Jheronimus Bosch and the music of hell. Part 2/3: The Garden of Earthly Delights

In part 1, we examined the repeated claim that the hell panel of Jheronimus Bosch’s painting of 1495–1505, The Garden of Earthly Delights, includes readable Gregorian notation painted on a sinner’s bottom, and provided evidence that this is not the case.

In part 2 we explore the message about music in the whole triptych. We will see Bosch’s preaching with paint, the symbolism of sin in his Garden, featuring Lucifer’s lutes, hell’s hurdy gurdy, Beelzebub’s bray harp, Diabolus’ drum, a recorder in the rectum, Satan’s shawm, a terrifying trumpet and triangle, a brazen bagpipe, and the unplayable music on the sinner’s bottom and in the book he is lying on.

This article makes reference to literature from Bosch’s Netherlands and beyond, from his lifetime and before, to explore the rich meaning of his imagery: the nakedness of his figures, a massive mussel, oversize strawberries, a bird-man on a commode devouring sinners, demonic serpents, giant instruments of music made into instruments of torture for musical sinners, and the choir of hell.

Finally, in part 3 we seek the answer to the question posed by this painting and by all of Bosch’s work: what did Bosch have against music, and against musicians?

Artistic symbols and signifiers of sin

As the article Performable music in medieval and renaissance art explains, both faux music notation and playable music was used in medieval and renaissance art to drive home the artist’s meaning. In art of these periods, every visual element was a coded message.

One of the attributes that marks out Jheronimus Bosch (c. 1450–1516) as a master artist is the depth, richness and detail of his symbolic imagery, his visual communication to the viewer. He drew upon existing elements in medieval and renaissance art, but went well beyond them. His approach may be summarised by the Latin words at the top of his sketch, The wood has ears, the field has eyes: “Poor is the mind that always uses the inventions of others and invents nothing itself.”

It is his originality, and the encoded nature of his imagery, that has made Bosch a magnet for fanciful claims in the modern day: he was on hallucinogenic drugs; he belonged to a secret sect, such as the Adamites, the Cathars or the Rosicrucians; he was painting political messages on behalf of a government; he was an alchemist. What all such theories have in common is that they strain so hard to make their story true that they misinterpret what is there (a coif is described as a turban, for example, and figures are identified as particular people with no supporting evidence) and they ignore the obvious fact that Bosch’s paintings are not only religious in nature, therefore conveying theological meanings, but also intended for display and made within the context of a long history of symbolic art, therefore conveying messages in a visual language explicable to his contemporaneous viewers.

As with any art, we can only comprehend Bosch’s work through his cultural cognitive framework. This article therefore makes many references to the contemporaneous religious literature of Bosch’s time, and often of Bosch’s region or specific country, The Netherlands.

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In The Garden of Earthly Delights (above), Bosch painted almost all his human figures naked. The meaning of nakedness in medieval and renaissance art depended on context. As formulated in Repertorium Morale by French Benedictine author, Pierre Bersuire (or Bercheure or Berchoire, c. 1290–1362), there were four categories of artistic nudity, the second two of which were employed by Bosch in The Garden. They are:

Nuditas temporalis, “The lack of worldly goods and possessions”, a visual metaphor for poverty, either poverty chosen by a saintly figure who has renounced worldly goods, or the unchosen poverty of the socially deprived.

Nuditas virtualis, “the use of nudity as the symbol of purity and innocence”, such as images of Christ being baptised naked by John the Baptist.

Two images of the baptism of Christ.
Left: Ceiling mosaic above the Arian Baptistery, Ravenna, Italy, early 6th century.
Right: Fresco by Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy, c. 1305.

Nuditas naturalis, “The natural state of man as he is born into the world”. This is the natural, original, sinless state of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before their Original Sin, as we see below in a detail from the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights, showing God as Christ, presenting Eve to Adam and blessing their union.

Nuditas criminalis “is symbolic of lust, vanity and the lack of all virtues”. We see nuditas criminalis in a great many images where Adam and Eve are shown having eaten the forbidden fruit, using leaves to cover up their now shameful nakedness. The naked sinners in the middle panel of The Garden show no such shame, but delight in their nuditas criminalis, and, for this reason, the middle panel has often been taken to be sinful humanity before God sent the great flood to wipe out all humankind except righteous Noah and his family (Genesis 6: 9 ff.). Among the many symbolic details Bosch used to illustrate humanity’s delight in sin are animals, fruit and flowers, as we see in the details below.

A recurring feature in Bosch’s paintings is the owl, written of in medieval bestiaries as symbolic of living in moral darkness, shunning the light, representing sloth and the filth of sin, since it pollutes its own nest with its dung. The owl also represents death, since it often lives near tombs and in caves. In the centre panel we have three owls, two of them giants. The first (above left) is perched on the horn of a hybrid one-horned creature, one of the animals being ridden in a large circle around the central pool. The second (above right) is a giant owl embraced by a man, i.e. the sinner embraces living in moral darkness, just behind a man and woman inside a translucent membrane growing from the head of a flower, within which grows a strawberry, symbol of lust. The couple are touching intimately, her hand on his upper leg, his hand on her abdomen. In this there is a unity of medium and message: Bosch does not show lust explicitly, but suggestively and symbolically, so as not to incite his viewers to their own sinful cravings. The third owl in the middle panel (above) sits on top of the upturned head of a flower which covers the heads and upper bodies of two dancing sinners, so they literally cannot see (the error of their ways) and are in (moral) darkness. The dancers hold cherries, another symbol of sexual lust while, just below them, the message is reinforced by a sinner on his back, who offers a cherry to a raven which, according to the bestiaries, attacks by pecking out eyes, destroying the ability to see, just as the devil first destroys the ability to judge correctly. As we see in the detail below, even in the Garden of Eden, Bosch painted a small owl in the centre of the fountain of life, signifying the potential from the beginning of overturning God’s paradise.

On the right we see a man carrying a huge mussel on his back, symbol of sexual desire. A couple inside the shell, mostly hidden from view, face each other in a sexual pose. The suggestion appears to be that the man carrying the mussel shell is weighed down by his sexual cravings. Both clams and similar but distinctive oysters have been associated with sexual desire for millennia. Oysters were (and still are, by reputation) considered aphrodisiacs, associated with Aphrodite (Greek name) or Venus (Roman name), the goddess of beauty, love and fertility. Aphrodite/Venus was created from the union of the testicles of the castrated sky god, Uranus, which had fallen into the sea, mixed with sea foam, symbolic of sperm, and she arrived on the shore of Cyprus, fully formed inside an oyster shell.

Below the man carrying the couple inside a giant mussel shell we see a group with giant fruit (detail below). There are two black figures, representing all of humankind in this sinful state. In the visual symbolism known to Bosch and his audience, any fruit could stand for sexual anatomy. French renaissance poet Clément Marot (1496–1544), for example, described the female sexual organ as “[u]ne fraise ou in cerise”, a strawberry or a cherry. A cherry was one of the standard representations of carnal lust and, as we see on the head of the woman below, two cherries on a stalk were a phallic symbol.

