Beautiful and Meaningless

Bosch and Bruegel Beyond Iconography

Joseph Leo Koerner. Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life. Princeton University Press, 2017, 448 pp., 275 color illus. + 50 half-tones, $65
Joseph Leo Koerner. Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life. Princeton University Press, 2017, 448 pp., 275 color illus. + 50 half-tones, $65
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In the tenth canto of the Inferno, the poet Dante and his guide Virgil make their way through the sixth circle of Hell: the place reserved for heretics. From the coffin where he lies burning for eternity, a damned Italian by the name of Farinata recognizes the distinct speech of a fellow Florentine and calls Dante over. He wants the latest news from above: which political party did Dante belong to, the friendly Ghibellines or the opposing Guelphs, and which party is on the rise? Then another shade, Cavalcante, overhearing their talk, interrupts with his own burning question: where is his son? Has he died? We readers are in Hell, but for a moment we might have thought we were on a street-corner in fourteenth-century Florence. Passions flare there just as they do for us.

Dante’s poem is a landmark in the history of literature not so much for being the first poem in vernacular Italian, but for cramming the talk of everyday life into a poem of such enormous scope. This is what stood out to Erich Auerbach in his famous discussion of this scene in the pages of his 1946 book, Mimesis. Farinata and Cavalcante are consumed still by the cares of life on earth, and they speak in the Tuscan idiom that stuck in Dante’s ear. What makes Dante’s poem so striking are not the haunting mechanisms of Hell—burning coffins in one circle, torture devices in another—but the real and almost living people who populate it. Framed by God’s judgment, these are nevertheless the people of the world. It is a surprising twist when the horrible crevices of the underworld turn out to be an encyclopedia of normal human life. Auerbach made the Inferno the turning point in world literature, because eventually, characters like Farinata and Cavalcante would leave behind the business about God and judgment and take up their places in plays and novels.

They are not mentioned in it, but I thought that the Farinata and Cavalcante of Auerbach’s reading would have made good mascots for the highly anticipated new book by Joseph Koerner, Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life. According to Koerner, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, something much like the transition of Dante’s poem—the transition from a depiction of God’s all-effacing judgment to a depiction of everyday people in their own language—happened again, in the sixteenth century, among painters in the Netherlands. Koerner has discovered an origin story and a grand narrative. Indeed, sometime in the middle of the sixteenth century, painters north of the Alps turned their brushes away from great battles, portraiture of the nobility, and ancient literature, and towards the peasants who occupied the countryside and the low-lifes who hid in the dark corners of taverns. How and why did the predecessors of Rembrandt and Vermeer invent genre painting? Bosch and Bruegel shows, over hundreds of beautifully illustrated, well-footnoted pages, that we ought to dig for the roots of genre painting in the most unlikely of places: the demonic and frantically religious paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Finding the origins of genre painting in a late-medieval painter obsessed by the cosmic battle between good and evil turns out to be as surprising as finding Farinata and Cavalcante, beloved and familiar Italians, in the sixth circle of Hell.

A professor of emotional psychology once joked that to have a successful career, all one needed to do was jump from one classic emotion to another. First tackle sadness, and then move on to jealousy, then guilt and happiness. The same thing is true for public-facing art historians of the Renaissance—there are only so many canonical painters, and the discipline of European art history still depends on that canon. Koerner has made the rounds. He tackled landscape painting with a monumental book about Caspar David Friedrich, and he wrote about self-portraiture and the German Renaissance in a popular book about Albrecht Dürer that also embraced Hans Baldung Grien and Lucas Cranach the Elder. The current book, the diptych that devotes equal space to Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, accomplishes a two-for-one.

Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1480-1505, Hieronymus Bosch, via Wikimedia Commons
Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1480-1505, Hieronymus Bosch, via Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, Koerner’s book is, in the first place, an introduction and an overview. Jheronimus Anthoniszoon van Aken was born around 1450 as the son of a painter in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the origin of the name with which he signed some of his paintings, and with which many more copyists signed many of theirs. Records of his life are scant. His most recognizable paintings are the triptych altar pieces commissioned by nearby churches, although in his lifetime he became so renowned across Europe for his diabolical creations that he enjoyed an honorable mention in the writings of the Italian biographer Giorgio Vasari, and, before his death in 1516, the patronage of the powerful Nassau house. It was they who commissioned Bosch’s most elusive painting, the so-called Garden of Earthly Delights. With relish and verve Koerner relates the story, discovered by art historians in the 1960s in the diaries of an Italian secretary, of the first eyes to see this strange painting: it hung in the state-of-the-art pleasure castle of Country Henry III of Nassau, where visitors also got lost in garden labyrinths, gaped at the zoo, stumbled into hidden rooms, and tangled with one another on a giant bed that could fit fifty people. Like the castle, the painting teased you and deceived you.

