literature. Reading and assimilating this literature has occasionally been compared to a stay in Purgatory. Also in recent times the number of publications about Bosch has been increasing, but unfortunately this quantitative growth is not always in proportion to the quality of what is being said. This should not be misunderstood: it does not mean that no progress is being made at all or that everything that has been published recently is worthless. But the big issue is: how can the wheat be separated from the chaff? And more specific: what is chaff and what is wheat? The golden rule for anyone who wishes to write a new book about Bosch seems to be: to assimilate the valuable insights of earlier scholars and – if possible – add new insights that break fresh ground.


In this context one sentence from the preface to the recent Bosch monograph by the Dutch art historian Jeanne van Waadenoijen (who is active in Italy) may sound somewhat surprising. After having signalled the confusing scholarly literature about Bosch she announces (in the second paragraph) that her own research started with neglecting the research of others. Fortunately further reading shows that this was only meant as some sort of witticism. Van Waadenoijen continues by saying that in a next stage she has compared her own insights to those of earlier authors, on which occasion Middle Dutch texts proved to be indispensible for a proper understanding of Bosch’s oeuvre. She also explicitly warns the reader of the (wrong) impression that her statements would only be the result of her own research. When the author in the preface and in the short introduction also declares that she wants to focus on the mental world of Bosch and his contemporaries as we know it from written and visual sources and that the Bible and other edifying texts are important sources in this respect, Van Waadenoijen’s approach presents itself as very promising indeed.


The text of De ‘geheimtaal’ van Jheronimus Bosch consists of three parts. In the first part Van Waadenoijen lists up what we know about the life, work and background of Bosch. In the second part she analyses Bosch’s paintings (the drawings stay out of focus) one by one. The last part is dedicated to the conclusions. In the first part, which is meant as a general introduction to Bosch’s social and cultural context and aims at a wide range of readers, the few established biographical data about Bosch are briefly summed up, after which the author briefly focuses on the issue which paintings that are attributed to Bosch may be authentic.


Van Waadenoijen explicitly admits that she is no expert in this field and relying on the stylistic and scientific research of ‘Bosch connaisseurs’ (whose names are not given) she delivers a catalogue that inevitably makes an arbitrary impression. Surprising is that the Rotterdam Saint Christopher panel (generally acknowledged as being a Bosch original) is totally lacking in this catalogue. As a matter of fact: this panel is absent in the complete book. Less surprising, but not without significance for the Bosch approach presented in this book (see infra) is that secular panels such as the Madrid Cutting of the Stone and the St. Germain-en-Laye Conjuror are also lacking in the catalogue. Also absent is the Ghent Carrying of the Cross, probably because Bosch’s authorship of this panel is not generally accepted. But why then is the equally controversial Madrid Seven Deadly Sins panel listed in the catalogue and even quite elaborately analysed (on the pages 154-161)?


The other sections of the first part focus on the social context in which Bosch’s paintings were created. The following subjects are dealt with: religious art (mainly the result of concern about the salvation of the soul), secular art (that has survived the centuries to a much lower degree and that often had a moralizing character), the choice of themes, the patrons (who belonged to the higher classes), their education and their libraries, the sermons and the festive culture (offering laymen the opportunity to participate in the spiritual way of life) and the cultural background of painters (with special attention for the imagery they used).


This part of the book, almost thirty pages, is basically okay, but as a whole it makes a rather flat and superficial impression. It reads like some sort of upgraded academic course in which Bosch is hardly visible – except for the last section. New essential things are not communicated, dull enumerations are predominant and more than once we read statements of the obvious. A nice example of this is the last sentence of this part: ‘The main issue for the modern spectator when interpreting works of art from the time of Bosch is to know where and when a deeper meaning is hidden behind seemingly realistic scenes and what these deeper meanings boil down to’ [p. 46].


It is clear that part I is only a modest and (at least in this form) not quite indispensable introduction to the second part that makes up the main constituent of the book with its almost 200 pages. Here Van Waadenoijen delivers a description and interpretation of those Bosch paintings that are generally considered authentic works. She has chosen for a thematical approach: first the traditional and next the less traditional subjects. A choice that again may seem somewhat arbitrary but that can be accepted, because Bosch scholars do not yet agree about the chronology of the Bosch oeuvre.


