With Hieronymus Bosch, On the Track of the Sublime
by Karel Vereycken
The following article is an edited version of a conference presentation at La Chapelle en Vercors, Spring 2002.
“We are ravished by the terrifying because we are able to will that which our sensuous impulses are appalled by, and can reject what they desire.”
Friedrich Schiller, “On the Sublime”
Sometimes I hear friends of mine utter some legitimate disgust they resent when confronted with a horror scene of daily political life: “It nearly looked like Bosch!” That reaction reflects the fact that history retained nearly exclusively the superficial image of Jheronimus Anthoniszoon van Aken, called Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) (Fig. 1), nearly a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), presented as a “noble and admirable inventor of fantastic and bizarre things”, as Guicciardini, an Italian nobleman visiting the Low Countries, put it in 1567. Similarly, but in more recent times, both the militant republican, painter Francesco Goya and also American patriot Edgar Allan Poe have been abusively brandmarked as expressions of “fantastic” art.
But, as Francois Rabelais reminds us, Alcibiade, in Plato’s banquet, points to the fact that an ugly appearance can hide something totally opposite, when saying “that Socrates resembled the Silenes. Silenes of old were little boxes, like those we now may see in the shops of apothecaries, painted on the outside with wanton toyish figures, as harpies, satyrs, bridled geese, horned hares, saddled ducks, flying goats, thiller harts, and other such-like counterfeited pictures at discretion, to excite people unto laughter, as Silenus himself, who was the foster-father of good Bacchus, was wont to do; but within those capricious caskets were carefully preserved and kept many rich jewels and fine drugs, such as balm, ambergris, amomon, musk, civet, with several kinds of precious stones, and other things of great price.” And so it goes for the paintings of Bosch: to use another saying of Rabelais: “break the bone to get to the substantive marrow.”
But also, and I hope it to be the case for most readers, many of us ought to be quite familiar with these “fantastic and bizarre” monsters. Isn’t it sufficient to engage in any serious intellectual effort, for suffering a total assault of small and great, often disturbing desires trying to derail our noble undertakings and resolutions? After all, don’t you meet every day a sincere, honest person promising you that finally he or she will courageously engage in the necessary political battle so long awaited for by mankind to reconquer its dignity? Sadly enough, few are those capable of acting accordingly.
In one of his etchings “No te escaparas” (You will not escape) (Fig. 2), Francesco Goya brings the viewer to reflect on the same matter. The human soul (creativity) is very often some kind of prisoner of the body. Quite similar to Bosch, and as a compassionate psychologist, Goya states, “The sleep of reason produces monsters” (Fig. 3). One of the things that keep our reason awake is healthy laughter and self-irony, and that what Rabelais says about his books can equally be argued for Bosch’s paintings:
Good friends, my Readers, who peruse this Book,
Be not offended, whilst on it you look:
Denude yourselves of all depraved affection,
For it contains no badness, nor infection:
’T is true that it brings forth to you no birth
Of any value, but in point of mirth;
Thinking therefore how sorrow might your mind
Consume, I could no apter subject find;
One inch of joy surmounts of grief a span;
Because to laugh is proper to a man.
But beyond that liberating laughter, their approach in generating a peculiar artistic expression involves a quality belonging to the same domain as that what the German poet Friedrich Schiller calls “the Sublime.”
Friedrich Schiller and the Sublime
Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) was a revolutionary poet who inspired many republicans of his time. He realized that to establish a true republic, it was not sufficient to take power and have a beautiful constitution. One had to give birth to a revolution in the hearts, and therefore Schiller elaborated an aesthetic culture capable of transforming and uplifting human nature so as to make man free. So for him, the ultimate masterpiece of all art was the creation of political freedom, a freedom that had to come from the inside of each individual.
In one of his polemics against Immanuel Kant, and building on a debate involving Mendelssohn and Lessing, Schiller argues that there exist four peculiar qualities by which an object can become esthetical: “the pleasing,” “the good,” “the beautiful,” and “the sublime.”
