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 …
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