Hieronymus Bosch: At the Border of Disorder

The 2016 quincentennial of Jeroen von Aken’s death has given rise to two major exhibitions – at the Noordsbrabant Museum (’S-Hertogenbosch) and at the Prado (Madrid).  Rather than add to the excellent reviews already written, this essay considers the  Prado’s Garden of Earthly Delights primarily as a political object.  Three 20th-century European theorists of the state frame the work’s patronage, interpretation, and provenance: Giorgio Agamben, Carl Schmitt, and Alexandre Kojève.

Hieronymus Bosch, “Garden of Earthly Delights”, c. 1500, Museo del Prado. Source: Wikipedia

The triptych has long obsessed its aristocratic owners and puzzled historians studying it.  Unlike its Netherlandish antecedents, The Garden‘s exterior is painted in precise grisaille, enigmatically depicting either the third day of Creation or the aftermath of the Flood. Inside, the left leaf presents a magical Eden, seemingly at the instant following Eve’s emergence from Adam’s rib. Christ, in common with some of Bosch’s other paintings, looks out, firmly yet gently, at the viewer.  The central panel’s formal garden is inhabited by a multitude of fruitophages, naked yet guile-less, both black and white, diverting themselves amorously around a lake, surrounded by vegetal pink towers, blue orbs and a host of friendly animals.  The less jolly right-hand leaf, a vision of Hell, is centred upon Bosch’s eponymous ‘tree-man’, below whom a diaphanous devil, seated atop a bog-throne, simultaneously ingests bodies and defecates souls. Yet a parsimonious description omits much: what is it about those monsters that grips us so?  Why do we, eagerly if slightly shamefully, stare at those scenes of evisceration, limbs being rent asunder, indiscriminate fornication? The scatological merges with the eschatological, leading the viewer to ask – what was El Bosco up to?

Hieronymus Bosch, “Garden of Earthly Delights”, c. 1500, Museo del Prado. Source: Wikipedia

Patronage and Image
Bosch’s images, combining detail, vividness and sheer weirdness invite scrutiny and disputation.  Yet, owing to a lack of clear evidence or contemporary accounts, it is hard to establish why, or even when, he painted what he did. It has been proposed that Garden may simply have been a moral allegory.  Others have perceived an alchemical theme in the work, while the historian Wilhelm Fraenger saw a primitive and promiscuous Adamite cult at work in the painting.

A more interesting interpretation suggests it may have been commissioned, as a teaching aid, by Engelbert II, the syphilitic Count of Nassau for his nephew and heir Henry III.  A cultured man, Engelbert had brought Henry to Brussels, and sought to give him a princely education from the Burgundian court’s own excellent library.  Books for rulers-to-be are one of the oldest veins of political writing: prior examples are Xenophon’s Cyropaedia (Greece, 370 BC), Chanakya’s Arthshastra (India, 150 BC – 125 AD), or Machiavelli’s Il Principe (Italy, 1532 AD).  As befitting the practices of his sumptuously ornate, performative, and visual court, Engelbert may have wanted to supplement his charge’s education with a magnificent image.  Falkenburg links the hermeneutics of the image with the content of a travelling library, which included Augustine’s City of God, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.  These, and other texts, are documented as accompanying Duke Phillip the Fair, on his journey to Spain, where he would assume, via marriage, his Spanish possessions.

Moreover, Garden was not a static wall-hanging – it was active object of theatre.  First documented by Antonio de Beatis in 1517, it is described as a bizarre thing, calculated to induce stupefaction at the intricacy and variety of its contents.  One imagines that the austere grey-black leaves would open in front of the astonished viewer, revealing for an Augenblick a tableau of coloured wonders, only to be slammed shut again, leaving him befuddled as to what was actually glimpsed.