For Schiller, these qualities are:
- “The pleasing,” which he considered unworthy to dominate a work of Art, since the pleasing effect operates by its material substance, so it cannot but predominantly please the senses.
- “The good,” which makes an abstraction of pleasing the senses, and seduces our reason by means of its idea. But by disregarding human sensibility it cannot but inspire, at best, esteem.
- “The beautiful” (with “the sublime”) belongs entirely to the realm of Art. By way of our intuition and through the mediation of the senses, we are capable of contemplating a form of “beauty” that is pleasing to both our senses and our reason.
But Schiller remains unsatisfied with these categories and looks for something superior, capable of going beyond: a quality he names “the sublime” (das erhebene, the elevated). He says:
“But did we exhaust the classification of esthetical attributes? No, since there exist objects that are simultaneously ugly, revolting and awful to our senses; they don’t satisfy our understanding and are indifferent to our moral judgment. And these objects keep pleasing us, yes, to the point that we voluntarily sacrifice the pleasure of the senses and of understanding in order to procure us the pleasure of these objects.
To restate the point, Schiller gives us an example indicating the wide gap that separates the pleasing from the sublime:
“There is nothing more attracting in nature than a beautiful landscape steeped in the purple of the evening sun. The rich variety of the objects, the sweetness of the contours, the play of the light that each time again unveils new aspects, the cloak of delicate vapors hanging over objects at the distance: everything joins to charm our senses. Add to it, to increase our pleasure, the soft murmuring of a waterfall, the song of the nightingale, a pleasing music. One gives in to the sweet sensation of rest, and, while our senses, touched by the harmony of the colors, of the forms and of the sounds, experience the highest degree of the pleasing, the mind rejoices the easy and ingenious course of ideas, and the heart the sentiments that overwhelm it as a torrent.”
“Suddenly, a storm approaches that darkens the sky and the landscape, that dominates or silences the other noises and takes suddenly away our pleasures. Black clouds invest the horizon: thunder strikes break out with a deafening noise. Lightening flashes follow each other one after the other: vision and hearing are affected in the most revolting fashion. The lightenings do not but reveal to us the horrors of the night: we see the falling of the thunder, and let me say so, we start fearing it will fall on us. But after all, it didn’t’ prevent us from believing that we rather gained than lost something in that exchange.”
And the feeling he discovers here exceeds by far what was experienced so far as “the good” and “the beautiful”:
“Hence the spectacle that nature offers us then, is, as such. more gloomy than good; rather ugly than beautiful, because darkness concealing all the images produced by light cannot be a pleasant thing of itself; and the sudden agitations that the thunder induces to the masses of air, the sudden glimmers when the lightening rips apart the sky, all of this is contrary to the essential condition of the beautiful that contains nothing abrupt, and nothing violent.”
So, for Schiller, that sublime is “a distressing state, which in its paroxysm, manifests itself by some kind of thrill; and a joyful state, which can go till ravishment.” By doing so, “the sublime affords us an egress from the sensuous world in which the beautiful would gladly hold us forever captive.” He then goes on :
“In the beautiful, reason and sensuousness are in unison, and only for the sake of this harmony does it possess any charm over us. Through beauty alone, then, we should never discover that we are destined and able to manifest ourselves as pure intelligences. But in the sublime, however, reason and sensuousness do not accord, and precisely in this contradiction between the two lies the magic with which it captures our minds. The physical and moral individual are here most sharply differentiated from one another; for it is precisely in the presence of objects that makes the former aware of his power and is infinitely exalted by the very same object that crushes the physical man to the ground.”
One can illustrate that antagonism between reason and man’s sensible with Bosch’s painting called the “Carrying of the Cross” of Ghent (Fig. 6). The powerful contrast between the face of Christ and the madness of those who conduct him to the Golgotha brings about the sublime character of the Christ, capable to resist what we call today “public opinion” or “What the media say.”
Leonardo’s series of grotesque heads (Fig. 7) indicates a similar interest. Scholars do not exclude the possibility that Bosch traveled several times to Italy.