As for Bruegel, early biographers—faced with another vacuum in the sources—have distilled the man from his paintings. He was born around 1525, but the supposition that he was born in a town called Bruegel or Brueghel is difficult to accept because there was no such place. Early in his career he became the most celebrated imitator of the bizarre creatures of Hieronymus Bosch, but his most lasting paintings showed real-life people. Koerner makes much of the fact that some biographers claimed Bruegel came from the peasantry himself, while others describe the learned, aristocratic painter putting on masks to consort among the lower classes, discovering material for his art. Whether you thought Bruegel was a real peasant or a nobleman in disguise depended on whether you found his depictions of common humanity sympathetic or mocking. In any case, Bruegel’s cosmopolitan Antwerp, where at the same time Abraham Ortelius sold the first maps of the world, was culturally a world away from Bosch’s small medieval war-ravaged ’s-Hertogenbosch. Correspondingly, Bruegel left no altarpieces behind, but instead he sold his craftsmanship to private collectors who admired his works at home; after he died, his sons maintained his bustling workshop. Bruegel is the protagonist of the book: Koerner confesses to having had Hunters in the Snow on his wall as a student. But he also writes sharply about how the afterlife of the paintings determines how we see them. Most of Bruegel’s paintings, including Hunters in the Snow, are arranged in a single room of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, itself the center of the Austrian Empire. He is right to call them the “totem objects of old Europe.” Bruegel invited the most powerful to participate in the game he played with the commonest people.

Hunters in the Snow, 1565, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, via Wikimedia Commons
Hunters in the Snow, 1565, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, via Wikimedia Commons

This book began life as the 2008 installment of the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, which occur annually at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. And in the best way, the book feels like a lecture course, so that a reader with little knowledge about either painter will depart with a confident grounding in both. All of the best paintings are here, and the details that Koerner teases out in his patient interpretations, and reinforces with abundant colorful inset details, are often wonderful to behold. How else would one have learned that, on the fourth story of Bruegel’s Tower of Babel in Rotterdam, there is a miniature red baldachin making its way along the colosseum-like structure—a devilishly subtle hint that from Antwerp, the Pope looked like a modern-day Nimrod? Without the book’s images, I would never have noticed that far in the distance in Hunters in the Snow is a chimney on fire with a man scrambling up a ladder to put it out, a detail that surprises and teases the idle viewer. Koerner has spent a lot of time looking at these paintings. Even when he is not relating historical facts or presenting scholarly interpretations, he has an enviable ability simply to describe what we see when we look at this art.

But the literature surrounding Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel constitutes one of the thickest scholarly forests in all of art history. Koerner is intrepid—in fact, he enters this forest with an axe, and he intends to clear most of it away. Over and above its important role as an overview of these two great painters, it is Koerner’s intervention in scholarship that makes this book worth close examination.

It so happened that the founders of Anglophone twentieth-century art history were Germans, and as Germans, they honed the tools of their new craft on northern art. Dead painters and living scholars inflated each other and benefitted from the relationship: Rogier van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck and Albrecht Dürer were the stepping stones for Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Gombrich.

Panofsky—a well-connected intellectual who, in America after fleeing Nazi Germany, was friends with Albert Einstein—had perhaps the greatest influence in making the practice of Renaissance art history a game of hunting and explaining symbols. He called this game iconology or iconography. When, for example, Flemish painters of the late Middle Ages constantly put a purple spindle in Mary’s hand during the scene of the annunciation, the puzzle was simple enough to solve: the Apocrypha to the New Testament described how the virtuous and virginal Mary was weaving on a loom when the angel visited her. Scholars began to fill academic journals with satisfying explanations like these, and in turn, the painters they described began to look like scholars. Every Flemish painter who added a purple spindle must have studied the arcana of religious history.

