Jheronimus Bosch – Biografie van een Bosschenaar (Siggi Weidemann) 2017
[Omniboek, Utrecht, 2017, 382 pages]
Because the things that we know for certain about the life of Jheronimus Bosch are quite rare, it is somewhat surprising that someone is capable of writing a biography of 382 pages about this late medieval painter. Obviously, the word ‘biography’ in the title has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Closer to the truth is that this book is an attempt to situate Bosch broadly within the culture of his times and environment. Weidemann does this in 34 chapters, preceded by a prologue.
Unfortunately, this prologue does not make a very good impression. It has quite a lot of obscure sentences and superficial, often pointless statements. An example of this is the following (I translate from the Dutch): ‘Jheronimus Bosch was born at the right spot and at the right time. The Reformation upset the whole world, because it became clear that the world was not only a stage’ [p. 14]. Another example: ‘He [Bosch] created scenes in which there was a lot to see, with a lot of frivolities and exaggerations, which he used to arouse curiosity and certain other feelings as a déjà vu’ [p. 15]. And another one: ‘He was somebody who was obsessed by getting a grip on the unintelligible moment between birth and death’ [p. 16]. Furthermore, when on page 15 we read that a ‘wonderful cathedral’ was built in ’s-Hertogenbosch during Bosch’s lifetime (the St John’s was a church and became a cathedral during the second half of the sixteenth century), and that two giant ears ‘are separated from each other’ by a knife in the right interior panel of the Garden of Delights, this does not really sound promising (to put it mildly) for what is going to follow.
The 34 chapters of the actual text offer quite a lot of correct information, but new insights or formerly unknown things should not be expected. Of course, in itself this is not bad, but more than once the book also offers highly subjective and historically unaccounted for information, which leads to the question whether this is okay for a biography that wants to be taken seriously from a scholarly point of view. I give some examples of this (again translating from the Dutch).
- Chapter 1 focuses on the environment (’s-Hertogenbosch) of the painter. About the Market Place we read the following: ‘Bosch looked around him in the middle of this commotion and found his models. From his experience he knew: if he looked closer for a fraction of a second trying to get a face or a situation firmly in his mind, he felt that the other felt uncomfortable and he saw that he or she became nervous. The Market Place as an eldorado for folklorists of daily life and for painters’ [p. 29].
- ‘Bosch’s father would have wished that one of his sons engaged upon an academic career. He chose the youngest. Bosch experts assume that Bosch studied theology…’ [p. 41]
- ‘When a painting, a graphic work of art, or a fresco failed, this was not the result of the client’s taste or of the circumstances, but of the fact that it was not good. That was the message which father Anthony repeatedly taught his son’ [p. 48].
- ‘Obviously, Bosch himself did not believe in a hell’ [p. 161].
- ‘Before that [before his marriage] Jheronimus had been working abroad for some years. “Abroad” was everything outside the Duchy of Brabant’ [p. 173].
- ‘Possibly, when he created some of his figures, Bosch could not refrain from smirking or laughing. “You have to paint with humour, then the people will like your paintings more and they will look better,” he is said to have learned from his father, who died in 1478’ [p. 186].
- ‘When he – the man who lived at the Market Place – definitely knew how to work out a theme and the general outlines of the work had become clear, a panel was transported from “In St Anthony” – the family’s workshop – to the other end of the Market, where the work was then continued’ [p. 187].
- ‘Apparently, he enjoyed working together with women, because they were more complex and more sensitive, and because they gave their opinion more freely’ [p. 189].
- ‘The merchant Beys, for example, had a copy of Petrarca, which he borrowed to his neighbour Jheronimus’ [p. 202]. How on earth does Weidemann know this?
- ‘Henry III of Nassau and the Spanish nobleman Diego de Guevara commissioned Bosch to paint the triptychs The Haywain, The Garden of Delights, and Ecce Homo for them’ [p. 217].
Furthermore, the reader is often (too often, in fact) confronted with obscure sentences which are hard to understand, as was also the case in the prologue. Because the text has quite a lot of linguistic errors, in some (but definitely not all) cases this could be due to the fact that the text was translated from German. A few examples.
