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Hieronymus Bosch

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Gothic and Early Renaissance
 
 
 
Hieronymus Bosch
 
 
 
 
The Mirror of Man



The Conjuror
1475-80
Oil on panel, 53 x 75 cm
Musee Municipal, Saint-Germain-en-Laye

This is an unusual work for Bosch, whose subjects arc almost all religious, and dates from his early period before 1480. Although this picture is believed to be a careful and accurate copy of a lost original, the quality of the drawing, particularly of the conjuror and his bending-forward victim, docs not appear to be of the standard that we encounter in even the early Bosch paintings. There are, however, one or two suggestions of Bosch: note the owl looking from the basket the conjuror is holding and the small dog or monkey in jester costume. The story is not the straightforward one that it appears. The conjuror is apparently materializing a frog from the mouth of his subject; evidently a second one, since one already sits on the table. The onlookers show a variety of emotions from disbelief and lack of interest to the fascination the small child evinces. But the man standing behind the victim and gazing to the heavens is at the same time removing the purse he is obviously the conjuror's confederate.

In his »Oration on the Dignity of Man«, composed around 1486, the young Florentine humanist Pico della Mirandola celebrated the excellence and felicity of mankind. Man is unique among creatures in possessing a free will, the power to determine his nature and destiny; and through the proper exercise of this will he can attain the state of angels. »For it is on this very account«, exclaims Pico, »that man is rightly called and judged a great miracle and a wonderful creature indeed.« Some eight years later, Sebastian Brant published the first edition of his »Ship of Fools«, a series of poems satirizing humanity's failings and foibles. »The whole world lives in darksome night«, Brant complains, »in blinded sinfulness persisting, while every street sees fools existing.« The difference between these two conceptions of man is vast but explicable. Pico reflects the optimistic faith of the Italian Renaissance in man's abilities. Brant, however, like many of his contemporaries in Northern Europe, still lived in the shadow of the Middle Ages which took a much dimmer view of human nature: corrupted through the sin of Adam, man struggles weakly against his evil inclinations, more likely to sink to the level of beasts than to rise with the angels.

It is this medieval attitude which inspired Bosch's transformation of the »Marriage Feast at Cana«, and which he developed more comprehensively in the »Tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things« (Madrid, Prado; left). Here the condition and fate of humanity is presented in a series of circular images. The central image, formed of concentric rings, represents the Eye of God, in whose pupil Christ emerges from his sarcophagus, displaying his wounds to the viewer. Around the pupil are inscribed the words »Beware, Beware, God sees«; and just what God sees is mirrored in the outer ring of his eye, where the Seven Deadly Sins are enacted in lively little scenes taken from everyday life. The Latin name of each sin is clearly inscribed at the bottom, but the inscriptions are as superfluous here as in the Frankfurt »Ecce Homo«. There is no need to inform us, for example, that the men greedily consuming all that the housewife brings to the table represent the sin of Gluttony, or that the well-fed gentleman dozing by the fire personifies Sloth; in this case, the neglect of spiritual duties is indicated by the woman who enters the room from the left, reproachfully holding out a rosary. Lust shows several pairs of lovers in a tent; and in Pride a vain lady admires her new hat, unaware that her mirror is held by an extravagantly bonneted demon. Similar genre scenes illustrate Anger (two men quarrelling before a tavern), Avarice (a judge accepting bribes) and Envy (a rejected suitor gazing jealously at his rival). For the most part, these little dramas are placed against views of the Dutch countryside, or within well-constructed interiors.

The short, sturdy, and rather awkward figures are generally unlike those which we encounter elsewhere in Bosch's art; equally untypical are the hard surfaces, dark outlines and flat, bright colours, dominated by green and ochre. The general crudeness of the execution formerly led scholars to place this picture among Bosch's earliest works, but, as later observers have pointed out, certain details of costume in the Prado »Table-top« reflect styles which did not come into fashion until around 1490. Therefore it is more likely that the »Tabletop« represents a workshop production from Bosch's middle period (c. 1485-1500). However, Bosch must have been responsible for the original design, and perhaps his collaboration in the actual painting may also be discerned in some passages of higher quality, such as the Avarice scene and several figures in Envy.

