Jheronimus Bosch and the music of hell. Part 3/3: Music and musicians in the complete works of Bosch

In Part 1, we explored the modern myth that the ‘music’ on the backside of a sinner in Jheronimus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights is real and playable. We saw that it is not Gregorian notation, as is repeatedly claimed, but a faux and unreadable imitation of Strichnotation. As the present article will show, Bosch painted equally faux and unreadable Strichnotation in two more paintings and one drawing.   

In Part 2, we surveyed all the musical imagery and the overall schema of The Garden of Earthly Delights, exploring historical sources for the meaning of each musician punished in hell, their instruments used as torture devices against them.    

That leads us to the central question of this third and final article on Bosch’s relationship with music. Here we survey the rest of Bosch’s entire works, his paintings and drawings, for music and musicians. Every musical image is presented with a brief description and explanation, referencing literature Bosch would have known. The sum total of Bosch’s musical depictions raises the question: What was the nature of his beliefs that he imagined all musicians as wicked sinners and monstrous creatures who are eternally punished in hell? We search for answers in his locality, his biography, and the clues he left with his brush.   

Bosch against the grain

Before, during and after his lifetime, the instruments Jheronimus Bosch (c. 1450–1516) depicts as torture devices in hell in his Garden of Earthly Delights are shown by other painters played by humans and angels to worship God, Christ and the Virgin. Three of these innumerable positive portrayals of music and musical instruments are shown below.

From the Anglo-Catalan Great Canterbury Psalter (BnF Latin 8846) we see folio 107r, showing King David in the centre playing psaltery, accompanied left to right by bagpipe, vielle (fiddle), lute, gittern, portative organ, and cymbala (cup cymbals). This folio was decorated in the 14th century in Catalonia. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)
Left: Giovanni Bellini, Virgin of the Angels, Catalonia, c. 1385, depicts Mary
worshipped with recorder, lute, portative organ, psaltery, gittern, and harp.
Right: Quentin Matsys, Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels, Belgium,
1493-97, shows Mary and the holy infant worshipped with lute and bray harp,
two of the instruments used by Bosch to torture musicians in hell.

For Bosch these musical instruments, and all instruments like them, are for the damned. Bosch’s hell in The Garden of Earthly Delights (two details below) has music 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. That painting is described in detail in the second of these three articles. Musical details from all his other works follow.

Above and below: musicians in hell from The Garden of Earthly Delights, being tortured by lute,
bray harp, unsingable music, symphonia (vielle à roue, hurdy gurdy), triangle, drum, bombard (shawm),
recorder, trumpet, slide trumpet, bagpipe, a mockery of a dance, and severed ears.
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In this article, we’ll survey Bosch’s musical instruments played by other-worldly beings – angels, hybrid demons and other inhabitants of hell – and by sinful humans. We’ll see two of Bosch’s drawings and view musical activity painted by pseudo-Bosch artists, showing how different they are to Bosch’s true works. Finally, we’ll attempt to discover why Bosch wanted musicians to suffer for their art – literally and eternally.    

The Last Judgement (Vienna)

Bosch depicts a single musical instrument with a positive connotation: the trumpet, and even that only under one condition. As we’ll see, he shows the trumpet as a signal of conflict, played by a member of an army going to war; or by a demon signalling the arrival of sinners in hell; or, below, by heaven’s angels signalling The Last Judgement, from his painting by that name. Only in the latter case is the trumpet positive for Bosch, and it is striking that in this case it isn’t really an instrument of music, but a functional auditory warning of God’s power.

In the same triptych, Bosch depicts an ape of hell without musical understanding, whose claws must make a horrible scratching sound on a lute (above left); a swan-man hybrid with a shawm for a beak (above right); a hell sextet (below left) in front of faux music Strichnotation (for Strichnotation, see the first Bosch article), comprising a singing sinner and demon, another singing demon holding a lute, a bagpipe monster with flames and smoke coming from its chanter, a demon playing a trumpet with flatulence, and a demon harpist clearly making the same sort of horrible noise with the harp as the ape does with the lute. Above them in the painting is a bird-human with a pipe and tabor (below bottom right) and, further back and higher, a pink tent swarming with sinners, on top of which is another sinner playing a trumpet with the mouthpiece on his anus (below top right).

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

The Temptation of Saint Anthony tripytch. (As with all pictures, click to see it larger in a new window.)

On the left edge of the left panel of the triptych, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, is hell’s bagpiper (detail above). A rod protrudes from his anus, reminding the viewer of a Dutch proverb, collected for posterity in Proverbia communa, 1480: “Many a man makes a rod for his own arse” (Proverb 504), i.e. many a man commits sin now, leading later to his own punishment. The rest of the image describes his sins. The bagpipe’s phallic shape makes it a standard symbol of the sin of lust. He wears a hat of feathers signifying vanity. His body is the back end of a dog: in medieval bestiaries, the dog symbolises those who return to their sins like a dog returns to its vomit. He has a branch for a tail, greenery symbolising the shortness of life and the need to look to one’s eternal fate. His left leg is pierced right through with a sword, both legs spattered with his own blood, a probable reference to Jesus’ words in Matthew 26: 52, “all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword”, often rendered as “those that live by the sword will die by the sword”, linked to Jesus’ words of pacifism for his followers in Matthew 5: 38-39, “Do not resist the one who is evil. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also, and if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”

“Those that live by the sword will die by the sword” is also the simple practical knowledge that violence by an individual will be punished with violence by the state. Saint Paul wrote in Romans 13: 3-4 that the world’s “rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong … For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (We see an example of the idea of the state punishing sin on God’s behalf in the next detail below.)

