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The Key to Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" Found in Allegorical Bible Interpretation.

Peter Glum. The Key to Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" Found in Allegorical Bible Interpretation.

2 vols. Tokyo: Chuo-Koron Bijutsu Shuppan, 2007. 768 pp. indes. append. illus. $341. ISBN: 978-4-8055-0545-8.

There is no lack of literature on Hieronymus Bosch, and likewise no shortage of proposed keys to the so-called Garden of Delights, as everyone knows. The present study, ten years in preparation, is obviously a labor of love, an omnium gatherum of medieval Latin texts gleaned from the manuscripts and rare book holdings of some of the best university and museum libraries of the United States and Western Europe. Its author has limited his sources to orthodox Christian literature, largely in Latin, including medieval encyclopedias, bestiaries, the Gregorianum and other writings of Gregory the Great, the Speculum, the Hortus sanitatis, and the Liber angelicus, with emphasis on the Vulgate and the sermons and biblical texts for the liturgical year, providing fresh translations in many cases. His lengthy text is divided into seventy-seven sections--for example, "The ice," "The giant birds," "The ears," and so on--discussing each motif in terms of many possible literary references. So many are offered for each, however, that the reader cannot but be most impressed by the very fluidity of medieval figures of speech.

Generous insight into medieval and early Renaissance thought is provided, but the book could have benefited from aggressive editing to bring the research to bear directly on our knowledge of Hieronymus Bosch and his patron. The author acknowledges, for example, that he only reached the conclusion that the Vulgate lay at the heart of Bosch's iconography when about half of his lengthy manuscript had already been written.

After perusing the introduction, the reader would be well advised to turn next to the footnotes in volume 2, in which Glum comments on a selection of the previous literature, giving his reaction to what he sees as each author's most important contribution. For example, Ludwig Baldass is praised for having suggested the refectory of a monastery as the most likely original location for the triptych, an idea endorsed by Glum, whose winnowing of medieval literature has produced such an extensive reading list that, in his view, only the abbot of a very important monastery could be expected to have mastered it. (He nominates no candidate for this position.) Exception is taken to Dirk Bax's monographic article on grounds that he "saw in everything sexual symbols male and female," neglecting to mention that Bax's ancestor was Bosch's confraternity brother, and had been the first to publish the archival material dealing with the painter and his family in the Dutch edition of his book on the Saint Anthony triptych (1944), which Glum attributes to Gorissen's much later essay. In dismissing Bax, he unfortunately also deprives himself of some important clues to the iconography of the central panel that are derived from Dutch vernacular literature and medieval slang, rather than from Latin theology. Glum does agree with Elena Calas and Walter Gibson that "the wicked walk in a circle" as specified in Psalm 119, and that the riders represent vices.

Ernst Gombrich's identification of the exterior view of the triptych as a depiction of the Deluge--grey rainbow and all--is accepted. Most strikingly, however, Glum discounts Gombrich's discovery of Antonio de Beatis's famous 1517 description of what he saw in the Brussels collection of Hendrik III Count of Nassau as applicable to the Garden of Delights, noting chat Antonio's text does not identify the depiction(s) of "seas, skies, woods and fields and many other things ... men and women in various attitudes and postures ... birds and animals of every kind ... some who come out of a seashell," etc. as describing a single work of art, advancing the theory that Antonio had viewed a collection of separate paintings of these various subjects, possibly painted by several artists.

Few Bosch aficionados will be willing to espouse this theory, particularly in light of the chain of custody that Hendrik's ownership brings with it--beginning with the strong possibility that it was Hendrik's uncle Engelbert, a member of Hertogenbosch's elite Confraternity of Our Lady during the period of Bosch's own membership, who may have originally commissioned the work--a supposition enhanced by recent dendrochronology proving that a date well before the end of the fifteenth century is possible.

Hendrik's third wife Mencia de Mendoza's return to Spain after the death of her husband in 1538, and her documented penchant for collecting both naturalia and Flemish works of art, still suggest the most logical means by which the triptych could have traveled to Spain.

JANE CAMPBELL HUTCHISON

University of Wisconsin
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Author:Hutchison, Jane Campbell
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
Words:764
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