The Triumph of the City


The High Renaissance



(Renaissance  Art Map)




Hieronymus Bosch





Hieronymus Bosch was born in 's Hertogenbosch in northern Brabant, Germany, and probably remained there all his life. The rich and imaginative symbolism of his work reveals a knowledge of alchemy, magic, and mystical subjects, linking him to the allegorical culture of the Middle Ages. Popular tales, temptations of saints, biblical episodes, and divine judgments were his chosen subject matter, rarely dealing with more traditional religious themes. Fantastic creatures, monstrous demons, cross-breeds, and strange inventions fill his canvases, their fancifulness matched by an equally refined style. Each detail is rendered with great attention to composition and colour, while the entire "work emerges out of the careful assembly of every component. Any underlying moralism in Bosch's work is tempered by the friendly and humorous atmosphere of the paintings, into which many people have read all sorts of esoteric meanings.




Hieronymous Bosch

The Conjurer


Hocus-pocus, Inquisition and demons


The Conjuror
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 positively civilized.
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 contemporaries.
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 restored.
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 regret it".
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 difficult.
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 attractive.
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 anti-witch force.
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 allegiance lay.
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" esotericism.
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 hoop.
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
c. 1500
Oil on panel, central panel: 220 x 195 cm, wings: 220 x 97 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid


Hieronymus Bosch



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