The sword through the dog-man’s leg is linked in turn to the Christian belief that violent acts in this life will be met with violent and eternal divine punishments in the next – and not only in the next life. Thomas van Cantimpré’s Bien boec, originally written in c. 1260, translated into Dutch in 1488, gives an example of divine punishment in this world which relates precisely to Bosch’s image: “By his cavorting and other misbehaviour, the bagpiper led young men and maids into lasciviousness and the singing of indecent songs. Two shepherds witnessed how a bolt of lightning struck the piper, killing him and smiting off an arm.” Bosch’s bagpiper has only one arm. The other painted details – signifying his sins of lust, vanity, returning to his sins, and violence – illustrate why God struck him with a bolt of lightning.

Front left of the centre panel, a skeletal hybrid horse-human harpist wears armour. The medieval bestiaries commonly state that a horse is the only animal that weeps and grieves for its dead or dying master; that some horses can recognise an enemy and defend their rider in battle; and that they are roused to battle by the sound of the trumpet. The skeletal man-horse in armour therefore seems to be a visual reminder of this characterisation in the bestiaries: the horse that weeps and grieves for its dead or dying master is signified by its dead skull; the armour-wearing horse is riding into battle, itself mounted on a hybrid creature; and, if it has been roused to battle by the sound of the trumpet it will be the final battle, the Last Judgement, signalled by heavenly trumpets. Why the horse is playing a harp isn’t clear but, as we explored in the second article, the harp was associated with Christ on the cross, so its appearance may be an extension of the theme of death and judgement.

Behind the horse, the sinful nun in a basket receives her own judgment: she is punished according to a law of Antwerp in 1493: “Rogues who play dice shall be put in the pillory for their first offence and then hung in a basket over water so that they fall in; the second time they shall have one ear nailed to the pillory with iron nails and remain there until they pull it off.”

We saw in the second article, which focussed on The Garden of Earthly Delights, that by the 1370s the symphonia (hurdy gurdy in modern parlance) had a reputation as an instrument used by blind beggars. Above, from the central panel, we see a blind symphonia player with a crutch tied to his withered leg, being led by a human lutenist with a large stomach, signifying gluttony, which mimics the rotund belly of the lute he carries. He has a pig’s face because, as stated in the bestiary of 1220–50, MS Bodley 764: “the boar means the devil because of its fierceness and strength … its thoughts are wild and unruly”. The devilish lutenist has a performing dog on a lead wearing a fool’s hood, and there is an owl on his head, symbol of moral darkness and evil. The position of his legs and feet suggests dancing rather than walking. To the right of the lutenist, Bosch makes his commentary on “wild and unruly” dance, as we see below.

A shawm-bird beast blows fiery smoke out of its bell. Similarly, a shawm, a bagpipe and a sinner’s rectum emit fiery smoke in The Garden of Earthly Delights. Likewise, there is a bagpipe emitting fire and smoke in The Last Judgement (seen above) and …

… a smoking trumpet in the right panel of The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Hanging from the fiery trumpet within a trumpet is a phallic sausage on a string, identified by the line on its left, as sausages were then secured on one end with a thorn. A toad, symbol of the vagina (as explained in the second article about Bosch), sits on the table in front of him. Next to him is a glutton with his foot in a jug and a sinner with a scimitar being beheaded by a rat: he has lived by the sword, so now he is dying by the sword.

In the middle panel, centre right, hell’s monks sing from a service book. They are a giant bird hybrid at the back, wearing the egg for lust; a rodent-like figure in the middle, wearing the funnel for gluttony; and a deathly dog-man with his internal organs and skeleton exposed. The bird and rodent hybrids are dressed as monks. The dog-man wears priestly vestments, with the tonsured hair of a man who has taken religious vows. In the medieval bestiaries, the dog represents those who make confession but then return to their sins, as a dog returns to its vomit. This is Bosch’s attack on the hypocrisy and immorality of those who don’t abide by the vows of their religious institutions. Their singing is outwardly devotional but truly unholy: as always, when a musical activity is shown by Bosch, it is negative.

As with music, so with dance. In the second article, we saw Bosch’s sinners dancing in the garden and punished in hell; likewise, we now see sinful dance in The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

To the right of the central panel is the remaining column of a building that is a broken shell of what it once was. Above we see that the column is decorated with a scene depicting God giving the 10 Commandments to Moses on two tablets of stone. The story in chapters 31 and 32 of Exodus relates that while Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the divine commandments, the Israelites became restless, not knowing what had become of their absent leader, and they asked his brother Aaron to make an image of a god to worship. He instructed them to take off their gold earrings – hence the colour of the column – and from it he cast an idol in the shape of a golden calf, shown on the column raised on a mound or altar, in front of which the faithless Israelites are shown as morris dancers. Just as Moses is isolated and surrounded by sin on the golden column, so Christ is at his own altar, isolated, surrounded by sin in the rest of the painting. 

Why does Bosch use morris dancing to represent unfaithfulness to God? An understanding of morris choreography uncovers Bosch’s meaning.

