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.

Meaning in medieval and renaissance art

Art is not simply a replication of the real. We see this, for example, in the broad brushstrokes of the impressionists; the angular lines of cubism; the dream-like quality of juxtaposed images in surrealism; and the spare outlines and exaggerated features of Charles Schultz’s cartoons. The difference between art and reality is so foundational, so expected, that there has to be a special word for art that looks exactly like the thing it portrays: photorealism.

Art has schools, fashions, principles, so while an artist can depict anything they wish, real or imaginary, this doesn’t mean the field is wide open to show anything in any way: practitioners work within the parameters of their impressionist, cubist, surrealist, cartoon or other conventions. We wouldn’t expect, for example, to see Schultz’s dog grinning in a Monet landscape. With the exception of artists who take radical departures, what is painted, and the way it is painted, is always in keeping with the style, era, or genre.

So an important first step in understanding the meaning of written music shown in medieval and renaissance art is to appreciate how, in general, art of these periods functioned.

On the right is a typically symbolic illustration for Psalm 53 from the 15th century Psalterium Caroli VIII Regis (BnF, Latin 774, f. 63v), on the cusp of the medieval and renaissance periods. It shows King David, God, and a fool. The king is in a pose of worship, praying on his knees. The harp indicates that this is King David, the traditionally credited writer of the Old Testament’s devotional songs, the Psalms. God is in heaven, halo behind his head denoting holiness, the orb or globe of the world in his left hand showing his universal power. His right hand makes the Benedictio Latina, the Roman Catholic hand symbol used in worship and very common in medieval art: the thumb, index finger and middle finger stretch out to indicate the Trinity, and the two fingers together demonstrate the dual nature of Christ, human and divine. Psalm 53 has the line, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” In the medieval and renaissance period there were three types of fools: natural fools, meaning those with learning disabilities; artificial fools, meaning comedic actors; and ungodly fools who acted immorally by defying the divine will. Psalm 53 clearly refers to an ungodly fool, which cannot easily be shown visually, so the effortlessly recognisable accoutrements of the French artificial fool act as a symbolic stand-in – ass-eared hood with coxcomb and bells, marotte (staff with decorative fool’s head), pied clothing, and his tongue out. While King David prays, indicating that he says there is a God, the fool makes a heavenward gesture, indicating that this fool says there is no God, as in the Psalm.

One more related example to further illustrate the symbolic way medieval and renaissance art functioned is the onocentaur (honocentar, onoscentaurus, uncor, or unocentaurus). In medieval art, the onocentaur was a hybrid of human and wild ass. Sometimes onocentaurs were depicted in the same constellation as the man/horse centaur, with a human torso and head but with an ass’s body and four legs; more commonly they have the lower body and back two legs of an ass with the upper body of a human, as we see in the three manuscript illustrations below.

Onocentaurs in manuscript illustrations.
Left: The Rutland Psalter, England, c. 1260 (BL Add MS 62925, f. 33v).
Centre: The Alphonso Psalter, England, c. 1284–1316 (BL Add MS 24686, f. 113v).
Right: Horae ad usum Parisiensem, a 15th century French book of hours (BnF NAL 3115, f. 28v).
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

Medieval bestiaries were encyclopaedic compendiums of beasts. They took their information from Greek and Roman mythology in authorities such as 1st century Roman author Pliny the Elder, mixed with Christian writings and teachings from the Bible. Bestiaries were populated with real animals familiar to their readers, such as the ant, owl, dog and rabbit, real animals described in ancient sources which later European compliers and readers would be unlikely ever to have seen, such as the lion, crocodile, elephant and giraffe, and legendary creatures believed to be real, such as the griffin, dragon, phoenix and siren. Animals were not described with observation about habits based on research, as a naturalist would describe them today. Instead, the function of the bestiary was to understand God’s purpose for humanity: every animal is an allegory, a divine message indicating how we should lead our lives, a sign exhorting Christian righteousness and a warning against sin.

In this schema, the onocentaur’s combination of man and ass gives its heavenly allegorical meaning: men are rational in their upper body, wild and lustful in their lower body, thus the onocentaur symbolises male lust. The oldest surviving French bestiary was translated from a presumably Latin copy into Anglo-Norman by the poet Philippe de Thaon (or Thaün) in 1121, and it includes the notion that the two parts of the onocentaur symbolise the hypocrite who talks as a man of good deeds but lives as an ass by evil deeds. It is entirely in keeping, then, that the ungodly foolishness of the onocentaur is shown in The Alphonso Psalter, c. 1284–1316 (above centre) with the club and coxcomb hood of the artificial fool, these visual indications acting as a stand-in for the ungodly fool, as in the Psalm 53 illustration. Likewise, in the 15th century Horae ad usum Parisiensem (above right), the onocentaur is shown with the ass-eared hood, bells and marotte of the artificial fool. He also plays a tabor, a musical instrument associated with the costumed fool of morris dancing, an entertainment which arose in the 15th century. (For more on medieval and renaissance fools, fool symbolism, and the pipe and tabor as a fools’ instrument, click here.)