So why do I belabour the origins of a 500-year old painting?  Because it begs a question raised by Giorgio Agamben on the role of art today.  Whereas in the past art fulfilled a clear spiritual vocation, today it has lost this potency, neither threatening the established social order nor bringing forth truth from the shadows. Agamben also discusses the importance of the patron as a co-creator, rather than merely a source of funding.  He specifically points to Popes Julius II and Clement VII as being intimately involved — commissioners, collaborators, tormentors — in the Sistine and (Florence’s) Medici Chapels, respectively.  In the same way, one imagines senior members of the Burgundian court, documented as reciting poetry to each other, guiding, even hectoring, Bosch to bring to fruition his phantasmagoric work.  In our age, when we have neither courts nor court artists, that crucial transmission channel between audience and artist is much more diffuse, largely mediated by the market, mass-culture, and the ideological proclivities of curators and other tastemakers.  Thus the artist must create, seemingly ex nihilo, without any urgent and personal connection to a single figure of authority and patronage.  Thus, art has been diluted to a matter of tepid aesthetic appreciation on the part of a great mass of ‘culture vultures’: some more, others less, well-schooled in art theory and history.

Who is my Enemy?
One of Agamben’s philosophical antecedents was the conservative German jurist Carl Schmitt, from whom we get a second perspective on Bosch.  Schmitt, immensely influential in political philosophy, had a decidedly chequered record in practical politics.  Yet his thought cannot be stripped from its context – the fatally-flawed Weimar Republic, hyperinflation, combined with a decadent Berlin, which, while perhaps admired today with the distance of nostalgia, was in stark opposition to the Zeitgeist of a defeated, occupied, and bankrupt Germany.  In his world, Schmitt perceived looming revolution, apocalypse, the eschaton; indeed, it is (Christian) theology that drives his conception of the political.

Carl Schmitt. Source: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/carl-schmitt%E2%80%99s-war-liberalism-12704

Schmitt’s Hobbesian view on man’s nature correlated with his interest in Bosch, the demon-painter par excellence.  The jurist, commenting on Hobbes’ Leviathan, writes: ‘[Bosch’s] devils are ontological reality, not the products of a fantasy or horror; the landscape is hell, whose fire in many places breaks through the veil of earthly colours…’.  In his Gombrich lectures on Garden, Joseph Koerner starts with Schmitt’s relationship with this painting.  In 1947, as a prisoner awaiting possible trial at Nuremberg, Schmitt is described by Koerner as reviewing and critiquing Wilhelm Fraenger’s iconological analysis of the triptych. In response to the American interrogator’s question ‘Wer bist du?’ (‘Who are you?’), Schmitt responds with his own ‘a priori “Who is my enemy?”’.  For Schmitt had built his very definition of politics around the friend/enemy distinction, with its implicit threat of violence amongst groups or nations, without which ‘life…would be shallow, insignificant, and meaningless’.

So, who was this enemy that so exercised the old man from Plettenberg?  His writing states that it is liberal society, cosmopolitanism, the consequent dissolution of all values – a possibility he perhaps perceives in the licentious, gluttonous frolicking in The Garden of Earthly Delights.  But can we be more specific? Returning to Bosch, in works such as Christ Crowned With Thorns (London, 1479), or Christ Carrying the Cross (Ghent, 1515), we cannot but miss the apparent, yet not definitively identified, presence of Jews and Muslims.  Or, in the triptych Adoration of the Magi (Prado, 1500), we see an enigmatic, partially-unclothed, pseudo-monarch (see image below) with an unattractive leprous sore on his leg.  This figure is variously identified as the Antichrist, an alchemical representation of lead, or the Jewish Messiah.  The ambiguity in these examples illustrate Schmitt’s point that the enemy is not a factual or objective category, therefore an outsider cannot recognise the enemy.  It is a classification made subjectively by a group.  Logically then, how does the sovereign, or any outside observer, distinguish between the merely different Other (perhaps living alternatively, but ultimately in a reconcilable and law-abiding manner), and the irreconcilable enemy (who acts outside the law in the name of a radicalised religion).   It has not been possible, for the purpose of this essay, to establish to what extent Schmitt had seen or written about these particular paintings while developing his theory of the enemy, but one hopes Prof. Koerner will analyse this point in an upcoming book on the enemy in Bosch and Brueghel’s art.