Morris dance, in England originally called morys, moreys, or morisse daunce, began as a courtly entertainment in the mid-15th century. It was known in Flanders as mooriske danse, in Germany as Moriskentanz, in France as mauresque or morisques, in Croatia as moreška, and in Italy and Spain as moresco, morisco, moresca or morisca. All those words mean Moorish: a morris dance is a Moorish dance. Moor was a word used variously to describe: any Arab; in late 14th century parlance onwards, any black person or person of African descent from the Latin, Maurus, meaning inhabitant of Mauritania; or any Muslim, regardless of skin colour or geographical origin.

An exact choreography of early morris dance has not survived, but the manner of morris movement is clear in images of dancers contemporaneous with Bosch. The variety of exaggerated movements painted by Bosch is remarkably similar to several other depictions of the period, such as a 1463 edition of Speculum historiale (The Mirror of History) by 13th century Parisian Dominican friar, Vincent of Beauvais (BnF Fr. 51). Folio 171r, above, shows two scenes from the life of Saint Josaphat, and it is the scene in the foreground which concerns us. As on Bosch’s column, no musician is shown, but we see four male morris dancers dancing with various hyperbolic movements. In Speculum historiale, they dance around a woman, variously called the Queen of May, judge, or goddess of luck. The dancer on the left carries a scimitar, a visual indication of Moorishness, and the imitations of tall sikke or kyula hats of camel wool, worn on turbans, similarly indicates that the dancers are emulating Moors.

We see similar movements again in lime wood sculptures of Moriskentänzer or Morisco dancers made by the German sculptor, architect and builder, Erasmus Grasser, in 1480. For identification purposes, Grasser’s morris dancers have gained nicknames. Below left to right: two views of Beau or Bridegroom, wearing a headband; Little Tailor wearing a hunting cap; Sorcerer, wearing a turban decorated with a lion’s head; Burgundian, with a studded conical cap; and Oriental with his draped turban. 

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Grasser’s other morris dancers, below left to right, are nicknamed: Moor, one of two figures wearing a headband; Lady’s Hat, wearing a hat with a wheel-shaped brim; Peasant Farmer, wearing a large turban, with the toes of his left foot showing through his boot (the only figure not wearing bells); Prophet, with his shield-shaped hat held on with wrapped cloth (with the paint stripped off); and The Notched One, after his metal studded high hat and tasselled notches on the hem of his doublet. 

From the surviving evidence of the choreography of 15th and 16th century participatory social dance, such as the basse danse, almost all the movement was in the feet, the only function of the arms being to hold hands with a partner. The chief physical characteristic of these dances is symmetry with a partner and with the group, with an upright and noble deportment. By contrast, what we see with the morris, a display dance for observers, is vigorous full-body movement and lack of symmetry. Grasser’s representation of their physicality tallies with all the contemporaneous iconography in manuscripts, prints, and in Bosch’s triptych, including the feature that all their dance poses are different. It is not possible to know whether the apparent chaos represents uncoordinated reality, with each member dancing in their own way, or a visual attempt to portray many vigorous movements at different points in the dance in one visual sweep. Given portrayals of other types of dance, simultaneous variety is most likely, and seems to be connected to the fact that, unlike today’s morris dancers, they do not wear a common uniform, but each represents a different personality in distinctive clothes.

For highly conservative Christians like Bosch, physical restraint and moral restraint went together, so social dance of any kind was an invitation to touch, to mingle, to dangerous sensuality. Since this was so even for the mildest of dances, the exaggerated movements of the morris dance can only have been seen as unrestrained immodesty, uninhibited abandonment of decorum and any moral sensibility, hence the rejection of God’s law is depicted as disorderly morris dancing.

The Haywain

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The three panels of The Haywain triptych (above) tell the story of Original Sin on the left, the sins of modern humanity in the centre, and the eternal punishments of hell on the right. In this way, the overall scheme is similar to The Garden of Earthly Delights. What makes The Haywain different is the way the message is given, with the middle panel full of hay, and hay being fought over, stored up, and kept in purses like money, reminding the viewer of a string of biblical passages such as:  

Isaiah 40: 8: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”

Psalm 37: 1–3: “Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away. Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.”

Psalm 92: 6–8: “Senseless people do not know, fools do not understand, that though the wicked spring up like grass and all evildoers flourish, they will be destroyed forever. But you, Lord, are forever exalted.”

1 Corinthians 3: 11–13: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.”

Drawing the eye in the middle of the centre panel is a huge hayrick (detail above), on top of which an angel looks to the Son of God in heaven. The angel is the only figure in the entire painting to notice the divine Lord surveying the scene: everyone else is busy engaging in the sins which will take them to hell in the right panel.

Among some of the usual symbols of sin – a glutton with a jug, an evil owl, a lustful kissing couple – are a richly-dressed lutenist, his legs across the skirt of a more plainly-dressed woman holding the music, and a man next to her, pointing to the music. The music is an imitation of Strichnotation, an imprecise form of music notation, as decribed in the first Bosch article. Next to the woman is a demon, on his head a crown of thorns to drive home that it was for such wayward sins that Jesus died, in a pose as if he is dancing to the lutenist’s music, but he is holding the trumpet backwards, his face entirely covered by the bell.