Léal Souvenir, 1432, Jan van Eyck, via Wikimedia Commons
Léal Souvenir, 1432, Jan van Eyck, via Wikimedia Commons

If Panofsky’s most popular book has been his Albrecht Dürer, his magnum opus was Early Netherlandish Painting. Here he theorized about his method and practiced it with astonishing success. If iconography was stamp-collecting, nobody had more stamps. Jan van Eyck is one of this book’s protagonists, and Panofsky made him out to be a very bookish painter indeed. Consider his treatment of the 1432 van Eyck portrait Timotheus, which shows a large-foreheaded man in a green turban staring out with penetrating and mysterious eyes above a Roman marble inscribed, faintly, with the Greek word Timotheus. Who was the man in this portrait? Greek history names a certain Timotheus of Miletus, an Athenian musician in the circle of Sophocles. But Flemish scholars in van Eyck’s time wrote about a more obscure Timotheus, a flutist in the court of Alexander the Great. Still other contemporary writers compared Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy in whose court van Eyck served, with Alexander the Great. The pieces are aligning. If Timotheus played the flute for Alexander the Great, who played music in the court of of Philip the Good? Nobody other than Giles Binchois, the man in the portrait. Panofsky’s interpretation has stuck. Passages like this in Early Netherlandish Art heap praise on the learned painters who concern themselves with minor figures in Greek history, but they also win praise for the art historian who could match the painter in erudition. “Only a keen intellectual curiosity could have devoted so much interest to theological texts, chronograms, cabalistic invocations, and even paleography.” Panofsky wrote these words about Jan van Eyck, but he could just as well have written them about himself. By striking out further into the realms of learning, the interpreter became as awesome a figure as the painter. Around the same time, French literary theorists like Roland Barthes were theorizing about the “death of the writer” and the supremacy of the reader; in iconography, there was almost a death of the painter at the expense of the historian.

Famously, Panofsky omitted Bosch from Early Netherlandish Painting. He claimed he could not do for Bosch what he had done for the others. “Lonely and inaccessible,” he wrote with some pathos and perhaps melancholy, “the work of Bosch is an island in the stream of that tradition the origins and character of which I have endeavored to describe.” Iconographers had already sought to make sense of Bosch’s strange depictions. The most spectacular attempt came in 1949, when Wilhelm Fraenger published his Hieronymus Bosch: The Thousand Year Reich. This title he adapted from the name he knew for the painting we call The Garden of Earthly Delights. Relying on scarce documentation and ample imagination, Fraenger argued that Bosch himself belonged to a secret society of free-thinking heretics whose meetings devolved into the kind of debauched orgies shown in the painting. Fraenger’s Bosch scattered traces of his membership in the cult throughout his work. But if Fraenger’s thesis won him an international audience—his book has been translated into English—few scholars believed him. “I am profoundly convinced,” wrote Panofsky, “that Bosch, a highly regarded citizen of his little home town and for thirty years a member of good standing of the furiously respectable Confraternity of Our Lady, could not have belonged to, and worked for, an esoteric club of heretics, believing in the Rasputin-like mixture of sex, mystical illumination, and nudism.” Fraenger had not loosened the mystery: nobody could. “We have bored a few holes through the door of the locked room; but somehow we do not seem to have discovered the key.”

Koerner agrees with Panofsky: nobody has the key, especially not Wilhelm Fraenger. But he goes further by objecting to the principle of iconography. The critics who have only keys will see paintings only as locks. This myopia, though it might lead down the road to successful journal articles and a good reputation, excludes much of what is pleasurable in looking at art. Readers of Bosch and Bruegel will hear many times, for example, about the innovation in paint application that makes Bruegel’s paintings particularly breathtaking; this has to do with the scarcity of the paint applied and the radiance of the underlying canvas. “There has never been a better painter than Bruegel” is a statement rare in academic art history, even though Bruegel has been canonical since the nineteenth century. “Once Bruegel has been re-established as great, however,” he goes on, “historians rarely considered these visual qualities, focusing instead on puzzles of symbolism and meaning. They left matters of style and technique to the connoisseurs and curators, yet were it not for how Bruegel paints, what he paints would be of much less interest.” Koerner is admirably unashamed about asserting greatness. Describing a painting is a different thing from explaining it.

