The Peddler by Hieronymus Bosch - A Study in Detection Book Cover The Peddler by Hieronymus Bosch - A Study in Detection
Brand Philip, Lotte
Nonfiction, art history
Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, 9 (1958), pp. 1-81

Brand Philip 1958


“The Peddler by Hieronymus Bosch – A Study in Detection” (Lotte Brand Philip) 1958

[in: Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, 9 (1958), pp. 1-81]

[Also mentioned in Gibson 1983: 49-50 (D37)]


In this article the American art historian Lotte Brand Philip endeavours upon what may be considered one of the boldest and most remarkable undertakings of modern Bosch exegesis: a reconstruction of the exterior panels of a lost Bosch triptych. Her argument begins with a new astrological interpretation of the Rotterdam Pedlar tondo. She rejects the Prodigal Son interpretation of this panel because of three things: the protagonist is an old man, nothing points out that he has been herding the pigs in front of the inn and further he is obviously a pedlar (a profession that is not mentioned in the Prodigal Son parable). According to Brand Philip the other interpretations that have been suggested in the past remain too vague and too general. Only Pigler’s 1950 article is considered a valuable starting point for a correct unde

rstanding of the tondo. Brand Philip believes the painting indeed hides astrological links with the planet Saturn. To the arguments already suggested by Pigler (similarity between Bosch’s pedlar and a figure carrying a sack in a Florentine astrological woodcut from the late fifteenth century, the presence of pigs and a gallows) she adds five more. Apart from the presence of a dog and a rooster, the limping walk of the pedlar and his being a cobbler (see the awl on the hat) there is further the striking similarity between Bosch’s pedlar and the figure of Kronos/Saturn in Philip Galle’s engraving The Triumph of Time, after a design by Peter Bruegel the Elder.


This line of reasoning is rather weak because of the following reasons. There is no striking similarity between Bosch’s pedlar and the figure in the Florentine Saturn woodcut. In fact only the position of the legs is the same. The foot of the left leg (on which both figures are leaning) is flat on the ground whereas the left knee is bent. The right leg stands somewhat more backwards, its knee is also bent and only the toes of the right foot touch the ground. One could wonder whether this isn’t a topical, late-medieval representation of a person moving forward. This typical ‘way of walking’ can be seen more than once in the works of Bosch: for example the fish-devil with human legs in the central panel of the Haywain triptych, St Christopher in the Rotterdam panel or St James in the left exterior panel of the Vienna Last Judgment triptych. The international character of this pictorial topos becomes even more probable if one looks at an Italian astrological miniature (dated circa 1460), representing the children of the planet Mercury [a good colour illustration in J.J.G. Alexander, Italian Renaissance Illuminations, London, 1977, pp. 94-95 (ill. 28)]: the legs of the man entering a door in the bottom-right corner, also have the same position described above and moreover – just as Bosch’s pedlar – he looks back over his right shoulder. Nevertheless, this man is a child of Mercury, not of Saturn.


The similarity Brand Philip wishes to detect between Bosch’s pedlar and the figure in the Florentine woodcut thus becomes less convincing. Furthermore, Brand Philip is cheating when on page 11 of her text the figure in the woodcut is suddenly called a ‘pedlar’: this figure does not carry a pedlar’s basket, but only a filled sack. As Bax already duly remarked [Bax 1962: 30], this figure is not a pedlar at all, but a swineherd who is collecting acorns for his animals. Finally Brand Philip also commits a logical error: even if Bosch would have borrowed the pose of the swineherd in the Italian woodcut (or of another figure in a similar astrological depiction) for his pedlar, this does not automatically mean that Bosch’s pedlar should have the same symbolical, more particularly astrological interpretation as the used model. Obviously, this objection becomes even more relevant when the other arguments for an astrological interpretation of Bosch’s pedlar turn out equally unconvincing.


Brand Philip’s other argumens do turn out equally unconvincing. A gallows, pigs, a dog, a rooster and a cobbler do indeed often appear in late-medieval astrological Saturn representations but Brand Philip herself points out (be it hidden in footnote 14) that in the astrological tradition a rooster more frequently appears as a symbol of Mercury. Pigs and dogs can also be found in depictions of other planets and their influence than Saturn [compare Bax 1962: 31-32]. Bax cleverly remarks that the dog in the Rotterdam tondo is aggressive towards the pedlar and this does not fit in with their (according to Brand Philip) parallel symbolical meaning. Thus Brand Philip’s arguments are reduced to the gallows and the cobbler. Brand Philip also links the limping of the pedlar with astrology: Saturn was often depicted as a limping person leaning on a stick or a crutch. But Bosch’s pedlar clearly does not lean on the stick in his right hand, so a striking similarity to Saturn is not the case. A similar objection can also be forwarded against the similarity Brand Philip sees between Bosch’s tondo and the sixteenth-century Philip Galle engraving. It is true that the way of walking of the Kronos figure shows a certain resemblance to that of Bosch’s pedlar, but isn’t this once more the pictorial topos we have already mentioned? That the snake biting its own tail (symbolyzing time) in the left hand of Kronos would have a parallel in the round thread on the pedlar’s hat, is asking too much of the benevolent reader in order to convince him after all.


