“Jheronimus Bosch: de wijsheid van het raadsel” (Paul Vandenbroeck) 2001
[in: Jos Koldeweij, Paul Vandenbroeck and Bernard Vermet (exhibition catalogue), Jheronimus Bosch – Alle schilderijen en tekeningen. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen – NAi Uitgevers – Ludion, Rotterdam-Ghent-Amsterdam, 2001, pp. 100-193]
Bosch’s religious works are mainly triptychs. Triptychs were almost always intended as altarpieces but some Bosch triptychs cannot have adorned an altar because altarpieces always represented a positive example. Bosch has also painted a large number of secular works but a lot of these have been lost or are only known through prints, copies or archival sources. We know that some paintings have been produced for rich burghers or for noblemen connected to the Dutch-Burgundian-Spanish court, but in most cases we know nothing about the patrons of Bosch’s oeuvre. The inner coherence of this oeuvre can only be understood when contemporary urban-middle class culture is taken into account.
The subject matter of the so-called Garden of Delights triptych (a modern title that, according to Vandenbroeck, should be replaced by The Grail or The False Paradise) focuses on lust and self-control, nature and civilization. These things occupied the mind of the well-to-do middle classes circa 1500 focusing on the questionse: how do I behave, what am I allowed to do and what kind of behaviour should I avoid? Bosch starts from Christian-religious imagery but gives it a context of new profane iconography. The exterior panels show the work of Creation of the first three days. The left interior panel shows the marriage of Adam and Eve, which functioned as a matrimonial model in the Late Middle Ages: the purpose of sexuality was to procreate. In the central panel Bosch painted a false paradise, with a sorrowless humanity that thinks it can create a golden age or an earthly/heavenly paradise by interpreting God’s blissful wish at the institution of marriage in Eden in a sinful way. Here Bosch was influenced by the popular myth of the Grail or Mount of Venus. In the right interior panel sinful humanity is being punished in hell. The triptych is meant as a matrimonial mirror and warns of the sexual perversion of marriage (sexuality as a means of pleasure, not of procreation).
Bosch’s approach of good and evil was rooted in the social views, standards and prejudices of the group to which he belonged: the urban middle class. The control of sexual urges (see the Garden of Delights) was one aspect of this middle-class view of society. Industriousness and a regular family life were a second aspect. Bosch agrees with this view by criticizing beggars and all sorts of persons who were suspicious in the eyes of the middle classes because of their ‘uselessness’ (these persons mainly belonged to the lower social classes or to the fringes of society). Vandenbroeck demonstrates this by referring to a lost Bosch composition that we only know through a tapestry (A Saint Leaving a City) and to a lost Bosch composition that we know through a print published by Hieronymus Cock (St Martin in the harbour).
Bosch also rebuked enmity and aggression in society (social turmoil). Here Vandenbroeck refers to a lost Bosch work, The Elephant, known through an engraving and a painting, a composition preserved through a print (Satire on soldiers and merrymaking paupers), a Bruegel print that may go back to a design by Bosch (Big fish eat the small ones) and a lost work we only know through archival sources (Justice). In his depictions of hell and temptations Bosch presents long inventories of people that have to be removed from society. Only very rarely Bosch shows the positive side, for example in a lost work we only know through archival sources (The Foster Lord).
Bosch’s non-religious (i.e. social) ideology opposes a number of ‘sins’ that he characterizes as ‘follies’ by means of symbolic elements: physical and sexual impulses, merrymaking and debauchery, laziness, squandering and greed, rashness and aggression, marginal behaviour and inconstancy. Bosch was not the only one to do this: a secular rejection, not based on religious arguments, of entertainment, merrymaking and pleasure was part of the middle-class morals circa 1500. Bosch’s rejection of entertainment and lust is represented by means of secular themes such as The Ship of Fools and The Allegory of Gluttony, and in lost works that have come down to us through copies such as Lent, Singers in an Egg, The Mock Tournament on Ice and Scene in an inn, in drawings such as The Tree Man and Witches, and in works that were passed down to us through engravings such as The Blue Boat and Merrymakers in a Mussel-Shell at Sea. All these works focus on the behaviour of people who refuse to follow the middle-class way of life and thus disturb the ordo.
Part of this ordo was the relationship of man and woman: women were supposed to behave in a humble, chaste and moderate way. In his hell and temptation scenes Bosch characterized women as whores, brothel-keepers, degenerate sluts, viragos and vain seductresses, thus agreeing with early male-chauvinist middle-class culture. Here Vandenbroeck refers to The Repairer of Bellows, a lost work that has only come down to us through archival sources, a copy and an engraving, and to lost representations of old women (only known through archival sources). A similar attitude was adopted towards peasants, who were accused of uncivilized behaviour. All Bosch works about this motif have been lost but probably came down to us through paintings from the Malines (Mechelen) workshop of the Verbeeck family. Vandenbroeck emphasizes once more that this was not about a religious moral, but about purely secular rules of conduct, inspired by middle-class notions about a civilized and ‘correct’ behaviour.
Very often Bosch deals with secular motifs (such as: what to think about labour and idleness or about poverty and wealth) through details, and sometimes these are the main focus of a work. The subject of the Haywain triptych is the quest for earthly possessions. Greed is being criticized in The Expulsion of the Merchants from the Temple, a lost work that came down to us through copies. The main themes of Death of a Miser and The Ship of Fools is miserliness and squandering, and both are rejected by Bosch. Bosch also opposed unproductive laziness, as is proven by a lost work that only came down to us through an engraving representing proverbs about laziness. Bosch’s standards and values (a moderate attitude towards money and possessions, the moderate and rational use of these things, praise of labour) should not be looked for with the ‘early capitalists’ (wholesalers and middle-class merchants) but with middle-class craftsmen. His economic vision was not the vision of the patricians, but of the lower middle classes – the social group in which he was born. This vision can also be found with the early humanist Sebastian Brant and with the rederijkers (rhetoricians) in the Low Countries.
Bosch characterizes the sins and misbehaviour he satirizes as ‘foolish’ or ‘irrational’. This agrees with an intellectualistic moral that can also be found in numerous texts from the Netherlands and neighbouring regions circa 1500, i.a. in Brant’s Ship of Fools: a person is more virtuous when he is wise, and more sinful when he is foolish. Diverse aspects of this late-medieval idea of wisdom were visualized by Bosch: the sinner/fool who is driven by his ‘nature’, impulses and urges (Garden of Delights), ending up in total lack of control (Ship of Fools, Blue Boat, Merrymakers in a Mussel-Shell) and as opposed to this the wise man who controls himself and keeps a low profile (The wood has ears, The Elephant), turns away from the world (the depictions of hermits) and knows where to draw the line, also in the material field. Bosch’s Extraction of the Stone of Folly shows that trying to cure fools is foolish. Mental blindness is the subject of a lost Bosch work that we know from archival sources and a print (One Blind Man leads the Other). The Conjuror shows how immoral persons (such as travelling acrobats, beggars and people at the bottom of the social ladder) abuse man’s folly. Only very rarely (only in the Haywain and the Seven Deadly Sins tabletop) Bosch criticizes the folly of well-to-do burghers or rich people.
Even though Bosch’s opinion about man is gloomy, salvation is possible, as is proven by the religious subjects he painted. Bosch produced a number of altarpieces with Old Testament scenes, but practically all of these have been lost. Mary is almost absent in the art of Bosch. The coming of Salvation in the world (with the birth of Christ) is the subject of the Madrid Epiphany triptych. Christ’s youth is only dealt with in Jesus among the Scribes, only known through copies. The Wedding at Cana is only known through copies as well. In his religious works Bosch is not as sugary as his contemporaries and fifteenth-century predecessors in Netherlandish art: evil and threats are always lurking around.
The Passion of Christ plays an important part in the art of Bosch. Here the message is: to imitate Christ is to follow the path of Salvation. Vandenbroeck discusses the Crowning with Thorns copy (El Escorial), the London Crowning with Thorns, the Frankfurt Ecce Homo and the Christ Carrying the Cross panels in Vienna, El Escorial and Ghent. Although Bosch’s Christocentrism shows affinities with the ideas of the Modern Devotion, the Modern Devotion does not offer a complete explanation of Bosch’s world view. Bosch’s focus on hermits, for instance, cannot be understood with the help of the Modern Devotion. The saints painted by Bosch are mainly hermits. They functioned as positive role models for sinful mankind. Essential in the case of Bosch’s hermits is the fact that they turn their back on society, a motif that was also important with the Upper-Rhineland scholastic early humanists (Brant, Geiler von Kaisersberg). Vandenbroeck then discusses the Lisbon St Anthony triptych, the representations of Job (of which no original came down to us), the Rotterdam St Christopher panel, Alart Huhameel’s St Christopher engraving after a design by Bosch, and the Venice Crucified Martyr triptych. Bosch also painted a St Dominic altarpiece for the church of the Dominicans in Brussels, a work that has been lost. The Dominicans are the only order for which Bosch has undoubtedly worked.