At the beginning of part II and directly related to the last sentence of part I Van Waadenoijen immediately signals that interpretations are always subjective and she does not claim that her interpretations are always the only possible or correct ones. This approach attests to modesty and carefulness and can be justified from a scientific point of view, all the more so when we are dealing with the study of Bosch. Nevertheless it has to be pointed out that this captatio benevolentiae towards the reader regularly seems to collide with the tone and the way of formulating Van Waadenoijen uses.


I limit myself here to one example that can be found in part I but that is typical of all the others. On page 44 the author writes about the symbolism of the fox, more precisely about his deceptiveness. She refers to the bestiaria topos according to which foxes sometimes pretend to be dead in order to trap birds that feed on corpses, and in a footnote she adds: ‘Undoubtedly this is also the meaning of the sleeping fox in the Vienna Creation’. It takes a reader who is quite familiar with the Bosch oeuvre to grasp that Van Waadenoijen is writing about the left interior panel of Bosch’s Vienna Last Judgment triptych, but that is not my primary concern here. More serious is that there is no sleeping fox in the Vienna left interior panel at all, although we can see a sleeping dog, in the left-bottom corner. There is a fox present in the neighbourhood of the dog but he is preying on a chicken and is definitely not sleeping, whereas on the other hand Bosch has painted a sleeping fox in front of his lair in the left-bottom corner of the Ghent St Hieronymus panel. Apparently the author is mixing up a few things here, but that is not my concern either. What does worry me then is the word undoubtedly in footnote 109, a word that does not make a modest or careful impression at all. And even if Van Waadenoijen’s interpretation would have shown no visual errors or vagueness, an adverb such as perhaps or probably would have been more appropriate.


This is only one, perhaps not all that important example, but numerous similar phrasings can be found in the text. On the other hand: an author who wants to present an iconographic interpretation of the largely recalcitrant Bosch oeuvre or parts of it, can hardly dispense with a certain degree of arrogance, or to put it milder: pertness. As Van Waadenoijen herself states in the introduction: sometimes it is not easy to interpret Bosch and inevitably this results in divergent opinions with modern scholars. But if some authors, dealing with issue X, claim: this is white, and others claim: this is black, it is only logical that X cannot be white ànd black at the same time and objecting against someone else’s opinion automatically makes a pedantic impression.


If an author wants to convince the others of his own being right, a good method for this seems to be: to use as many valid arguments as possible and these arguments do not always have to be original ones. Why should Bosch be invented all over again with every monograph that is written about him? If a particular argument has been proven correct, its conclusions can be accepted without any problem, preferably with a reference to the quoted source and if possible with additional arguments that make the interpretation even stronger. In her analysis of the Ghent St Hieronymus panel (pp. 92-96 and 134-135) Van Waadenoijen uses this method in an exemplary way.


She relates Hieronymus, who is fighting against his temptations, to a relevant passage from the saint’s letter to Eustochium, as has already been done by Wilhelm Fraenger (unfortunately a reference to Fraenger is lacking). In the wake of an article dating from 1988 by Wendy Ruppel (this time correctly referred to in a footnote) the sleeping fox and the birds’ nests are explained with the help of a text from the Bible (‘the foxes have holes, the birds have nests…’). And by linking the opposition between the dark foreground and the sunny landscape in the background to a quotation from the Psalms, the author convincingly adds an original insight to the interpretation of this panel.


This brief summary of Van Waadenoijen’s analysis of the St Hieronymus panel clearly signals the basic thought of her approach to Bosch. The author’s main purpose is to show that the work of Bosch is based on a sound knowledge of the Bible. That is why in her iconographic interpretations she regularly uses quotations from the Bible but she also often refers to contemporary edifying texts, for example to liturgical books such as missals and breviaries. As far as I can see this is a new element within the literature about Bosch. Admittedly, signalling that the Bible was an important source for Bosch is not original, but that does not make it less correct.