Hieronymus Bosch, “Adoration of the Magi”, c. 1500, Museo del Prado. Source: Wikipedia


Schmitt also seems haunted by the katechon, an obscure figure from early Christian theologyKatechon, ‘the restrainer’, who keeps Antichrist at bay until the Apocalypse, is never explicitly identified in scripture, and has had many interpretations over the ages.  Schmitt himself refuses to specify who the restrainer is, merely citing as one example, the last Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph.  He seems to view it as a category that, in every age and in various guises, has been a bulwark against chaos.

The nature of katechon is important, because it leads to Schmitt’s other major conceptual contribution – the definition of the sovereign.  For if the state is not to descend into chaos, it may be necessary, from time to time, to suspend its normative workings (namely the constitution), and impose rule under an exception.  In Schmitt’s words: ‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception’.  In this sense, the sovereign, by preventing chaos through the instrument of exception, might act as restrainer, in a practical if not necessarily theological sense.

Schmitt’s thought has acquired renewed relevance, in part because other philosophers have built upon it, but also because governments post-9/11 have adopted policies that seem to reference him.  Moreover, although Schmitt viewed the exception as a temporary condition, governments have increasingly relied on states of exception or emergency as the ordinary course of business, so to speak. Lastly, Schmitt’s view of a nation and a state that are organised around a friend/enemy distinction, if ever it made sense, throws up particular problems in a multicultural, tolerant society, which the US, UK, EU, and India (to take the most populous examples) identify as. To summarise, while some left-wing commentators therefore view his thought as incompatible with modern democracy, others find a degree of Schmittian influence impossible to avoid, as a practical matter of how a democracy negotiates pressures from competing groups.

Europe’s Unbridged Chasm
To establish our third vantage point, we must step away from Bosch’s paintings themselves, to examine the milieu in which they were created and still exist: namely, a Continent that remains divided between North and South, notwithstanding the EU’s foundational vision of an impartial, technocratic state that would rise above national, linguistic, and ethnic differences.

This post-war environment found a Russian emigrè, Alexandre Kojève working in France’s Ministry of Economic Affairs, planning what would become the Common Market.  At a conceptual level, Kojève felt the era of the nation-state was over, and would be supplanted by one of international alliances.  In a quixotic yet prescient 1945 memo to General Charles de Gaulle, he predicted Germany as likely hegemon within the new Europe. He also felt that Germany would inevitably fall into an Anglo-American orbit.  Germany’s population advantage, proven technological and organisational skill, a Weberian appreciation for work as highest good, and finally a cultural affinity for England, would reduce France to an impotent ‘dominion’ state.   He proposed a counterweight – a Latin Empire that would comprise Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy – Greece presumably being left to fend for itself. He next raised a mirror-image of the Schmittian question – what glue would bind the peoples of the proposed Latin Empire, if not ethnicity, nor language, nor religious fervour (France having long become a secular republic), nor a common monarch, nor colonies, not even a rampant American-style capitalism?

Alexandre Kojeve Source: Wikipedia

Kojève’s answer was a secularised Catholic Church.  He envisioned the Church as the historical fountainhead of all European culture, having risen, by the time of the Renaissance, above narrow theology to realpolitik and patronage of the arts, as exemplified in the Janus-faces of the Papal State.  Were it to shed its remaining Italian and theological baggage, it might become a unifying cultural force, and thus live up to the full dictionary meanings of the words catholic and œcumenical.

Writing before the messy denoument of France’s own colonial escapade in Algeria, Kojève was relatively silent on how to accommodate non-Catholics – by axiomatically defining a secular Church, he seemed to wave away the question of how Muslims, and others, such as Jews or Gypsies, were to be integrated.