The circular disposition of the Seven Deadly Sins conforms to a traditional scheme. As many writers have assumed, this wheel-like arrangement probably alludes to the extension of sin throughout the world, but the motif was immeasurably enriched when Bosch transformed the circular design into the Eye of God which mirrors what it sees. Here, too, he had ample precedent. The comparison of the Deity to a mirror occurs frequently in medieval literature.
That those who have abandoned God have just reason to dread his glance is affirmed by the banderols which unfold above and below the central image of the Prado »Tabletop«. The upper one reads: » For they are a nation void of counsel, neither is there any understanding in them. 0 that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end.« On the lower banderol is written: »l will hide my face from them, I will see what their end shall be« (Deuteronomy 32:28-29,20). What their end will be is shown in no uncertain terms in the corners of the panel. Here, in four smaller circles, appear Death, Last Judgement, Heaven and Hell, the Four Last Things of all men as understood by Bosch and his contemporaries, and popularized by Denis the Carthusian (1420-71) who spent his last years in a Dutch monastery. The execution of these scenes is even coarser than that of the Deadly Sins and must be attributed entirely to Bosch's workshop. No hint of his apocalyptic nightmares appears in the Hell circle, where the Deadly Sins are punished in separate tableaux, all carefully labelled and arranged like displays at a country fair.
The notion of God spying on mankind from the sky may strike us as unpleasant, but to medieval man it appeared as a salutary deterrent to sin. The German humanist Jakob Wimpheling (1450-1528) tells us that the sight of an inscription in a church at Erfurt, »God Sees«, was enough to turn him from youthful follies towards a more devout life. Bosch's Eye of God was intended to achieve a similar effect, for in reflecting the Seven deadly Sins, it functions as a mirror wherein the viewer is confronted by his own soul disfigured by vice. At the same time, however, he beholds the remedy for this disfigurement in the image of Christ occupying the centre of the Eye. It seems likely that the Prado »Tabletop« was used as an aid to meditation, particularly that intensive examination of one's conscience which every good Christian was urged to undertake before going to Confession.

Within its framework of the Seven Deadly Sins, the Prado »Tabletop« embraces all men and conditions of life; in Avarice, however, the reference is more specific, for the vice is represented by a dishonest judge, one of the types of persons deemed particularly susceptible to this sin. In other pictures Bosch further developed this criticism of specific social classes, sometimes in terms of one or more of the Deadly Sins. He castigates charlatans and quacks and their foolish victims, loose-living monks and nuns, and the rich man more concerned for his property than for his soul, themes which find echoes in many sermons and satirical writings of the period.

One of these pictures, the »Conjuror«, belongs to the early works previously discussed. At first glance, it seems to present no more than an amusing episode of medieval street life, but while the subject cannot be obviously identified with any of the Deadly Sins, it, too, was intended to hold up a mirror to human folly- in this instance, to man's gullibility.

Human gullibility is also the subject of another picture, the »Stone Operation« (Madrid, Prado), whose allegorical nature is more apparent. In the midst of a luxuriant summer landscape, a surgeon removes an object from the head of a man tied to a chair; a monk and a nun look on. This little picture may not be entirely by Bosch; the awkward and inexpressive figures are perhaps by an inferior hand, but only Bosch could have been responsible for the landscape background whose delicately painted forms recall the vista in his early »Epiphany«. The open-air operation, its circular shape once more suggesting a mirror, is set within a framework of elaborate calligraphical decoration containing the inscription: »Master, cut the stone out, my name is Lubbert Das.«


The Stone Operation
1475-80
Oil on panel, 48 x 35 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid
 

At first sight this looks like an ordinary if dangerous operation, curiously being performed in the open air by a surgeon who wears a funnel as a hat. The large, ornate inscription surrounding the picture reads, 'Master, cut out the Stone. My name is Lubbert Das.' It was a common belief in Bosch's day that an operation to remove a stone from the head of a patient would cure his inherent stupidity. The name Lubbert was applied to those with an unusual and identifiable degree of stupidity. What is emerging, however, is not a stone but a flower, and another of the same kind may be seen on the table. These have been identified as tulips, which carried a connotation of folly The figures of the priest and nun have not been explained, but the closed book on the nun's head and the funnel are symbols respectively of the futility of knowledge in dealing with human stupidity and of deceit in a false doctor. The attribution to Bosch would be somewhat doubtful were it not for the beautiful and characteristic distant landscape.

