The Symbolism of
the unusual symbolism Bosch used in his works has invited (one might actually
say compelled) numerous interpretations. Although not unanimously agreed
upon, the following interpretations of key elements in Bosch's paintings are
those to which most Bosch scholars assent.
This list was first published by Stanley Meisler in his article "The World of Bosch," which appeared in the March, 1988, issue of the Smithsonian magazine. As Meisler explains, "this sampler suggests possible meanings for some symbols found in [Bosch's] paintings." I have added footnotes to items that I discuss in fuller detail after presenting the list.
Pigs = false priests; gluttony
Fruit = carnal pleasure
Rats = lies against the Church; filth; sex
Fish = false prophets; lewdness
Closed Books =
futility of knowledge in
dealing with human stupidity
Flames = ergot poisoning*(see below); fires of Hell
Flying Monsters =
hallucinations of ergot
sufferers* (see below); devil's envoys
Keys = knowledge
Lutes and Harps =
instruments for praise of
and pursuit of earthly love
Breasts = fertility
Mussel Shells = infidelity
Black Birds =
unbelievers; death or
rotting flesh* (see below)
Knives = punishment of evil
Rabbits = multiplication of the race
= sexual creation; key symbol
alchemy* (see below)
Ice Skaters = folly
= deceit and intemperance;
alchemist or false doctor
Strawberries = fleeting joys of life, love
Owls = great learning
Ears = gossip
Spheres = alchemical apparatus* (see below)
used startling images of great fires and conflagrations
in the backgrounds of many of his paintings. Art historians believe that this
may be an allusion to a terrifying condition which was referred to in Bosch's
time as "Saint Anthony's Fire." This affliction was actually ergot
poisoning, a form of chemically induced psychosis produced by eating
mold-contaminated grain. The symptoms of ergotism were dramatic and frightening.
Victims hallucinated (often seeing Bosch-like demons), experienced violent
convulsions, and developed gangrene in their extremities which caused agony
often described as a terrible burning sensation. Whole villages were wiped out
by ergot poisoning, which was especially virulent when damp weather promoted the
growth of the ergot mold. Typically, ergotism was described by Medieval people
as either a punishment sent by God, or a manifestation of the devil, hence it is
very possible that Bosch's fiery backgrounds (especially in his triptych The
Temptations of Saint Anthony) refer to this dreaded condition.
*The association of black birds with rotting flesh has an empirical basis in the observed behavior of crows and ravens, which scavenge from dead bodies left to decompose in the open. But black birds also have an alchemical significance. In his book Azoth, the 15'th century alchemist Basil Valentine includes a woodcut depicting a rotting corpse encased in a glass globe with a large, black bird sitting on his chest. The woodcut represents the initial stage of the Great Work (i.e., the creation of the Philosopher's Stone) which was called "Putrefaction," and which involved the necessary decomposition of matter before it could be transformed into the True Gold.
*The "egg" was frequently employed in alchemical literature to signify one of the pieces of laboratory equipment used in the attempt to convert base materials into higher, spiritual forms.
*Spheres signify the glass reaction vessels used during alchemical processes. In The Garden of Earthly Delight and his other works, Bosch often depicts transparent spheres and other glass apparatus that have a definite aura of the laboratory about them. In the 16'th century, laboratories and alchemy were inseparable.
This system of interpretation is not arbitrary, but based upon detailed studies of the sayings, folktales, allegories, jokes, puns and esoteric traditions of the 15'th-16'th centuries. However, this does not definitely prove that Bosch used this symbolism in the same way that other late Medieval people did. Like many artists, who incorporate personal symbolism into their works, Bosch could also express his personal dreams, fantasies and fears through his paintings.
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