At the bottom of the painting are a group of nuns with a fat abbess holding an empty cup, symbol of gluttony. The nuns store up large quantities of hay, i.e. they are focussed on this temporary world that will fade like the grass, rather than tending to their immortal souls. The musician also engages in short-term pleasure, as we see from his jug, symbol of gluttony, filled with flowers and greenery, symbol of the shortness of life. As we saw in The Garden of Earthly Delights and The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the shape of the bagpipe makes it a phallic symbol, and this piper has another: a sausage on a string, secured on one end with a thorn, just as we saw suspended from a trumpet in hell in The Temptation of Saint Anthony. That the nun is lifting his phallic sausage with one hand shows her lust for the sensual piper, and the hay she holds in the other demonstrates she is thinking of short-term pleasure, one of the “wicked [who] spring up like grass” (Psalm 92) who will be punished in the next life.  

And in the next life, in the hell wing of The Waywain, we see sinners hunted down by the dogs of hell, one butchered sinner carried by a green-faced demon blowing a curved hunting horn.

On the outside of The Haywain, visible when the triptych is closed, is an image (above) in which the figure in the foreground is very similar to that in The Wayfarer (not shown here as it includes no music). The scene is organised into three horizontal planes: the wayfarer, passing through this sinful world in the foreground, the sins of the world in the middleground and, on the hill in the background, the gallows for the punishment for sins. As described in the article about The Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch counts the bagpiper and dancers on the right as sinners on an equal footing with the gang committing robbery on the left.   

Hermit Saints

In the Hermit Saints triptych there is a single musical instrument. At the bottom of the left panel sits a dark demon, a long branch for a nose, on which sits a bird. He wears a hood with a long, trailing liripipe, as was the fashion of the day. On his back, slung over his shoulders and attached to a cord, is a curved trumpet like the one blown in the hell wing of The Waywain, used there as a hunting horn for catching sinners with the dogs of hell. In this case, the demon is resting, sitting reading an unidentified book.

Adoration of the Magi

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Bosch’s Adoration of the Magi triptych (above) is, like the outside of The Haywain, organised on three horizontal visual planes: the foreground tells the story of the Magi’s visit to the newborn Jesus; the horizontal middleground has scenes of sin and conflict; and the background has scenes of tranquillity.  

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In the detail above from the main story in the foreground, we have the unusual spectacle of two shepherds creeping up at the side of the barn in which Jesus was recently born, a third shepherd climbing a tree beside the barn, and fourth and fifth shepherds – a couple – on the roof: he has a knife in his hat, and she has brought her bagpipe. This appears to be a reference to The Gospel of John 10: 1: “Very truly, I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber.”

Bosch’s views on the wickedness of dance are clear from The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, and the outside of The Haywain. This is reinforced further by the two details above from the left and right wings of the Adoration of the Magi triptych, in the conflicted middleground. On the left is a bagpiper in a distant field, danced to by two couples. On the right we see the same two women who were dancing to the piper, one being savaged by a wolf, the other running away from a second wolf. The men have disappeared. This is God’s punishment for their sinful dancing, similar in kind to the story cited above in Thomas van Cantimpré’s Bien boec, originally written in c. 1260, translated into Dutch in 1488, in which the “cavorting … bagpiper led young men and maids into lasciviousness and the singing of indecent songs” and therefore “a bolt of lightning struck the piper, killing him and smiting off an arm.” Christian literature of the medieval period has many such stories in which the divinely-sanctioned punishment for sin is very much of this world, following a biblical tradition of divine wrath. For example, Lot’s wife (she isn’t given a name of her own) and her family were told by angels to flee Sodom, which was about to be destroyed by God, and not to look back: she did look back, and was turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19). The prophet Elisha was taunted by youths for his baldness, so he cursed them in the name of God, and the Almighty obliged by sending two bears to tear forty two of the boys to pieces (2 Kings 2: 23-25). When Jesus found no figs on a fig tree – because it wasn’t in season – he nevertheless cursed it so it would never fruit again (Mark 11: 12-14). Judas bought a field with the money he was given for betraying Jesus. He then fell headlong in the field and his body burst open, spilling out his intestines (Acts 1: 18, a rather diferent story to the Gospels‘ account of him hanging himself in remorse).

As we see below, Bosch’s female bagpiper on the roof is distracted, looking worriedly backwards at the scene of the two women who danced to the bagpipe, now being savaged by wolves, viewing God’s punishment for her own kind of musical indecency

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The two details below are from opposite sides of the middle panel, also on the middle conflicted plane. The clothes represent two foreign armies going to war. The group on the left includes the player of a straight trumpet with a lunar symbol on its flag for the lunacy of the world, or the lunacy of war; on the right, one horseman rides with a folded trumpet on his back. Given the theme of the painting, the presentation of the newborn saviour, this may be a reference to Jesus’ words in Matthew 24: 6–8: “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains [of the end times when Jesus returns].”

The Ship of Fools and Allegory of Gluttony and Lust

The Ship of Fools (below left) was originally part of a triptych, now separated, which included Allegory of Gluttony and Lust (below right).