There are so many strawberries in the middle panel of The Garden that when King Philip II of Spain owned the triptych, it was described in his palace inventory of 1593 as a painting by Bosch “that is called the Madroño”, i.e. “the Strawberry”. To discover the significance of the strawberries, we turn to Roman poet, Virgil (70 BCE–19 BCE), who wrote in his Third Eclogue:

You who cull flowers and low-growing strawberries,
Away from here, lads; a chill snake lurks in the grass

Medieval and renaissance writers, well-versed in Virgil, used the same image, now interpreted through a Christian lens: the enticing strawberry represents beautiful but unfaithful women, or morally-corrupting pleasure, or non-Christian literature, and the snake in the grass was now the Devil.

The strawberry, fruit of the unchaste and sensual Venus, was sometimes co-opted in medieval and renaissance symbolism to be the fruit of the chaste but fecund Virgin in paintings such as Martin Schongauer’s Madonna of the Strawberries in the late 15th century. It was a familiar process of co-opting to diffuse: in the same way, the 13th century Iberian Cantigas de Santa Maria features a song about a statue of the Virgin Mary, imbued with her spirit, which became the bride of a man who put his ring on the statue’s finger, a Marianisation of the same older story about Venus. (For details and to hear the song, click here.)

The strawberries in Bosch’s Garden are symbols of sensual sin. Just as Adam and Eve succumbed to the serpent of Eden, the sinners in the middle panel succumb to, carry, eat and worship the symbolic sensual strawberry. This rampant rebellion against God was expressed by Anthonis de Roovere (1430–82), official poet of the city of Bruges, in his Wat ist als v by verre wandelinghe:

Unpunished evil-doing
That is the whole joy of this world
For if everyone were punished for his aggressive sins
Adultery Murder Avarice Envy
There would be no more joyful band in the world

Like Anthonis de Roovere, Jheronimus Bosch looked forward to the day when the “joyful band” of the middle panel would be “punished for [their] aggressive sins” and so, in the right panel, he depicts them reaping the rewards of their carnal desire in everlasting punishment.

The punishments of hell

Moving to the punishments of hell in the right panel (detail right), three aspects are striking:

i. Despite being in the spiritual afterlife, all the figures in hell are corporeal, just as they are in the Eden and garden panels: they have physical bodies and thus are able to feel the bodily punishment and pain they are subject to.

ii. All the figures are the same age, young adults – there are no babies, children, middle aged or old people.

iii. The nature of hell’s punishments are strange and inventive.

All of these aspects are based on Bosch’s understanding of the Catholic faith, and can be traced to statements by church authorities both in the early church and contemporaneous with Bosch.

The idea that souls in the afterlife have physical substance, to enjoy the pleasures of heaven or suffer the punishments of hell, was commonplace in the early church and remained in Bosch’s day. They believed that, just as Jesus in the Gospels had a physical resurrection and ascended bodily into heaven, so the souls of all will be raised physically, in the condition of the prime of life, to meet their eternal fate. The statements of three Church Fathers will suffice to represent the many expressing the same ideas.

Justin Martyr, 110-165 CE, On the Resurrection, Fragments, 9: “And when He [Jesus] had thus shown them [his disciples] that there is truly a resurrection of the flesh, wishing to show them this also, that it is not impossible for flesh to ascend into heaven (as he had said that our dwelling-place is in heaven), ‘He was taken up into heaven as they beheld’ [citing Luke and Acts in the New Testament], as He was in the flesh.”

Tatian of Adiabene (Tatian the Syrian, Tatian the Assyrian), c. 120–c. 180 CE, Address To The Greeks, 6: “… though dispersed through rivers and seas, or torn in pieces by wild beasts, I am laid up in the storehouses of a wealthy Lord … yet God the Sovereign, when He pleases, will restore the substance that is visible to Him alone to its pristine condition.”

Tertullian, c. 155–c. 240 CE, The Apology, 48: “Assuredly, as the reason why restoration takes place at all is the appointed judgement, every man must needs come forth the very same who had once existed, that he may receive at God’s hands a judgement, whether of good desert or the opposite. And therefore the body too will appear; for the soul is not capable of suffering without the solid substance, that is, the flesh; and for this reason, also, that it is not right that souls should have all the wrath of God to bear: they did not sin without the body, within which all was done by them.”

The story of Christ’s empty tomb presupposes a literal physical resuscitation of his corpse.
This was standard Christian belief, so when Jesus rose skyward and entered heaven above,
he did so as a reanimated corporeal body. Above are three manuscript images of Christ’s
post-resurrection bodily ascension to heaven.
Left: Psalter from Franconia, Germany, MS G.73, f. 61v, c. 1250 (The Morgan Library & Museum).
Centre: Historiated initial C from Lombardy, Italy, first half of the 15th century,
RARESF 096 IL 1 (State Library of Victoria).
Right: Historienbibel from the workshop of Diebold Lauber, Hagenau, Germany, c. 1450–75
(St. Gallen, Kantonsbibliothek, Switzerland).
Images of the general physical resurrection leading to the Final Judgement, showing that God
“will restore the substance that is visible to Him alone to its pristine condition.”
Left: Folio 31r of The Winchester Psalter or Psalter of Henry of Blois, England,
1150–1250 (Cotton MS Nero C IV).
Right: A detail from Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck’s Crucifixion & Last Judgement
diptych, c. 1440–41 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Bosch painted this theology into the three panels of his Garden. We not only see sinners in their physical prime tortured in hell but, in the same physical condition, revelling in their sins in the central panel and, in the left panel, recently-created Adam and Eve in their prime in Eden: thus we see visual continuity, a unified narrative across all three panels.

The apparently strange nature of hell’s punishments depicted by Bosch, “the wrath of God” inflicted on “the substance” of the body in “its pristine condition”, makes sense when we understand it as the divine penalty appropriate to the human sin, the punishment fitting the crime. This idea is most famously seen in Dante Alighieri’s (c. 1265–1321) Inferno, the first part of his Divine Comedy, where, for example, those whose wayward lust swayed their reason are punished in hell by being relentlessly swayed by the winds of a violent storm. The idea goes right back to the Old Testament, where earthly punishments fit the crime: “Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” – Deuteronomy 19: 21. Jesus’ message of forgiveness is no contradiction of this holy wrath: he stated only that humans should forgive, and was very clear in his parables that God’s eternal punishment awaits those who ignore the material and emotional needs of others in, for example, the parable of the sheep and the goats, Matthew 25: 31–46, in which those who tended to the needs of the hungry, thirsty, stranger, unclothed, sick and the prisoner are rewarded with everlasting heaven, and those who ignored the same are rewarded with everlasting hellfire.

Thus, in the hell panel of The Garden, we see these like-for-like punishments enacted.