Having established medieval and renaissance art’s inherently symbolic nature, we now examine the role of music notation as utilised by artists of those periods.

Music notation in medieval manuscript art

In medieval manuscripts there was an artistic tradition of implied or faux music notation, shown in two ways.

Firstly, singers appear in front of what we know from the context is an open book of chant, but the book is shown blank. We see an example below from the Psalter of Queen Philippa, England, 1328–1340 (BL Harley 2899, f. 75r), a historiated initial C for Psalm 97 – “Cantate Domino canticum novum”, “Sing to the Lord a new song” – in which three monks look comically askance, as though someone behind them is singing the wrong notes or out of tune: the humorous illuminator shows the difficulty of singing to the Lord a new and unfamiliar song.

(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

Secondly, singers may be shown with recognisable neume (medieval notation) shapes to give the appearance of music, but it lacks the vital information to make it meaningful. Below, for example, we see two monks from the Luttrell Psalter, England, 1325–1340 (BL Add MS 42130, f. 263r). They have a book of chant with no clef to indicate pitch, a nominal one line staff rather than the usual four or five lines, and no words to sing. 

We see similar in the example below from the Gorleston Psalter, England, 1310–24 (BL Add MS 49622, f. 126r). Here the neumes are more carefully and accurately drawn than in the Luttrell Psalter, but without either a clef, a fully drawn staff or words, this is only the appearance of music. The symbolic gestures are notable here: the monk on the left has his left hand out in a gesture of speaking; the monk in the middle points to the music with one hand, the medieval way of drawing the viewer’s attention to what is most significant in the image, while his other hand cups his ear, indicating polyphony (hand-cupping is a practical way of making one’s own voice louder against other parts) and his mouth is open, the indication for singing; and the monk on the right points to heaven, showing the divine object of worship, while his other hand holds the rotulus. A rotulus or rotula (plural rotuli or rotulae) is a roll of papyrus or parchment wound around a rod, on which the writing runs parallel to the rod, as differentiated from a scroll, on which the writing is in columns at a right angle to the rod.

Given the small scale on which these artists were working, it is hardly surprising that they would hint at notated music in historiated initials rather than portraying readable neumes. As far as I have been able to discover, there is only one instance, perhaps two, of a fragment of actual music shown within medieval manuscript art. Both examples are in English manuscripts, each dated c. 1310–c. 1320, both show the motet, Zelo tui langueo / Reor nescia, with words about the Virgin Mary’s childbirth and Christ rising from her like the Sun, and both are in a decorated initial C for Psalm 97 (the same Psalm shown with singers looking askance in the Psalter of Queen Philippa, shown above). The obvious reason for two decorative images for Psalm 97 – “Cantate Domino canticum novum”, “Sing to the Lord a new song” – to show music for Zelo tui langueo / Reor nescia, both in c. 1310–c. 1320, is that this motet was then a new song.

There are two surviving copies of Zelo tui langueo / Reor nescia, with only slight differences: BL Sloane 1210, f. 142v–143r, is for three voices, and York Minster Mus. Ms. xvi. N. 3, f. 10v, is for two. Below we see Zelo tui langueo represented in the decoration of the Howard Psalter (BL Arundel MS 83, f. 63v). The first seven words of the first voice of the motet are accurately written on the rotulus: “Zelo tui langueo, virgo regia, sed non” – “I languish for love of you, royal virgin, but I cannot”. The neumes, however, are unrelated to both musical sources, and the pitch is unclear as the artist did not include a clef. This may mean the artist had access to a different melody for these words, but missed out the clef, or it may mean the artist randomly copied neume shapes so it looks like music, but without any sense of its meaning. With its four staff lines, accurate neume shapes and matching of notes with words, it certainly doesn’t look like other examples of faux music, but certainty in this matter is impossible and, without a clef, interpreting pitch is guesswork.

The other example is in the Harnhulle Psalter (Downside Abbey, MS 26533, f. 158r), again in the historiated C for Psalm 97. This has only the first three words of Zelo tui langueo, with the correct notes for the piece as it appears in the Sloane and York Minster sources. This appears to be the only certain example of medieval manuscript art which replicates an actual piece of music. 