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In The Ship of Fools (above left, detail below left), Bosch shows a nun of the Order of Poor Clares playing a lute, accompanying four other carousers, one of whom is the Franciscan friar formally responsible for her spiritual welfare. Between them, they play a game trying to take a bite out of a suspended loaf of bread. On the table between them is an empty cup for gluttony and a plate of cherries for sexual lust. The three singing laymen behind them, who the nun accompanies with her lute, are dressed in russet, the colour of fools. The mast, on which the friar rests his right hand, is a tree, greenery symbolising the shortness of mortal life and the need to consider one’s eternal soul. An owl, symbol of evil, sits in the top of the tree. A man climbs the tree to cut down a trussed and plucked chicken, symbol of gluttony, above which is a lunar flag for the lunacy of sin. A fool sits on a branch with his ass-eared fool’s hood and fool’s marotte. The boat is steered foolishly not with an oar, but with an over-sized spoon, signalling an enormous gluttonous appetite .

In Allegory of Gluttony and Lust (detail above right), a man wearing the funnel for gluttony holds greenery for the shortness of life, from which is suspended the cherry of lust. He is pushed along on a floating barrel, playing a curved trumpet for his forthcoming eternal judgement.  


Two of Bosch’s drawings also feature music negatively. The well-known painting The Concert in the Egg is by a follower of Bosch after his death (discussed in this article about music notation in paintings), based on the genuine Bosch drawing (above) which features seven adults, four or five of them singing from a book of faux Strichnotation from inside a cracked and hollow egg, symbolising the hollow nature of carnal desire. The man at the back has an owl on his head for the darkness of evil, and he is holding a marotte (decorative stick topped with a fool’s head) for foolishness. The folly of their singing is reinforced by the foolish bare bottom cracking through the shell on the right.    

The other drawing (above, called either Drollery with beehives or Man in a basket, old woman with tongs and children by cataloguers) also has the bare backside of foolishness, out of which fly birds. This motif is reminiscent of the sinner in hell in The Garden of Earthly Delights being eaten by the giant bird-man, a sinner who not only has birds but smoke and fire coming from his bottom. The lute in this drawing is about to be used as a weapon rather than a musical instrument, and no doubt be smashed in the process. Is the man on the basket about to try and hit a bird as it flies from the rectum, or is he about to use the lute to beat the bottom, using it as an instrument of punishment, as in The Garden of Earthly Delights?    

Followers of Bosch and pseudo-Bosch

Together with The Garden of Earthly Delights, that completes all of the musical images in genuine and undisputed works by Bosch. There are other negative images of music in paintings by those who imitated Bosch and in works of disputed provenance, such as paintings which bear the hallmarks of his style but which differ considerably in their technical manner of execution, which Bosch could not therefore have had a hand in, and which are therefore considered to have been produced by his workshop, possibly after he died in 1516. One such is The Flood, which features a demon carrying a lute (this detail seen above).  

Two of these disputed works are worth describing, as the clear indicators that they are not works by Bosch only serve to reinforce his entirely negative portrayal of music and musicians.

One of Bosch’s drawings, The wood has ears, the field has eyes, has the Latin text, “Poor is the mind that always uses the inventions of others and invents nothing itself.” Among the many outstanding features of Bosch’s work is its originality. What stands out about the version of The Last Judgement now in Bruges (above) is how derivative it is. The millstone and treadmill, furnace, man being hammered on an anvil, tent, Christ with angels in heaven (detail below) and other details are from The Last Judgement now in Vienna. The naked people playing with giant fruits and flowers, the giant lute, dancers around the bagpipe, the sinner crucified on a harp, the trumpet, the giant knife and the open lantern are from The Garden of Earthly Delights. Other elements are taken from The Haywain or are generally derivative of Bosch’s style.

That many of the figures are too poorly executed to be a genuine Bosch is the least of the problems. The triptych lacks an overall schema, so the placement of figures makes no sense. Why would Bosch paint naked sinners with giant sensual fruit representing lust in the Garden of Eden panel (detail below left), if that is where it’s supposed to be? Where is it supposed to be? It lacks God, Christ, Adam and Eve, or any important visual signifier. Why would Bosch paint an angel playing a harp to an audience of three, for no apparent reason (below left), when a harp is used for crucifixion in the next panel (below right), and when Bosch has no other positive portrayal of an instrument in any work other than angels sounding the trumpet blasts of the Last Judgement? And what are angels doing playing trumpets on a boat rather than in heaven (below left)? If this is the boat of the saved, as it appears to be, why does the mast have the cherry of sexual lust inserted on it? Why has the mockery of a dance around a bagpipe in hell in The Garden of Earthly Delights become an actual dance around a bagpipe in this painting (below right)? Conceptually, the painting is a mess.   

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The Bruges Last Judgement is plagiaristic, designed by someone who knew Bosch’s style but had no comprehension of his visual language. It is a hodgepodge of images thrown together, without schema, story, nor narrative progression from left to right. We can therefore dismiss any notion that Bosch painted the angel harpist or had a hand in any part of this work.  

The painter of The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things had a much clearer idea of visual organisation, but it certainly wasn’t Bosch. This is obvious for technical, historical, stylistic and iconographical reasons.

Technically, the square design with scenes in five circles (above left) is unusual, and appears to have been made as a table-top, which would have been unique for Bosch. Bosch always painted on oak, and this is painted on poplar, a wood unknown in the work of any master painter in The Netherlands.    