A man is punished by being hanged inside the loop of a giant key (detail right). Bosch’s compatriot, Otto von Passau, gives the meaning. In his Het boek des gulden throens of der xxiiij ouden (The book of the golden thrones of the 24 elders), 1480, written when Bosch was around 30 years old, von Passau wrote: “The rich man says: ‘I prefer to be rich by God’s favour and do works than be poor and do evil and be hanged.’ The poor man replies: ‘Wherever the rich man goes, he takes his key with him; asleep or awake, he is always anxious lest his property be taken away or stolen or damaged.’” Thus Bosch depicts the selfish rich man, who views all the poor as evil and deserving of being hanged, himself hanged inside the key he used to protect himself from the poor he slandered.

Another of Bosch’s compatriots, Dennis the Carthusian (1402/3–1471, also Denijs van Rijckel after his place of birth), wrote Van de viere utertse (Of the four utterances), in which he described hell: “As for the unchaste and gluttonous, will they not be punished through their sense of touch and taste? Will they not be embraced, pierced, or tormented by ugly hellish serpents, toads and dragons and, above all, those among them who are infected with sins against nature?” Thus we see (detail above left) an unchaste and gluttonous knight holding a golden goblet, symbol of his greed, his defensive armour of no avail as he is “punished through [his] sense of touch”, his innards torn apart by six creatures of hell. Above right we see a red wax votive offering (offered in worshipping a saint when asking for divine favour), shaped as a toad with a vagina on its back. Toad votives of wax, wood or metal were especially popular among women in The Netherlands, Belgium, France and Italy, offered at saints’ shrines for holy help with pregnancy, childbirth and gynaecological problems. The toad, then, was a symbol of the vagina, pregnancy and childbirth, and we see just such a red wax toad on the knight’s flag. Thus, in this context, the toad on the flag represents the sexual lust for which the knight is punished. Given the long-held Christian association of sin with sex and sexual lust deserving hell, the vaginal toad was also a symbol of sin and death.

Underneath the platform on which the knight is ravaged, a naked figure is sliced on the blade of a giant knife with the initial B stamped on the blade – B for Bosch, i.e. he paints these scenes of hell because he approves of sinners’ eternal downfall. The blade and handle of the knife rests on two giant pewter jugs, symbols of gluttony.

Below left is the punishment of a woman whose sin was pride or vanity, as we see from the standard representation of the offence: facing her reflection in a mirror. Bosch has added layers of inventive detail. She is “tormented by [an] ugly hellish … toad” on her chest, signifying sexual sin, while she is “embraced … by [an] ugly hellish” ass-hybrid, the ass being the symbol of foolishness. The mirror is on the backside of a green tree-man hybrid. Greenery, flowers and foliage were symbols of the shortness of life, that greenery/life will wither and die, and thus we should look past the present moment to our eternal fate. Since the display of a backside was another symbol of moral foolishness, the message of the foolish arse/mirror reinforces the message of the foolish ass. This image is also reminiscent of the Flemish saying, contemporaneous with Bosch, uttered by mothers to their daughters who preened themselves in the mirror: ‘You are looking up the Devil’s arse.’ The sinner’s eyes are closed, unusual for an image of vanity, as if in hell, understanding where pride has led her, she can no longer bear to look at herself.

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Above right we see that she sits in front of a commode, on which is seated a giant man-bird hybrid, devouring a sinner from whose rectum emanates smoke and fire, out of which fly black birds (detail below). This representation of gluttony reminds the viewer of the extravagant pies of the rich which included live birds to entertain guests. For example, in his recipe book of 1549 (translated into English in 1598), Epulario, or The Italian banquet, Giovanne de Rosselli gave instructions “To make Pies that the Birds may be alive in them, and flie out when it is cut up … withall put into the said box [pastry] round about the aforesaid Pie as many small live birds as the empty box will hold … And this is to be done at such time as you send the Pie to the table, and set before the guests: where uncovering or cutting up the lid of the great Pie, all the Birds will flie out, which is to delight and pleasure shew to the company.” Again we see that the punishment fits the crime: just as the vainglorious and gluttonous sinner showed off by baking huge pies within which were live birds, so the sinner’s punishment is for the inside of his rectum to be set alight and stuffed with live birds, and that he should be devoured himself by a monstrous bird.

More of the message is told by the huge cauldron on the bird-man’s head, symbolising his vast gluttonous appetite, and jugs on his feet, further symbols of gluttony. He excretes two sinners in a blue bubble, and they fall into a cesspit into which another glutton vomits onto other sinners submerged in a pit of waste and vomit, and into which a sinner, being punished for avarice, is excreting gold coins. Elements of this image are reminiscent of a passage in Visio Tnugdali (The Vision of Tundale), written in 1149 by Irish monk, Marcus, at the Scots Monastery in Regensberg, Germany. By the 15th century, Visio Tnugdali had been translated from the original Latin 43 times into 15 languages, including 10 German and 4 Dutch translations. One version in Dutch was produced in 1484 in the Netherlandish city of ’s-Hertogenbosch – colloquially Den Bosch, meaning The Forest – in which Jeroen van Aken lived and from which he took his professional surname, Latinising his forename to become Jheronimus Bosch. It is therefore highly likely that Bosch was familiar with the work in which the immoral man Tundale becomes unconscious for three days, during which an angel takes him on a tour of the various parts of hell, and eventually heaven, leading him to repent of his sinful ways. The relevant passage of Visio Tnugdali is: “Soon, they [Tundale and his angel guide] came upon a hideous creature that filled Tundale with terror. It seemed more evil and dangerous than anything he had ever seen before, with two enormous black wings and with claws of iron and steel protruding from its feet … The beast sat in the middle of a frozen lake swallowing terrified souls which burned inside its body until they were nearly wasted away, but then they were expelled from this horror in the creature’s excrement and left until they had recovered … But they were not delivered from this pain, the cycle was renewed and they had to endure it again and again.” This punishment was reserved specifically for “monks, clerics, priests and canons and other men and women of Holy Church who have indulged their carnal desires”.

“This is what you have to suffer because in the world you listened to idle songs and tunes”: Bosch’s hell for musicians  

And so we come to the musicians and the appropriate eternal punishments for their sins, including the ‘music’ on the sinner’s bottom which was the subject of the first article.


A lutenist in hell (detail right) is watched by a crowd of the damned as he is tormented from above and below by the “ugly hellish serpents” described by Bosch’s compatriot and older contemporary, Dennis the Carthusian. The snake-like tormentor, curling its tail behind the sinner and around his arm, might also have reminded Bosch’s audience of descriptions of hell’s punishment of musical sinners, such as in folio 109v of MS 19549, c. 1470 (Royal Library of Belgium): “The devils stood beside him, blowing trumpets; and flames shone out of his nostrils, ears and eyes. And they said: ‘This is what you have to suffer because in the world you listened to idle songs and tunes.’ And they made snakes twine about his neck and arms, saying, ‘This is for embracing women unchastely.’”