 


The Stone Operation (detail)
1475-80
Museo del Prado, Madrid

In Bosch's day, the stone operation was a piece of quackery in which the patient was supposedly cured of his stupidity through the removal of the stone of folly from his forehead. Fortunately, it was performed only in fiction, not in fact, for in literary examples of this theme it generally left the patient worse off than before. The name »Lubbert«, on the other hand, frequently appears in Dutch literature to designate persons exhibiting an unusually high degree of human stupidity. The stone operation was occasionally represented by later Netherlandish artists, including Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This subject undoubtedly inspired Bosch's picture, but no extant version of it accounts for the funnel and the book perched on the heads of two of the characters, nor does it explain the presence of the monk and the nun, although their apparent acquiescence in the quackery certainly places them in an unfavourable light. It will be noted, too, that what the surgeon extracts from Lubbert's head is not a stone, but a flower; another flower of the same species lies on the table at the right. Bax has identified them as tulips and explains their presence as a play on the Dutch word for tulip which in the sixteenth century also carried the connotation of stupidity and folly.

A more overt condemnation of those in religious orders can be seen in the so-called »Ship of Fools« (Paris, Louvre), generally dated as belonging to Bosch's middle period (right). It shows a monk and two nuns or »beguines« carousing with a group of peasants in a boat. The oddly constructed boat carries a tree in full leaf fora mast, while a broken branch serves as a rudder. A fool is seated in the rigging at the right.

The presence of the fool has inevitably led many scholars to see a connection between the Louvre panel and Sebastian Brant's »Ship of Fools«, whose great popularity is demonstrated by the six editions and numerous translations which appeared even during the author's lifetime. Bosch might well have known Brant's poem, but he need not have turned to it for inspiration, as the ship was one of the most beloved metaphors of the Middle Ages. A popular image was the Ship of the Church manned by prelates and the clergy, which brings its freight of Christian souls safely into the port of Heaven. In Guillaumede Deguilleville's »Pilgrimage of the Life of Man«, the Ship of Religion bears a mast symbolizing the Crucifix, and contains castles representing the various monastic orders.

A Dutch translation of this famous work was published at Haarlem in 1486, and it is tempting to suppose that Bosch was familiar with Deguilleville's ship of the monastic life, of which his own boat could easily be a parody. The flapping pink banner carries a Turkish crescent instead of the cross, and we find an owl lurking in the foliage at the top of the mast. Three representatives of the cloistered life have abandoned their spiritual duties to join the other revellers. The monk and one of the nuns are singing lustily, the latter accompanying herself on a lute; they resemble the amorous couples depicted in medieval love gardens, who make music as a prelude to making love. The allusion to the sin of Lust is reinforced by other details drawn from the traditional Garden of Love-the plate of cherries and the metal wine jug suspended over the side of the boat -which Bosch had employed for the same sin in the Prado »Tabletop«. Gluttony is undoubtedly represented not only by the peasant cutting down the roast goose tied to the mast, but also by the man who vomits over the side of the boat at the right, and by the giant ladle which another member of the merry party wields as an oar. Alongside the boat appear two nude swimmers, one holding out his wine cup for replenishment. The tree-mast may refer, as some authorities believe, to the Maypole or May tree of the spring folk festivals, generally a time of moral licence for folk and clergy alike.