Devotional music in 15th century paintings 

As well as the implied or suggested music in manuscript miniatures, there was a tradition of painters who included real and readable music notation in their works, starting in the early 15th century, just on the porous borderline between the medieval and renaissance periods. One of the earliest to do so was Italian artist Gentile da Fabriano, who painted the same music for a Marian antiphon (short chant, sung as a refrain) in two paintings of the Virgin, shown below with a link to a video of the music.   

Gentile da Fabriano’s Enthroned Madonna with Child and Angels, painted 1405–10, now in the
Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, Perugia, Italy. Above we see it in its pre-restored condition on
the left, and restored on the right. Below is the music from the foot of the painting, identified by
Jason Stoessel (2013) as the Marian antiphon, Regina caeli laetare (Queen of Heaven, rejoice),
which dates back to c. 1200. It can be heard by clicking on the detail of the music below.
Click on this picture to hear the music it shows:
the Marian antiphon, Regina caeli laetare (Queen of Heaven, rejoice).
The video opens in a new window.

The same artist, Gentile da Fabriano, painted a similar scene in 1408–27 (now in the Metropolitan Art Museum, New York), the whole shown below left, details of musicians below right. In this version, Virgin and Child are accompanied by a harpist and portative organ player on her right and left. The same music as that painted in 1405–10, the Marian antiphon, Regina caeli laetare (Queen of Heaven, rejoice), is shown on a scroll at the foot of the painting, this detail shown below.

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

As with all pictures, click to see
larger in a new window.

Gentile’s painted musical accuracy leads to a musical discovery in a third work of his. Coronation of the Virgin, seen on the right, is a standard to be carried in processions, painted for his local Franciscan church in Fabriano, circa 1420.

In this painting we see the vibrant symbolic colours of devotional art – gold for divinity and eternity; green for life and renewal; blue for heavenly eternity; red for passion and Christ’s sacrifice; white for purity and holiness. Not only is Mary crowned by Christ, her gown is decorated with crowns, showing that she is Queen of Heaven. Mary’s clothes, the angels’ clothes and the cloth backdrop all have a profusion of thornless flower and foliate symbolism. Mary was referred to as the rose without thorns by early Christian Latin poet, Coelius Sedulius, fl. 430-450, in comparison with Eve the thorny rose, the first sinner. By contrast, the roses on Jesus’ garment do have thorns, representing Adam and Eve’s Original Sin, recalling the crown of thorns worn at his crucifixion, his sacrifice to redeem humanity.  

In all three of Gentile’s paintings we see the use of symbolic magnitude, that the more important holy person(s) are often shown significantly larger. Thus we see the Virgin, Christ and the Holy Spirit (in the form of a white dove) dominating the painting by their size. Both groups of miniaturised angels in the left and right bottom corners hold scrolls with Latin words and music in neume notation. As before, the music (seen in the picture which heads this article and also reproduced below, turned 90 degrees for readability) is carefully painted and entirely credible. The angel from the left of the painting holds a scroll (shown as the upper picture below) which says, “Timete Dominum et date illi hono[rem]”, in English, “Fear God and give him glory”, a quote from 14: 7 of the last book of The Bible, usually called Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse of Saint John. The angel on the right of the painting holds a scroll (shown as the lower picture below) which says, “Dignus est agnus, qui o[ccisus]”, in English, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain”, from Revelation 5: 12.   

These portions of text are the first and last parts of the Latin Exhortatio ad Laudem DeiExhortation to the Praise of God – a series of sung quotations from various books of The Bible, including Revelation, Psalms, Daniel, The Gospel of Luke, and The Gospel of John. The Exhortatio ad Laudem Dei is attributed to Francis of Assisi, 1181/82–1226. Whether Exhortatio really does date back to Francis in the 13th century cannot be ascertained, but it was referred to in a late 15th century manuscript (Biblioteca Nazionale, Napoli cod VI.G.33), and it is not credible that its first and last biblical citations in Latin would appear on this painting of c. 1420 by unrelated chance: this can only be a painted version of the combination of text and music attributed to Saint Francis, painted circa 1420, earlier than the late 15th century manuscript reference.

The identification of Exhortatio ad Laudem Dei in Gentile’s painting was made by Jason Stoessel (2013), who has also located the music of the first scroll, to the words “Timete Dominum et date illi hono[rem]”. This music was also used for two pieces sung not coincidentally for the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi: the hymn In caelesti collegio novus, and the antiphon Proles de caelo prodiit novis. There is one musical difference: Gentile da Fabriano’s music is in the dorian mode, beginning on D, and the music of In caelesti and Proles is in the phrygian mode, beginning on E. This is a curious discrepancy that would have changed the step relationships between notes were it not for Gentile da Fabriano’s indication of Bb, which restores identical interval relationships. (In the remaining music, not shown by Gentile, there are no further musical issues as long as the second degree of the dorian mode is not used, or it is modified to Eb).  