The reader has to become even more benevolent when after all this Brand Philip declares that Bosch did not want to depict the pedlar as a child of Saturn, as Pigler suggested in 1950. If Bosch had wanted to paint a Planetenkinderbild, he would not have limited himself to the depiction of only one Planetenkind. Because of the numerous saturnian motifs Brand Philip believes that the pedlar does have a special meaning: either he is the god Saturn himself (a possibility she immediately rejects), or he is a personification of Melancholia, one of the four humores. Brand Philip prefers this last interpretation and adds that at the same time the tondo represents the element Terra (Earth). Indeed, in the late Middle Ages the planet Saturn, the melancholic temperament and the element Earth were often linked to each other. But Brand Philip’s asumption that the Rotterdam tondo represents Melancholia is based on her previous, unconvincing assumption that the panel contains a number of astrological references. It goes to show that a hypothesis based on another, unconvincing hypothesis is bound to convince even less. Brand Philip believes that her ‘Melancholia/Terra’ interpretation is confirmed by the presence of the bovine animal behind the gate. She quotes a number of literary and pictorial sources to demonstrate that cow, ox and bull could function as symbols of Melancholia and Earth, but again she herself mentions that practically every mammal could be an Earth symbol. Regarding the bovine animal as a Melancholia symbol she only adduces one written source (from a Louvain edition, dated 1475). She doesn’t say anything about the pigeons, the magpies, the owl and the great tit (obviously no Terra but Aer symbols) that can also be seen in the tondo. For further criticism on this part of Brand Philip’s argument, see Bax 1962: 34-35.


Beside the Melancholia and Terra symbolism Brand Philip also detects symbolical references to three signs of the Zodiac in the tondo: the love-making couple in the doorway of the inn symbolizes the sign of Gemini, the woman who is looking at the pedlar from a window refers to Virgo and the urinating man stands for Aquarius. It is not this last remark that sheds an awkward light on Brand Philip’s interpretation (Aquarius could indeed be symbolized by a urinating person), it is the unconvincing idea that in the tondo the astrological Virgin would be symbolized by a whore in a brothel.


In spite of the fact that so far Brand Philip has only presented some (in the best case scenario) far-fetched assumptions (and in the worst case scenario a series of rather ludicrous absurdities), her argument is now gaining momentum. The Rotterdam tondo is a symbolical representation of Melancholia, Terra and three signs of the Zodiac. So, because there are three other humores and elements the tondo ‘is bound to’ have been part of a cycle of four. Because the tondo is a semi-grisaille and because the exterior panels of the Haywain triptych are very similar to the tondo (Brand Philip smartly ignores the virtual astrological symbolism of these exterior panels), Brand Philip suggests that the Rotterdam tondo could be seen on the exterior wings of a lost Bosch triptych, together with three other tondos. These three other tondos are supposed to have represented the personification of a humor, an element and three signs of the Zodiac as well. According to the author this idea is not far-fetched, as the exteriors of the so-called Flood panels (Rotterdam), wings of a Bosch triptych with a lost central panel, also show four tondos.


What Brand Philip does next, is unique in the history of modern Bosch scholarship: she attempts to reconstruct the other three tondos, with the help of what she considers (completely at random) more or less faithful copies of these tondos. The subjects of these other tondos are said to have been the following: a conjuror (child of the planet Luna, personification of Phlegma and Aqua), a quack cutting the stone (child of the planet Mercury, personification of Sanguis and Aer) and Blind men hitting the hog (the fake blind man who wins this popular game by cheating would then be a child of the planet Sol and a personification of Choler and Ignis). This last subject, as opposed to the other two, is not known from a copy after Bosch and Brand Philip can only reconstruct them via a detour, with the help of the scenes in the foreground of the central panel of the Haywain triptych. Brand Philip has even more trouble reconstructing the nine remaining signs of the Zodiac. She can only point out that one of the three astrological signs in the Conjuror tondo ‘must’ have been Taurus. She was unable to reconstruct the other signs of the Zodiac.


