Hocus-pocus, Inquisition and demons
Musee Municipal, Saint-Germain-en-Laye
The name Hieronymous Bosch suggests images of pot-bellied demons and flying
fish, spiderlike gremlins and gruesome half-animal, half-human beasties. In
contrast to such nightmarish apparitions, the figures in this painting seem
The Conjurer belongs to a group of early works which Bosch probably painted c.
1475. The artist was born c. 1450, and was therefore about 25 when he painted
these works. Demons may put in an appearance in some of them, but they have not
yet gained the upper hand. The prevailing world-view is scathingly critical. In
the Ship of Fools, for example, the artist paints a monk and nun indulging in
gluttony and childish or erotic games instead of preparing for life in Heaven.
The Conjurer, too, was probably an invective against the credulity of his
The arrangement is simple and easily surveyed. In the middle, a table with cups,
balls and magic wand; also a frog, which appears to have sprung from the mouth
of the large figure bent over the table's surface. A second frog appears poised
between the person's lips, though this could equally be saliva. At the edge of
the group of spectators a man in a monk's habit severs the purse strings of the
person bent over the table. It is impossible to judge whether cutpurse and
conjurer are in cahoots.
There are five versions of the painting, as well as an engraving. Scholars are
unable to agree on the original, or on which comes closest to an original
possibly lost; however, the majority have settled for the present version. The
property of the municipal musuem of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris, the
painting measures 53 x 65 cm, is unsigned and rarely exhibited. The cautious
city fathers usually keep their hallowed treasure in a safe.
Other versions of the Conjurer continue the story of the theft. In
these the scene is not enclosed by a wall, but opens to houses in
the background on the right. In one the monk is imprisoned, while
the more distant background contains a gallows where the monk
(whether genuine or an impos-ter) will soon hang. Thus justice is
The engraving is inscribed with rhymed admonitions to the general
public. The world, we are told, is full of deceivers who succeed
with all kinds of tricks in making us spit wonders onto table tops;
trust them not, it says, for "when you lose your purse, you'll
The present painting does without written injunctions, nor are we
told the rest of the story. The high wall permits the artist to
isolate the scene from its everyday environment, thereby giving it
exemplary force. The question is whether delusion and theft really
were all he wished to show.
The thief and the Inquisition
The Conjuror (detail)
Bosch was born c. 1450 at 's-Hertogenbosch, where he spent most
of his working life. It is also likely that he derived his pseudonym
from the name of his native town. To be named after one's place of
origin was by no means uncommon. His real family name was van Aken,
for his family hailed from Aachen.
's-Hertogenbosch, today a peaceful country town, was at that time
one of the most important market towns of the Low Countries. The
town had 2930 households in 1472; by 1496 there were 3456. This was
equivalent to a population of approximately 25,000.
If statistics available for other towns can be believed, population
growth went hand in hand with an increased rate of theft. The best
form of protection against theft in stable communities was mutual
supervision. People lived in close proximity; they knew their
neighbours well. An influx of strangers made supervision more
Even greater fear and suspicion were aroused by travellers. The term
used for such people in French courts was "demeurant partout" - at
home everywhere, in other words nowhere. A person of no fixed abode
had bleak prospects in a court of law.
Among these travellers were storytellers, musicians, conjurers,
clowns, surgeons and hawkers of medicines and remedies, who trailed
from fair to fair in search of clientele. A rising town where money
flowed across the counters in large quantities was particularly
The thief in the painting wears a robe that strongly resembles the
habit of a lay brother of the Dominican Order. His belt and the top
section of his garment, including the cowl, are missing, but his
pale dress and black scapulary make his status clear enough. His
head tire alone is typical of a burgher.
The Dominicans were powerful in Bosch's day; but their power was
also the object of considerable controversy. It is therefore no
accident that the artist alludes to them through the figure of a
thief in a friar's habit. They were powerful because they controlled
the Inquisition. In 1484, Innocence VIII had proclaimed in a papal
bull that "very many persons of both sexes, lapsed from the Catholic
faith, [have] entered unions of the flesh with devils, and, by means
of magic spells, curses and other unworthy charms, [have] caused
great distress to Man and beast". Belief in witches grew to an
obsessive pitch, and the Dominican Order was the Pope's special
They were powerful, but not all-powerful, and, in the Low Countries
especially, the hysterical manner with which they persecuted their
victims met with considerable resistance. When a Dominican priest
declared a number of respected citizens of the city of Ghent to be
heretics in 1481, he was promptly placed under arrest by the City
Council. The Council also made it an offence to give alms to
Dominicans or to visit their church services.
Fear of witches and the Inquistion alike were castigated especially
by the humanists, whose spokesman, Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469-1536),
courageously declared the "pact with the devil" to be "an invention
of the Inquisition". Hieronymous Bosch possibly wanted to express
something similar: the conjurer and the supposedly pious friar
working hand in hand, the Inquisition feeding on the very heresies
it was supposed to suppress.
The conjurer's tall hat
The Conjuror (detail)
The figure who appears to have spat out a frog is usually seen as
a man, though the profile could equally belong to an elderly woman.