Historically, doubt about its attribution was expressed early. The first known description was by Spanish art commentator Felipe de Guevara in his Comentarios de la Pintura (Comments on Painting), 1560, when it was in the possession of Philip II of Spain. Felipe suggested it was by a pupil of Bosch who “either out of reverence for his master or in order to increase the value of his own works, signed them with the name of Bosch rather than his own”. The most cursory examination of its stylistic qualities confirms Felipe de Guevara’s observation. The figures are a moderately good attempt to copy Bosch’s style, but the faces in particular show immediately that this is not his work. The content lacks any of the originality of Bosch: everything is obvious, straightforward, the sins are even labelled (see detail above right). Unlike genuine Bosch, this lacks conceptual depth and demands nothing of the viewer. 

Iconographically, The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things consists of a few elements copied from Bosch’s genuine works, but mostly the imagery is not only too simplistic for Bosch, it has scenes which are conceptually counter to anything he painted. The image of the angels’ trumpet-call for the general resurrection and heavenly saints around Jesus (detail above left) was common enough in medieval and renaissance art. Similarly, the representation of heaven as a church (above right) was standard fare, but this is something we never see in genuine Bosch: it is far too bland, obvious and orthodox for Bosch, as comparison with his real Visions of the Hereafter (below) easily shows.

As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, then click in the new window to further enlarge.

The apprentice who imitated Bosch’s work had clearly not understood his theology, but instead painted a scene of heaven typical of the period, two examples of which are below. On the left we see a detail from The Last Judgement, painted c. 1467-1471 by Hans Memling. Just as in pseudo-Bosch’s tabletop, we see the saved entering a church, greeted by saints and angels and accompanied by angel musicians high in the building. We see similar in The Last Judgement, painted c. 1435 by Stefan Lochner, detail below right, but in this case we see the precise details copied by pseudo-Bosch: saints and angels ushering the saved into ecclesiastical heaven; a demon trying to grab a soul back; angel musicians outside of the church.

As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, then click in the new window to further enlarge. 

This stock image of heavenly angel musicians was anathema for Bosch: in all of Bosch’s work, musical instruments are not for angels to make sweet sounds but for demons to create cacophony, or used as torture devices against sinful musicians. The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things is therefore an ironic affirmation of Bosch’s maxim, “Poor is the mind that always uses the inventions of others and invents nothing itself.” 

Bosch’s images of musicians and music

In Bosch’s paintings, musicians are: sinners in the world, ignorant that their wayward music leads their foolish souls to perdition; or they are sinners in hell, their instruments turned on them as weapons of torture; …

… or they are animals, demonstrating that music is mere noise played by those with no understanding; or horn-blowing demons hunting sinners; …

… or the hybrids of hell, musician and instrument combined in an ungodly union; or they are a visual demonstration of their sinful ways.

No musician is spared: not the lowly shepherd, nor the highborn on the haywain, nor monstrous monks.

Unlike other medieval and renaissance painters, Bosch doesn’t give angels musical instruments with which to praise God. The angels of heaven have only one instrument: trumpets to sound the division of the saved from the damned, mirrored by the curved trumpets of hell.  

Bosch and the Brotherhood

We can understand the extremity of Bosch’s position through his locality, his biography, and the ongoing debate within the church about music. 

During Bosch’s lifetime, his family’s home of ’s-Hertogenbosch changed and grew considerably. In 1462 his father bought a house in Market Square, situated between a butcher’s and a tinsmith’s shop. In the summer of the next year, when Bosch was around 13 years old, ’s-Hertogenbosch suffered a major fire. From their house, the young Bosch had a grandstand view of the flames sweeping through the city. The roof of his father’s house was damaged, but it was not burnt down. Bosch continued to live in Market Square until his death in 1516, first in his father’s house, then in his wife Alijt’s house, seeing the ongoing life of the city literally on his own doorstep. He would have seen how, in the second half of the 15th century, ’s-Hertogenbosch was affected by wars, high taxes, economic stagnation and many bouts of social turmoil. Perhaps this may go some way to explaining the persistent themes of conflict and violence in his work. The situation improved in the 1490s to the point that ’s-Hertogenbosch became the third most important city in the Duchy of Brabant, after Brussels and Antwerp. A mark of this growth is that in 1464, when Bosch was around 14 years old, ’s-Hertogenbosch had a population of 11–12,000 people, which grew to 20,000 by 1526, 10 years after his death. Such connections between ’s-Hertogenbosch and Jheronimus Bosch are generally informative, but we cannot know for sure how they were personally experienced by the boy and the man. 

This well-known portrait of “jeronimus Bus painter” is from Recueil d’Arras (Collection of Arras), Ms 166, Bibliotheque Municipale d’Arras, France. Drawn in charcoal and red chalk, this and the other portraits in the collection are attributed to French daughtsman Jacques Le Boucq (c. 1520–1573), who was born around 4 years after Bosch died. The artist portrayed other historical figures in c. 1550 he could never have seen, such as John of Luxembourg (1296–1346), Marguerite de France (1310–82), and Henry VII (1457–1509). Unless it is based on a now lost portrait, this depiction cannot have a basis in reality, and it is probable that, given his religious beliefs, Bosch would have considered a portrait to be sinful vanity.

