Jheronimus Bosch and the music of hell. Part 1/3: The modern myth of Bosch’s butt music

In recent years, a story about a detail in Jheronimus Bosch’s painting of 1495–1505, The Garden of Earthly Delights, has been repeatedly told: that a sinner on the hell panel of the triptych has real music painted on his bottom, only recently discovered. Periodically, articles and videos reappear on social media with a performance of the same attempt to make sense of it, created by Amelia Hamrick in 2014. Is this oft-repeated butt music credible?

To put Bosch’s painting in its historical context, a previous article, Performable music in medieval and renaissance art, examined the role of both faux music notation and playable music in medieval and renaissance art. This article explains why the paint on the sinner’s bottom does not represent real music, and why attempts to interpret the ‘music’ are based on erroneous assumptions and misunderstandings. A second article, available here, explains the rich symbolism of The Garden, including the meaning of musicians tortured by their own instruments, silenced by the demons of hell. A third and final article, available here from 9th June, surveys the musical symbolism in all Bosch’s works, and asks why his depictions of music are always grotesque, associated with sin, punishment and hell.

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Performable music in medieval and renaissance art

In the medieval and renaissance periods there were plentiful images of musical instruments and singers in manuscripts, paintings and sculpture, and many manuscripts of music notation survive from those eras. There are rare instances which bring these two elements together: an artist’s image of singers and musicians in which an actual piece of music is shown, readable and performable by the viewer.

That is the subject of this article, sifting out the faux music from the real, addressing questions of message, symbolism and meaning, asking why artists chose to include performable music, and how this painted sound adds to the communication of the artist and the significance of the art.  

This article ranges from face-pulling singing monks to Marian antiphons, from a lute-playing Mary Magdalene to a unique survival of Gloria notation, from Jheronimus Bosch’s egg to lustful monks, with paintings, soundfiles and video examples of music notation in art. It can be read stand-alone, or as a precursor to three essays about music in the art of Jheronimus Bosch, the first of which focusses on the alleged ‘butt music’ in Bosch’s painting of 1495–1505, The Garden of Earthly Delights, available to read here.

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