Lute frets are gut strings which are tied onto the neck, so part of the lutenist’s punishment is to be tied by the waist onto the back of the neck by a lute fret. Three other parts of his punishment are that the crowd is not an audience of listeners to his music, but witnesses to his punishment; like all the musicians that follow, his instrument of music has become his instrument of torture; and the lute is huge, far too big and unwieldy to play, even if he wasn’t tied to the neck. His music has been silenced in hell.


Embedded in the soundboard of the lute is a bray harp (detail right), the standard European harp from c. 1400 to the 1630s, still used until the late 18th century in some countries. It gets its name from the L-shaped pins in the soundboard, which function not only to hold the string in place, but to vibrate against the string, creating a frisson of sound like a donkey’s bray (or, in modern terms, like distortion/overdrive on an electric guitar).

Of all the instruments of music turned to instruments of torture, this is the most shocking. Harps were associated in medieval and renaissance iconography with King David, traditionally the composer of the Psalms, the Old Testament’s hymns of praise. Harps brought spiritual harmony, symbolised by images of it being tuned, and thus harps chased away the Devil. We see this depicted below in the Tickhill Psalter, 1310, based on the story of the young David playing his harp for King Saul in 1 Samuel 16: 23: “So it came about whenever the evil spirit from God came to Saul, David would take the harp and play it with his hand; and Saul would be refreshed and be well, and the evil spirit would depart from him.” The first scene on the bottom margin of folio 9v (below left) shows King Saul with the Devil at his back as David arrives with his harp in its bag. The next scene (below right) shows David tuning the harp, bringing spiritual harmony, and Saul becoming free of the Devil.

A young David chases away the Devil from King Saul by bringing spiritual harmony with his harp,
from The Tickhill Psalter, 1310, f. 9v. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

Further evidence of the harp’s holy associations – and the depth of its shock as portrayed by Bosch – is found in Handlyng Synne, written in 1303 by Robert Mannyng, English chronicler and monk. The basis of Mannyng’s work is a book in French by Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grostest (Groosteste, Grosseteste, Grosthead), c. 1168–1253, called Manuel Peche, or Manuel des Peches (Manual of Sins), which is itself based on a work by “Wilhelm de Wadigton”, to help readers in the practice of Christian morality. Mannyng should be credited as author, as he does far more than translate into English: he amplifies existing stories, removes those that do not fit his purpose, adds many substantial stories of his own, and composes the whole in rhyming couplets. Handlyng Synne is a mixture of miracle stories and invectives against almost every activity he mentions. He threatens readers with the day of doom for sleeping in on Sundays and not being in church; writes against martial tournaments for promoting pride, envy, ire and wrath; against miracle plays for their associated dances, carols (sung dances) and summer games; and he delights in the death of a minstrel, murdered by God for the sin of playing for dances. Mannyng then tells a story of his own composition about the Bishop of Lincoln himself, Robert Grostest, as follows.

Bishop Grostest employed a harpist, who resided next to his chamber, beside his study. The bishop “louede moche to here þe harpe”. He praised it for sharpening his senses and for the entertainment of tunes and lays (sung poetry about love) his harpist provided. The bishop’s chief praise for the harp is its religious associations, its ability to bring him near to Christ. In the person of Bishop Grostest, Robert Mannyng expresses the idea that the harp, made of a tree, is thus associated with the holy cross, filled with the living spirit of the crucified Christ, whose agony on the cross, and the attendant bliss of salvation, can be heard in the music of the harp with such power that the listener is moved with understanding and compassion.

Þe vertu of þe harpe þurghe skylle and ryȝt
Wyl destroye þe fendes myȝt
And to þe croys by gode skylle
Ys þe harpe lykenede weyle
Anoþer poynt cumforteþ me
þat God haþ sent vnto a tre
So moche ioye to here wyþ eere
Moche þan more ioye ys þere
Wyþ God hym selfe þere he wonys
þe harpe þerof me ofte mones
Of þe ioye and of þe blys
Where Gode hym self wonys and ys.

The virtue of the harp through skill and governance
Will destroy the Devil’s might,
And to the cross by God’s reason
Is the harp likened well.
Another point comforts me,
that God has sent unto a tree
So much joy to hear with ear;
Even greater joy is there
With God himself there, he wails/moans
so with the harp that I often lament/grieve
Of the joy and of the bliss
Where God himself resides and is.

This idea of the harp as a sacred instrument was standard in the middle ages. For example, British Library Arundel 91 is a Passionale (Lives of the Saints) produced in Canterbury between 1100 and 1150. The historiated initial T on folio 218v (above right) shows a saint crucified, holding a harp in each outstretched hand, with a recorder in his mouth, accompanied by a viellist (fiddler). Similarly, the Christian Roman statesman and scholar, Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus (Casiodoro, Cassiodore), c. 485–c. 585 CE, whose Expositio in Psalterium (Exposition on the Psalter) was still being copied and read at the end of the 15th century, wrote that the 10 strings of the “cithara” – a lyre, but the same word and the same symbolism was later used for the harp – stood for the 10 Commandments which lead to salvation. Cassiodorus explained that the cithara symbolises “the whole of our redemption”; that its shape imitates the cross; that playing it imitates the “beautiful and strong” fingers of Christ; that the joy of a good song on the cithara is the perfect channel for the joy of the Christian life; and that learning to play the cithara represents the Christian life, since only with the labour of practice can one “perfect the good” and bear the fruits of joy.

Cassiodorus’ sentiments about the cithara in the 6th century are very similar to Robert Mannyng’s description in 1303 of the harp’s sacred power: both are in keeping with the long history of the cithara/harp as an instrument of holiness, associated primarily in iconography with King David and the Psalms, also representing Christ’s salvation on the cross. Bosch’s depiction of the harp in hell contrasts in ultimate terms with this long history. Like the lute, Bosch’s harp cannot be played due to its huge size, and has been silenced. Like the lute, the harp is turned from an instrument of music to an instrument of torture. The appropriate punishment for the harpist is that, just as strings are suspended on the body of the harp, the body of the harpist is suspended on the strings of the harp: he is crucified, the strings threaded through his body at the neck, spine and anus. Due to Bosch’s utter contradiction of the harp as a symbol of salvation, it raises fundamental questions about Bosch’s view of music. Was he against music itself? If not, what meaning was he intending to convey? This question is addressed directly in the third article, available here.

The book of music and butt music

Under the weight of the giant crucifying harp embedded in the giant tormenting lute is a giant book of music in faux Strichnotation (for Strichnotation, see the first article). The lute, harp and music book, the objects of his sin, crush a sinner. Behind the sinner, a demon holds a long spike against the lute’s soundboard, on which is skewered a huge toad, symbol of lust, which has been set alight, the smoke and fire threateningly close to the wooden lute. Yet still the unrepentant sinner tries to play music, reaching for the strings of the giant lute, his hand being prevented from plucking, pulled back by a demon. This lute can play no meaningful music because of the missing strings on the bass end nearest the sinner, because of its huge size, and because of the harp embedded in its soundboard; and no one is viewing or singing the music book of Strichnotation. Again, sinful music is silenced.

