This month, I attempt to demystify one of the early paintings of Hieronymous Bosch entitled The Conjurer (c.1475-1480?). Best known for his triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (1504), the virtuosity of Bosch’s hallucinatory imagery inspired many generations of artists including the Surrealist movement of the early twentieth century. However, the complex themes of his work consist of more than a phantasmagorical landscape, they also expose a Catholic conceit for the poor. By introducing Bosch’s socioeconomic background and examining the content of one of his early works, I attribute a starting point to the bourgeoisie Christian mentality of Bosch’s brush, which would further manifest itself in his later works. Although finding flaws with the Catholic Church is like beating a dead horse with a dead horse, my intent is to re-consider Bosch’s place in art history as a painter who believed poverty was not only blameworthy, but a natural consequence of straying from Christian orthodoxy.
That Rich Dutch Bastard
Unfortunately, there are few details concerning Bosch’s life. He left no known correspondences with contemporaries, wrote no will, kept no journal, and rarely signed and dated his paintings. Additionally, no logs of his travels exist, as Bosch rarely if ever left his hometown of s’Hertogenbosch, explaining his conservative and regional artistic tastes and lack of influence from Italian masters or Dutch contemporaries. Currently, the information most abundantly available on Bosch are his finances, revealing his class status. During Bosch’s lifetime (1450?-1516) the town of s’Hertogenbosch  constituted one of the richest parts of Europe under the Hapsburg Empire. Wealth bequeathed the prosperous Dutch families of Brabant to indulge themselves in the arts, partially explaining large Dutch artisan families like the Van Eycks. That Bosch’s grandfather, father, all three uncles and brother were painters indicates that he was most certainly born into a middle bourgeois family. Bosch’s personal wealth increased moderately in 1481 when he wed into the wealthy family of AleytGoyaerts van den Meerveen, inheriting more property in the nearby town ofOirschot. Surviving municipal tax records from s’Hertogenbosch bearing Bosch’s signature provide a bolder sketch of his economic status.  The records indicate Bosch owned a stone house on the market-place, which was one of the most distinguished in the town according to tax on the rental value of the houses he paid. According to these records, Bosch was in the top one percent of wealthiest citizens in the city. Bosch’s name also appears on the record sheet of a highly orthodox Elite religious order called the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, signed in as a sworn member. Sworn members were chosen among the nobility and magistrates, and had powerful ties to the community while upholding the values of the Catholic Church.  Based on these facts along with his works, it is reasonable to conclude that Bosch was not only absurdly wealthy but also extremely devout.
Bosch’s paintings remain a fascination because he was an anomaly of style, situated between and altogether rejecting, the great Dutch masters and the emerging High Renaissance.  Bosch’s work descended into a ruthlessly grotesque orgy of Catholic orthodoxy, while the rest of Europe moved into the Renaissance. Although Bosch remained in considerable demand during his lifetime he asked small fees from his patrons, probably just enough to cover his art supplies.  Bosch, who was financially secure, did not have to cater to the whims of wealthy courts whose tastes would have been specific and demanding. Instead, Bosch painted small expressive faces with spindly bodies, refusing portrait assignments (which were lucrative) and never included patron characters in his works (which was common practice). Although it is difficult to determine Bosch’s patrons due to poor record keeping, a few of his beneficiaries were well known. The Garden of Earthly Delights took residence in the Brussels Palace of Hendrik III, while Philip the Handsome, the archduke of Austria, commissioned him to paint The Last Judgement. The Brotherhood also commissioned Bosch to design altarpieces as well as execute designs for the stained glass windows of St. John’s Cathedral in downtown s’Hertogenbosch where the Brotherhood frequently congregated.  Although the most Catholic of monarchs, Phillip II of Spain, took possession of many of Bosch’s paintings after he died, he is not known to have commissioned any work from Bosch. Unfortunately, many of Bosch’s early paintings, like The Conjurer, have no evidence of being commissioned, if they were commissioned at all. However, The Conjurer could have been commissioned by the brotherhood Bosch belonged to, for a few reasons. Compared to his other works, The Conjurer is a highly accessible painting for public viewing and might have been commissioned by Bosch’s fellow members to hang in the Church and provide an ample warning to the laity. The simple arrangement, recognizable symbols and depiction of common people would have made an impression on the public. Indeed, the framing of a street magician with his cups and balls entertaining an enthralled audience perhaps evoke a scene that Bosch might have witnessed in the market streets of s’Hertogenbosch. I have chosen to look at one of Bosch’s early works because of its broad appeal to the masses, but also because it is an early point to study Bosch’s pedantic religiosity, which grew proportionally with his subsequent paintings.