But where could Bosch, a Flemish painter, have found, at the end of the fifteenth century, such modern ideas, expressed only at the end of the eighteenth century by Schiller?
Bosch’s century was an epoch of thirst for knowledge and discoveries: the secrets of nature were domesticated, the outskirts of the vast spaces of Earth were intellectually, but also physically, investigated; and thanks to the development of printing on paper, a growing number of individuals penetrated the knowledge of those forgotten civilizations that had been the cradle of the European one.
Maybe the most powerful vector of that energy the North of the Alps were the “Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life,” a secular international teaching order organized around the great mission of translating and transmitting the best of human knowledge to the many.
Originally in conflict with the official church, which was suffering from earthly corruption, they gave birth to a revolutionary Christian current: the “Modern Devotion.”
That became a breeding ground for the rising humanism typified by the scientific philosopher, Cardinal Nicolas of Cusa, the cartographer Mercator, and the “prince of the humanists,” Erasmus of Rotterdam. Why revolutionary? Because contrary to the harsh pessimistic vision of scholasticism for which man is essentially “evil” and needed correction from outside formal rules of morality, they were optimistically convinced that they could consolidate the interior authority of each, bringing the free will in accordance with God’s design to increase the good on Earth. Jos Koldeweij, a commissioner of the Bosch Rotterdam 2002 exhibit, says the same when he writes:
“This reform movement firmly incited each believer to live his own interpretation of Christianity as a personal experience through the individual imitation of Christ. One had to cease projecting one’s own responsibility on the great figures of the Bible and Holy history. Man could not rely on the intercession of the Virgin, the apostles or the Saints. While following the examples, one had to give a personal content to the ideal of Christian life. Each individual, as an individual, and fully conscious of his nature as a sinner, had to confront the permanent choice between good and evil.”
Bosch, a well-established and reportedly wealthy official, was in permanent contact with these humanist intellectuals who made ‘s Hertogenbosch one of the epicenters of their movement. As a member of the “Fraternity of Our Lady” (Fig. 8), Bosch was an intimate friend of Simon van Couderberch, a top leader of the Brothers of the Common Life and dean of the city’s Latin School, the same institution that trained Erasmus.
Elevate popular culture
A better understanding of the history of the witty culture of the Low Countries today makes it possible to abolish the five hundred years wall that has separated us from the very image-rich language of Bosch. The time has come to get rid of the simplistic and caricature-like interpretations cooked up by surrealist and Jungian would-be historians, since the great clarity of Bosch’s language for his contemporaries has been at last conclusively demonstrated.
Let us first underline that the Brothers of the Common Life strived for the blossoming of beautiful national languages, capable to “uplift to the dignity of man, all the members of the human species” as the French general Lazare Carnot said later.
The Dutch tongue, as the French and German languages, dates from the days of Charlemagne, and prospered among a people that not only discovered the world, but also started discovering itself. And the keystone of Bosch’s approach will be precisely to “vulgarize,” i.e., to make accessible to the popular culture of his time, the revolutionary Christianity of the elite of the Modern Devotion through the power of provocative images and Socratic laughter. As his unique inheritor, Peter Bruegel the Elder, Bosch will be not be simply a product, but a moving force of that nationwide droll and exuberant culture.
The new research presented at the 2002 Rotterdam exhibition amply documents the extremely rich pre-existing cultural environment in which Bosch operated. For example the bracelet decorated with a rebus of the musicians of ‘s Hertogenbosch (Fig. 9), Bosch’s birthplace, and a city built in the center of the “the Duke’s wood” (where he came to hunt). The rebus reads as follows. First an S followed by a heart (“hert” means the heart and a deer), followed by two eyes (“ogen”), followed by the letters “Bossche.” That makes it: ‘s Hert-ogen-bossche.