He was born Jeroen or Joen van Aken (c. 1450–1516), Latinising his first name and taking the colloquial or shortened name of his city for his professional name, Jheronimus Bosch. His family had been professional painters for at least three generations, and his own commercial success as an artist was considerable and international. His upper middle class family were already wealthy, and his wife Alijt (Aleijt, Aleit, Aleid) van de Meervenne was more wealthy still. Jeroen and Alijt married in 1480 or ’81. In 1484, Alijt’s only brother died. With their successful merchant parents having previously died, she inherited the entire family’s properties and lands.

The only information about Bosch’s beliefs or spiritual life outside of his paintings comes from the knowledge that he and his family before him were members of the local religious association, Illustere Lieve Vrouwe Broederschap – The Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady. The Illustrious Brotherhood was founded in 1318, organised around honouring a miraculous wooden image of the Virgin in a chapel in Saint John’s Cathedral, ’s-Hertogenbosch. Due to the food served at its extravagant annual banquet, the Brotherhood was also known as Zwanenbroederschap – Swan’s Fraternity.

It’s a moot point to ask how much of the van Aken family’s membership of the Brotherhood was due to an alignment of religious convictions, and how much was just good economics. It may, of course, have been both, but it cannot be denied that membership of the Brotherhood was the making of Bosch professionally. The Brotherhood had already provided commissions of work for the family before Jheronimus came of age. Bosch signed the membership book of The Brotherhood in 1487. As was the way, he would only receive commissions from them upon becoming a member and, immediately upon joining, he was assigned to paint two wing panels for their chapel’s existing altarpiece. He was not yet an artist with a reputation, so they must have seen in him great talent and theological understanding to grant him the task of creating such public and important art.

It took only a year for him to be the first in his family to become a sworn brother, one of the select inner circle of their 60 man elite known as Swan Brothers, elevating his religious and social status. To become a Swan Brother, Bosch had to vow not to live outside ’s-Hertogenbosch (unless a member of the senior clergy or upper aristocracy), to dispose of his own property (since Alijt had her own property, this ameliorated the effects of this stipulation), and take minor holy orders, giving him clerical status of the sort that still allowed him to marry and live a civilian life. A third of the Swan Brothers were already priests upon admission.

Not only were The Illustrious Brotherhood well-connected locally with The Brethren of the Common Life, and especially with the powerful monastic Dominicans, they had international connections with civic, aristocratic and clerical elites, and they introduced Bosch to powerful potential patrons. Among them was Diego de Guevara, a Brotherhood member from 1498, an art lover and ambassador to the Burgundian court for Catholic monarchs. His aforementioned son, the art collector and critic Felipe de Guevara, owned six of Bosch’s paintings, all of which passed to the king of Spain on his death. 

Why did Bosch condemn musicians?

Being a sworn brother meant dedication to a scrupulous programme of religious activities. This included Mass twice a week, on Tuesdays singing “the vespers [service of evening prayer] of Our Blessed Lady with trebles [sopranos]”, on Wednesdays singing “Lauds [meaning Praises, the morning Office], assisted by servers and intoners [leaders of singing] who are dressed in official gowns and caps” (Illustrious Brotherhood Regulations, f. 3r), and Fridays were for fasting or good deeds. Masses for the saints were celebrated on all Marian feast days. Special Masses were also held, and vigils for the dead. Every six weeks they met for ceremonial dinners, taking it in turns to host. The miraculous icon of the Virgin from Saint John’s Cathedral was paraded annually, followed by a banquet for local dignitaries and monasteries, with entertainment by singers, musicians and actors.

This information adds a new complexion and nuance to the way Bosch represents music. Bosch’s images of sinful music are so extreme and so persistent, including three singing monks of hell and a lute-playing nun in a ship of fools, that one could easily draw the conclusion that Bosch had an ideological hatred of music in all its forms, that he considered any type of music an act of sin worthy of divine punishment. His participation in singing as part of his service to the Brotherhood shows this cannot have been the case. We know that the Brotherhood as an organisation had no prohibition on music, as not only did they participate in ecclesiastical singing and have musical entertainers at their annual banquet, contemporaneous with Bosch they counted among their number three composer-musicians. They were: Nycasius de Clibano (?–1497), both of whose credited surviving works are religious; his son, Jheronimus de Clibano (c. 1459–1503), whose three probable surviving works are sacred; and Matthaeus Pipelare (c. 1450–c. 1515), who wrote masses, motets, and vernacular secular songs, and whose surname suggests he or his father was a piper.

Before, during and after Bosch’s lifetime, there was a continuing debate in the church about music in the liturgy, and the role of music in the Christian life generally, based on two key questions which will help us understand Bosch’s position.

One question was the appropriateness of music to the occasion, which led the Catholic Church to stipulate multiple times over several centuries that liturgical music – which Bosch participated in when singing with the Illustrious Brothers in the Mass – had to give glory to God, not promote the hubris of singers or musicians. Liturgical music was therefore to be provided only by voices and the organ. On this matter, the church spoke officially with one voice.

Another question was about the moral standards of professional musicians and all-round entertainers, known as minstrels, jongleurs or gleemen, players of lutes, harps, symphonies, shawms, recorders, and the other instruments depicted by Bosch. This, as we see in the article about the relationship between minstrels and the church, is a more complicated question. At one end of the spectrum were those in the church who, outside of the liturgy, embraced the whole variety of musical instruments as part of God’s world, a view expressed in those medieval and renaissance paintings where angels play an assortment of plucked, blown, bowed, keyboard and percussive instruments. At the other end of the spectrum were those who associated those instruments with the minstrels, jongleurs and gleemen who excite the passions and therefore represent ungodly ways, particularly if they played for dances, which were seen as public invitations to lust.

