De Bruyn 2010
“Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Delights Triptych. The Eroticism of its central Panel and Middle Dutch” (Eric De Bruyn) 2010
[in: Eric De Bruyn and Jos Koldeweij (eds.), Jheronimus Bosch. His Sources. 2nd International Jheronimus Bosch Conference, May 22-25, 2007, ’s-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands. Jheronimus Bosch Art Center, ’s-Hertogenbosch, 2010, pp. 94-106]
During the past fifty years the works of Bosch have proven to be a fruitful field of study for researchers (philologists and art historians) whose cultural-historical approach of Bosch is based on Middle Dutch language and literature and the culture of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Low Countries. This has become clear from the books and articles of Domien Roggen, Jan Grauls, Paul De Keyser, Louis Lebeer, Dirk Bax, J.K. Steppe, father Gerlach, Walter Gibson, Roger-Henri Marijnissen, Paul Vandenbroeck, H.W. Steemers and Eric De Bruyn. A number of American art historians such as James H. Marrow, Irving L. Zupnick, Walter Gibson and Larry Silver have even learned Middle Dutch in order to gain a better understanding of the works of art (among them Bosch’s paintings) they study. In spite of all this, one still has to reckon with sporadic negative reactions although scholars using Middle Dutch philology as an auxiliary science which is indispensable when discussing Bosch’s oeuvre, will be the first to admit that Middle Dutch vocabulary and literature can only provide one way among many others when it comes down to interpreting Bosch’s often complex imagery: also Latin, biblical, folkloristic and even alchemical and astrological sources can provide us with useful material.
In order to show that Middle Dutch is indeed one of the sources that can lead to a better understanding of Bosch’s iconography, De Bruyn concentrates on an ill-understood detail of the central panel of the Garden of Delights: the man whose head has the shape of a giant blue grape. All Bosch scholars seem to agree that the central panel of this triptych is brimming over with erotic symbolism. According to De Bruyn the answer to the question ‘why did Bosch paint a grape instead of head?’ can be found in Middle Dutch (Bosch’s native tongue). In Middle Dutch the words hoofd (head) and druif (grape) could both mean: glans penis (the head of the penis). De Bruyn quotes a number of texts that support his thesis. On top of the grape Bosch also painted some leaves and a stem. De Bruyn interprets these as a kind of head gear and points out that the Middle Dutch word kappeken (little cap) could also refer to the foreskin.
This interpretation leads to the conclusion that on the central panel of the Garden of Delights Bosch used the Middle Dutch language to paint some visual puns that don’t have an immediate relation with the overall religious theme of the triptych. Apparently these visual puns were meant as profane, frivolous entertainment for the intended viewers. If this is correct, it is most likely that the commissioner of the triptych was able to understand Middle Dutch in order to grasp the pun. In recent Bosch literature it has become clear that the commissioner was either Engelbrecht II of Nassau or his nephew and heir, Hendrik III of Nassau. Although Engelbrecht’s official language was French, he probably had at least a smattering of Middle Dutch, as he was born in Breda and lived in the Netherlands. Hendrik is sure to have understood Middle Dutch, as he wrote a letter in Dutch to his father, Jan IV of Nassau, in 1515.
[explicit 28th December 2011]