One of Bosch’s “bizarre” drawings shows a field covered with eyes and a series of trees having large ears (Fig. 10). Before a (dead) trunk of a tree (the forest), one sees the deer (hert) referring to the allegorical pun on the name of his city: ‘s Hertogenbosch. Although the Latin, handwritten text on top of the drawing reads: “Miserrimi quippe est ingenii semper uti inventis et nunquam inveniendis” (it is a poor spirit which works with the inventions of others, and is unable to bring forth its own ideas), tells us that Bosch was thinking about this self-challenging concept (which also appears in Leonardo’s treatise on painting), the inscription doesn’t give us the clue for deciphering the drawing.
Nevertheless, an anonymous woodcut of 1546 visualizes a popular saying, “Dat Velt heft ogen/ dat Wolt heft oren/ Ick wil sien/ swijghen ende hooren” (“The field has eyes, the wood has ears. I want to see, to be silent and listen”) (Fig. 11). That was like a warning: Watch out! Something ugly is going on in the city! And the imagery is identical to that employed by Bosch, which shows us again the painter was not some isolated sick dreamer. Admittedly, without knowing the content of the popular saying, the strange eyes in the field and the giant ears in the trees appear completely “surrealistic.”
Another example, on view at the Rotterdam exhibit, was a large collection of minuscule decorative iron pins, over forty of whose images have been duly identified as identical to images existing in the paintings of Bosch! The pins were brought back by pilgrims from their trips, but also in more normal occasions, the Flemish would put a pin on their jacket to intrigue or amuse their fellow men with a rebus or a witty subject, such as a roasted chicken, a dog, or simply trousers on the drying line! Or feature a bagpiper or a mussel as a reference to sexual jokes.
Other images of Bosch paintings are easily identified with prominent manuscripts. The beautiful giraffe (Fig. 12) that one can see in the left panel of the “Garden of Earthly Delights” is directly taken from Cyriac of Ancona’s “Travels to Egypt,” written at the end of the fifteenth century (Fig. 13).
Sprinkled with visual enigmas, popular sayings, witty proverbs, spoonerisms, cryptograms, wordplays, rebuses and metaphors, the Flemish popular culture however suffered from its superstitions and coarseness. But through a process of dialogue, by sticking a mirror in front of them, Bosch compassionately eliminates that vulgarity without suffocating its naturalness and liveliness.
Thomas a Kempis and the Hay Wagon
But to understand Bosch, one cannot escape a brief visit to one of the founders of the Modern Devotion, Thomas a Kempis (1379-1471) to whom is attributed “The Imitation of Christ.”
Confronting a church hit by corruption, and as a true Augustinian, a Kempis points out that the primary origin of sin comes from man’s attachment to the earthly realm, especially his sensuous attachment to worldly matters. (Of course, Schiller’s argument on the sublime poses the same challenge though not in theological terms but in philosophical ones.) And it is precisely that question that is the central subject of all of Bosch’s painting.
The most explicit example you can find is the famous “The Hay Wagon” (fig. 14). At the center, a carriage full of hay, allegory of the vanity of earthly wealth pulled forward by beast-man creatures that enter into Limbo. The Duke of Burgundy, the Emperor, and even the Pope himself (these are the times of Julius II) closely ride behind the chariot, and a dozen individuals are engaged in mortal combat to get hold of a tiny wisp of straw. In the front, one sees an abbot ordering nuns to fill his bags with hay; a fake dentist or beggars cheat people for some straw. A nun even offers a handful of hay to a musician while catching a sausage attached to a string (looking for a sexual favor…). Popular cultural events in the Low Countries often featured a real-life hay wagon driven around the city, as can be seen in the engraving of Frans Hogenberg of the Ommeganck feasts of Antwerp of 1563. So even if few saw the paintings, the imagery and its message reached the happy many. The allegory of the hay as such, is taken straight from the Bible (Isaiah, 40, 6):
"All men are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.
7 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the LORD blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God stands forever."