Jason Stoessel has been unable to identify the music on the second scroll, and my search has also drawn a blank, except that it has some musical resemblance in its opening notes to some versions of the antiphon sung on Wednesday in the 4th week of Lent, The Feast of the Annunciation, commemorating the visit of the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, telling her she is miraculously pregnant with Jesus. The music with a passing similarity is in late 12th and 14th century sources, the antiphon Ille homo qui dicitur Jesus lutum fecit ex sputo et linivit oculos meos et modo video (A man called Jesus made clay of the spittle and rubbed my eyes and I can see), but the musical correspondence is not strong enough to claim a definite relationship.  

Gentile depicted music so carefully and accurately in both versions of Enthroned Madonna with Child and Angels that it can be sung from the painting, and the music on the first scroll in Coronation of the Virgin demonstrably correlates to known music. This leads to the conclusion that the second scroll is also accurate and shows a portion of genuine music that is now lost.

There are a great many medieval paintings of the Virgin Mary attended by musicians, showing contemporaneous musical instruments. What makes Gentile da Fabriano’s use of real music in his paintings special is that, beyond standard theological representation in his choice of colours and symbols, he effectively created multi-media presentations. He not only shows the viewer the person to be worshipped, he links divine subject with human action, inviting the viewer into a musical act of worship. For the present-day music historian, Gentile also gives valuable evidence of current practice in his choice of music: the Marian antiphon is from two centuries before but its depiction indicates current use in 1405–20; and his use of Exhortatio ad Laudem Dei predates the manuscript evidence.

The renaissance lute music of Mary Magdalene 

A typical domestic scene of a serene woman painted
by The Master of the Female Half-Lengths,
Belgium, 16th century. (As with all pictures, click to
see larger in a new window, then click on the picture
in the new window to enlarge further.)

On the right we see a painting by an anonymous artist – or more likely a school of artists – known today as The Master of the Female Half-Lengths. He, she or they operated in Belgium in the early 16th century. 107 paintings are attributed to this name.

This half-length adult female with serene features in a domestic setting typifies the style. Several of The Master’s subjects have the same details: a woman playing a musical instrument, usually a lute, reading music playable by the viewer, with an elaborate jar of ointment (anointing oil) in a prominent place.

As we see in the detail below, the lute music is written in French tablature, where each line represents a course (strings of the same pitch or an octave apart, played as one) and the letters show fret positions – a is an open course, b is the first fret, c the second fret and so on – with rhythm flags above, giving the player all the vital information.

The manuscript book is open at the song, Si j’ayme mon amy, and we clearly see the opening words written on the page:

Si j’ayme mon amy
trop, plus que mon mary
se n’est pas des mervelles.

If I love my friend
too much more than my husband
it is no wonder.

The earliest source for the song is an arrangement for three voices in a manuscript dated 1505–06 (British Library Add MS 35087, f. 24v–25r), the chansonnier of Jérôme Lauweryn of Watervliet, treasurer and courtier of Philip the Handsome, Lord of the Netherlands and Duke of Burgundy. Si (or Se) j’ayme mon amy appeared in various versions, the longest of which lyrically is in the small handwritten songbook of Françoise de Foix, dated 1509–14 (BL Harley 5242). Françoise de Foix was simultaneously in two intimate relationships: she was the wife of Jean de Laval-Montmorency, Lord of Châteaubriant from 1503, and the mistress of King Francis I of France from 1518 until, in 1527, the king decided on an alternative source of adultery. Like many of the songs in Françoise’s book, the words of Si j’ayme mon amy, about a married woman’s affair and her husband’s futile anger, are sadly appropriate to her life.

Click the picture to play the video, which opens in a new window.
Se j’ayme mon amy from the Chansonnier of Françoise de Foix, British Library Harley 5242,
performed by Nóra Király (voice, bray harp) and Sándor Szászvárosi (viola da gamba).

The theme of Si j’ayme mon amy, sexual infidelity, is not only appropriate to the life of Françoise de Foix, but appropriate to the painting, its meaning brought out by the object behind the lutenist: a jar of ointment, a visual signifier for Mary Magdalene, who was a popular subject in renaissance art. In the four Gospels of the New Testament, Mary of Magdala or Mary Magdalene was a follower of Jesus who travelled with him and supported him financially. In Mary’s case, her devotion arose from Jesus exorcising the seven demons which had possessed her (The Gospel of Luke 8: 1–3). She is mentioned often in the Gospels, a significant member of Jesus’ entourage, present at key moments in Jesus’ ministry: she travelled with him, witnessed his crucifixion, his burial, his empty tomb, and she was the first to witness Jesus’ resurrection.