On that scale, we can be sure from his paintings that Bosch was at the extreme latter end. He was what today we would call a fundamentalist, someone who sees the world in simple binary terms – God/Devil, good/evil, right/wrong, saved/damned – without room for nuance or subtlety. For him and those who shared his views, secular musicians promote errant passion and sinful excitement, they sing of sexual desire and excite lust with their rhythms for dancing. He delighted so much in the idea that sinful musicians would be punished by God that he devised for them eternal tortures in hell only the most dedicated mind could invent. There could be no more powerful confirmation that Bosch was against any instrument other than the liturgy’s voices and organ than him crucifying a harpist on his instrument in The Garden of Earthly Delights, a particularly shocking image as the harp was traditionally a sacred instrument for Christians, played by King David, composer of the Psalms, and symbolic of Christ’s cross. This, above all other representations, suggests that Bosch condemned all music outside of the holy liturgy, and all musical instruments outside of the liturgy’s voices and organ.   

Three images of King David playing harp, commonly seen in medieval and renaissance iconography,
contrasting fundamentally with Bosch’s image of the harp as an instrument of crucifixion for sinners.
Left: Lewis Psalter, Lewis E 185, Germany, c. 1225–1230.
Centre: The Rutland Psalter, BL Add MS 62925, England, c. 1260, folio 8v,
shows David tuning the harp, symbol of bringing harmony.
Right: MS M.638, France, c. 1244–1254, f. 39r, shows David holding a harp with,
behind him in succession, fiddle, pipe and bell, tabulae, hand drum, trumpets.

Bosch used the appearance of musical notation in four of his works: on the sinner’s bottom and in an open book in hell in The Garden of Earthly Delights (above); in a book shared by a group of musical demons and a sinner in hell in The Last Judgement (below left); in a book shared by sinful singers in the drawing, Singers in the Egg (below right); …

… and on a sheet shared by musical sinners going to hell in The Haywain (below). In each case, Bosch painted faux Strichnotation, and the fact of him singing in the Mass with the Brotherhood tells us why.

Gregorian notation, which Bosch must have read to sing the liturgy, was the written music of ecclesiastical worship, of the voice and organ alone, of faithful and sober praise to God; Strichnotation, which he painted as deliberate nonsense, was the musical notation of the secular world, for the voice with sinful instruments, for the faithless praise of sensual wickedness. For Bosch, and for all those who thought like him, Strichnotation and what they perceived as secular musical instruments were all of a piece: invitations to focus the mind on unholy things, reasons to inflame the senses with unholy passions, leading inevitably to the punishments of hell.

Bosch the man

As we have seen, Jheronimus Bosch was far more extreme in his views than the patrons and artists who imagined the Virgin and the saints praised with angel harpists, lutenists, fiddlers and the like, and more hard-line than the policy of The Illustrious Brotherhood of which he was an elite member. The narrowness of fundamentalism is usually a block to creativity, shutting down thoughts rather than opening them up, but what marks Bosch out as special is his unique creativity, that he found rich ways of expressing his disapproval of the world, remoulding medieval monstrosities and drolleries, constructing inventive visual metaphors for the pain he wished on others.

Examples of Bosch’s remoulding of medieval marginal drolleries:
arse trumpets in manuscript decorations.
Top left: Book of Hours, Flanders, 14th century (Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum, W.88, f. 157r).
Bottom left: Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum historiale, France, c. 1294–1297
(Boulogne-sur-Mer, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 130II).
Right: Jacques de Longuyon, Vows of the Peacock, Belgium, c. 1345–50
(New York, The Morgan Library and Museum, MS G.24, f. 1r).
These comedic images were inspiration for the far more serious …
… arse trumpets in hell in Bosch’s Last Judgement, c. 1506.

Bosch was more interested in the negative than the positive, punishment not forgiveness, condemnation not understanding, hate not love, vengeance not hope, hell not heaven, yet still the vibrancy of his imagination is engaging, intriguing, absorbing, even paradoxically life-affirming. The works of Bosch are rich, fascinating and rewarding to study, but his paintings suggest he was the most miserable of men: disapproving, superior, vengeful, like fundamentalists of every age. His images of hell were vivid, his notion of heaven vague, and this, too, is a measure of the man.

Questions are raised by Bosch’s attendance at the banquet following the annual parade of the miraculous icon of the Virgin from Saint John’s Cathedral. At the banquet, The Brotherhood and their civic and monastic guests were entertained by singers, musicians and actors. What was the nature of that performance? Since Bosch’s view of music was far more restricted and severe than Brotherhood policy, even if those minstrels were godly, Psalm-singing, sober and saintly, the sum total of his painted images suggests he would still have found them difficult to stomach if, instrumentally, they strayed into what he perceived as sinful hubris and lasciviousness beyond the church’s liturgical stricture of voices and organ only. Or did Bosch, as people so often do, find an exception for himself, reasons why those banquet minstrels were uniquely acceptable? His continued professional success, brought about by his Brotherhood connections, would have depended on it.

This question of acceptable and unacceptable minstrelsy, allowed and disallowed instruments for the godly, is explored in the next article, “the verray develes officeres”: minstrels and the medieval church, available here.


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



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