One might say that today’s hay wagon is the $400 trillion speculative bubble, and the beast-men that pull that chariot into the limbo and the people following it with them! Thomas a Kempis wrote in his “Imitation of Christ”:
“What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone. This is the greatest wisdom -- to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world. It is vanity, therefore, to seek and trust in riches that perish. It is vanity also to court honor and to be puffed up with pride. It is vanity to follow the lusts of the body and to desire things for which severe punishment later must come. It is vanity to wish for long life and to care little about a well-spent life. It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and not to make provision for things to come. It is vanity to love what passes quickly and not to look ahead where eternal joy abides. Often recall the proverb: "The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing." Try, moreover, to turn your heart from the love of things visible and bring yourself to things invisible. For they who follow their own evil passions stain their consciences and lose the grace of God.”
The “Door-to-door salesman” (fig. 15) (before mistakenly called “The return of the prodigal son”) that is depicted on the outside panels of the tryptic of the Hay wagon when closed, has no useful meaning but in regard of this outlook. The remarkable doctoral thesis of Dr. Eric de Bruyn proves convincingly that the peddler is an allegory of mankind fighting to remain walking on the right road and in the right direction. He advances “op een slof en een schoen” (on a slipper and a shoe) i.e., he is voluntarily becoming “homeless,” leaving the visual world of sin (we see a bordello, drunkards, etc.), and abandoning all material possessions. With his “staff” (Faith) he succeeds to repel the “infernal dogs” (Evil) that try to hold him back. Once again, these images are not personal outbursts of the exuberant imagination of Bosch, but a common language of that period. An illumination of a fourteenth-century English psalm book, the Luttrell Psalter, features exactly the same allegorical representation (Fig. 16).
Another key to the metaphors of Bosch is the owl that one sees behind the peddler, who sits on a leafless branch, just as in Fig. 10. At the time of Bosch, the birdcatchers used screech or barn owls to attract other birds that got stuck in the glue with which they had covered the branches surrounding the bait. Quite different from the classical Greek symbol of wisdom (Athena), the image here is on the contrary a metaphor for the way vice attracts man and turns him into a captive.
Confronted with the agony of this interior battle for self-perfection, the viewer, in “Imitation of Christ,” is forced to personally face his own choice between good and evil and tune his free will to the harmony of God’s design. As we have said before, for Bosch, as for Augustine, evil or sin is not reducible to any particular deed or behavior, often a mere consequence of his excessive attachment to the earthly realms, including… those who serve the good!
The Garden of Earthly Delights
In that sense, for Bosch, as for Dante Alighieri, the ultimate sin is the attachment to an “Earthly paradise,” a subject that he will treat repeatedly. In his painting, the “Garden of earthly delights” (Fig. 17), probably the most well-known and the most polemical of his works, Bosch starts on the left panel with a quite normal representation of the Garden of Eden. But if one looks more closely, one notices immediately that there is already something weird going on, since around the source of life, there are several little monsters, half-man, half-reptile; the kind of creatures one finds on the roofs of the French cathedrals or in margins of the illuminated Flemish manuscripts of the early fourteenth century [e.g., “Monsters” and strawberries in the margins of a Flemish bible manuscript, 1432, London, British Library, Yates Thomson Ms, 16, fol. 3 (395 x 290 mm).]
Today, scholars believe that the real title of the work is “Sicut erat in diebus Noe” (“As in the days of Noah”), showing man living in Sin before the Great Flood. The quote comes from Mathew 24, 37-39:
“But as the days of Noah were,
so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
For as in the days that were before the flood
they were eating and drinking,
marrying and giving in marriage,
until the day that Noah entered into the ark.
And knew not until the flood came,
and took them all away;
so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.”
Since sin and corruption were all over the place, Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer and many other humanists did not exclude the coming of a new flood in the year 1500, and it is fair to consider that Bosch made it for that occasion.
The left panel features Christ confirming a just wedding, between Adam and Eve standing in front of the Creation, including Good and Evil. Behind them, in the trees, we discover mulberries and other tiny little red fruits (Fig. 19). While the right panel features Hell as such, the whole central panel is filled with variations on the theme of “how we got there.” Sin itself is represented by the rich allegory of the little red and black fruits: strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and mulberries that men and women are frenetically trying to catch with animal-like energy (Fig. 20). The ephemerical character of the short-lived pleasure obtainable from such fruits makes them an ideal metaphor. A group of thirty people sits down eating a giant strawberry (Fig. 21). A man shows his strawberry to an amused lady (Fig. 22). Once gone, the pleasure, of fruits and flowers dry out and decompose into dust. Since the Earthly Paradise is the Hell of immediacy, there are no children or elderly.
Taken individually, each figure looks hilarious, but it becomes clear through the painting that a world dominated by these creatures is a Hell on Earth.
Notice also the presence of the same owl we met before, who hides in the Fountain of Life, and that one finds in the form of a dancing sorcerer on the far right of the central panel (Fig. 23). That the painting refers to the Deluge is also suggested by one of the rare preparatory drawings that survives, of the right panel where one sees a bordello (vice) seated in a giant egg stuck in a dead trunk of a tree floating on water (Fig. 24). When one sees the presence of so many musical instruments in Bosch’s Hell scenes, one wonders what (the hell) was going on? A little comment of Erasmus from that period called “Modern Musical habits” offers some hints, clarifying the historical context of this polemic:
“Today, in certain areas, it has become an habit to edit every year new songs, which the young girls learn by heart. The subjects of these songs are more or less as follows: A husband betrayed by his wife, or a young woman preserved in vain by her parents, or also a clandestine affair with a lover. And these actions are reported in such a fashion that they appear to have happened honestly, and one applauds the happy scoundrel. In addition to the poisoned subject come words with such an obscenity of metaphors and allegories that shame in a person would have problems expressing itself more shamefully. And this trade nourishes a great number of people, especially in Flanders.”
Bosch shows the degrading character, not of music in general, but of a type of music that is designed to turn people’s head uniquely to their instincts and to alienate their freedom (Fig. 25).
Insane or sublime?
Historically, Apollonian neo-classicists obsessed with a formal form of Beauty, and Dionysian Romantics out for an irrational “Fantastic” rather than the truly Sublime, have joined forces to throw discredit on Bosch. First accused of being a member of an Adamite (nudist) exhibitionist cult (the radical wing of the “Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit” who believed in the return of an earthly paradise free of original sin), he was depicted as a Cathar heretic, an initiated alchemist, a poppy-oil sniffing junkie, a Rosicrucian, etc. That thesis, outspokenly stated by Fraenger was widely popularized in the post WWII period to launch the rock-drug-sex counterculture.
All of today’s new research, and the simple fact that the very Christian Duke of Burgundy, Philippe the Fair, ordered him a “Last Supper” in 1504, totally rules out any association of the master with heretical elements, and proves on the contrary that Bosch was more some kind of moralist.
Confronted with the sublime of Bosch, many timidly ask: “But where is the positive? Where is the good, where is the beautiful?” Again, as in the case of Goya, when he did the “Caprichios” (and we know he had access some of Bosch’s paintings in Madrid), Bosch uses images that trouble our sensorium in an effort to paint and make visible in our mind, rather than on canvas, a type of higher beauty invisible to the senses, but accessible to our soul.
Schiller even says:
“But it is not merely what is unattainable for imagination, the sublime of quantity, but what is incomprehensible for the understanding, confusion, that can likewise serve as a representation of the supersensuous and supply the mind with an upward impetus, provided it advances to greatness and announces itself as a work of nature (for otherwise it is contemptible). Who does not prefer to tarry among the spiritual disorder of a natural landscape rather than in the spiritless regularity of a French garden?”
Does that mean that we have to declare a war on Beauty? Take this last quote of Schiller for an answer:
“Beauty has the right to obtain our recognition, but its well doing doesn’t go beyond mankind. In man, the sublime addresses his pure spirit; and since it is our destiny, despite all the barriers that oppose our sensuous nature, to behave according to the code of pure spirits, the sublime has to join beauty to make aesthetical education a whole, so that the human heart and its faculty of sentiment concord with each other as far as our destination goes, that is by consequence, beyond the limits of the sensorial world.”
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