The disreputable nature of the boat is conveyed, finally, by the guzzling fool in the rigging. For centuries the courtjester or fool had been permitted to satirize the morals and manners of society, and it is in this capacity that he appears in prints and paintings from the midfifteenth century on, distinguished by his cap adorned with ass's ears and carrying a baton topped by a small replica of his own vacantly grinning features. He frequently cavorts among revellers and lovers, as in the Lust scene of the Prado »Tabletop«, pointing to the folly of their lewd behaviour.
Lust and Gluttony had long been pre-eminent among the monastic vices; and these and other charges were levelled against the religious orders with increasing frequency during the fifteenth century. This period saw the rapid growth of religious houses, some of which supported themselves through weaving and other crafts. That they were more dissolute than before, despite various attempts at monastic reform, would be difficult to determine with any certainty, but it is clear that their considerable wealth and economic competition with the craft guilds brought them into conflict with the secular authorities. In 's-Hertogenbosch, the town fathers sought to limit the possessions and economic activity of the cloisters within their jurisdiction. While other cities of the time took comparable measures, the situation must have been particularly acute in's-Hertogenbosch, given the unusually high proportion of its population in religious orders. It is against this background of hostility that we must view Bosch's frequent condemnation of immorality among monks and nuns, not only in the »Ship of Fools« and the »Stone Operations but also in the later »Haywain«.
The intimate association between Gluttony and Lust in the medieval moral system was expressed by Bosch once more, although without a specific reference to monastic life, in a fragment of a painting at Yale University. Gluttony is personified by the swimmers at the upper left who have gathered around a large wine barrel straddled by a pot-bellied peasant. Another man swims closer to shore, his vision obscured by the meat pie balanced on his head. This scene is followed, on the right, by a pair of lovers in a tent, another motif reminiscent of the Lust scene in the Prado »Tabletop«. That they should be engaged in drinking wine is entirely appropriate: »Sine Cerere et Libero friget Venus« (Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus freezes); this tag from Terence was well known to the Middle Ages, and that Gluttony and Drunkenness lead to Lust was a lesson that the moralizers never tired of driving home to their audiences.





Allegory of Gluttony and Lust
Oil on panel, 36 x 32 cm
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

That man persists in his folly even at the moment of death, when the eternities of Heaven and Hell hang in the balance, is the subject of the »Death of the Miser« (left). The dying man lies in a high, narrow bedchamber, into which Death has already entered at the left. His guardian angel supports him and attempts to draw his attention to the crucifix in the window above, but he is still distracted by the earthly possessions he must leave behind; one hand reaches out almost automatically to clutch the bag of gold offered by a demon through the curtain. Another demon, delicately winged, leans on the ledge in the foreground, where the rich robes and knightly equipment probably allude to the worldly rank and power which the miser must also abandon. The battle of angels and devils for the soul of the dying man occurs also in the Prado »Tabletop« (where the traditional figure of Death armed with an arrow likewise appears), and both scenes reflect a popular fifteenth-century devotional work, the »Ars Moriendk or«Craft of Dying«, which was printed many times in Germany and the Netherlands. This curious little handbook describes how the dying man is exposed to a series of temptations by the demons clustered around his bed and how, each time, an angel consoles him and strengthens him in his final agony. In this book, the angel is ultimately successful and the soul is carried victoriously to Heaven as the devils howl in despair below. In Bosch's painting, however, the issue of the struggle is far from certain. An opened money chest can be seen at the foot of the bed, where an elderly man, perhaps the miser shown a second time, places a gold piece into a bag held by a demon. He seems little concerned with the rosary hanging from his waist.
Death, no less than Folly, was a major preoccupation of the waning Middle Ages. The fashionable court poets dwelt upon the dissolution of the flesh and of all fair things in this world. It was also the theme of countless treatises of moral instruction, and the same morbid interest appears in the decaying corpses who seize their victims in scenes of the Dance of Death or recline on sculptured tombs. »l was as you are now, you will be as I am«, they seem to say to the living, repeating a favourite phrase of the period. But this obsession with death was compounded by a still greater horror: the firm conviction that after the physical dissolution of the body, the soul continued to exist, possibly doomed to eternal suffering in Hell. And it is in the depiction of this afterlife of the soul and its torments that Bosch made perhaps his most significant contribution to the history of painting.