Bottoms in Bosch’s Garden are a running theme, as we see above and below. The central panel of sensual delights shows a man having flowers inserted in his anus. Further back in the garden, an acrobatic sinner on a horse offers his anus to a bird to insert its beak. In the hell panel, on top of the music book and behind the lute, a sinner’s punishment is to have faux Strichnotation painted on his backside, the long tongue of the frog-man hybrid very near. A glutton, symbolised by the jug he carries, climbs a ladder with an arrow inserted in his rectum. The crucified harpist has a harp string running through his rectum. A sinner struggles under the weight of an oversize shawm (a bombard or bumbard), with a recorder inserted in his rectum.

The meaning is in a collection of Dutch proverbs, Proverbia communa, published in 1480, which has the following colloquial saying as Proverb 504, “Many a man makes a rod for his own arse”, i.e. many a man does now what will lead later to his own punishment. Bosch expresses the proverb visually and fairly literally, a neat summary of his central panel of sinfulness leading to the right panel of sinners being punished in hell. The visual effect of pierced rectums is reinforced by the well-established motif in medieval and renaissance art that an exposed bottom signifies a fool, and by Dennis the Carthusian’s warning that in hell sinners will “be punished through their sense[s] … [and] pierced”. Dennis adds that everlasting punishment will be meted out “above all [to] those among them who are infected with sins against nature” which, in the 15th and 16th century, included the anal pleasure Bosch depicts in the garden, punished in hell.

Behind the sinner’s rear is the choir of hell, their open mouths a standard depiction of singing, but this is not as it seems. Most of the choir are positioned so they cannot see the butt music, none are looking in its direction, and even the sinner with the best view at the front has his eyes closed, so not seeing they cannot sing it; the Strichnotation includes no words, so they cannot sing them; the Strichnotation doesn’t make sense, so can’t be sung, nor can it be read by the viewers of the triptych, so as not to lead them to sin; and they are led by a cantor who is a hybrid with a frog’s head and a man’s body, so he can neither sing nor lead them.

Among the choir are three giant black rodent-like demons, one of which has a transparent book on its head, probably signifying the insubstantial nature of the enjoyment of music compared to the everlasting punishment for sinful musical indulgence. The Vaderboec (Book of the Fathers) was produced in The Netherlands, c. 1475–1500, and is a Dutch translation compiling the biographies and stories of the anchorites or desert fathers, Christian ascetic desert-dwelling hermits of the 3rd and 4th  centuries. Book 3, chapter 14 of Vaderboec is pertinent to the translucent book (of music?): “The carnal pleasures that tempt you last only for a short time, but the torment and lamenting of body and soul will ensure forever in the fire of hell.”

The first article about Bosch dispelled the modern myth that there is playable music on the sinner’s bottom. The persistent theme of music being silenced adds further weight to the fact that the musical notation is not real, evident for both ideological and technical reasons. Ideologically, as we saw in the first article, when Bosch warns his viewers of the sin of lust he does not paint copulating couples, but symbolic strawberries, cherries, and hands placed suggestively on the upper leg and abdomen, so as not to incite his viewers to the sins his warns of. In the same way, it is an impossible contradiction to suggest that Bosch would paint musical sinners and then invite his viewers to commit the very sin he is warning of, endangering their very souls by painting the music that took these sinners to hell. Technically, even with the severe difficulties of interpreting Strichnotation explained in the first article, the strokes/notes are clearly placed randomly, with many ‘notes’ in the book placed impossibly directly above and underneath other ‘notes’, and the final stave on the sinner’s bottom has only three lines.

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There is a more mundane reason the ‘butt music’ isn’t real: when Bosch depicts an object which has been written on – paper or parchment, a book, a bottom – it is in every case only the appearance of writing.

Below is a detail from The Haywain, showing three sinners on top of a hayrick, unaware that they are heading for hell. None of them have open mouths, the signifier for singing, so the finely dressed lutenist has his instrumental music held by the simply-dressed woman, the man beside her helping the lutenist by pointing the way in the music. This is no more real Strichnotation than on the sinner’s bottom or in the book in The Garden.

The Haywain is dated c. 1510–15, by which time lute tablature was well-established, so it is perhaps surprising that Bosch painted an imitation of Strichnotation rather than tablature. Given that every detail is symbolic, it is probable that either Strichnotation or tablature would have the same significance: songs in Strichnotation were about worldly subjects such as requited and unrequited romantic love, as well as love for the Virgin Mary and God, and the same variety of song subjects can be found in pieces written in tablature.

Bosch painted another unreadable imitation of Strichnotation in a book in front of a musical group of demons with a sinner in the right panel of The Last Judgment triptych (Vienna), painted c. 1500–05, detail below top left. In c. 1525, German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder painted a faithful copy. Below top right we see Cranach’s rendering of the same scene, and below we see that, rather than painting faux Strichnotation in the book, Cranach painted equally unreadable faux white notation.

It isn’t only music that isn’t real writing in Bosch’s paintings. Below we see three demonic creatures from the triptych, The Temptation of Saint Anthony. At the back is a giant bird hybrid, wearing the egg for lust. The figure in the centre is rodent-like, wearing the funnel for gluttony. Both of them are dressed as monks. In the fore, with his innards dropping out, is a dog-man. In the bestiaries, the dog represents those who make confession but then return to their sins, as a dog returns to its vomit. The dog-man is dressed in priestly robes, with the tonsured hair of a cleric. This is Bosch’s attack on the immorality of the clergy. These three ungodly members of religious orders sing from a service book, shown below right in close-up, and we see that it has neither real words nor real music.

From the same painting, below we see Saint Anthony with a book, the identity of which is unknown as we cannot see the cover and, on the pages shown, we have only the imitation of writing.

This imitation of written material is repeated universally in Bosch’s works. Below, clockwise from top left, we see: a further detail from The Temptation of Saint Anthony; a demon in the Hermit Saints triptych; the leg of a sinner being wooed by a pig in a nun’s veil in The Garden of Earthly Delights; and the saint in Saint John on Patmos. Thus, regardless of any other question, it was simply not Bosch’s style to depict readable music or words in the books or pages he painted.

This is by no means peculiar to Bosch, but a common feature of the painter’s art. Below, for example, we see a detail from Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, c. 1440–45. The book displays what looks convincingly like writing, until we get close and realise it is an unreadable imitation of writing.

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Hurdy gurdy, or vielle à roue, or symphonia  

Returning to the hell panel of The Garden, next we see a vielle à roue (wheel fiddle or hurdy gurdy).

In the 15th and 16th century, during Bosch’s lifetime, the vielle à roue was known by several names, all related to the term symphonia, meaning more than one sound played together: symphonie, simfonie, fonfonia (sometimes abbreviated to fon), cymphan, cyphan, and other variants. Bosch’s hurdy gurdy (to use the modern name in the English-speaking world) is special in early music iconography because, though it is not perfectly accurate, it is the earliest depiction of the then-new mechanism that creates the instrument’s persistent rhythmic buzz through the trompette, a high-pitched drone string, and the chien (dog), a vibrating bridge.