The Mary Magdalene of the Bible has no association with either sexual immorality or ointment: that link was created by Pope Gregory I in 591 CE, when his Easter sermon conflated Mary with two other women in the Gospels. The first was an unnamed woman “who lived a sinful life”, whose sins are not described, who was so moved by being in the presence of Jesus that she wept on his feet, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured ointment or perfume on them from the alabaster jar she was carrying. When the host complained that Jesus shouldn’t be accepting this from a sinful woman, Jesus replied that she had showed more hospitality than he had (Luke 7: 36–50). The second conflated woman was Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, who sat at Jesus’ feet to listen to him teaching while Martha complained that she was having to do all the work. Jesus defended Mary, saying she had chosen better (Luke 10: 38-42).

In his Easter sermon, Gregory merged all three women under the name of Mary Magdalene and added new ideas, well beyond the Gospel accounts. Now Mary Magdalene was identified with the anonymous woman who “lived a sinful life”, and her sin was prostitution, for which she had seven demons exorcised by Jesus, one for each deadly sin, and she then cried on Jesus’ feet, anointing them in repentance; and she was also Martha’s sister, who listened devotedly to Jesus while Martha complained, her newfound Christian fidelity defended by Jesus. At the end of the 6th century, Gregory’s new Magdalene narrative became a central tenet of Christian belief. He made his three-women-merged-in-one the repentant sexual sinner par excellence, commonly symbolised in art by her pre-saved sinful nakedness or her repentant jar of ointment. In the painting above by The Master of the Female Half-Lengths, we see Mary Magdalene’s pre-saved sinful sexuality symbolised by the music of wayward desire played on the lute, and her Christian repentance shown by the symbolic jar and her modest, sober clothes.  

Mary Magdalene was a favourite subject for The Master of the Female Half-Lengths. Above and below we see four more depictions, each with her signifying ointment jar, each playing Si j’ayme mon amy on the lute from French tablature. In each case, I have reproduced the tablature in reading position below the painting. (Click the picture to see it in a new window, click in the new window to enlarge.)

Gloria in Excelsis: a unique musical survival  

The musical message of the Mary Magdalene paintings may be oblique to a modern viewer not versed in renaissance symbolism or music. A more immediately obvious musical message is found in the spectacular Adoration of the Child with the Boelen family, painted in 1512 by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen of The Netherlands. The work was donated by Margriet Boelen (seen in the painting front far right in a black nun’s habit, her hands held forward in prayer) to the Carthusian monastery of Saint Andrew in Safe Haven, Amsterdam, where two of her brothers were monks (shown in the left group of men, wearing white habits with hoods).

Like a huge visual banquet, Cornelisz gives the viewer a feast of detail, organised by the open structure of a church which divides the painting in three parts vertically – left, centre, and right – and three parts in horizontal perspective – foreground, middleground, and background. Centre background are ships coming into the port of Amsterdam, representing the location of the monastery the painting was commissioned for. Background left, shepherds in the field, transported from Palestine to The Netherlands, receive the angel’s message of Jesus’ birth; middleground left and centre are more shepherds. Foreground left, eight male members of the Boelen family kneel in veneration; as do eight female members of the Boelen family foreground right. Foreground centre are Mary, Joseph and the holy child, with Jesus’ head resting on a wheat sheaf, representing the Eucharist wherein bread becomes Christ’s body. In the foreground, middleground and background of the central section, cherub musicians celebrate the birth of Christ, as follows.

At the high end of the church, angels affix a garland of leaves and fruits while one angel plays a lute, another a viola da braccio; …

 … two flying cherubs below them play shawms; … 

… and more angels assemble in a group of eight behind the infant Jesus, two watching him, one swinging a censor, and five singing a song of praise, the front two holding a book of music; …  

… while, in front of Jesus, a group of five musical cherubs play two shawms, a dulcimer, a trumpet, and a slide trumpet, either side of a sixth angel displaying to the viewer an open book of readable music.

This is a four voice Gloria in Excelsis in white mensural notation, with superius and contratenor voices on the left, tenor and bassus on the right. The text is “Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus” – “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men” – from Luke 2: 14, the story of Jesus’ birth. The words and music have the effect of thematically unifying the whole painting: it is the gospel message of the angels who populate the painting, sung and played to the shepherds seen in the background and middleground; and it is the faith of the monks, nuns and gathered family.

The four voice painted polyphony is not the Gloria of the Catholic Mass. While the tenor part is very close to that in other sources, the superius, contratenor and bassus parts are a unique musical survival. The painting itself may be a clue: the significance of the featured music may be that it was special to the brothers of the Carthusian monastery to whom the painting was donated; or it may be that this music was commissioned for them and given to them with the painting, making this a double gift. 

Click to see larger in a new window.


Bosch and his followers: The Concert in the Egg and The Ship of Fools

Jeroen or Joen van Aken, born c. 1450 in the Netherlandish city of ’s-Hertogenbosch – colloquially Den Bosch, meaning The Forest – signed his paintings Jheronimus Bosch, Latinising his first name and taking his location for a surname. The extraordinary paintings produced by Jheronimus and his workshop inspired many to simulate his style, and it is to Bosch and his imitators that we turn for our last group of examples of music in art.

Among the preparatory drawings of Bosch’s workshop assistants is a two-sided paper of unknown date, one side of which is ideas for The Temptation of Saint Anthony, seen on the right. There is nothing musical in the landscape but one feature forms part of our theme: a symbolically hollow body, seen here in the shape of a man whose arms have become legs, whose trunk is the empty shell of a dead tree. In Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1495–1505, this is developed as a man / dead tree hybrid in hell, in whose hollow body is a Satanic tavern where the only light for patrons is fire from which they lean away, and the only chairs are giant toads.

On the reverse of the same paper, as we see below, is a now faint hybrid creature, over which has been drawn another hollow shape, this time an egg, within which seven figures stand in front of a book with faux music notation. On the right of the egg the shell is cracked again, this time by someone’s protruding bare bottom, symbol of foolishness, that the person is an ass, suggesting that the seven-strong choir are ungodly fools or asses. Where Bosch and music are concerned, this is exactly what we would expect to see: Bosch never painted readable music or positive portrayals of musicians or musical instruments.

Singers in the Egg, a sketch from the workshop of Jheronimus Bosch.

After Jheronimus Bosch died in 1516, his style continued in a host of imitators, including Gielis Panhedel. Little is known of Panhedel, but one significant detail is that in 1521–23 he worked on the same doors of a reredos (altar screen) of the Lieve-Vrouwe-Broederschap (Illustrious Brotherhood of our Blessed Lady) in ’s-Hertogenbosch on which Bosch, a Brotherhood member, had previously painted. Panhedel lived in Brussels in 1545–46, after which the records are silent. At some point he painted The Concert in the Egg, seen below. The work uses elements repeated in Jheronimus’ work generally, such as the upturned funnel on the head, symbol of gluttony, while lacking the style, vibrancy, detail and compositional skill of Bosch. As such, Panhedel’s Concert in the Egg is clearly not a copy of a lost Bosch work, but an attempt at his style, based on the workshop sketch. The original sketch of a man with his finger on the song book has become a painted monk pointing to the book, and the figure at the back has a raised hand in both works, but otherwise Panhedel’s singers in the egg are largely dissimilar to the Bosch workshop sketch; and Panhedel has added details of his own, including a lutenist standing in the broken egg shell.  

In the open book, Gielis Panhedel has included white notation. If real, this music would tell us something symbolic about the image, but the song lacks words, the melody is incomplete and musically problematic, and it has not been identified with any known piece of music, so it is most likely an artist’s approximation, the appearance of music.

This is not so with a more well-known version of Concert in the Egg, which has singable notation. It was painted by an unidentified artist, clearly building on Panhedel’s earlier work. Now the lutenist has the head of an ass, next to the addition of a cutpurse stealing the monk’s purse; the birds are replaced by an ape playing a cornett; the old woman with a spoon is now playing a harp; and the music is now a song in four voices (superius, tenor, contratenor, bassus) by Thomas Crecquillon, Toutes les nuictz que sans vous ie me couche.

The anonymous Concert in the Egg by a follower of Bosch, including the music for
Thomas Crecquillon’s Toutes les nuictz. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

The painted portions of the tenor, contratenor, and bassus parts of Toutes les nuictz are essentially the same as that published in Antwerp by Thielman Susato in L’Unziesme Livre Contenant Vingt & neuf Chansons Amoureuses, 1549, but the opening notes of the superius are significantly different, which means the painter used a source for the music which is now lost. It follows that neither the painting nor the unknown source of music for the painting can be securely dated either before or after 1549.  

The version of Toutes les nuictz in Susato, 1549, opens as follows, up to the point where the Egg music stops …  


… whereas the Concert in the Egg music (to which I have added a rest to make the superior voice align with other parts) is:


The opening notes in the Egg painting set a much more dark, dissonant and melancholy tone than in Susato. By its very nature of being an open book showing all four parts, the painted partsong is incomplete, so we cannot know if there were other divergences from Susato later in the lost source used in the painting. To hear the Susato version sung, click on the picture below.

Click on the picture to hear Thomas Crecquillon’s Toutes les nuictz as it appears in Susato,
1549, sung by Miroir des Voix – Evelyne Dasnoy, superius and contratenor,
André Vandebosch, tenor and bassus. The video opens in a new window.

The anonymous painter was sure the text was familiar enough to viewers to be immediately recognisable. The same verses here set to music by Thomas Crecquillon were also set by Orlando di Lasso (Orlande de Lassus), by Clément Janequin, and by others. By the time it appeared in Susato’s L’Unziesme Livre, 1549, it had been intabulated for solo lute in Des chansons reduictz en tablature de luc a trois et quatre parties. Livre deuxieme, published by Pierre Phalèse, Louvain, in 1546; and it would later appear for solo lute in Carminum quae chelv vel testudine canuntur. liber primus, another Phalèse publication, 1549; for voices in La Fleur de chansons et cincquiesme livre a trois parties, Susato, 1552; for solo lute in Luculentum Theatrum Musicum, Phalèse, 1568; for solo cittern in Nova longeaue elegantissima cithara ludenda carmina, Phalèse, 1568; and in the lute manuscript Bavarian State Library BSB Mus ms. 266, 1597.

The first verse, used in the Egg painting, gives the song’s theme:

Toutes les nuictz que sans vous ie me couche
pensant a vous ne fais que sommeiller
Et en resvant iusques au resveiller
incessament vous quierera par my la chouce
et bien souvent en lieu de vostre bouche
en soupirant je baise loireiller
toutes les nuictz

Every night when I seek my bed without you,
thinking of you, the only sleep I find
is dreaming about you until tomorrow.
Incessantly I’d have you in my bed
since I find myself kissing the pillow instead of your mouth
and sighing deeply
every night.

In the painting, this singing of unrequited passion is led by a hypocritical monk who has taken a vow of celibacy. He is so engrossed in the song of carnal desire that he does not notice he is being robbed: he not only sins, but leads others to sin and is sinned against – in biblical terms, he reaps what he sows. The ass-headed lute player accompanying the singers represents the folly of music and of lustful songs, and the ape, accompanying on cornett, is associated in bestiaries with those who imitate others and with the devil who carries sinners to hell. The other singers are lay men and women. One plays a trumpet and has a stork on his head. Since storks make sounds by clashing their bills, in bestiaries they represent divinely condemned sinners who confess their guilt, as the New Testament says, “with weeping and gnashing of teeth”. Another wears a funnel on his head, symbol of gluttony. A third wears a feather in her cap, symbol of vanity. At the back, observing, is a nun with an owl on her head, symbol of moral darkness, the filth of sin, laziness and death. All this takes place in the broken shell of an egg. Like the tree, the egg is usually a symbol of life, but in Bosch’s works there is an inversion: the hollow, empty tree or egg are lifeless emblems of death. As in all Bosch’s genuine works, in this painting musicians and musical instruments represent folly and godless wayward sin.  

The imitation of Bosch continued with other artists. In 1555, Netherlandish publisher Hieronymus Cock began a collaboration with Pieter Bruegel the Elder, whose art was heavily influenced by Bosch. The Ass at School (below) is an engraving by Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel, dated 1557. Like the Bosch sketch Singers in the Egg, it shows bare bottoms – showing they are foolish asses – and an ass on the left reads faux music. The inscription reads: “If you send a stupid ass to Paris, if it is an ass here, it will not be a horse there. Although the ass goes to school in order to learn, if it is an ass, it will not return as a horse.”

By courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
An engraving by Pieter van der Heyden, Merrymakers in a Mussel Shell, 1562, published by
Hieronymus Cock with the false attribution, “Heronimus bos inue[ntor]”.
Jheronimus Bosch’s Ship of Fools, c. 1500–10. (Click to see larger in a new window, click to enlarge again.)

Hieronymus Cock traded on Bosch’s name to sell prints, 46 of which were new works attempting Bosch’s style with the false attribution, “Heronimus bos inue[ntor]”. One such is Merrymakers in a Mussel Shell (above), 1562, engraved by Pieter van der Heyden. Again we see the theme of the hollow vessel – the tree, the egg, now the mussel shell – clearly based on but not duplicating Bosch’s painting of c. 1500–10, The Ship of Fools (right). In Pieter van der Heyden’s version, an owl, symbol of evil, sits in a tree which grows in the shell. The kissing couple and the over-sized food portray the sins of lust and gluttony. The musicians are all shown as fools. The greedy bagpiper is too drunk to play, vomiting into the water while holding bagpipes that are a phallic reminder of male lust. The open book of music displays notation that is meaningless. The bald, spectacled singer plays a metal hearth grate in place of a harp, and to his right bellows and a pig’s trotter stand in for a lute and quill plectrum. Below, we see a copy published in 1596 by Johann Theodor de Bry after Pieter van der Heyden’s engraving. Here the image is reversed and one detail has been added: the amorous man, now on the right, wears the symbolic ass ears of the fool.   

We see from the original painting (above right) that Pieter van der Heyden was playing on Bosch’s original themes. An owl, symbol of evil, sits in the top of a tree inserted in the boat as a mast. A man climbs the tree to cut down a trussed and plucked chicken, symbol of gluttony. A plate of cherries represents carnal lust. A man sits on a branch wearing an ass-eared fool’s hood and holding a fool’s marotte. The boat is steered foolishly with an over-sized spoon instead of an oar. A Franciscan friar sits opposite a nun of the Order of Poor Clares, for whose spiritual welfare he is formally responsible, but instead they sing in a group of five with three laymen dressed in russet, the colour of fools, accompanied by her lute playing, while they play a game trying to take a bite out of a suspended loaf of bread.  

Bosch’s Ship of Fools was his visual representation of a well-established subgenre of medieval and renaissance moral poetry which imagined ungodly fools of various types sailing together in a ship. This literature included Jacquemart Giélée’s Renart le Nouvel (Renart the New), France, 1288; Heinrich Teichner’s Das schif der flust (The ship of the river), Austria, c. 1360; and Jacob van Oestvoren’s Die blawwe schute (The blue boat), The Netherlands, 1413. The idea was developed most famously in Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools), Germany, 1494, which versified ungodly foolishness in various categories, including the vain, the gluttonous, those who get rich by robbing the poor, the hypocritical, the arrogant, adulterers, and slanderers.   

Johann Theodor de Bry’s engraving of Merrymakers in a Mussel Shell, 1596,
after Pieter van der Heyden’s engraving, 1562, based on the imagery of
Jheronimus Bosch’s painting, The Ship of Fools, 1500–10.

Another of Pieter van der Heyden’s designs, printed by Hieronymus Cock again with a false Bosch attribution, is die blaŭ schŭӱte (the blue boat), 1559, named after Jacob van Oestvoren’s book of 1413 on the ship of fools theme. Once again we see music portrayed as sinful and foolish: the impossible ‘strings’ of the unplayable harp are made from a spider web; the harpist holds two cherries on their stalk, phallic symbol of lust; the birds around his head threaten to topple the jug, symbol of gluttony, by removing the twigs beneath it, and his breeches are likewise about to fall apart, nearly exposing his symbolically foolish backside. The reclining man in the boat, representing sloth, holds a music book with meaningless notation.

die blaŭ schŭӱte (the blue boat) by Pieter van der Heyden,
printed by Hieronymus Cock, 1559, with a false Bosch attribution.

We see, then, that the original sketch of Singers in the Egg from the Bosch workshop and Bosch’s painting, Ship of Fools, gave rise to a series of artworks by others in which music and musical instruments played a central role in symbolising foolish human appetites, the most well-known of which is the anonymous Concert in the Egg, in which Thomas Crecquillon’s song Toutes les nuictz illustrates that carnal lust leads sinners to perdition.

The role of performable music in medieval and renaissance art

In summary, a medieval or renaissance painting, drawing or engraving is not a snapshot of actuality, but a staged and artificial composition, sending the artist’s message to the viewer. The inclusion of both faux and performable music was therefore an important element in giving meaning, conveying the didactic visual message.

The respective messages of real music depicted in this essay’s examples have been:

• “Sing to the Lord a new song”, as Psalm 97 says, such as the new motet, Zelo tui langueo / Reor nescia.
• Worship the Virgin by singing her praise, joining the church in their antiphons and Saint Francis in his Exhortatio.
• Repent and turn away from sexual transgressions, like Mary Magdalene, whose sin is symbolised by her adulterous lute music, her redemption by her jar of ointment.
• Worship the Christ child with holy song, like the angels and the faithful who sing Gloria in Excelsis.
• Do not follow the clerical hypocrites who sing of lustful desire, since such ungodly foolery leads to a hollow death in hell.

In addition, there are rare occasions when genuine painted notation provides evidence of musical variants or music practice which would otherwise have been lost.

As we will see in the three articles which follow, Jheronimus Bosch was deeply immersed in the art of preaching with paint: the way he depicted musical instruments and the appearance of faux music notation was central to his message. Understanding this is the key to the true meaning of the apparent notes painted on the bottom of a sinner in hell in The Garden of Earthly Delights, which is not the music repeatedly claimed and even performed in modern times. The first of three articles about Bosch, The modern myth of Bosch’s butt music, is available here.   


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



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