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Over Jheronimus Bosch. Met een toelichting bij de tekst op tekening KdZ 549 in het Berlijnse Kupferstichkabinett

Vandenbroeck 1981a
Vandenbroeck, Paul
Genre: Nonfiction, art history
Uitgave datum: 1981
Bron: Maurits Smeyers (ed.), "Archivum artis Lovaniense - Bijdragen tot de geschiedenis van de kunst der Nederlanden - Opgedragen aan Prof. Em. Dr. J.K. Steppe", Peeters, Louvain, 1981, pp. 151-188

Vandenbroeck 1981a


“Over Jheronimus Bosch. Met een toelichting bij de tekst op tekening KdZ 549 in het Berlijnse Kupferstichkabinett” (Paul Vandenbroeck) 1981

[in: Maurits Smeyers (ed.), Archivum artis Lovaniense – Bijdragen tot de geschiedenis van de kunst der Nederlanden – Opgedragen aan Prof. Em. Dr. J.K. Steppe. Peeters, Louvain, 1981, pp. 151-188]

[Also mentioned in Gibson 1983: 146 (G66)]


This is the first text about Bosch ever published by Paul Vandenbroeck. The article is based on the interim results of his doctoral research (which was still in an embryonic stage in 1981).


The question from which point of view Bosch has to be approached has never been asked. As if it were a matter of course Bosch was always approached  from one culture, thé culture of his age and environment, which was considered a unity. But it is important to be aware of the cultural layers existing next to each other within a certain period and within a certain region and this is more complex than the scheme elite culture vs. popular culture. The objective should be: an ‘analytical cultural stratigraphy’.


If a work of art is interpreted with the help of textual sources or other visual sources, the latter must belong to the same cultural layer as the former. That is why Bosch approaches based on the Church Fathers, theologians, mystics, alchemists, secret societies and so on, never go beyond the stage of Hineininterpretierung: these approaches don’t check out whether the studied texts were known or used in Bosch’s cultural layer. Vandenbroeck then summarizes his ongoing research in two points.


1 In an almost endless series of allusions Bosch has opposed all kinds of licentiousness, debauchery, gluttony, fraud, intemperance and squandering. These sins are always characterized as ‘foolish’ and ascribed to people from the lowest social layers (this is Bosch’s message).


2 To convey this message Bosch has used a mass of ‘folkloristic material’ and he visualizes proverbs, sayings and metaphors (this is Bosch’s method).


The question then is: in which late-medieval cultural layer can this message and this method be found?


Section 1 : About a shift in fifteenth-century ethical thought


It has already been pointed out that fifteenth-century ethics show a tendency towards utilitarianism and practicism. Also important is the rise of an ethic of family life. This seems to be related to the sudden increase of middle-class university students. These tendencies thus seem to be the result of middle-class ideas. In 1957 Brom already signalled the fifteenth-century tendency to call sin ‘folly’ and virtue ‘wisdom’. According to Vandenbroeck this boils down to an ‘intellectualization of the ethical standards’. He believes the flourishing of the fool motif (in literature and in the visual arts) is a symptom of this tendency.


Vandenbroeck then elaborates on the fool theme in the work of Sebastian Brant (Das Narrenschyff). The equation sin – folly was not invented by Brant, but was born in an urban, middle-class environment circa 1460-90. In a second elaboration Vandenbroeck analyses the sources of this ethical system.


Together with this literature about fools we see the arising of a number of texts dealing with the removal of undesirable people from society (such as The Ship of St Reynuit). These texts criticize people whose way of life doesn’t match middle-class morals: their licentious and unproductive behaviour makes them poor and they live at the expense of their labouring fellow-citizens.


It will be objected that in the High Middle Ages virtue was already related to wisdom and vice to folly. But the vision then was: you are wise because you are virtuous. With the late-medieval moralists this was inverted: you are virtuous because you are wise.


All these texts convey the same message as Bosch (see point 1 above). Further aspects of these intellectualistic ethics (the life of hermits as an ideal and Christ as unrelenting judge at the Last Judgment) can also be seen in the art of Bosch. Bosch’s fundamental pessimism agrees with idea of mankind’s universal folly/wickedness with the early humanists.


According to us the question is: are these parallellisms enough to explain Bosch with the help of early humanism? The texts about the removal of people from society agree more with Bosch than the literature about fools. But unlike this literature about fools the former texts don’t belong to early humanism. According to us the idea ‘sin = folly’ has little to do with the art of Bosch. And the hermit ideal can also be found elsewhere, for example in the Modern Devotion movement.


Section 2 : About the use of ‘folkloristic material’ and the proverb


The late fifteenth century sees the rise of a number of texts that use a large amount of ‘folklore’ (such as The Gospel of the Distaff), in particular in Rhineland/German literature. At the same time there is an increasing interest in vulgar language and proverbs. Proverbs had a moralizing intention and played a part in the literature about wisdom. This literature also showed a tendency towards cleverness and hermeticism. These three elements are also present in the art of Bosch and in a line of tradition that continues up to the seventeenth century (with Adriaen Van de Venne for instance). Bosch also depicts proverbs dealing with wisdom by visualizing the manifest, not the latent sense.


Section 3 : About the sociological setting of these data


Recent research has pointed out that this literature was mainly produced by and intended for an urban, middle-class public. In this urban literature farmers are often rebuked and parodied, whereas with Bosch this is the case with people from the lowest social layers (see point 1 above). Furthermore, a lot of these texts originate from an early humanist environment, more precisely from ‘Biblical’ (also ‘scholastic’ or ‘realistic’) early humanism. This tendency within early humanism (i.a. Brant, Von Kaisersberg, Wimpfeling…) is very moralizing and didactic, very religious and does not approve of the classical-pagan legacy.