Adoration of the Magi, c1495, Hieronymus Bosch, via Wikimedia Commons
Adoration of the Magi, c1495, Hieronymus Bosch, via Wikimedia Commons

But the struggle waged in Bosch and Bruegel against what might be termed lock-and-key art history goes beyond Koerner’s call for us to appreciate before we interpret. In fact, abandoning our obsession with symbols lets us discover the actual meaning of difficult paintings. Neither Bosch nor Bruegel paint with icons of the kind iconographers look for, but they lay out traps, red herrings, and detours that lead nowhere—poor souls like Wilhelm Fraenger follow them to ridiculous places, missing the essential meaninglessness that is revealing in itself. As an example, Koerner describes how, in Bosch’s Adoration of the Magi from around 1510, baffling characters and strange items confront us. If we thought we knew everything that could be known about the gift-bearing magi and the birth of Christ, Bosch’s inscrutable painting confounds us with our own ignorance. Who is that leering, sunburnt figure, his scabbed ankle encased in a glass cylinder, smiling out from a dark cave populated by half-invisible spectators? The magi themselves carry gifts carved with signs that we enjoy interpreting. One shows the binding of Isaac, a classic prefiguration of the birth of Christ. But the crown that the burnt figure swings ostenstatiously into view—what do its carvings depict? Koerner walks through the interpretations of famous iconographers, who in his mind resemble the cast of Bosch’s Ship of Fools. The figure was, throughout the twentieth century, an agent of King Herod, Herod himself, Adam, a Jewish Messiah, the sorcerer Balaam, a converted pagan, or a representation of Saturn derived from astrological and alchemical doctrine. Koerner follows Lotte Brand Philip, who argued in 1953 that he was the Antichrist. But the less said about this the better—“Philip’s identification becomes more plausible the less definite it remains,” he writes. And as for the crown, its symbols are truly unknowable, that is, “unsignificant.” Further, these unknowable symbols make Bosch’s paintings our “enemies”—we cannot claim them into our comfortable domain of knowledge. This is the origin of the somewhat awkward phrase in Koerner’s subtitle: Enemy Painting. Bosch’s world is not our own, and we are doomed to its Hell at the end of time.

Fall of Icarus, c. 1558, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, via Wikimedia Commons
Fall of Icarus, c. 1558, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, via Wikimedia Commons

“Unsignificance” is the hinge between Bosch and Bruegel, the piece that holds the diptych together. In the spellbinding Fall of Icarus in Brussels, from around 1560, Bruegel reduced Icarus himself to a small splash in the lower right corner. Koerner quotes a William Carlos Williams poem:


off the coast

here was

a splash quite unnoticed

this was

Icarus drowning

Next to Icarus’s flailing limbs is a large Dutch merchant ship—we feel it might be returning from the East Indies, laden with the goods of life. A sunset illuminates the Greek sky and islands beautifully. In the foreground, a shepherd pushes his plow. He does not care about the world—the painting does not care about its symbols. What traction would an art historian get, if she pointed out that the Icarus myth derived from ancient Greece, that Bruegel must have known about it as a reader, and that the parable contains a popular lesson about arrogance? When Bosch’s paintings turn out to be unsignificant, we are abandoned in a hellish world watched by God but tinkered with by the Devil. When Bruegel’s paintings do, we are left behind in the world as we know it, a place that is by turns hospitable and cold, beautiful and dark, laughable and charming. In both cases, the tools art historians have traditionally brought to them are the wrong ones.

The Catholic world of the Italian Renaissance was a world of symbols. The Eucharistic meal at daily Mass symbolized the rite of the Last Supper and the presence of Christ on earth. Church relics symbolized the saints to which they belonged, and called to mind their martyrdom or sacrifice. Feasts and festival days filled the calendar, each with their own invested symbols and icons. Altarpieces showing the life of Jesus were themselves signs. Of the many, many consequences of the Protestant Reformation, one was that these signs vanished from the world. Iconoclasts destroyed what they considered idolatrous renderings of divinity. More subtly, painters like Bruegel quietly erased these icons from their work; unmoored from its theological past, the pleasurable artwork went out into the cosmopolitan world. Koerner’s important book in this landmark year of the Reformation reminds us that some iconographers would do well to listen to the iconoclasts in appreciating a painted world bereft of meaning but beautiful in itself.

Will Theiss studied history at Yale and Cambridge, where he was a Gates Scholar. He is beginning a PhD at Princeton in 2017.

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