By the 1370s, the symphonia had a reputation as an instrument used by blind beggars, as testified by Jean Corbichon in his Proprietaire de Choses, 1372: “In France the symphonie is called an instrument on which the blind play chansons de geste [songs of heroic deeds, a popular genre in the 12th and 13th centuries], and it is an instrument with a very sweet sound and pleasant to hear.” Similarly, the 15th century Chronique de Bertrand du Guesclin (about a 14th century life) states, “In the country of France and the country of Normandy, such instruments [symphonies] are carried by the blind and the homeless poor who beg for their bread.” During this period we still see symphonies played by angels in church carvings and paintings, depicted in the decorations of devotional books and illustrated in manuscripts being played for nobility so, as French scholar Jean Charlier de Gerson (1363–1429) explained in his early 15th century work, Opera omnia: “Some suppose that the symphonia, the vielle and the rebec are inferior. However, it is more correct to say the blind make a special claim on this sort of musical instrument.”

Bosch’s sinful symphonia player (detail below) is a blind beggar. His blackened eyes signify his blindness, his begging bowl his status as a licensed beggar, as required from 14th August 1459 in the Ordinance of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, ruler of the Burgundian Netherlands: “As a beggar’s sign: rope with a lead seal attached.” Behind him is another beggar with his crutch, balancing an egg on his back. An egg is a recurring symbol in Bosch’s work. The message becomes clear when we understand that, in the renaissance, eggs were considered an aphrodisiac and a symbol of fertility, which is why renaissance women were fed a big breakfast of eggs when newly married. In men, it was believed that eating eggs would generate semen. Bosch sometimes shows eggs whole, as here, a symbol of lustful fertility (we’ve seen above with the sinful lutenist that musicians were associated with lust); sometimes an egg is carried by a demon, showing lust’s Satanic power; other times the egg is punctured and cracked by an arrow, showing God’s judgement on lust; and occasionally the egg shell is empty, showing the ultimately hollow nature of carnal desire.

Like the lute and the bray harp, the vielle à roue in hell is far too large to be played. Playing the keys is impossible, so the most the sinner on top can do is turn the crank to play the continuous drone and, lying at the angle he is, it is doubtful he could do even that. Like the other musicians in Bosch’s hell, he is deprived of his ability to make music.


Bosch’s message about music is relentless. The musicians he depicts deserve an eternity of punishment in hell, apparently just for being musicians, with no exceptions: the lute, played by angels in many religious paintings prior to and after Bosch, is sinful; the harp, instrument of King David, which signifies God’s very presence, bringing Christ’s suffering and joy in its music, is sinful; and the symphonia, instrument of the poor to aid them in their hand to mouth existence, is sinful. And Bosch makes no exceptions for adherents to the religious life: trapped within hell’s symphonia is a nun (detail right), identified by her white veil, her naked left arm stretched out from within the key box, holding a large triangle with six jingles. Triangles come in various sizes, so the single note it produces can sound higher or lower depending on the dimensions, but it is essentially a non-pitch percussion instrument. A skilled player can create a wide range of tones and rhythms on a triangle, but in hell that is impossible for this nun for, while her own left hand holds the triangle, the right hand that emerges from the key box holding the triangle beater does not belong to her, but to one of the demons of hell. Once again, her ability to make music is removed.

Drum, slide trumpet, recorder, shawm, and trumpet
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To the right of the symphonia, from the viewer’s standpoint (detail right), a man is trapped inside a large drum being beaten by a demon. Like the triangle and the giant hurdy gurdy, it can play only one note. Like all the other musical sinners, the pleasure of music has turned to torture.

Next to him, a sinner stands on a slide trumpet with a damaged/flattened bell. A recorder or similar wind instrument has been inserted into his rectum, and here Bosch is implying a devilish play on words. The Latin flatus, used regularly in musical treatises for the air breathed into a wind instrument, is the root of the word flatulence, a term now used exclusively for intestinal gas. The sinner’s mouth flatus has become his intestinal flatus. The Latin fistula, a musical term meaning a pipe or flute, is also an abnormal opening connecting two or more spaces or organs in the body. An anal fistula, for example, is a channel that has developed between the end of the bowel and the skin near the anus, where evacuation takes place. The sinner’s musical fistula has been inserted to create a physical fistula.

Again, the music of these sinners is silenced in hell.

I am grateful to Nicholas Lander, author of an excellent website on the history of the recorder, for pointing out that here Bosch may have been referencing a passage in Revelation, the final book of The Bible which describes the Final Judgement. Revelation 18: 21-22 states, “Then a mighty angel picked up a stone the size of a great millstone and cast it into the sea, saying: With such violence the great city of Babylon will be cast down, never to be seen again. And the sound of harpists and musicians, of flute players and trumpeters, will never ring out in you again.” Babylon was where the defeated Israelites had been exiled, a place that came to symbolise the enemies of God. The passage mentions harp, flute and trumpet. We have seen the silencing of the harp with its player crucified on the strings, and in the scene above we have the silencing of the flute in the sinner’s anus and the silencing of the trumpet on the ground with the flattened bell. It may be, then, that Bosch’s silencing of musical instruments was a reference to Revelation, to judgement on Babylon, symbol of God’s enemies.  

Is the musical fistula inserted in the bumbard-carrier’s anal fistula a recorder, a tabor pipe,
or a transverse flute? Should it be coupled with Bosch’s drum to make a pipe and tabor, as we
see above right in a miniature from Bodleian Library MS Douce 383, folio 3r, produced in
Flanders before 1500? For comparison, centre left is a recorder, centre right a tabor pipe.
The positioning of finger holes compared with the Bosch instrument demonstrates that Bosch did
not paint a separated pipe and tabor, as the lowest finger hole of a tabor pipe is much nearer the
end of the instrument than Bosch painted. It must therefore be either a recorder, a transverse flute
such as depicted below in a detail from The Master of the Female Half Lengths, Concert of Women,
?Netherlands, 1530s, or possibly an enlarged version of the similar but much smaller fife, in this
case linking it to the drum as a combination developed in 15th and 16th century military bands.
Recorder and tabor pipe made by Terry Mann.
MS Douce 383 is © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. CC-BY-NC 4.0.

The source of Bosch’s association between the mouth-wind-pipe and the intestinal-wind-pipe would have been at least threefold. Firstly, the idea was used by Dante Alighieri in his Inferno, written 1308–14, in which devils make “del cul fatto trombetta” – make trumpets of their arses (xxi.139). Secondly, before and during Dante’s lifetime, bottoms and musical bottoms were a visual theme in the marginal decorations of medieval manuscripts, examples of which include a man playing two trumpets simultaneously, one with the wind of his mouth and one with the wind of his flatulence, and an ape blowing wind through a trumpet into the bottom of another ape, on whose backside the bell of the trumpet is placed. (Both of these examples can be seen in A brief history of farting in early music and literature). Thirdly, evidence for the idea of musical arses is much older than Bosch, Dante and medieval manuscripts: ancient Greek comic playwright, Aristophanes, wrote the play, Νεφέλαι (Clouds), first produced in 423 BCE, in which Strepsiades calls a gnat’s rectum a bugle.