There is a relation between this ‘realistic early humanism’ and the middle class: some early humanists are the ideological spokesmen of the middle class and some Dutch texts defending middle-class morals can also be found with the Rhineland early humanists. There is a difference as well: the latter texts focus more on the intellectualistic aspect of these ethics, whereas the Dutch texts focus more on the formalist aspec. (In a footnote Vandenbroeck announces that he has not yet fully engaged upon the study of these Dutch texts.)


According to us we have a problematic issue here: those Dutch texts (such as The Blue Boat) concur more with Bosch than the early humanist texts! Later Vandenbroeck has apparently sunk his teeth into these ‘intellectualizing ethics’ and has stubbornly wanted to elaborate on this subject matter. In our opinion largely a wrongful decision. Vandenbroeck (see his 1987 and 2002 monographs) teaches us a lot of interesting things about the Rhineland early humanists, but their influence on Bosch is far less profound than Vandenbroeck wants us to believe.


Section 4 : Bosch as an ‘artist’


The name ‘Jheronimus’ could point at a personality inspired by humanism. Bosch’s knowledge of elements that belong to Jewish culture can also be found with the early humanists mentioned above. In ’s-Hertogenbosch there was a Latin school ‘where a reasonable education, sometimes even inspired by early humanism, could be enjoyed’ (in footnote). Basically we know very little about contacts between early humanist circles and painters.


In 1488 Bosch became a sworn member of the Confraternity of Our Lady. Most likely this was a privilege of clerics. This means that Bosch belonged to one of the lower holy orders (and/or that he had enjoyed an intellectual training).


Some scholars suggest (in footnote: a reference to Marijnissen et al. 1972) that circa 1500 triptychs were always altarpieces and so they had a religious function. This is wrong: ‘Elsewhere we will discuss a number of triptychs with a clearly profane subject’. This is the first time that the controvery between Vandenbroeck and Marijnissen surfaces.


Bosch had patrons in the Spanish-Dutch circle around Philip the Fair. But did these noblemen have a proper understanding of Bosch? We know nothing about the function of the major part of his works: did Bosch also have middle-class patrons for a major part? Financially Bosch was independent: was that the reason why he could develop his self-willed subject matter?


Section 5 : More information about the drawing KdZ 549 in the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett, ‘The field has eyes, the wood has ears’


The caption atop this drawing is a quotation from De disciplina scholarium by Pseudo-Boethius, a pedagogical treatise that originated circa 1230-40, probably in Paris. The sentence is taken from a fragment in which future teachers are advised to have a critical mind and intellectual independence. The early editions of this text (incunabula, before 1500) can mainly be located in Deventer, Cologne, Louvain and Strassbourg. With Vandenbroeck this becomes: ‘This area, following the Rhine axis, was at that moment a flourishing centre of early humanist activity, particularly its northern (…) and southern (…) far ends’. He does add, though: ‘Of course, this does not mean that only humanists used the Disciplina’ [p. 170, footnote 132, for both quotes].


The quotation in the drawing can be found with Jean Gerson and also with some German early humanists. (A critical thought: if you only look for that quotation with German early humanists, obviously that is the only place where you will find it…) The quotation is said to have functioned within the fifteenth-century controversy between ‘the old’ (the traditional medieval principle of authority) and ‘the new’, in particular with early humanists.


The early editions have two wordings of the fragment (and of the sentence in it): the quotation in the drawing agrees with the second wording (the Louvain, Deventer and Strassbourg editions). The writer of the caption in the drawing should then also be located in this area. Research has pointed out that the caption might have been added later. According to a Louvain palaeographer the sentence can be dated shortly after 1500, and very likely before 1510.

Remarkable is the following: in the copy of the 1490 Deventer edition (Royal Library, Brussels) the quotation is underlined and provided with a marginal sign by a reader who lived circa 1500 = footnote 149. How does Vandenbroeck know that this reader lived circa 1500?


Because in the age of Bosch drawings were not considered valuable works of art the drawing probably remained in Bosch’s workshop. Perhaps Bosch wrote the caption himself as a despairing form of self-criticism: he may have thought the proverb he drew and the motifs owl/birds and fox/rooster were too traditional, Bosch made much of originality (according to us not a very plausible interpretation).


The proverb that is represented is known in a Middle Latin version and can also be found with Willem van Hildegaersberch, Heinrich Bebel, in the Gemeene Duytsche Spreckwoorden and with Frans Goedthals. In later times it is also attested: Bax referred to a poem by Cornelis Crul. The proverb advises man to keep a low profile lest others or evil would cause him harm.


Section 6 : Conclusion


The elements that were related to Bosch in this article can also be found in texts functioning in middle-class environments, and more particularly in ‘realistic’, mainly Upper-Rhineland early humanist circles. Bax called Bosch the most brilliant rederijker (rhetorician), but if Bosch showed affinities with the rhetoricians, this can be explained by their common (middle-class) basis. The same goes for the early humanists.


But if ‘the same goes’ isn’t it more logical that the art of Bosch is more closely related to the works of the rhetoricians than to those of the early humanists? Anyhow, in our dissertation (see De Bruyn 2001a) we have tried to demonstrate that in many respects the literature of the rhetoricians is closely related to the iconography of Bosch.



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