Unfortunately the way in which Van Waadenoijen presents her approach is not always as exemplary as in the case of the Ghent St Hieronymus, at least in my opinion. Even though the more conventional subjects of the Bosch works discussed by the author are based on a long iconographic tradition and are thus easy to interpret, it is beyond discussion that specific details of these paintings remain enigmatic for the modern spectator. It is on occasions like these that the modern Bosch iconographer is expected to break fresh ground in the field of Bosch scholarship by means of strong arguments. A logical and interesting question is then: how does Van Waadenoijen perform in this respect? The answer seems to be: in a rather varying way.


The first painting she analyses in the second part is the Adoration of the Magi triptych (Madrid, Museo del Prado). Van Waadenoijen’s description of the general iconographic outline of this triptych is quite satisfactory and moreover she correctly interprets some details concerning the presents and the clothes of the Three Magi as examples of typological symbolism (scenes from the Old Testament that anticipate the New Testament). One of the presents depicts Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac to God: a prototype of Christ’s sacrifice, to which the closed wings of the triptych are referring as well. One of the Magi’s clothes depicts the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon: a prototype of the Adoration of the Magi, the main theme of the opened triptych. These interpretations can be confirmed with the help of several medieval texts, but in the literature about Bosch these have already been signalled more than once.


A quite different issue is the very weird so-called ‘Fourth King’, at the back of the stable in the central panel, who is watching the newly born Christ Child. Since Lotte Brand Philip interpreted this figure as the Antichrist in 1953 it has given rise to a lot of controversy and a really convincing interpretation has not yet been given. Van Waadenoijen rejects Brand Philip’s explanation and interprets the ‘Fourth King’ in a rather confusing and not very convincing way as a gymnosophist or ‘bragmanno’ (according to medieval belief a species of man living in India) and at the same time as a reference to the Messiah. This interpretation is not very convincing from the start because Van Waadenoijen does not notice (let alone explain) that the Fourth King’s neck and face are red and burnt, whereas the rest of his body is strikingly pale. It seems to me that anyone who is not able to explain this intriguing detail should better postpone an interpretation of the complete figure for the time being.


To discuss the interpretations of all paintings in an elaborate way is not possible within this limited scope, that is why I only turn to one other of the ‘traditional’ works dealt with by Van Waadenoijen in the second part: the Temptations of St Anthony triptych (Lisbon, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga). It is praiseworthy that again the author succeeds in signalling the iconographic bottom line: St Anthony who is able to resist the temptations and harassments of the devil thanks to his faith in Christ which is why he is depicted in the center of the central panel very close to Christ, who is also the primary focus of attention in the closed wings. One can still agree with the author when she analyses particular details, for example when she smartly notices that the small pitcher dangling from a devil’s walking frame in the right interior panel is not a wine jug but a prototype of the nursing bottle, after which she links this detail to a number of biblical quotations signalling the folly of persons who behave like little children.


Nevertheless it has to be observed that in many other cases Van Waadenoijen’s interpretations of details in the St Anthony triptych are extremely weak. An example of this is what she writes about the diabolical messenger with a funnel on his head in the bottom-right corner of the left interior panel. Although she continuously refers to Bax when discussing this little figure and actually limits herself to echoing Bax without any criticism (resulting in her own text in apodictic statements such as ‘the funnel refers to excessive alcohol consumption’), she totally ignores Bax’s (correct) observation that on the letter attached to the messenger’s beak we can read – mirrorwise – the word protio (the abbreviation of ‘protestatio’, I protest). Further she interprets the ‘A’ on the messenger’s badge as the first letter of ‘Antichrist’, without any justification for that matter.


In footnote 313 Van Waadenoijen rebukes a particular author (namely myself) for drawing too hasty conclusions every now and then. This may be as it is (although in my opinion there is a difference between too hasty conclusions and hypotheses that are clearly presented as hypotheses), it seems only fair to me that one does not commit the same errors one blames others for. At first sight Van Waadenoijen’s interpretation of the diabolical messenger as a servant of the Antichrist seems to echo pages 10-11 from Bax’s Ontcijfering van Jeroen Bosch [Hieronymus Bosch – his picture-writing deciphered, pp. 14-15] (to which footnote 211 refers), but that is not the case: Bax does mention the Antichrist interpretation, but only to reject it after which he concludes: ‘A safer conjecture is that it is the A of Antonius: the devils pretend that Antonius has sent a message of protest by someone in his service. It is a refined way of tormenting the saint’. Which sounds like a convincing interpretation, for which even more can be said than Bax himself has done (see infra).


