Hieronymus Bosch [c. 1450 – 1516] was a Dutch painter known for his unique artistic style and enigmatic, intellectually complex paintings on religious subjects. He is also known as the innovative painter of the fantastic who, paradoxically, never went beyond the religious canon. Below, I would like to present three of his lesser-known works, one of which – Extracting the Stone of Folly – is considered to be the only one the painter produced which centred on a purely secular matter.
I. Extracting the Stone of Folly [c. 1505]
In this curious painting, a man tied to a chair in open countryside is ready to undergo a risky procedure – the removal of a stone of folly or madness from his brain. In medieval times, people believed that a stone lodged in someone’s brain was responsible for either their lack of intellectual prowess, their “madness” or their erratic behaviour. Professor Jos Koldeweij interprets this painting as a quack doctor (on the left) making an incision in the man’s scalp to extract the stone, while the man’s wife (on the far right) and her lover, the priest (in the middle) supervise the procedure. The interesting aspect of the painting is not only the macabre procedure, but also the division of power between the four people in the painting. Despite appearances, it is the wife of the man to be “dissected” who is in control. The book on her head may signal her possessing knowledge or power beyond that of those around her. The doctor is a quack or a fraudster because he has a funnel on his head and a jug hanging from his belt – he is after the money and is not interested in curing his patient. The priest in black, in turn, is supposed to calm the patient and provide a divine assent to the procedure. However, he also seems to possess ulterior motives for being there (having the jug in the hand may also signal deception). Moreover, being a lover of the man’s wife, he is unlikely to interfere to save the man from his fate. Meanwhile, the husband seated represents the party tricked into complete submission, as also evidenced by his overall helplessness to control the situation. The fact that the “surgeon” manages to extract not a stone, but a waterlily from the patient’s head only emphasises the ludicrousness of the procedure. The painting is currently in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
II. The Pedlar [c. 1500 – 1510]
This painting shows a haggard, thin man who finally decided to follow the righteous path by abandoning his sinful life and making a journey which will lead him to God. He is just at the beginning of his journey and looks back at the brothel, where people still live chaotically without self-respect or moral values. The cage with a bird hanging from the brothel symbolises both spiritual and physical confinement, while also emphasising how soul-draining the place is. Ahead of the pedlar, though, are the signs of liberation and holiness – a magpie and an ox respectively. The painting was originally part of two closed wings of one triptych and is currently housed in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuninge, Rotterdam, Netherlands.
III. Death and the Miser [c. 1500 – 1510]
This painting was inspired by the 15th-century book, Ars Moriendi or “The Art of Dying”, which was a treatise written in Latin on how to die “well” and have a “good” death. In this painting, we see that the time has run out for one man and Death has come knocking on his door. He was a miser in life, and though amassed a lot of wealth, money will not help him now to bribe Death or delay his end. Here, even on the deathbed, one monster devil still keeps offering the now feeble and naked man more money, despite the fact that an angel is also near, holding the man by his left shoulder, pointing to the sign of the cross and imploring the man to come to terms with his life and turn to God at this last moment in order to save himself. Even though it is unclear what decision the miser will make, it is clear that no armoury will help or protect him now (as it undoubtedly has done so during his life) – it lies uselessly on the floor. In the foreground of this painting is also the presentation of the same miser as he was during the better period of his life – healthy and vigorous. This time, he is holding a rosary and throwing money into his chest. It is clear that, throughout his life, he was a hypocrite and while pretending to care about issues of faith, was still giving into all sorts of temptations posed by the gold. Given how wealthy he is and that he is now surrounded by monster devils, the man has been choosing corruption, vanity and avarice in place of charity, humility and generosity. Given the rosary in the man’s hand and such a close depiction of monster devils and the angel, the point also seems to be that Good and Evil co-exist side-by-side and can even be embodied in one person. There is then no knowledge whether that person plays the double role. Besides, it takes very little for one to morph into another. Like The Pedlar above, this painting was part of a triptych whose middle section was never identified. Death and the Miser can be found in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.