The 42 pages of Brand Philips argument, briefly summarized above, are so overloaded with far-fetched mental leaps, errors and absurdities that it will do here to refer to Bax’ very convincing criticism on this part of Brand Philip’s hypotheses [Bax 1962: 14-29 / 35-52]. Regarding the irresponsible way in which Brand Philip treats her sources, Bax’ pages 21 (about frogs as a form of medicine), 22 (Brand Philip who misquotes Bax regarding the Cutting of the Stone panel) and 24 (note 90: about the connotation flower/money) are particularly relevant and tarnishing.


Here a few more words can be said about the sixth and last section of Brand Philip’s article, which is supposed to be the climax of her interpretation. In this last section Brand Philip’s astrological interpretation of the Rotterdam tondo is said to have only been of seondary importance. She needed this astrological interpretation in order to be able to reconstruct the lost exterior panels, and these panels she needed as a ‘firm basis’ and context for the final interpretation of the Rotterdam tondo. A more perfect example of a misleading circular argument is probably hard to find in the literature about Bosch. But what then is the basic meaning of the Rotterdam pedlar, according to Brand Philip? In the four tondos Bosch wanted to rebuke four ‘professions’ of bad report (pedlar, conjuror, quack, fake beggar) and to expose their hidden sins. In the case of the Rotterdam tondo the pedlar is a personification of the lonely melancholic who is guilty of the saturnian vices of lethargy and misanthropy, associated in the Middle Ages with the deadly sins acedia and invidia. The Rotterdam tondo is said to be a moralizing sermon with a negative, pessimistic message. The pedlar is represented as an accomplice of the devil and the spectator of the panel is being warned not to interfere with pedlars: they are diabolical figures who end their life at the gallows.


Brand Philip reaches this conclusion through an analysis of what she considers the most important iconographic details of the tondo. Apart from a sporadic valuable remark, the way in which she does this is again characterized by a number of improbabilities and errors. The left side of the panel symbolizes the sinful past of the pedlar. It is ‘perfectly clear’ that the pedlar is leaving the brothel, because he is looking back at it (nevertheless, it is clear that the pedlar’s look is not directed at the inn). The brothel did not cause the financial fall of the pedlar (why then is he represented as a shabby figure?), on the contrary: he has made money there. He has sold the mirror hanging next to the woman in the window (who says so?) and he has paired off the love-making couple in the doorway (again: who says so?). That the pedlar is a match-maker is proven by the awl and the thread on his hat, together forming a sexual symbol (a far-fetched argument). The rooster on the dunghill and the pigs at the trough also refer to unchastity and prostitution (but do they also hàve to refer to the pedlar’s match-making activities?). The urinating man refers to the pedlar’s alcoholism (a remarkable leap of the mind). The right side of the tondo symbolizes the future punishment of the pedlar. The wheel next to the dead tree in the background and the gate (in which Brand Philip recognizes several gallows) point out how the pedlar will end his life. The gate itself is a symbol of Death, as is the case in an emblem of Roemer Visscher, the ox behind the gate has a similar meaning. In the wake of Bax Brand Philip concludes from the pedlar’s hat that he is buten hoede (outside the hat / not on the alert), meaning that he can’t defend himself against the approaching danger of Death.


Brand Philip has correctly interpreted the protagonist of the Rotterdam tondo as a pedlar. She is right in pointing out that the pedlar’s heavy burden is one of the major objections against the Prodigal Son interpretation (as the Prodigal Son owned nothing when he returned to his father). Brand Philip is the first author to signal that there is a dead tree in the right half of the tondo. Her reference to the gate a symbol of Death in Roemer Visscher’s Sinnepoppen offers an interesting trace. This is the positive harvest of her article. But the negative aspects are in the majority. Brand Philip’s interpretation ignores the exterior panels of the Haywain. She is totally unaware of the cultural-historical meaning of the pedlar figure circa 1500. She does not see that the growling dog in the tondo (and in the Haywain’s exterior panels) is an iconographic key symbol. She continuously commits observational errors, delivers far-fetched and arbitrary interpretations, sophisms and weak arguments. Particularly the way in which she reconstructs the astrological programme of the ‘ghost exterior panels’ of a lost (actually: never having extisted) Bosch triptych largely made her lose the credit she had won with her 1953 article about the Prado Epiphany triptych. In the later literature Brand Philip’s hypotheses about the Rotterdam tondo were never taken serious and it is therefore not surprising that the study (announced in footnote 132), which would have taken the ideas from the 1958 article a step further, has never been published.


For further criticism on Brand Philip, see Bax 1962, Marijnissen et al. 1972: 23, Marijnissen 1976: 218 (note 6) and De Bruyn 2001a: 177-179.