Hieronymus BOSCH




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Hieronymus Bosch  Between Heaven And Hell
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    Artistic Origins and Early Biblical Scenes
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Between Heaven And Hell


 by Walter Bosing





Head of a Woman (fragment)
Museum Boumans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
This small, keenly observed portrait seems to have, been part of a larger composition now lost. It was probably painted about 1 500 and is an early example of Bosch's mature style. Although it carries none of the more obvious characteristics of his work, it is generally accepted as being by Bosch. What may surely be said is that it shows a gentle, sympathetic side of his nature and that he had some affection for the sitter, which may suggest that she was a member of his family. Alternatively, what may be seen of the costume and the upward glancing pose may indicate that it was part of an altarpiece and that the subject was in a religious order. All the speculation does not detract from the delicacy of this rare portrait. An earlier attribution of the work to Pieter Breughel the Elder is now discounted.

The strange world of Hieronymus Bosch ist best studied in the Museodel Pradoin Madrid. Here, in one of the upper galleries, are gathered no less than three major altarpieces and several smaller pictures by Bosch and his workshop. They present a dramatic contrast to the other Netherlandish paintings hanging in the room. The coolly observed and precisely rendered details of Robert Campin's »Betrothal of the Virgin« and the dignified restraint of Roger van der Weyden's » Descent from the Cross« have nothing in common with the devil infested landscapes of Bosch's »Haywain« or his »Garden of Earthly Delights«. The art of the older masters is firmly rooted in the prosaic, substantial world of everyday experience, but Bosch confronts us with a world of dreams, nightmares in which forms seem to flicker and change before our eyes.
Bosch's pictures have always fascinated viewers, but in earlier centuries it was widely assumed that his diabolic scenes were intended merely to amuse or titillate, rather like the »grotteschi« of Italian Renaissance ornament. Philip II, it is true, collected his works more for edification than for entertainment, but the Spanish were in the minority. As the Spaniard Felipe de Guevara* complained in the earliest account of Bosch's art, written about 1560, most people regarded him merely as »the inventor of monsters and chimeras«. About a half-century later, the Dutch art historian Carel van Mander* described Bosch's paintings chiefly as »wondrous and strange fantasies...often less pleasant than gruesome to lookat«.
In our own century, however, scholars have come to realize that Bosch's art possesses a more profound significance, and there have been many attempts to explain its origins and meaning. Some writers have seen him as a sort of fifteenth-century Surrealist who dredged up his disturbing forms from the subconscious mind; his name is frequently linked with that of Salvador Dali. For others, Bosch's art reflects esoteric practices of the Middle Ages, such as alchemy, astrology or witchcraft. Perhaps most provocative, however, are the attempts to connect Bosch with the various religious heresies which existed during the Middle Ages. An example can be found in the thesis proposed by Wilhelm Fraenger*. Because of their popularity, Fraenger's theories deserve consideration; they also vividly illustrate the problems encountered in interpreting Bosch.
According to Fraenger, Bosch was a member of the Brethren of the Free Spirit, a heretical group which flourished throughout Europe for several hundred years after their first appearance in the thirteenth century. Little is known about this sect, but it is supposed that they practised sexual promiscuity as part of their religious rites, through which they attempted to achieve the state of innocence possessed by Adam before the Fail; hence they are also called Adamites. Fraenger assumes that the »Garden of Earthly Deligths« was painted for a group of Adamites in 's-Hertogen-bosch, where Bosch lived, and that the unabashedly erotic scene of the central panel represents not a condemnation of unbridled sensuality, as is generally believed, but the religious practices of the sect. Fraenger has also linked other works by Bosch to the Adamites and their doctrines.