The idea might have remained a curious footnote in the proto-history of the EU.  However, in 2013, amidst a continuing crisis in Greece, Giorgio Agamben resurrected the concept of a Latin Empire.  Agamben’s provocation caused a predictable firestorm in the German media, to which he gave a rejoinder of wry surprise.  Yet, the notion is not as fanciful as it might first seem – although not couched in the grandiose, quasi-theological terms of a Latin (Catholic) Empire, the structure of a ‘two-speed’ Eurozone has become increasingly credible.

What has this to do with Bosch’s painting?  At the most simplistic level, the central garden panel may evoke the (apocryphally) care-free Mediterranean life.  But the subtlety lies in the left-hand leaf where Christ’s eyes meet those of viewer.  Falkenburg extensively comments on this as the spectator being drawn into the speculum of the painting – which one could think of as a personal relationship being created between the viewer and Christ.  This, in turn, is essentially the message of the Reformation: direct salvation, with a generous lashing of original sin, bypassing the malefic intermediation of Popes, Saints, indulgences or any of the other panoply of Roman Catholicism.  In this light, it is notable that not even a God, seated atop a nimbus of angels, graces the triptych’s interior.  Thus this work, painted about 40 years before the Reformation, foreshadows a humanist and anti-institutional perspective on faith.

“Garden of Earthly Delights” (detail)

Provenance also illuminates the North-South divide. In 1567, Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alba and Spain’s greatest general, was sent to the Netherlands by King Phillip II to crush a growing civil and religious insurrection.  Alba’s action in the Netherlands would inaugurate the Eighty-Years War, ending in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, which of course was the starting point of Carl Schmitt’s analysis of the nation-state. The result of the War are still visible: Protestant Flanders and The Netherlands, Catholic Wallonia and Luxembourg.  Koerner, perhaps employing poetic license in his Gombrich Lectures, depicts (Spain’s own) Iron Duke, obsessed by this painting, as declaring a state of emergency primarily to acquire it.  Eventually though the triptych ended up in Philip II’s collection. One imagines this most Spanish of monarchs, alone in his monastery-fortress at El Escorial, grimly signing warrants for The Inquisition’s autos-da-fé, his days lightened only by the Apocalyptic visions of an obscure Netherlandish painter.

‘Master of the Princely Portraits’, Engelbert II, Count of Nassau, c. 1475, Rijksmuseum. Source: Wikipedia

Notes & References

1)  Hieronymus Bosch’s family seems to have come from Aachen, though his name was eventually Latinised and linked to the town in which he worked, ’S-Hertogenbosch. Source: Laurinda Dixon, Bosch (London/New York: Phaidon Press, 2003), 20.

2) http://www.hetnoordbrabantsmuseum.nl/

3) https://www.museodelprado.es/en

4) One of the most insightful reviews: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/08/18/mystery-of-hieronymus-bosch/

5) Interpretation cannot help but be influenced by this title, a relatively modern attribution.  More likely, the work was originally untitled, while a 1593 inventory refers to the work as a painting of the madroño plant.  This fruit, visually similar to a strawberry, is essentially tasteless.  Some interpretations have centred on this fruit as metaphor, see Reindert Falkenburg, The Land of Unlikeness (Zwolle, NL: WBOOKS BV, 2011), 18-22.

6) Lynn F Jacobs, “The Triptychs of Hieronymous Bosch” The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 31 No. 4 (Winter 2000),1019, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2671185, accessed 31 August 2016.

7) E. H. Gombrich, “Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’: A Progress Report” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 32 (1969), 163, http://www.jstor.org/stable/750611, accessed on 31 August 2016.

8) Laurinda Dixon, Bosch (London/New York: Phaidon Press, 2003), 228-232.

9) ibid 233.

