The Millennium of Hieronymus Bosch

The Millennium of Hieronymus Bosch

The Millennium of Hieronymus Bosch

The Millennium of Hieronymus Bosch

Excerpt

Looking at Bosch's symbolism today is like looking at oracular writings in a sign-language that has lost the illuminative power it had originally. This muteness makes the master who was so fond of setting riddles a riddle himself, and one to which nobody has yet succeeded in finding the answer. The reason for the failure is that his art has always been regarded either from a purely formal point of view or merely with an eye to its contents, at best as illustration, i.e. as a pictorial representation subordinated to a ready-made idea, and never as a piece of imaginative creation in its own right, i.e. a pictorial realization of a meaning. Symbols, however, are not a mere combination of distinct forms and ideas, they entail a perfect simultaneity of vision and thought; and because this fact has been generally overlooked, no one has yet penetrated to the core of the problem, namely to Bosch's mode of visual thought. Without this basic understanding even the soundest aesthetic criticism or the most exhaustive research into sources must necessarily remain fragmentary. The mass of erroneous titles given, of wrong interpretations, and of claims and counterclaims as to what should be attributed to this painter, as well as the grave uncertainty as to the dating of his works, all are evidence of the hopeless confusion that has prevailed among art historians up to the present day where this magus of the Lowlands is concerned.

The biographical approach does not help us much in coming to terms with his creative work, for almost all trace of his life vanishes at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and documents brought to light by recent research into public records do not contribute anything to a knowledge of the painter's intellectual and spiritual development. We do not know when he was born, who were his teachers, friends or patrons, nor how he got hold of those strange subjects with which he so wilfully steps right out of the tradition of church painting. All we have to go on is that even before Hieronymus van Aken, known as Bosch, there was a certain Jan van Aken--probably from Aix-la- Chapelle--who acquired citizen's rights in Hertogenbosch in 1399; and from . . .

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