Van Waadenoijen’s discussion of the diabolical messenger shows other flaws as well. First she signals that Bosch always designed his compositions in a very meticulous way, and then – concerning the bird that has been killed by an arrow, to the left of the messenger – she claims that ‘undoubtedly’ (!) this detail means that Anthony has successfully organised a counteroffensive (namely: against the devils). Isn’t it far more logical, though, that the bird has not been killed by Anthony (or in his name) but by the three devils hiding under a bridge somewhat further away: the devil to the right is wearing a belt and in this belt he carries an arrow of the same form and size as the one that has killed the bird. Furthermore these devils are reading the letter of protest that has been brought to them by the diabolical messenger (who is only carrying the envelope at his beak). Apparently there is a protest (as it were by Anthony’s order) against the killing of the bird by the three devils.


Because indeed Bosch was very meticulous in designing his compositions one could take Bax’s interpretation a step further here. From medieval legends about St Anthony (see for example the Legenda aurea) we know the story of Anthony who is visiting his hermit-colleague St. Paul. God has arranged that St Paul is fed each day by a crow delivering bread. When Anthony visited him, the crow delivered a bread consisting of two parts, so that the hermit saints could divide it in a fair way. Does the crow in the left interior panel of Bosch’s triptych remind us of this legend, and have Bosch’s devils killed the crow to badger the saint and to organise a sham protest? It is remarkable that in the right interior panel, at the same height as the shot crow, a diabolical banquet is being given and one of the things we see is a bread consisting of two parts. Was this bread stolen from the divine crow by the devils? In one of the panels of the Isenheim Altarpiece (Colmar, Unterlinden Museum), painted by Matthias Grünewald, a contemporary of Bosch, Anthony, Paul and the crow delivering bread are depicted: the bread consists of two parts, just as the bread in Bosch’s St Anthony triptych. Make no mistake: this last paragraph is explicitly presented as a hypothesis.

As has already been mentioned above part II of Van Waadenoijen’s book consists of two parts: in a first (long) section she focuses on the paintings with ‘easy’ traditional subjects, in a second (shorter, but still quite elaborate) section she deals with the paintings whose subjects are not or only partially traditional. Obviously the iconographic interpretation of these latter works causes more problems, the ‘highlight’ of Bosch scholarship being the so-called Garden of Delights triptych, the discussion of which the author has postponed till the end of her text. Lest, after the preceding paragraphs, one should have the wrong impression that Van Waadenoijen’s study boils down to nothing else but fiddling about with Hieronymus Bosch, I would like to emphasize that also in the second section her analyses reach a very acceptable level, as long as the general outlines are concerned. Furthermore it is praiseworthy that she does not shy away from starting up a dialogue with other Bosch scholars and in doing so she often defends personal points of view.


With regard to the very badly conserved Rotterdam Flood panels for example she adduces a number of Biblical passages that are not completely convincing but still are worthy of further research. Concerning the idea, launched in 2001 on the occasion of the Rotterdam Bosch exhibition, that the Pedlar tondo and the Death of a Miser and Ship of Fools panels have once belonged to the same triptych, she correctly observes that the available data are insufficient to consider this a proven fact. She further signals – with due arguments – that the Ship of Fools panel actually depicts a May festival and that the protagonist of the Death of a Miser panel doesn’t have to be a miser or a usurer. She does not interpret the pedlars in the closed wings of the Haywain triptych and in the Rotterdam tondo as repentent sinners but as faithful Christians who trust in the Lord (although in footnote 458 she admits – rather confusingly for the reader – that the interpretation of the pedlars as repentent sinners cannot be wholly excluded…).