10) Joseph Leo Koerner giving the E.H. Gombrich Lecture at The Warburg Institute, 15 March 2016, https://youtu.be/VoujwsX_AKE, accessed 31 August 2016.

11) FALKENBURG (2011), 271.

12) ibid 266-267.

13) E. H. Gombrich, “The Earliest Description of Bosch’s Garden of Delight” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 30 (1967), 403-406, http://www.jstor.org/stable/750758, accessed on 31 August 2016.

14) ibid, 74.

15) FALKENBURG (2011), 268-270.

16) Once again, books may have played a significant part in Bosch’s creative process – many of the hybrid beasts in his paintings can be traced to images and marginalia of Late Medieval manuscripts.  See FALKENBURG (2011), 55, 63, 68, 81, 123, 138-139, and others.

17) Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content, trans. Georgia Albert, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 19-23.

18) Carl Schmitt, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes, trans. George Schwab and Erna Hilfstein (Westport, CN and London: Greenwood Press, 1996), 24.

19) Joseph Leo Koerner giving the E.H. Gombrich Lecture at The Warburg Institute, 15 March 2016, https://youtu.be/VoujwsX_AKE, accessed 31 August 2016.

20) Lars Vinx, “Carl Schmitt” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward Zalta, (Spring, 2016), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/schmitt/, accessed on 31 August 2016.

21) William Alexander Hooker, “The State in the International Theory of Carl Schmitt: Meaning and Failure of an Ordering Principle” London School of Economics PhD Thesis 2008, 16.

22) Koerner’s Gombrich talk provides a supporting quotation from Schmitt.

23) JACOBS (2000), 1035.

24) Slavoj Žižek, “Are We in a War? Do We Have an Enemy?” London Review of Books, Vol. 23 No. 10 (May 2002), 3-6, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v24/n10/slavoj-zizek/are-we-in-a-war-do-we-have-an-enemy, accessed 5 September 2016.

25) press.princeton.edu/titles/10815.html

26) The term is found in St Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians (2 Thessalonians 2:6-7)

27) HOOKER (2008), 79.

28) HOOKER (2008), 39.

29) VINX (2016).

30) Philip Golub, “The Will to Undemocratic Power” Le Monde Diplomatique, September 2006, http://mondediplo.com/2006/09/08democracy , accessed 5 September 2016.

31) For instance, the Nazi regime suspended the Weimar constitution for three successive 4-year periods, under Article 48, rather than simply repealing it.  Slavoj Zizek describes General Alfred Stroessner’s bizarre state of emergency in Paraguay: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v24/n10/slavoj-zizek/are-we-in-a-war-do-we-have-an-enemy

32) ŽIŽEK (2002)

33) Matthew Wilks, “Theories of Multicultural Toleration: An Examination of Justice as Fairness and Political Theology“ Inquiries Journal, Vol.6 No. 3 (2014), http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/874/4/theories-of-multicultural-toleration-an-examination-of-justice-as-fairness-and-political-theology , accessed on 5 September 2016.

34) Translated/reprinted at https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/kojeve2.htm

35) ibid

36) Robert Howse, “Kojeve’s Latin Empire” Hoover Institution, August/September 2004, http://www.hoover.org/research/kojeves-latin-empire, accessed on 1 September 2016.

37) Giorgio Agamben, “The ‘Latin Empire’ Should Strike Back” VoxEurop, (26 March 2013), http://www.voxeurop.eu/en/content/article/3593961-latin-empire-should-strike-back , accessed on 5 September 2016.

38) German interview with Agamben: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/bilder-und-zeiten/giorgio-agamben-im-gespraech-die-endlose-krise-ist-ein-machtinstrument-12193816.html

39) Matthew Karnitschnig, “Welcome to a two-speed Europe” politico.EU, (18 May 2016), http://www.politico.eu/article/welcome-to-a-two-speed-europe-deal-british-voters-brussels-open-marriage/ , accessed 1 September 2016.

40) FALKENBURG (2011), 76.

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