Death and the Miser
c. 1490
Oil on wood, 93 x 31 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Here the moral message is that people will persist in their deadly sins to the point of death. This panel shows a miser on his deathbed still dedicated to grasping more wealth regardless of the gruesome figure of Death, on the left, entering the chamber with a pointing arrow. The miser still puts out a hand to take the bag of gold with which a little demon tempts him. The death chamber is peopled with demons, each representing some aspect of the miser's life; for example, the little cowled and winged demon monk in the foreground who leans on rich clothing indicates the miser's rank which he also must leave, as his Church, in the person of the monk, cynically suggests. The angel behind the miser fails to attract his attention to the crucifix in the window, while another demon waits to torment him from the canopy. In what is perhaps a second image of the miser placing gold in a bag, more demons inside and outside the chest are waiting to provide other menial or physical tortures.


Death and the Miser (detail)
c. 1490
National Gallery of Art, Washington



Death and the Miser (detail)
c. 1490
National Gallery of Art, Washington

 
 
 
 


The Seven Deadly Sins
c. 1480
Oil on panel, 120 x 150 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

The human condition and humanity's ultimate fate form the overall subject of this series of images. The central feature, formed of four concentric rings, symbolizes the eye of God, the pupil of which shows Christ rising from the grave displaying the wounds of his crucifixion. The second ring carries the message inscription Cave Cave Deus vivit (Beware Beware God sees). The third ring is formed of sun-like rays, while the fourth depicts the seven deadly sins in separate panels. Banderols at top and bottom carry Latin warning inscriptions. Of the four circular corner images the Four Last Things - the one depicting hell is the most revealing of Bosch's development and the deeply disturbing creatures that he increasingly uses to identify the torments of the human soul in its journey to almost inevitable damnation. Internal evidence of, for instance, dress indicates that the painting dates from around 1490, early in Bosch's middle period. Most of the scenes are not of the highest quality, but the message is clear and unequivocal.


The Seven Deadly Sins (detail)
c. 1480
Museo del Prado, Madrid


The Seven Deadly Sins (detail)
c. 1480
Museo del Prado, Madrid


The Seven Deadly Sins (detail)
c. 1480
Museo del Prado, Madrid


The Seven Deadly Sins (detail)
c. 1480
Museo del Prado, Madrid


The Seven Deadly Sins (detail)
c. 1480
Museo del Prado, Madrid


The Seven Deadly Sins (detail)
c. 1480
Museo del Prado, Madrid

 
 
 
 
 


The Seven Deadly Sins (detail)
c. 1480
Museo del Prado, Madrid


The Seven Deadly Sins. Gluttony (detail)
c. 1480
Museo del Prado, Madrid


The subject of this panel could scarcely be more graphically represented. The gross dishevelled figure of the man eating and drinking in the centre, gorging on everything presented to him is the epitome of the glutton. To the left a woman is bringing on another cooked bird while the obese child at the man's knee is obviously greedily begging for more. A family so greedy that food is their only delight to judge from the bare room, and carrying the suggestion that greed brings poverty and selfishness. This is an early work and the rich variety of imagery which is characteristic of Bosch's mature painting has yet to emerge. Nevertheless, the near caricature of the figures indicates the direction that his work will take.


The Seven Deadly Sins (detail)
c. 1480
Museo del Prado, Madrid



The Ship of Fools
1490-1500
Oil on wood, 58 x 33 cm
Musee du Louvre, Paris

Little in Bosch's mature work is straightforward representation. Most elements and details are open to a variety of interpretations, many of which are obscure in their reference. Much of the obscurity must be part of a deliberate attempt to make demands on the imaginative power of the faithful and perhaps even more to comment obliquely on the failings of the Church and its clergy. Bosch was, of course, not alone in this; the seeds of the Protestant Reformation were sprouting during his lifetime. The Ship of Fools, from his middle period, is full of both obvious and obscure symbolism. The ship was a common symbol for the Church conducting souls to the heavenly port. This boat carries a monk and two nuns, who are all misbehaving with a group of peasants — an unmistakable reference to the moral failure of Church and lay society alike; for emphasis, the owl of evil lurks in the tree mast. Gluttony, indulgence and lust are included, and the whole scene is presided over by a jester fool, whose role is to satirize the morals and manners of the dav.


The Ship of Fools (detail)
1490-1500
Musee du Louvre, Paris

 
 

 
 
 
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