On the other hand some interpretations of details in this part of the book can only be read with a shake of the head. In these cases the irritation is more than once generated by the fact that the reader is continuously overwhelmed by Biblical quotations (often chosen at random). At such moments it strongly looks like Van Waadenoijen is exaggerating her – basically correct – main thesis (Bosch was a conventional and faithful Christian with a striking knowledge of the Bible). When for example the author focuses on the fact that Bosch’s Rotterdam pedlar is looking over his shoulder, a gesture that I have tried to interpret in my doctoral thesis as a positive topos that is typical of a person who remembers his sinful past in a repentent way, she prefers to quote Ecclesiastes 9: 12: ‘As a fish is suddenly caught in a fyke or a bird is caught up in a net, so man is also caught at a bad moment that unexpectedly surprises him’.


According to Van Waadenoijen this Biblical verse can be applied to the scene right above the head of the pedlar: a great tit is preyed upon by a decoy owl. One may agree with this, although Bosch did not paint a net, but Van Waadenoijen claims that the pedlar does not pay attention to the owl and the tit, because he is not looking at this particular scene. The looking back-gesture is then supposed to mean that no man knows when his time has come and that he should always keep away from sinning. But supposing that the pedlar is indeed not conscious of all this, doesn’t this imply that the pedlar is not on the alert for sin and that he is a negative, sinful figure? Whereas in the end Van Waadenoijen interprets him as ‘man who travels through life in a poor and humble way while carrying the burden of life – which does not necessarily have to consist of sins’ [p. 206], in other words: as an unambiguously positive figure. That Van Waadenoijen totally ignores the symbolism of the stick with which Bosch’s pedlars keep a growling dog at distance, and of the basket they are carrying along, are additional objections against her interpretation, but it is impossible to expand on this within this limited scope.


I would rather pay some attention to the more than thirty pages dedicated to the Garden of Delights triptych, the highlight and very often also the stumbling block of every Bosch monograph. The closed wings with the Psalm verses refer to the creation of the world and every faithful’s duty to obey the Lord, the left interior panel represents Adam and Eve in Eden and a number of details already announce the Fall of Man, the right interior panel depicts Hell. Once again the author’s general interpretations can hardly be critisized, whereas her analyses of iconographic details are rather mediocre.


When for example she writes about the punishment of the pub-crawlers in Hell, at the bottom of the right interior panel, on one and the same page (p. 217) we read apodictic statements such as ‘the taking of a false oath was punished by cutting off the hand’ (without even the slightest mentioning of a source or reference) and on the other hand nice additions to the Garden scholarship (more particularly when the negative opinion of the late-medieval moralists about gambling games is illustrated by means of a Bruges merchant’s contract from 1455 and a treatise from 1505 written for the young French king). In her analysis of the sow-devil dressed as an abbess in the right-bottom corner of the same wing Van Waadenoijen scores by pointing out that around 1500 he term ‘abbess’ could refer to a female brothel-keeper or madame, but next thing you know she misses a nice opportunity because she discusses this fragment without saying anything about a pact with the devil.


And then there is of course the central panel of the triptych, for which up to now no really convincing general interpretation has been given. According to Van Waadenoijen Bosch did not intend to represent humanity in the days of Noach, but we are looking at a dream vision of a false paradise, in which ‘vanity’ is the central idea. It is a hypothesis that comfortably joins so many others but it is not able to convince the reader because the argument shows a number of crucial flaws. It is a pity for instance that the author interprets the man and woman with hair all over their body in the bottom-right corner as wild men, and not as Adam and Eve, in spite of the apple in the hand of the woman. This is all the more striking because in footnote 56 she explicitly claims that Adam and Eve were not hirsute, whereas Dirk Bax in his 1983 monograph has already signalled a passage in the Book of Sidrac clearly proving that in the Middle Ages the idea that Adam and Eve became hirsute as a punishment for the Fall of Man did exist.