Analysis of The Conjurer
The location of Bosch’s scene in The Conjurer appears away from the bustling regularity of the market, removed from a large crowd. The landscape is blocked off with a tall brick wall, placing the conjurer’s venue somewhere between buildings or an otherwise questionable alley. In Bosch’s time, the effects of the Medieval Inquisition, effectively conflating all acts of magic to heresy and sorcery, would have forced the conjurer to ply his trade between the cracks of public life. In the mind of the Medieval Catholic, the source of such immense evil could only be permeating from the indefatigably unrepentant Jew. The suggested identity of the conjurer is based on the ”prominent hooked nose, a feature traditionally associated with Jews in medieval painting.”  This claim is substantiated by the conjurer’s pet owl, carried in a woven basket around his waist. According to several medieval bestiaries, ”owls are symbolical of the Jews who repulse our Savior when he comes to redeem them” because they reject the light.  In most illustrated manuscripts, the long, hooked beak of the owl was supposed to emphasize the hooked nose of the Jews, sometimes even giving the owls human faces.  All the conjurer’s tools are available for the spectator to see, as Bosch has foregone perspective to cant the tabletop towards the viewer of the painting. The subjects, intently gazing at the conjurer’s work, appear not to be looking at the table however, but the conjurer’s hand, providing a visual clue for the layout of the painting. Upon initial observation, Bosch’s composition appears to evoke a vague familiarity with the Eucharist, or some kind of parody or false mass. It is the conjurer’s right hand gesture extending forward that confirms this evocation. His hand mimics a circle with the index finger and thumb, with the rest of his fingers extended, as if holding the host. Known as the “iunctio digitis,” Catholic priests would hold their right hand in this position, saying “for this is my body” before administering the host to the celebrant. Several records on mass commentary existing before Bosch’s time prove this gesture would have been used as early as the eleventh century. Bosch’s audience would have immediately recognized the reference of the conjurer’s gesture made iconographic by the juxtaposition of the hand against the color of the back wall. A Jewish conjurer performing a false Christian rite in an alley speaks to the controversy of the sacrament just prior to the Reformation. A sweeping reform throughout in the Netherlands, a movement called DevotioModerna, focused on a personal devotion that “presupposed that whole sacramental and ecclesiastical system of salvation which Catholic orthodoxy proclaimed to be of divine ordination.” Devotio Moderna highly valued the Eucharist, but interpreted the sacrament as a representation rather than a repetition of Christ’s sacrifice through transubstantiation. For Bosch and the Catholic Church, the Eucharist was the literal consumption of Christ’s body, even if empirically the bread retained its appearance. An inversion of the Eucharist with magic by a Jew would have represented the pinnacle of evil for fifteenth century laity. By further analyzing the other key symbols, Bosch’s deeper intentions reveal themselves to associate destitution with a lack of piety.
To the left of the picture, a flatly assembled mass of townsfolk, a seven-headed hydra of sorts, lump together into one entity. The eyes of the crowd, some meditating, others gawking, witness with fervor the conjurer’s tricks. Such is the persuasion of the conjurer that the clergy are also seduced along with the gullible, as a nun, third from the right, peers intently at the Jew’s hand. If this layout is to a false Eucharist, then why is the crowd just watching? The ritual of witnessing the bread as it was being elevated began in the thirteenth century when priests would raise the host after its consecration. As Dutch historian JohanHuizinga points out,”the highest mysteries of the creed became covered with a crust of superficial piety. Even the profound faith in the Eucharist expands into childish beliefs for instance, that one cannot go blind or have a stroke of apoplexy on a day on which one has heard mass, or that one does not grow older during the time spent in attending mass.”  No doubt the simple repetition of a phrase of words that altered bread into flesh must have persuaded the minds of the late medieval period into a state of piety; the term “hocus-pocus” deriving from the crucial phrase in the mass, “hoc est enim corpus meum.”  The crowd as witness forms a queue, waiting in line for their turn to receive the conjurer’s trick and taste no pain or become cured of an ailment. The crowd’s presence in the scene elucidates their misunderstanding about the power of the Eucharist, the central ceremony in Christianity.
The Victim Vomits A Frog
However, the conjurer’s perversion of the Eucharist fully manifests itself in the current receiver, who is slouched over the table. The victim of the conjurer’s tricks appears to be taking a frog as the host. However a closer inspection shows that she is spewing the frog out, as the vomit trails from the corners of her mouth. This act moves the conjurer’s power from simple sleight-of-hand to actual sorcery. Frog imagery had a special place in the mind of the Medieval spectator, as they were commonly associated with a broad range of medieval artwork, all of them allegorical of the Devil.  Bosch commonly used frog imagery in the tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins (1485) and the Haywain (1490) where frogs crawl over the victims’ bodies and chew on their genitals. The devils themselves assume the form of a frog in The Temptation of St. Anthony (1505) while in The Carrying of the Cross (1480s) the tormentors of Christ carry frog heraldry on their shields. There are no mentions in any Dutch/Flemish proverbs or Scripture regarding the vomiting of frogs save one, from Revelations. After the opening of the sixth seal, John witnesses “from the mouth of the dragon, and the mouth of the beast, and the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs.” (16:13) While the victim is subjected to the horrifying discovery in her mouth, an accomplice to the conjurer averts his eyes to the heavens while snatching away the moneybag. The distinguished woman with the pearl necklace appears to be next in line to have her riches taken from her after the thief is done with his current victim. The fifteenth verse in the same chapter of Revelations alludes to the thief: “”Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepethhis garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame.” (16:15) The association with frogs and false dogma is strengthened by the thief’s garments, belonging to the Dominican Order associated with the Devotio Moderna.  The theft of the victim’s purse is Bosch’s central thesis in The Conjurer, punishing deviation from Orthodoxy, and associating them with evil.
