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Bosch of Hertogenbosch

Hieronymus Bosch

by Charles de Tolnay
Reynal, in association with William Morrow, 460 pp., $47.50

An age which has witnessed a vogue for the “theater of cruelty” must be responsive to the art of Jerome Bosch. Not that this great painter was in need of rediscovery; but the presentation of his oeuvre in a book weighing nine pounds and costing nearly fifty dollars clearly relies, as a publishing venture, on the topical appeal of his fantasies. But this topicality is deceptive. Cruelty, alas, may be in fashion. Hell is not. The anxieties depicted by Bosch are concerned with the eternal torment that awaits the sinner. Indulge yourself in eating, and your reward will not be an increase in cholesterol, but toads for breakfast in all eternity. Lose your temper and you will be chopped to bits by specialist devils for ever and ever and ever. For “beware, beware,”—as we read on Bosch’s Table Top in the Prado—“the Lord sees.”

It is necessary to become aware of the gulf that separates us from Bosch’s intellectual universe, if we are not to misread the images in this book as surrealist fantasies. But though the general import of their message is clear enough, the details of Bosch’s pictorial language are still enigmatic. There is no better introduction to the problem with which his symbolism presents the modern historian than the beautiful page which Erwin Panofsky devoted to this question at the end of his book on Early Netherlandish Painting (1953). Having indicated briefly in what kind of popular and devotional literature he would look for the sources of Bosch’s imagery, he expresses the conviction “that the real secret of his magnificent nightmares and daydreams has still to be discovered.” And with a characteristic gesture of docta ignorantia he takes leave of his readers with an Englished version of the words of a German Renaissance scholar, who found the final section of a mystical treatise too obscure to be translated; “This, too high for my wit/ I prefer to omit.”

Panofsky’s verdict refers in particular to an interpretation of Bosch’s art which created some stir in the post-war period: the hypothesis, presented by Wilhelm Fraenger in a number of dazzlingly erudite books, according to which several of the master’s most famous paintings had been designed as cult-objects for a heretical nudist sect of millenarians who glorified the sexual act in orgiastic rituals. Despite the fact that we know Bosch to have been the member of what Panofsky calls the “furiously conventional” Confraternity of Our Lady in his native Hertogenbosch, despite the even more relevant fact that no traces of such a sect are recorded in Bosch’s lifetime and in his hometown, the appeal of this Romantic interpretation does not seem to have spent its force. Professor Mario Praz, in an essay on what he calls “The Canticles of Hieronymus Bosch” contributed to the Art News Annual (XXXII) on “The Grand Eccentrics,” admits that many of Fraenger’s readings “are only the fruit of his ingenuity”; but he still pleads that his “main assumptions” should not be dismissed. There is nothing more tempting than such a compromise with a bold and fascinating theory—but it will not do. In Iconology the attitude “this interpretation goes too far, but there must be something in it” presents the broad path to one of Bosch’s hells. A good wine needs no bushel, and a correct interpretation no supplementary ingenuity to make recalcitrant details fit.

PROFESSOR DE TOLNAY has proved as resistant to Fraenger’s heady fantasies as has Professor Panofsky. He does not think that any significant advance whatever has been made in this field of research since 1937, when he published his important monograph on the artist. Hence he feels justified in reprinting, as the Introduction to this recent volume, a translation of that monograph, explaining in a brief postscript that the conclusions he had reached almost thirty years ago concerning the interpretation and the development of Bosch’s oeuvre had been basically accepted in the subsequent books by Ludwig Baldass and Jacques Combe. His text, therefore, could be allowed to stand with only a few minor amendments. Of course there is nothing in any way objectionable to the republication of a book that was indeed a pioneering effort in its time. What is vexing is only that there is no indication of this fact in the English language edition, either in the title page or in the preliminary material. In contrast to the German edition of 1965 which opens with Professor de Tolnay’s Preface to the 1937 edition, the English version has removed this Preface (together with the postcript just mentioned) to page 50.

As a piece of book-making this unwieldy volume must be described as a monster; as hybrid, bewildering, and even as fascinating, at times, as any of the ambiguous creatures which crowd its plates. The reader who decides to start with the Introduction (which is certainly worth reading despite some infelicities in the translation), and who dutifully turns to the plates indicated in the margin but arranged in a different sequence, will frequently find the words he has just been reading repeated under the picture. If he is curious to know what the author now thinks about the painting in question, and how he has reacted to subsequent interpretations offered by others, he has to turn to the bulky catalogue raisonné which is the new part of the book and which was published in German between separate covers.