The key hanging at the figure's side, the attribute of the
housewife, would seem to confirm the latter view. The two Dominican
authors of the so-called Hammer of the Witches, an infamous
handbook for Inquisitors, would also have argued that the figure
belonged to the female sex. In their opinion women were highly
frivolous creatures, making it easier for the devil to draw them
into witchcraft than men.
The conjurer influences the woman without touching her or, since his
mouth is closed, speaking to her. He need only look into her eyes:
that evil could be performed through eye contact was established
within the first pages of the Hammer of the Witches. The
authors of the book were apparently authorities on technique, too:
an evil eye, they wrote, "infects the air"; and the infected air,
upon reaching the sorcerer's victim, causes "a change for the worse
in the body of the affected person".
The tall, black hat worn by the conjurer bears no resemblance to the
headgear of the other men present. This type of hat was
traditionally worn at the Burgundian court in the early years of the
15th century, later - as Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding,
executed in 1438, attests - becoming fashionable among the wealthy
urban middle class.
By Bosch's day, however, this erstwhile symbol of courtly life and
the wealthy bourgeois class was probably worn by vagabonds hoping to
lend some semblance of dignity to their appearance. The conjurer in
the painting - who evidently has hypnotic powers, and performs
conjuring acts with cups and balls, as well as making his little dog
leap through a hoop - is no exception.
But perhaps Hieronymous Bosch intended the hat to signify more than
a metier. Like the garment worn by the thief, it may be an
allusion: if the thief's habit insinuated the presence of Dominicans
and the Inquistion, the hat may well have played on the worldy
rulers of the age - the Habsburgs and Burgundians.
The town of 's-Hertogenbosch belonged to the kingdom of Burgundy,
which fell to the Habsburg empire in 1477, just as Bosch was setting
out to establish himself as an artist. Many Netherlanders had fought
against the Bugundian dukes, objecting to their unscrupulous
exploitation of their country's wealth. But the Habsburgs, too, were
seen as tyrants and exploiters.
The Habsburgs prosecuted the pope's worldly and spiritual interests.
In return for this service, they collected a tenth of all church
benefices in their sphere of influence. In the Low Countries, the
pope's most dedicated supporters in the struggle to suppress heresy
were the Dominicans. It was thus only logical that Archduke
Maximilian, the first Habsburg monarch to rule Burgundy, should
co-operate with the Dominicans as closely as possible. On visiting
s'-Hertogenbosch, he would stay in the Dominican monastery,
demonstrating to the inhabitants of the town where his true
It is therefore quite conceivable that Bosch's main intention in
this painting was not to criticize the Dominican Order but to expose
the profitable alliance between spiritual and worldly rulers, who
oppressed the people and stole their money.
Monkey or owl -fun and symbol
The Conjuror (detail)
The animal in the conjurer's basket cannot ultimately be
identified: it is either a guenon, a species of long-tailed monkey,
or an owl. Monkeys often provided an interlude in the repertoire of
fair-ground artistes. The owl, one of the artist's favourite birds,
puts in an appearance in several of his paintings.
In the symbolic language of the period the monkey signified cunning,
envy and lust. The owl was ambiguous: on the one hand it symbolized
wisdom, on the other it was the bird of darkness, the companion of
witches during their nightly flights. Whether monkey or owl, the
animal must be seen as a reflection on the character of the man from
whose belt it hangs.
Frogs and toads, too, frequently painted by Bosch, signified equally
positive and negative qualities. A figure with a frog's head was
revered in ancient Egypt as a goddess of resurgent life. The early
Egyptian Christians adopted the figure, adorning it with a cross and
making it the symbol of their belief in the resurrection of the dead
on the Day of Judgement.
To some European church fathers, however, the frog and the toad were
revolting creatures. They associated the animals' croaking call and
habitat of mud and ponds only with devils and heretics. The frog is
also a reference to the science of alchemy. The books of alchemists
were full of pictures, for they used drawings and cryptograms to
illustrate their methods and aims. Frogs and toads were part of the
base, earthbound element which was separated by distillation from
its ethereal counterpart.
The aim of alchemy was the transmutation of human and material
substance by the union of opposites. Bosch makes reference to this
in his later works, showing couples copulating in alchemical
retorts. The desired union was also represented through the
conjugation of sun and moon: the sun as a circle, the moon as a
sickle. This alchemical sign is hinted at in the top left of The
Conjurer in the form of a round window which - strictly speaking -
really ought not to be there.
A characteristic quality of the symbols used in alchemy (and indeed
of medieval sign language in general) is their complicated multiple
ambiguity. By contrast, our thinking today has adapted to the
scientific demand for unequivocal precision. But even a shape
combining sickle and orb did not always symbolize the unity of
opposites; sometimes it was simply the moon.
The moon has an important role in a related discipline: astrology.
Drawings of the " children of the planets ", a precursor of the
horoscopes printed today in various newspapers, were sold at fairs
and local markets. At that time the moon was considered a planet.
Among the moon's "children" were actors, singers, pedlars and
conjurers. Surprisingly, at least one of the prints of the "planets'
children" shows almost an exact replica of the motif used by Bosch:
a travelling conjurer with a table and thimble-rig trick.