Although most scholars object vigorously to Fraenger's thesis, it has received widespread attention in the public press and popular magazines where, in fact, the central panel of the »Garden of Earthly Delights« is reproduced almost as frequently as the »Mona Lisa« and the »Night Watch«. The great appeal of this interpretation lies partly in its novelty and its sensational character, but even more in the fact that it accords well with twentieth-century conceptions of free love and uninhibited sexuality as positive values in themselves, and as remedies for various psychic and social ills. Indeed, one advocate of what might be called "therapeutic sexuality", Norman 0. Brown (»Love's Body«, 1966), points to Bosch's »Garden of Earthly Delights« as an illustration of his own theories put into practice.
Despite the attraction which Fraenger's interpretation exerts on modern sensibilities, however, his basic premise is very questionable. We have no historical evidence that Bosch was ever a member of the Adamites or that he painted for them. In fact, the last certain reference to this group in the Netherlands appears at Brussels in 1411. But even if the Adamites survived somehow undetected into the early sixteenth century, Bosch himself can hardly have been anything other than an orthodox Christian. He was a member of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, a guild of clergy and laity devoted to the Virgin Mary and quite different from the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Bosch executed several commissions for this brotherhood and was also patronized by highly placed members of the Church and nobility, one of whom probably commissioned the »Garden of Earthly Deligths« itself. The religious orthodoxy of these patrons can scarcely be doubted. After the middle of the sixteenth century, a number of Bosch's works, including, once more, the »Garden of Earthly Delights«, were acquired by the most conservative Catholic of them all, Philip II of Spain. This was the time of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, when the Inquisition took on new life and men everywhere were peculiarly sensitive to questions of dogma and doctrine. Thus, it is highly unlikely that Bosch's pictures would have been acquired so avidly had there been any suspicion that he was associated with any heretical sect. Only towards the end of the sixteenth century were his works regarded by some in Spain as »tainted with heresy«, but this charge was soundly refuted by the Spanish priest Fray Jose de Siguenza in 1605.
Fraenger's theories may thus be dismissed for lack of historical proof. The attempts to see Bosch as a secret adept of one of the more esoteric arts can be challenged on similar grounds. This ist not to deny that he may have derived some of his imagery from these sources; but the assertion by some writers that he was a practising alchemist, for example, cannot be proved. Equally unfounded are suggestions that Bosch painted under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs.
Finally, the tendency to interpret Bosch's imagery in terms of modern Surrealism or Freudian psychology ist anachronistic. We forget too often that Bosch never read Freud and that modern psychoanalysis would have been incomprehensible to the medieval mind. What we choose to call the libido was denounced by the medieval Church as original sin; what we see as the expression of the subconscious mind was for the Middle Ages the promptings of God or the Devil. Modern psychology may explain the appeal Bosch's pictures have for us, but it cannot explain the meaning they had for Bosch and his contemporaries. Likewise, it is doubtful that modern psychoanalysis can help us to understand the mental processes by which Bosch developed his enigmatic forms. Bosch did not intend to evoke the subconscious of the viewer, but to teach him certain moral and spiritual truths, and thus his images generally had a precise and premeditated significance. As Dirk Bax* has shown, they often represented visual translations of verbal puns and metaphors. Bosch's sources, in fact, should rather be sought in the language and folklore of his day, as well as in the teachings of the Church. If we examine the »Garden of Earthly Delights« and his other pictures within the contemporary culture, we will discover that, no less than the altarpieces of Robert Campin and Roger van der Weyden, Bosch's art mirrored the hopes and fears of the waning Middle Ages.


Head of a Halberdier (fragment)
Museo del Prado, Madrid


* Felipe de Guevara: »Commentarios de la pintura«, Madrid 1788.
* Carel van Mander: »Das Leben der niederlandischen und deutschen Maler«, Munchen/Leipzig 1906.
*WilhelmFraenger: »Hieronymus Bosch. DasTausend-jahrige Reich. Grundzuge einer Auslegung«, Coburg 1947. - »The Millennium of Hieronymus Bosch. Outlines of a New Interpretations, Chicago 1951, London 1952.
* Dirk Bax: »Ontcijfering van Jeroen Bosch«, 's-Graven-hage 1949. - »Hieronymus Bosch, his picture-writing deciphered Rotterdam« 1979.



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