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Interpreting
The Symbolism of
Hieronymus Bosch

    Understandably, 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 poisoning
sufferers
* (see below); devil's envoys

Keys = knowledge

Lutes and Harps = instruments for praise of God
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

Eggs = sexual creation; key symbol of
alchemy
* (see below)

Ice Skaters = folly

Funnels = deceit and intemperance; false
alchemist or false doctor

Strawberries = fleeting joys of life, love

Owls = great learning

Ears = gossip

Spheres = alchemical apparatus* (see below)

    *Bosch 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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