Bosch’s hermits show man the ideal, often inaccessible path. Meanwhile, this man has to carry on with his life. He is advised to be thoughtful, careful and moderate, for instance in the drawing The wood has ears. Here, owl and fox refer to the spying, cunning enemy, birds and rooster refer to foolish people who are not on the alert. A lost work that we only know through archival sources and in which a man keeps a sharp look-out (‘een oogje in het zeil houden’ = literally, ‘to keep an eye in the sail’) brings a similar message. Bosch’s pessimistic view of mankind is confirmed by his depictions of the Last Judgment: on the one hand a mass of damned souls, on the other only a handful of souls that are saved. Something similar can be found with the Upper-Rhineland group of humanists. Bosch always painted his own version of the Last Judgment (no uprising of the dead, the earth is populated by damned souls and devils): he offers some kind of inventory of improper behaviour and this not only concerns ‘sinful’ habits, but also more profane, ‘reprehensible’ habits. In this way Bosch adapts traditional religious themes according to his own ethical point of view. The same can be seen with Sebastian Brant (Ship of Fools): a propagated moralizing set of values is legalized by silently imbedding this set of values in a religious frame.
In the exterior panels of the Haywain triptych and in the Rotterdam tondo we see a pedlar. These are the only examples in which Bosch has chosen a common man ‘walking the straight path’ as the main subject of a painting. These pedlars represent man who is looking back on his sinful past and – with death drawing near – repents. Ideas about paradise play a part in the Venice Visions of the Hereafter panels and in the left interior panel of the Bruges Last Judgment triptych. Bosch also painted St John the Baptist (Madrid) and St John the Evangelist (Berlin), two saints who, as no others, represent the word that calls for repentance and the heights of paradise. In the Rotterdam Flood panels Bosch also alludes to man’s Salvation in an allegorical way. Although in Bosch’s opinion evil is omnipresent, Salvation remains a possibility.
It seems that Bosch only accepted commissions that he could adapt to his own ideological programme. This means that his self-consciousness was great. His large, half-latinized signature points in the same direction. Bosch’s use of the triptych also signals a high artistic self-consciousness and a strong creative force. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century triptychs were not always altarpieces. There were also secular triptychs (though less numerous) and moreover, altarpieces always told a religious story with a positive exemplary function. Bosch’s triptychs whose central panel focuses on sin and evil (Garden of Delights, Haywain) can never have adorned an altar. The Lisbon St Anthony triptych, the Prado Epiphany and the Vienna and Bruges Last Judgment triptychs have most likely been altarpieces, though.
This elaborate catalogue contribution is a very handy summary of Vandenbroeck’s approach of Bosch’s art and personality. It is striking that here, as opposed to Vandenbroeck 1987a, much more attention is paid to the religious side of the art of Bosch. In 1987 the emphasis was mainly on the secular works. An objection against Vandenbroeck’s approach of this secular side of Bosch’s art could be that his insights and conclusions are continuously based on so-called lost works that we only know through copies, imitations, prints and archival sources. To make this more clear in the above text we have underlined all references to such ‘lost’ works. This observation raises the question whether the things Vandenbroeck says about this secular side, can indeed be applied to Bosch’s art. All the more so, because on page 196 of the catalogue in which this contribution was published, we read: ‘Concerning both the drawings and the paintings serious research of Bosch’s authentic oeuvre still has to be carried out’. This statement calls for caution.
Vandenbroeck often signals affinities of Bosch with the Upper-Rhineland early humanists. It is interesting and necessary to examine whether these similarities between Bosch and the Upper-Rhineland early humanists are unique, in other words: it has to be checked whether or not these similarities can also be found elsewhere (for example within the ‘Netherlandish’ region itself).