The flatus/fistula sinner is straining under the weight of a giant shawm on his back. Nearly all the instruments in hell are over-size and shawms come in a variety of sizes/pitches with different features, so the size of shawm in the real world is determined by observing its particular characteristics. Soprano and sopranino shawms, the two smallest, have straight bodies until the flare of the bell, which is not what we see here. Bosch’s alto shawm, the next size down, is identified by the additional decorated barrel towards the bell called a fontanelle, which functions to hide the working of the metal key which is necessary to reach the lowest note on these larger shawms. It is not a tenor, bass or great bass shawm, the largest sizes, as for practical reasons they have crooked metal mouthpieces instead of the pirouette and exposed reed we see here. This, then, is a hugely oversize alto shawm. As with flatus/fistula, Bosch here seems to intend a devilish play on words. During the 14th century, the new larger-than-soprano shawms were given the name bombard or bumbard, from the Latin noun bombus, meaning a buzz, hum or drone, and the related noun bumbulum, meaning a fart, which is exactly what this sinner must produce to make any sound with the recorder in his rectum. (The name bombard, for the larger members of the shawm family in this period, is not to be confused with the modern Breton and French bombarde, which is a small member of the shawm family.)

The bombard, too, is silenced: no one is playing the shawm’s reed and, even if they were, no human hands could reach or cover these oversize holes to make different notes. Smoke emits from the bell, within which is a trapped sinner, another obstruction to sound.

Behind him a man plays a trumpet so loudly that it pains the ears of the sinners in front and behind him. There is some perspective distortion here, as the mouthpiece and main body of the trumpet do not follow the same line, the latter being lower than expected.

The image of the painfully loud trumpeter is a reminder of a passage in one of the many popular and contemporaneous ars moriendi or art of dying books, the Dutch Dat sterfboeck (The book of death), 1488: “Their dancing and singing and all their idle games are turned to fighting and grievous lamentation. Their pipers now are fierce devils blowing the trumpets of hell.” Pipers, as we are about to see, were symbolically associated with carnal desire, and this ‘piper … now … blowing the trumpet of hell’ wears a decorative toad on his shoulder, sign of lust, and a flag standing on his coif, bearing a crescent moon. Like the owl, the crescent moon is a recurring feature in Bosch’s paintings, subject to many modern unsubstantiated claims about its meaning to fit preconceived theories. Given the context of moral/religious foolishness, what we know of Bosch from his paintings overall, and the use of this emblem in medieval manuscripts, the most likely explanation is that the moon – luna – is the emblem of lunacy, from the Latin lunaticus, which referred originally to epileptic seizures thought to be caused by the moon, and came to mean any form of madness, including the moral madness that was Bosch’s artistic raison d’être.

Folio 55v of The Howard Psalter, Arundel MS 83, c. 1308–c. 1340. In the centre is an onocentaur
playing pipe and tabor. In medieval bestiaries, this man/ass hybrid represents men who are rational
in their upper body, wild and lustful in their lower body, thus the onocentaur symbolises male lust.
Since sin is moral foolishness, and asses represent foolishness, onocentaurs were regularly shown
in medieval art wearing fools’ clothing (explained in this article). On the left, the trumpeter’s flag is
decorated with foliage for the shortness of life and the need to consider one’s eternal fate. On the right,
the trumpeter’s flag is decorated with crescent moons for the lunacy of sin.
Bagpipe and dancers

Higher up the left panel, further back in hell, among the details are elements described above and some yet to be described: a giant pink bagpipe; the sinner whose rectum is pierced by an arrow climbing the ladder to the hollow innards of the tree-man; above him to the left, the rich sinner hanged in his own key; an arrow through a giant pair of ears, between them a knife; on the right, the lusty armoured knight, torn apart by hell’s beasts; and, background right, a new column of sinners being marched into hell.

The first of the previously unexamined musical elements is the huge bagpipe which, like the shawm, is on fire within, as we see from the smoke rising on the right. Three naked sinners, each with a clothed partner, are led around the bagpipe on a circular platform as if in a processional dance, watched by a mysterious dark demon. The player of the bagpipe is a demon hybrid with claws instead of hands and feet. Balanced so precariously between the bag and the chanter, being so small compared to the instrument, being unable to reach the chanter’s holes to make notes, and being unable to feed the bag with a steady supply of air, this hybrid of hell can play no meaningful music, at best a short-lived drone, so the circular procession we see is hell’s mockery of a dance. Like all the other musicians, this bagpiper is capable only of a single note or silence.

Due to their shape, bagpipes were a symbol of male lust. Bosch added to the phallic symbolism by painting the bagpipe pink, an image reproduced to the left on a flag planted in the body of the tree-man, in whose hollow shell is hell’s tavern, in which the drinkers sit on a giant toad, another emblem of lust.

Another well-known example of this bagpipe symbolism is seen in the detail above from Pieter Bruegel (also Brueghel or Breughel) the Elder’s painting of a rural wedding dance, c. 1566. Two bagpipers on the right play for dancers. The foremost piper has an obvious erection. A couple to their right (our left) embrace and kiss. Directly in front of the pipers a man with his partner behind him is developing an erection. The man on our left has a large and obvious erection. An empty jug in the background symbolises the indulgence of gluttony.

Hidden lutenist

Standing on top of Bosch’s bagpipe is another of hell’s musicians which Bosch apparently decided to paint over, but which is still just about visible. On the right we see the outline of what looks very much like a toad holding a lute. On top of the pink bagpipe, we can make out the toad’s short back legs and tail, the teardrop-shaped body of the lute and the neck with its obtuse-angled peg box to the right; the toad’s left hand (on our right) holds the neck; the toad’s right hand is held aloft, away from the lute; and, above the lute, the toad’s bulbous head has what seem to be the eyes and wide mouth.

Linking themes   

Many of the themes of the sensual garden (middle panel) are revisited in hell (right panel). We have seen the middle panel’s dancers holding their sexually symbolic cherries, their moral blindness indicated by their heads being hooded by the owl of spiritual darkness. This dance in the garden under the pink flower corresponds to hell’s punishment, a mock dance around a giant pink phallic bagpipe, now rendered monstrous, joyless and tuneless.

In the garden panel, in the water just in front of the worshippers of the giant strawberry, is what could be a mermaid or a siren (detail below). In medieval bestiaries, the mermaid is a woman from the waist up, a fish from the waist down, and they represent vanity, often depicted with a comb and a mirror. The bestiaries mention that there are mermen as well as mermaids. Sirens were always female, and were either composite bird-women with claws and wings, bird-fish-women with claws, wings and a fishtail, or fish-women with fishtails, like mermaids. When the latter, the picture alone would not be enough to know whether a mermaid or siren is indicated without reading the text.