- ‘As he had no children, Bosch – of whom we have a biography, but no life story – could only rely on fame in order to triumph over death and transitoriness’ [p. 31]. A biography, but no life story?
- ‘He depicted fire as bold colour visions filled with a skillful gloss in faces with fierce colours’ [p. 73].
- ‘In ’s-Hertogenbosch and its environment wine-growing was still common in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, according to a study in Spiegel Historiael’ [p. 108]. Apparently, the author here refers to the periodical Spiegel Historiael…
- ‘Anyway, it made sense that he considered Hell – just like life on earth – as an intermediate station confined by time, in which man was tested and purified’ [p. 238].
Simply wrong are the following statements.
- ‘Since long, everyone has agreed about 1450 as the year of his birth’ [p. 37].
- About Aert van Tricht’s copper baptismal font in the St John’s: ‘It became famous because it could be seen in paintings by Bosch. The crippled and the blind men at the font’s foot remind the viewer of the wayfarer in his Pedlar painting, and the basin is represented in the Haywain triptich’ [p. 96].
- ‘Haywains were part of the processions. Hay was seen as the symbol for material wellfare and the path of life that had to be followed. Bosch was inspired by this in his Haywain triptych, in which he modernized the contemporary mythological motif’ [pp. 106-107].
- In 1478 Mary of Burgundy showed her new-born son Philip the Fair to the crowd, ‘on which occasion she took his “little willy” (culleken) in her hand’ [p. 117]. But in Middle Dutch culleken means ‘little testicle’ (singular), and not ‘little willy’.
- ‘Bouts (…) had painted The Last Judgement for the city council [of Louvain]. This triptych dating from 1468 may have inspired Bosch when designing his Garden of Delights’ [p. 127]. Come again?
- About the Lamb of God polyptych (Ghent): ‘As purely as possible, Van Eyck applied the red, blue, and green colours to the canvas’ [p. 130]. The Lamb of God was not painted on canvas, but on wood (panels).
- His [Bosch’s] triptychs were not meant as altarpieces with wings or as religious paintings for the church building, but adorned just like the Garden of Delights, the Haywain or the Temptation of St Anthony the palaces of his patrons’ [pp. 133-134]. This can only be made acceptable for the Garden of Delights.
- ‘One of the five Chambers of Rhetoric in ’s-Hertogenbosch was the “Passiebloem”, in which Bosch was also active’ [p. 145].
- On the Prado Tabletop with the Seven Deadly Sins: ‘In the lower golden edge around this depiction we see the abbreviated Old Testament inscription from Deuteronomy 32: 19: Cave cave dominus videt’ [p. 156]. The source of this text is not Deuteronomy, but Deuteronomy is the source of the texts in the upper and the lower part of the painting.
- ‘The marriages of Jheronimus’s two brothers remained childless as well’ [p. 175].
- That in many cases the author does not really know what he is talking about, is also shown on page 217, where he writes about poems by rhetoricians (rederijkersrefreinen): ‘At the end of each stanza there was a refrain’. Refreinen (refrains) were poems written by rhetoricians. They had several stanzas, and at the end of each stanza there was a verse that was reiterated (the stok or stokregel).
- On the pages 245-246, we read about the titles that have been given to the Garden of Delights. One of these titles, according to Weidemann, is ‘The Judgement of Paris’. Where does this come from!? Some pages further we read (regarding Henry III of Nassau): ‘Back then, the Garden of Delights was still called ‘The Judgement of Paris’… [p. 249]
- About the owl in the Rotterdam Pedlar tondo: ‘From the tree of life in The prodigal son he looks up to the shantily clothed wayfarers’ [p. 309]. Tree of life? The prodigal son? The owl looks up? In fact, the owl is looking down. Wayfarers? We see only one wayfarer.
- On page 313 the The field has eyes drawing (Berlin) is called a ‘painting’.
Bottom line: Jheronimus Bosch – Biografie van een Bosschenaar offers the reader a number of correct facts, collected from here and there, but also mixed together clumsily (incoherently) and sometimes erroneously, and showered with a lot of fantasy. As a ‘biography’, this book is highly untrustworthy.
[explicit 20th August 2019]
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