He will find it arranged in categories which come straight out of Alice in Wonderland. Thus a puzzling distinction is made between “Compositions with Large Figures” and “Biblical Compositions with Large Figures,” the latter including The Temptation of St. Anthony, an event not recorded in my Bible. Moreover it appears that almost life-sized, half-length figures such as those of the Biblical Crowning with Thorns belong to neither category; not that “large” should therefore be interpreted as “full length” either, for there is a separate section devoted to “The Great Triptychs” which overlaps both earlier categories. All this would matter less if there were references in the Introduction or at least under the plates to this most important section of the text. As there are no such indications, all the conscientious reader can do who wants to be enlightened about a particular item is to look for its place in the sequence of the plates in order to take his bearings for the search in the Catalogue. Let him take heart. This method will usually work. Not always, though. He will look in vain for the Bruges Last Judgment (illustrated on 12 plates) in the body of the Catalogue. It is discussed in a section headed “Disputed Works” where, when we have run it to earth, we shall find that the author now considers it genuine, having changed his mind since 1937. The headings of other sections are even less likely to reveal the information to any but the most persistent reader. Under “Sources of the Work of Hieronymous Bosch,” for instance, he will find early descriptions of Bosch’s paintings, mainly from seventeenth-century Spain, known to the author in 1937. There is no indication in this section (though there is in the Catalogue) of the existence of an earlier and infinitely more important description which was discovered since, an interpretation of the Haywain by Ambrosio de Morales, published in a paper by A. M. Salazar in the Archivo Español de Arte, 1955. The neglect of the opportunity to make this crucial document available for English readers is quite inexplicable. Nor is it clear why there should be two sections on documents, the original one of 1937 and the supplementary one headed “documents in archives.” Surely it would not have been hard to combine the two.

BY WAY OF CONTRAST, however, we find that the separate list of “additions to the catalogue” has also been incorporated in the main body of that section. The new supplement also contains two brief sections on page 414 headed “Study of Motifs” and “Interpretation.” We read in the latter that after the appearance of Professor de Tolnay’s original edition,

exegesis…concentrated almost exclusively on the “iconology” of the works…the meager findings show, however, that without artistic empathy the iconological method cannot lead to positive results…nevertheless, recent studies of popular expressions and proverbs…have in some cases shed light on the master’s thinking.

It would be hard for the uninitiated reader to infer from this grudging acknowledgment the extent to which the studies of Dutch and Flemish folklorists such as J. Grauls and D. Bax have transformed the situation, and that those who cannot read their papers have dropped out of the game. Nor will the reader find in these sections any reference to Fraenger’s sensational theories. These, it turns out, are mentioned in the subsequent section under “General Works” where we read that “In Fraenger’s beautifully written analyses the methods of Jung’s depth psychology and modern sociology [sic] are applied in a way that is often interesting but usually arbitrary.” For further criticism of these interpretations we are referred back to the Catalogue, where only those who already know on which of the paintings Fraenger based his interpretations will find further hints. Continuing our exploration of this labyrinthine tome we now encounter on pages 419-22 “Notes to the Introduction,” which turn out to be stragglers, other notes having been accommodated on earlier pages. There is a bibliography (which does not mention Panefsky), and an appendix of 23 plates with no fewer than 116 uncaptioned illustrations of works related to Bosch’s oeuvre as sources or reflections of his inventions. The preceding list offers no clue as to where in the body of the book these interesting items are discussed. The concluding page headed “List of Paintings” takes no cognizance of their existence. There is no index. One is entitled to ask whether the publishers ever gave a moment’s thought to the needs of the user. They obviously thought of this second edition exclusively as a picture book.

AS A PICTURE BOOK the volume is certainly striking. The new photographs by Max Seidel include many details, both in color and in black-and-white, which show motifs one might easily have overlooked. It would seem ungenerous to carp at these riches, but one misses at least an indication for the reader that a substantial proportion of the details are considerably larger than the originals. Since the dimensions of the whole panels are given, it is possible to calculate approximately how much they are enlarged. (Only approximately, for the damnable practice of “bleeding” the margins frequently excludes more accurate measurements.) Some of the details, it turns out, are two-and-a-half to three times their real size. Of course such enlargements are most interesting to the student of technique who can often follow the lines of the painter’s brush and discern with ease his methods of indicating light and texture. But as far as their artistic effect is concerned these enlargements obviously falsify the character of Bosch’s painting. It is made to look much more “modern,” much more “impressionistic” than his subtle technique justifies.

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