The secret of the tarot cards
The Conjuror (detail)
Bosch was acquainted with, and used in his painting, not only the
sign languages of alchemists and astrolog-ists, but also the
symbolism of the tarot pack, cards used in games and
fortune-telling. It has been suggested that gypsies brought tarot
cards to Europe from Egypt or India in the 14th century. Other
sources claim that the Waldenses - a southern French sect whose
persecution by the Dominicans was especially bloody - used the cards
as early as the 12th century. While the design of the cards has
varied from century to century, the basic motifs - supposedly
revealing, or rather concealing, the knowledge of the ancients -
have remained unaltered. With the advent of science and technology,
these mystical figures were condemned to oblivion, though they have
recently been rediscovered by the followers of "New Age"
Comparison reveals that the couple in Bosch's painting, one of whom
has placed his hand on the breast of the other, can also be found on
early tarot cards. The sceptical, sombre-looking man with black hair
and a dark robe in the midst of the group of onlookers is also
prefigured in the cards. One card shows a revolving wheel; above it
an animal, possibly a dog, dressed in a costume. In Bosch's
painting, the little dog does not sit above a wheel, but next to a
However, it is the conjurer with his table who bears the closest
resemblance to similar figures on tarot cards and other contemporary
pictures. Dressed in red, he is equipped with a magic wand and
thimble-rig cups and balls. The trick of manoever-mg balls or small
stones between cups or thimbles by sleight-of-hand had been
performed since antiquity.
Cognoscenti would have recognized in the figure of the conjurer the
Greek god Hermes, who, as a messenger between this world and the
beyond, sometimes bestowed divine knowledge on human beings. Guides
to the interpretation of tarot cards link this card with creativity,
imagination and intelligence, as well as with delusion and disguise.
It is called "The Magus" or "Conjurer" (French: "Le Bateleur"),
resurfacing in later card games as the "Joker".
References to tarot - or alchemy and astrology - indicate that the
painting's almost naive, anecdotal charm conceals more than a
warning against tricksters, or against the combined forces of
clerical and secular power. Though the demons that hold sway in so
many of Bosch's later paintings may be biding their time,
restrained, as yet, from peering around corners, their otherworldly
presence is nonetheless already palpable.
Heaven and Hell
Crime and corruption in a turbulent world
In the midst of the fire stand diabolical hangmen with knives,
scythes, drills, axes, picks, shovels and other instruments with
which they torment the souls of gluttons, beheading them, running
them through with spits, drawing and quartering them and then
throwing them into the fire. There they melt like fat in the pan.
After The Vision of Tundale, 1484
The spectacle depicted here is a devastating one: devils and
demons, spectres and other monstrous figures attack the poor sinners
to rack, torture and torment them in indescribably grotesque ways.
The instruments of torture that feature so prominently in this
hellish scenario, such as the bell and gigantic musical instruments,
are wholly unconventional. Pathetic sinners are woven alive into the
strings of an enormous harp, shut into a drum or shackled to a huge
lute to endure the beat of a diabolical symphony, a world-class
apocalyptic martyrdom. Despite the surreal world of madness and
perversion that unfolds like a nightmare in this painting, it is
undeniably a masterpiece of consummate elegance and perfection.
Never before or since has a painter succeeded in creating a more
symbolically perverse orgy of torture than Hieronymus Bosch. There
could be no crasser contrast to the works of the Italian Renaissance
than this. The right panel of his triptych The Garden of Earthly
Delights, considered to be the Netherlandish painters masterpiece,
reveals nothing of human beauty. It intricately embroiders the
hellish sufferings to which man in his imperfection is condemned.
Bosch's imagination is inventive on an unprecedented and
unparalleled scale. With ghoulish wit, he delights in staging this
inferno teeming with monstrous atrocities. As overwhelmingly bizarre
as all this may seem, Bosch's imagination was, in fact, rooted in
the reality of his times. People groaned under the weight of
increasing taxation. Crime and corruption were rampant. Bishops,
cardinals and Popes kept mistresses, fathered children and even
showed them to the public at Mass. Of monks it was said then that
they spent the day indulging in "flatulent discourse, dice games and
gluttony". It was commonplace that their "corruption stank to high
heaven". Bosch's contemporaries may indeed have recalled the words
of the prophet Isaiah (5: 11—12, 14): "Woe unto them that rise up
early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that
continue until night, till wine inflame them! And the harp, and the
viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasrs: but they
regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operation of
his hands.... Therefore hell hath enlarged herself, and opened her
mouth without measure: and their glory, and their multitude, and
their pomp, and he that rejoiceth, shall descend into it." However,
the man who unleashed such unmitigated atrocities onto the canvas
did not fear Divine Judgement, at least not m the eyes of the
Spanish satirist Quevedo y Yillegas (d. 1645), who had the painter
engage in a fictive dialogue m which he claimed not to believe in
the devil or in hell.
Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights
Oil on panel, central panel: 220 x 195 cm, wings: 220 x 97 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid