Reading Bosch's Paintings

A Postscript


Dendrochronology and the Bosch Revolution

The most glaring consequence of Prof. Paul Klein's dendrochronological analyses of Bosch's paintings is that the "Garden of Earthly Delights" (Madrid) is Bosch's first major painting, which could have been painted in 1467. Bosch may have begun to paint the Garden Triptych when he was seventeen!

The difficulty is not so much Bosch's young age, other painters of his time produced some of their best work before they reached twenty, but the complexity and erudition of the contents of this painting, which have mostly remained enigmatic. In 1942 Wilhelm Fraenger first proposed that Bosch had a learned Jewish "advisor" who worked closely with him. In 1948 Fraenger discovered a suitable person in Cuperinus' chronicle of s'Hertogenbosch: In 1496, a Jewish magister, Jacob van Almaengien, was baptized in Hertogenbosch in the illustrious presence of the German Emperor Maximilian I, his son, Archduke Philip of Hapsburg, and a selection of Brabantian squires as godparents. Because Almaengien was a Jew, his working with Bosch has not been documented, but Almaengien's influence and presence are detectable in many of Bosch's major paintings from the Garden (1468) to Sicut erat in Diebus Noë (1512), Bosch's last painting.

I don't share Fraenger's untenable conclusion that Jacob van Almaengien was the leader of a sect of Adamites. Quite apart from this idée fixe, Fraenger's detailed analyses of Bosch's paintings are a cut above any other such attempt. I used them extensively. This applies especially to the Biblical text-sources of Bosch's paintings, and in particular to the explanations of the Garden Triptych, the Adoration of the "Four" Magi, and the Temptation of the St. Anthony Triptych in Lisbon.

Fraenger's readings of Bosch's paintings are not always emphasized in the text of the novel. The present notes are intended to document his contribution to my readings. Wilhelm Fraenger's work has been published after his death in: Hieronymus Bosch, Verlag der Kunst, Dresden, 1975 and 1999; ISBN 3364000409; English translation by Helen Sebba, 1997, ISBN 9766410402. I used the 1975 German edition.


The Garden Triptych, Chapters 1 and 2

Fraenger in his interpretation of the outside of the Garden of Earthly Delights concluded that Bosch must have had a Jewish "mentor." Fifty years before Luther's new translation of the Hebrew Bible only a learned Hebrew speaker could have noticed the discrepancy between fonts in the Latin translation of Genesis and red, mists in the Hebrew original.. However, Fraenger did not apply this insight to the layout of the inside of the triptych. The right wing was "Hell" to him, the left wing "Paradise" where the New Covenant was being established by Christ. Reading the triptych from right to left, as I propose, removes these conventional impediments: "Hell" is recognized as Terra Nostra, and the right wing as an extension of the garden in the center panel, just as Bosch intended to by connecting their Elysian landscapes across the intervening space.

In 1948 Fraenger identified the "dangerously intelligent" young man in the cave of the Garden with Bosch's mentor Jacob van Almaengien. Because Fraenger believed that the triptych had been painted after 1496, he could not imagine that the curly-headed, dark face in the background could be Bosch. The laughing 18-year-old was too young and looked foreign. Jacob points at a nude woman reclining in front of the cave. Her lips are sealed. Fraenger noting her mysterious, medial appearance called her "the Sibyl who holds the female secrets of the painting." Accordingly I simply named her Sibylle, the woman between the two men and Jacob's later wife. The all too brief love story between the trio is my invention. The similarity between Jacob in the cave and the Jacob-Adam in the betrothal scene of the left wing of the Garden, and, later, the groom in the Wedding at Canaa and the St. John on Patmos, has since Fraenger also been noticed by other interpreters of Bosch's paintings. I take their identity as a fact.

Fraenger's postulate of a mentor produced a storm of indignation among art historians. However, at the time it was not known that in a very similar arrangement two learned canons, professors at the University of Leuven, advised Dieric Bouts the Elder in 1464-67 in painting the Eucharist Triptych in Sint Jans Church in Leuven. Their names, Masters Jan Varenecker and Aegidius Ballawel, appear in the records of the Leuven Confraternity of the Holy Eucharist, their images in the middle panel of Bouts' triptych. This precedent should in principle remove any objections to the possibility of Bosch being advised by Jacob van Almaengien, especially where Bosch was only 18 years old at the time. The difference between Bout's advisors and van Almaengien is that Jacob was a wandering magister who moreover was Jewish. Except for his imperial baptism ordered by Maximilian I and Philip the Fair, Jacob the converto was not worthy of mention by the chroniclers of Bosch's time. He does, however, appear after his baptism in 1496/97as Philip van Sint Jans in the records of the Hertogenbosch Confraternity of Our Lady.

In re-examining the Garden Triptych I discovered a number of details overlooked or ignored by Fraenger. The appearance of the birds in the middle panel connects its content with Fahrid ud-Din Attar's "Congress of the Birds". This important hint at the meaning and sources of the middle panel is my reading, for which reason Attar's poem is transcribed in the text.

The face of the treeman in the center of the right panel suggests an interpretation of the triptych in neo-Platonic terms, which has not been tried before. Fraenger hints at such a connection, but does not elaborate or use it.

The observation that the Face in the center of Terra Nostra, my name for the right wing, can be connected with the New Man of Pico della Mirandola's Oratio De Hominis Dignitate:, is mine. The quoted part of Pico's text describes the subject of this panel surprisingly well. This discovery by necessity led to the conclusion that Jacob must have been exposed to Neo-Platonism, e.g., at Marsilio Ficino's Academy in Florence. Ficino was Jacob's contemporary. At the time Ficino taught neo-Platonic philosophy, before turning to mystical astrology. Again, in turn, this suggested a neo-Platonic interpretation of the three levels of the middle panel to me. The emphasis on the insubstantial nature of its naked figures (not noted by Fraenger), their "rational love" (a specific neo-Platonic term invented by Ficino), and the winged creatures flying in the Pythagorean upper reaches (Fraenger) are mostly mine. These ideas are elaborated in the text. Articles on Ficino's early philosophy can be found in the Internet.

Last not least, anyone with an open mind can see that Bosch depicts no indecent acts anywhere in this painting, which should remove the early Catholic moralistic interpretations of the triptych. Bosch does not propound a moral message as some art historians continue to maintain.

The "death scenes" amid the loving creatures had not escaped Fraenger. My interpretation of the central scene of the middle panel as a "drug scene," Fraenger would have considered as too far-out. Not to us! However, that the Barberry duck drops a red "opium pill" into the mouth of the man, is my daring suggestion. I was unable to find another suitable, small, red-seeded psychotropic which would have been readily available in 15th-century Hertogenbosch.

I take full responsibility for suggesting the possibility that Jeroen had a Jewish grandmother. To me this explains his looks in the cave of the Garden and his (fictitious) mentality, but it might not to others. For this reason this ancestry is merely indicated. It does not play a role in my reinterpreting his paintings. Vught appears to have had an old Jewish community, but as so often when trying to trace the history of the convertos, I have not been able to find more information. Most early (before 1492) Jewish immigrants to the Low Countries seem to have been Sephardic Jews from Portugal.

The beating of Jacob and Christ's apparition to him as well as Sibylle's rescue from her father's burning house, I read from Bosch's last triptych, Sicut Erat in Diebus Noë. See chapters 8 and 9 for a detailed discussion of these panels. Fraenger's title of the two panels also suggested the name Noah for Sibylle's father!


The Wedding at Canaa and the Cosmas and Damianus Flood of 1477, Chapter 3

Any explanation of the so-called Wedding at Canaa, one of Bosch's more enigmatic paintings, requires, sine-qua-non, the assumption of a connection between Bosch and the Jewish community. Oviously it takes place in the bride's fathers' house. Fraenger spins this painting and its mysterious altar into a tale of a sinister Christian-Jewish sect, which I think is absurd and unnecessary. Except for this conclusion I mostly followed Fraenger's exegesis.

We only possess two similar, very late copies of this painting. My date of the original, and there must have been a Bosch original, is, therefore, open to doubt. The fact that it is a copy and its complex subject is the excuse that nobody but Fraenger, who was ignorant of its dendrochronological date, has attempted to analyse it. Nevertheless, others have also noticed that the groom looks like the man being betrothed by Christ in the Garden Triptych. My additions to Fraenger's reading are the relatively uncomplicated, but fictional explanation of the origin of the mysterious "fertility" altar in the background. I make Sibylle's grandmother responsible for the altar, but have to admit that her grandmother's face in the painting is not as old as I would like to make her.

More important, I suggest, at variance with Fraenger, that the two learned notables next to Christ are Ficino and Albertus Magnus. Their sitting in front of the golden wall-hanging elevates all three into "virtual" reality. The attached portraits of the two philosophers show that my identification of Ficino is somewhat more credible than that of Albertus Magnus. But one philosopher led to the other, and Albertus lived 200 years before Bosch's time. Who knew what Albertus really looked like? The attached official portrait was supposed to show him as the famous teacher of Augustinus. Fraenger mistakenly sees Sibylle's father in Ficino, a man dressed in the robes of a canonicus? I identify the pompous man in the green robe to the far left as "Noah". More ingenious is my identification of the two clerics who are still present in the drawing, before they were overpainted with the two dogs.

The sudden and, from the point of my story, untimely early death of Sibylle I read from Bosch's last painting, Sicut erat in Diebus Noë. This is discussed in chapters 8 and 9. Until 1953 storm floods have for centuries repeatedly devastated the Low Countries, but between 1450 and 1500 I could find only one major flood: the Cosmas and Damianus Flood of 1477, which killed thousands of people.

The accounts of the repeated visits of Maximilian I to Hertogenbosch and the accompanying history of the Houses of Hapsburg, Burgundy, and Spain were here and later in the novel, taken from historical sources: the two chronicles by Peter van Os and Cuperinus, and from various encyclopedias.


Years without Jacob, 1476 - 1494

The Adoration of the "Four" Magi and the Wings of the Last Judgment Triptych in Venice.

Jacob's association as tutor to Maximilian of Hapsburg and the young Philip the Fair are not documented, they are my construct. However, the history of Bosch's paintings after his death, many of which ended in the possession of Philip II of Spain, cries for an explanation. This fact has not received any attention by the historians, if one disregards Carlos Fuentes' fictional conjectures in Terra Nostra. The various friends of Jacob's are partially documented. Cornelis van Bergen was a friend of Maximilian and Philip the Fair (van Os Chronicle). Johann von Nassau was in possession of the Garden Triptych in 1460. The Epiphany was a commission by the well documented Bronchorst family. The association of these people with Jacob and Bosch, as well as Jacob's lectures are fictional. I read Jacob's disappearance from Hertogenbosch from after the storm-flood of 1477 until 1494 from his absence in Bosch's paintings. Jacob's sudden reappearance as the Prodigal Son in 1494 makes this absence all the more striking. Jacob's drug addiction is fictional, as well as his intervening life.

Bosch's marriage to Adleit van Mervenne and his exceptionally fortunate financial situation after his marriage are documented in the Archives of Hertogenbosch. So is his father's death in 1482. I am convinced that Bosch's St. Hieronymus in Prayers, dendro-dated to the same year, was painted on occasion of his father's death.

My attribution of the Last Judgment in Vienna to the van Aken workshop is based on its poor execution and confused subject matter, especially of its wings. This view is not shared by the art historians. Likewise, making this triptych a commission by Maximilian I is my conjecture based on the fact that this painting has been in the possession of the Archdukes of Austria at least since 1501. The question of whether Cranach the Elder copied it around that time or someone else is immaterial here.

The Adoration of the "Four" Magi is a special case. Its Old-Testament content, brought to light by Fraenger, has to be attributed to Jacob's discourses on Hebrew scriptures beyond the Bible. It would definitely exceed Bosch's personal knowledge. However, I consider the triptych to have been painted by Bosch in absence of Jacob. The fact that it is the first painting signed by Bosch, gives support to this contention. In reading the middle panel I make extensive use of Fraenger's discussion. There exists no other comparable exegesis, and I have nothing to add except the peripheral story surrounding its creation.

Christ Crowned with Thorns stands out from all of Bosch's paintings to such a degree, that I doubt that it was painted by Bosch. I am not equipped to judge this issue, the professional art historians consider it a genuine Bosch. Who else could have painted it in 1485? However, could it be a copy of a late Rogier van der Weyden? Similar doubts overcome me when I ponder the recent attribution of Christ Crowned and Mocked to Quentin Massys. The panel is dendro-dated to after 1533, it was definitely not painted by Bosch, but Massys died in 1533.

The four surviving wings of, presumably, a Last Judgment in Venice (1491), which I call the Second Coming of Christ, are a unique document of Bosch's personal thinking. They appear related to the two panels of a Last Judgment by Dieric Bouts (1450) in Lille, but could Bosch have seen this painting? More likely is that Bouts' view of Paradise was an idea which was generally circulating in Brabant at the time. The Duhameel print (1490s?) in Amsterdam seems to support such an explanation. The question of who-copied-whom is in the context of my story unimportant. However, Bosch's vision of a tunnel to the Hereafter has no parallels, but again, the question whether it was his or Jacob's idea is not really important.

Dendrochronology has shown that the Death of the Usurer (1495), Gluttony, and the Ship of Fools were cut from the same tree! Their association with Noah's death is my conjecture.


 Chapter 5

Little needs to be added to my descriptions of Jacob's return, his baptism, and Bosch's paintings during this extraordinary period in Jacob's and Bosch's life. The Chronicle of Peter van Os (1525), which describes Jacob van Almaengien's baptism and innumerable other events of the time, exists as a PDF-copy (in Old Dutch and Latin) in the Internet. A most gratefully appreciated service of the Koniglige National Bibliothek in Den Haag.

Apart from Jacob van Almaengien's baptism, neither Os nor Cuperinus mention any other Jews in their chronicles. I would be very grateful for information on the Jewish communities in Brabant during the 15th century. It appears that following their prosecution in the 14th century, the Jews of Brabant converted or went into the underground. Most seem to have been Sephardic Jews from Portugal.

Chapter 6, The Table of the Seven Deadly Sins and The Temptation of St Anthony Triptych

The story I wove around the Table of the Seven Deadly Sins, (undated ~ 1497) in Madrid is based on my contention that it was painted by the van Aken family shop, not by Bosch himself. This conjecture, a reflection of the poor quality of its execution, is not shared by the art historians. Its inscriptions, taken from Deuteronomy, led Fraenger to apply the same Old Testament text to the decipherment of the Temptation of St. Anthony (1502) in Lisbon, with spectacular success. No one else has given a more convincing reading of Bosch's most enigmatic scatology on the Christian Church and Anthony's legend. For this reason I followed Fraenger down to the details and quoted the entire Song of Mose and the relevant Isaiah text. The fictional connection of these Biblical texts with Jacob is, of course, entirely mine. I see no possibility to charge Bosch with the invention and development of this subject. The hair-raising images are his, much of the bitterness is his, but not the exegesis of the scriptures. The reader is called upon to judge the coherence of my construct for himself. For a further illumination of the iconography of the triptych the reader is urged to read Fraenger's much more detailed analysis.


Chapter 7, 8, and 9, Jacob's Fall, the Haywain, their Escape to Compostela, and Jacob's and Bosch's Death.

Jacob's fall from grace, is, of course, my invention. Except for van Os' and Cuperino's brief remarks on the "Joed's" apostasy there is no supporting evidence of Jacobs downfall. However, the downfall of his friend Bosch is evident in his decreasing productivity. This needs an explanation, and I believe the two are intimately connected.

Despite its seemingly innocuous subject the Haywain is difficult to explain after the excesses of the Anthony Triptych. I decided to connect it with Jacob's fall. After all he appears most prominently on its outside, curiously in his wanderer-prodigal-son disguise. My connection of the outside and the inside of the triptych, Jacob does not appear on the inside, with Bosch's anger at the lost contract with Philip the Fair seemed to me the simplest explanation: send the entire Hapsburg clan and the Pope to hell. My identification of the so-called fourth rider as Cornelis van Bergen follows from the role I assigned to him in my story. It is not an accepted interpretation. Fraenger sees Almaengien in this rider. In my opinion Jacob could not appear among the Masters of the World riding to Hell following a load of hay. He was not after monetary riches.

The fact that the art historians have designated both extant, nearly identical Haywains in Philip II's collections in the Escorial and the Prado copies, has led me to postulate that Bosch himself had his shop paint a copy. To confuse the issue further, the poorer of the two, the Escorial copy (not pictured here) has now turned out to be the older one, dated to 1504, i.e., to the most likely year of Bosch's original painting. The Prado copy has been dated to or after 1516, the year Bosch died. The common original (in or before 1504) is lost.

What follows, the "pilgrimage" of the two friends to Compostela, is a literary gimmick. I deduced from Bosch's last painting, that Jacob must have died around 1508, but wanted to have a gentle resolution of this close, life-long friendship. Likewise, I needed a device to explain Bosch's inactivity after the Anthony Triptych and the Haywain. Finally their pilgrimage allowed Jeroen a lively commentary on the work of some of his most important contemporaries. Supposedly Bosch had never traveled before.

Chapter 8 is, therefore, fully born from my imagination. The reading of Sicut erat in Tempore Noë in Chapter 9 follows Fraenger's reading, except for the suggested reconstruction of the lost middle panel. It is now seen that I read most of the early events in Jacob's life from this epitaph to his death.

Chapter 9 suggests an explanation of the events that led to Bosch's documented financial impoverishment in the ten years before his death. The last paragraphs raise the unresolved historical issue of Philip II's involvement in Bosch's painterly estate, a potentially exciting subject for a historian of greater knowledge than mine.