In the third and last part of her monograph Van Waadenoijen summarizes her iconographic analyses. It may sound somewhat surprising after the preceding criticism but in my opinion these pages are among the strongest of the complete book. What the author herself signals on page 216 (concerning the right interior panel of the Garden of Delights) is namely true: in most cases it is not necessary to understand the exact meaning of all details in order to grasp the general purport of what Bosch painted. In Van Waadenoijen’s opinion – and many Bosch scholars will agree with her – Bosch’s work is dominated by Christian religious ideas and morals and it shows an intense familiarity with the Bible, with liturgy, with the lives of the saints and with late-medieval edifying texts. Bosch’s originality therefore does not lie in the message he is bringing but in the impressive creativity and fantasy with which he collected his ideas from written and iconographic sources and gave them a visual form. Which inspires Van Waadenoijen to this nice sentence: ‘Bosch painted with the brush as a poet writes with the pen’.


The central part of this Conclusion is made up by a very elucidating brief summary of Bosch scholarship and once more the author does not shy away from delivering straightforward and personal points of view. These points of view are a sign of wide reading, alertness and intelligence but show two minor flaws. One: the importance of the late-medieval middle-class morals for Bosch (see i.a. the texts of Paul Vandenbroeck) is swept aside a bit too easily, which is partially caused by the fact that Van Waadenoijen almost totally ignores the (admittedly: not unproblematic) profane work of the painter: a panel such as The Conjuror for instance is only being mentioned in footnote 580 and nothing at all is said about the Cutting of the Stone panel.


Two: in my opinion Van Waadenoijen judges somewhat too harshly about the alchemical approaches of Bosch. She is right when claiming that authors such as Laurinda Dixon too often sink their teeth into a number of details without paying attention to their relation with the rest of the painting, but the glass tubes in the central panel of the Garden of Delights and the weird buildings in the Lisbon St Anthony triptych seem to imply that Bosch used certain elements from alchemy as a trigger for his pictural imagination.


Before rounding up, I add a few less important remarks. Occasionally some things are wrong with the alphabetical structure of Van Waadenoijen’s bibliography (the length of which is duly respectable). Van Lennep can be found with the V, whereas Van Dijck is placed with the D. De Jongh is listed under the J, whereas De Bruyn and De Coo can be found with the D. Everyone who has once published a book knows that printing mistakes are inevitable, but here they are sometimes very striking (for example: twice ‘fontijn’ instead of ‘fontein’ on pages 36 and 223) and in one case it is even downright confusing: on page 137 (last paragraph, first line) ‘Hiëronymus’ must obviously be ‘Johannes de Doper’ (John the Baptist). And finally this little piece of hair-splitting: why do Dutchmen always write ‘het triptiek’? According to the Groene Boekje the word ‘triptiek’ is female, so it has to be ‘de triptiek’.


The final conclusion about Van Waadenoijen’s De ‘geheimtaal’ van Jheronimus Bosch can be moderately positive, with some marginal comment. As far as the general iconographic outlines are concerned a large circle of readers may profit from this book filled with Bosch enthusiasm, as long as these readers realise that quite a number of the more detailed interpretations should be considered with due reservation. The readers should also provide themselves with other Bosch books offering them good and clear illustrations because this department makes a rather poor impression. Then again: Van Waadenoijen’s monograph is definitely not one of the many popularizing, hastily written Bosch booklets. The interest of her text is more than average not only because of her sound knowledge of Bosch literature, her elaborate analyses of the paintings and her attempts to explore Bosch further along original paths of research, but also because she does not hesitate to start up dialogues with other Bosch scholars. It is now up to those other Bosch scholars to continue the dialogue and to find valid arguments to agree or disagree with Van Waadenoijen’s insights. Bosch scholarship will hopefully benefit from this.




  • Sophie Oosterwijk, “Het oeuvre van Jeroen Bosch onder de loep”, in: Madoc, vol. 21, nr. 4 (Winter 2007), pp. 239-242: For those who are familiar with the work of Bosch and the literature about it this is an interesting, but poorly structured book that does not really seem to offer a lot of new insights. Those who are less familiar with the work of Bosch and want to understand it better can learn many things from this book, but they will need an extra book with good illustrations.
  • Eric De Bruyn, in: Oud Holland, vol. 122 (2009), nr. 1, pp. 64-69 (see the above text).


[explicit August 2008]

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