Along the bottom of the picture, there is a small child carrying both an expression of glee with a whirligig in hand. In order to determine the character of this quizzical inclusion, we must look at one of Bosch’s other works, Christ Carrying the Cross (1480s). On the reverse side of the painting, a nude male infant is carrying a paper windmill while pushing a medieval stroller. Additional paintings by contemporaries of Bosch confirm that the image of a child with a whirligig in hand would have been recognized by Medieval spectators as the infant Jesus. Additionally, in the low countries of the Medieval period, the windmill remained a popular Eucharistic symbol, inspired by the passage of the Last Supper describing Christ as “the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world” (John 6:51-52). Art historian Walter S. Gibson, writing about the iconography of the whirligig in Bosch’s work, describes a passage in the Pelerinage de la vie humaine, by the fourteenth century poet Guillaume de Deguilleville; “Christ is described as the heavenly grain sowed on Earth by Charity, reaped and converted into food for mankind by being threshed, beaten and finally ground in the mill whose sails were turned by the “false wind of envy.”"  Although the windmill occupies a place in the pantheon of Dutch national symbolism, it also evoked the spirit of the Eucharist and consequently the Passion. Many fifteenth and sixteenth century Dutch books of hours illustrated passion scenes lined with the backdrop of windmills, evocative not just of the landscape of the Netherlands, but of the shape and nature of the Cross and the remembrance of sacrifice through the Eucharist. Bosch’s inclusion of such recognizable iconography explains the folly of the audience’s perceptions of The Conjurer, foreshadowing the Crucifixion because of a refusal to adhere to true doctrine.
While the influence of his work in contemporary modern art is undeniable, Bosch’s immense wealth afforded him an opportunity to judge his fellow citizens by creating pedantic and grotesque art that made them fear not only for their souls but their coiffers. His paintings allude to a Catholic zeitgeist that reasoned poverty could be overcome so long as one was faithful. Bosch’s works more obsessively descend into a melange of chaos when people stray from the path of Catholicism, resulting in a poverty of piety and pocket. His oeuvre suggests an attempt to justify his own wealth, while trying to maintain an affinity to God by increasing his own moral worth.
1. Born Jeroen Van Aken, the usurpation of the town name as his own suggests a slight provincial fetish complimentary of his typical lack of travel not only to other countries but within his own.
2. Bruno Blonde and Hans Blieghe, ‘The Social Status of Hieronymus Bosch’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 131, no. 1039, London 1989, pp. 699-700.
3. ‘Blood and Roses’, Time Magazine, 15 September 1947
4. Although it is evident Bosch was not influenced by the emerging Renaissance, close comparisons indicate that Bosch influenced Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. For a more in-depth comparative study, I highly recommend Leonard J. Slatkes, ‘Hieronymous Bosch and Italy’, The Art Bulletin, vol. 57, no. 3, New York 1975, pp. 335-345.
5. Phyllis G. Jestice, ‘Hieronymous Bosch’, Reinassance and Reformation, New York 2007, p. 129.
6. Mary Yakoush (ed.), ‘Hieronymous Bosch’, Early Netherlandish Painting, Cambridge 1986, p. 15.
7. Jeffrey Hamburger, ‘Bosch’s “Conjuror”: An Attack on Magic and Hersey’, Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, vol. 14, no. 1, 1984, pp. 5-23.
8. W.J. O’Shea, ‘Elevation in the Mass’, New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 5, New York 1967, pp. 265-266.
10. J.A. Jungman, The Mass of the Roman Rite: its Origins and Development, vol. 2, New York 1955, p. 205.
11. Jeff Oakly, The Western Church in the Later Middle Ages, Ithaca & London 1979, p. 105.
12. Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, London 1924, p. 161.
13. Oxford English Dictionary. Also a corruption of ‘hoc est corpus.’
14. Frog imagery in medieval art is covered extensively in D. Bax, ‘Bezwaren tegen L.B. Philip’s interpretatie van Jeroen Bosch’ marskramer, goochelaar, keisnijder en voorgrond van hooiwagenpaneel’, Nederlands Kunsthistorich Jaarboek 13, 1962, p. 39, 41, 57, 67, 108, 133, 139, 153 and 394.
15. D. Bax, op. cited. p. 20
16. 15th century Dutch engraver Israhel van Meckenem made an engraving of the Christ child and the infant St. John engaging in a jousting match with whirligigs while being supervised by two angels. Albrecht Durer placed a toy windmill in hands of one of the angels assisting St. Joseph in The Sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt (1501).
17. Walter S. Gibson, ‘Bosch’s Boy with a Whirligig: Some Iconographic Speculations’, Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, vol. 8, no. 1, 1975-1976, p. 12.