Sirens were both musical and deadly to human men. In Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, c. 620s–636 CE, he states that he doesn’t believe in sirens, but that the story was that “there were three sirens … One of them played the lute, another the flute, while the third sang.” Guillaume le Clerc didn’t doubt their existence. In his Bestiaire, c. 1210, he states: “The siren is a monster of strange fashion, for from the waist up it is the most beautiful thing in the world, formed in the shape of a woman. The rest of the body is like a fish or a bird. So sweetly and beautifully does she sing that they who go sailing over the sea, as soon as they hear the song, cannot keep from going towards her. Entranced by the music, they fall asleep in their boat, and are killed by the siren before they can utter a cry.” For bestiary readers, each animal has a holy allegorical lesson, and the siren shows that those who delight in worldly pleasures become the Devil’s prey.

Since Bosch’s fish-woman carries no comb or mirror, she is most likely a siren, one apparently very attractive to one of the large group of armour-suited mermen who carry sensual cherries (detail above). There is another reason to think she is a siren, linking her to the hell panel. In 1486, a Dutch translation of a popular 14th work by French Cistercian, Guillaume de Deguileville, called boeck vanden pelgherym (book of the pilgrim) in Dutch, has the following passage: “No minstrel is better received than I, for I am the one that gives most joy. But they are great fools, for I deceive them all. I am the siren from the sea and often cause those who listen to my sweet songs to drown. My true name is Flattery, the niece of Treachery, the eldest daughter of Falsehood, and foster mother of all evil.”

If this is the correct connection, then the siren’s sensual song which ensnares in sin is silenced in hell, shown by the silenced instruments and the giant ears of temptation symbolically severed. Those sinful ears are disembodied in hell, cut off by a giant knife embossed with Bosch’s monogram (as was the giant knife we saw above), the ears pierced with an arrow, crushing those sinners underneath who succumbed to the siren call of minstrels, with their harps, lutes, hurdy gurdies and secular singing. The image recalls the words of Jesus in Mark 9: 43–48 (paralleled in Matthew 18: 8–9): “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two hands and go into hell, into the unquenchable fire. If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” The image also recalls Bosch’s compatriot and older contemporary, Dennis the Carthusian (1402/3–1471), who wrote in his Van de viere utertse (Of the four utterances): “Those who now take delight in songs, in idle and indecent words, in chattering and frivolity, will they not be punished through their sense of hearing?” Similarly, Den oorspronck onser salicheyt, published in 1517 by Jan van Doesborch (or Doesborgh), a Dutch bookseller, printer, illustrator, publisher and translator, states that at the Final Judgment “Man will be called to account for his physical senses such as improper touch, sight, and hearing.”


Lastly, a column of new sinners are marched into hell like prisoners of war, led by more of hell’s hybrids. Among them, at the front, we see a sinner astride a giant spotted toad. Another sinner behind, trying to resist his inevitable eternal punishment, is surrounded by hell’s guards pushing him on. Further back, a long curved trumpet, the same shape as that seen above, is sounded to mark sinners’ entry into hell.

In the Bible, the trumpet is associated with special gatherings, with offerings to God, with a sound like the voice of God, and with seven angels playing seven trumpets to signal the seven stages of the Final Judgement. Bosch shows trumpets in the last sense, summarised by Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: 51–52 – “Listen, I tell you a mystery: we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”

Bosch and the sin of music

In summary, Bosch painted a lutenist tied by serpent-devils to the neck of a giant lute; a harpist crucified on his harp; the silencing of hell’s choir; a minstrel whose bottom is used for faux music notation; a book of faux music read by no one; a blind symphonia player who can do no more than turn the crank which sounds the drone, maybe not even that; a triangle-holding nun, the beater held by a demon; a sinner trapped inside a drum beaten by a demon; a damaged and unplayed slide trumpet; a sinner under the weight of a huge unplayable bumbard, a recorder inserted in his rectum; a trumpet played painfully loud; a giant phallic bagpipe that can only play a short drone; a derision of a dance; severed ears; a hidden toad holding a lute; and a trumpet signalling sinners’ eternal doom.

In Bosch’s hell, music is punished by silence, the impossibility of playing; or reduced to the agony of only one note; or blasted at painful, ear-splitting volume; and dance is diminished to a humiliating mockery. In The Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch paints not a single positive portrayal of earthly music. This is repeated throughout Bosch’s work, as we will see in the third and final article. Here we survey all of Bosch’s musical images and attempt to address the question: What did Bosch have against music, and what was the nature of his beliefs that he imagined all these musicians punished eternally by God? This third and final article about Bosch is available by clicking here.


© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.



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Harvey, Katherine (2014) Medieval People and Their Aphrodisiacs. Available online by clicking here.

Huijstee, Pieter van (2016) Jheronimus Bosch, Touched by the Devil. Online video available by clicking here.  

Huijstee, Pieter van (2016) Jheronimus Bosch, touched by the devil – deleted scene. Online video available by clicking here.

Ilsink, Matthijs & Koldeweij, Jos (2016) Hieronymous Bosch: Visions of Genius. New Haven: Mercatorfonds / Yale University Press.  

Kentish Guards Fife and Drum Corps of East Greenwich (undated) A History of Fife and Drum Music. Available online by clicking here

Laskow, Sarah (2017) The Tale of the Toad and the Bearded Female Saint. Available online by clicking here.

Mak, J. J (ed.) (1955) De gedichten van Anthonis de Roovere. Zwolle: Tjeenk Willink. Available online by clicking here.

Mannyng, Robert (written 1303, this edition 1862) Roberd of Brunnè’s Handlyng Synne (written A. D. 1303) with the French treatise on which it is founded, Le Manuel des Pechiez by William of Waddington, now first printed from MSS. in the British Museum and Bodleian libraries. Edited by Frederick J. Furnivall. London: J. B. Nichols and Sons. Available online by clicking here.

Marijnissen, R. H. & Ruyffelaere, P. (1987) Bosch. Antwerp: Tabard Press.

Meagher, Jennifer (2009) Food and Drink in European Painting, 1400–1800. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Available online by clicking here

Moroto, Pilar Silvo (ed.) (2016) Bosch. The 5th Centenary Exhibition. London: Thames & Hudson.

Rosselli, Giovanne de (original Italian 1549, this translation into English, 1598) Epulario, or The Italian banquet wherein is shewed the maner how to dresse and prepare all kind of flesh, foules or fishes. As also how to make sauces, tartes, pies, &c. After the maner of all countries. With an addition of many other profitable and necessary things. Translated out of Italian into English. Available online by clicking here.

Vojvoda, Rozana and Paranko, Rostyslav (undated) Body Language. Available online by clicking here.

Williams, Gordon (1994) A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature: Volume II G-P. London and Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Athlone Press.


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