On  Interpreting the Painting



During the Renaissance, painters who were making a living by disseminating their work couldn't make much money painting pictures that were too obscure for their audience or patrons to understand. This premise suggests that Bosch painted a picture which was accessible enough to be understood by the average educated (and this did not necessarily mean literate) person in his society. Certainly those paying money for his works would have understood them; there was neither a market nor a demand for elaborate paintings with meanings too obscure to access. You don't buy books in German if you can't read German.

Furthermore, triptychs of this kind were costly objects which took hundreds of man-hours to complete, along with many expensive materials which had to be obtained and prepared. We can thus be assured that they were not done casually without a market to sell them into; also, that the market they were sold into was paying substantial sums of money for them. And keep in mind, wealthy patrons don’t buy art that they can’t explain to the people they want to show it off to.

All of this leads us to the inevitable conclusion that the painting we're looking at has to be understandable to the average person, at least if it's accompanied by some modicum of explanation. Hence, the more complicated and/or obscure the explanation becomes, the less likely it is to legitimately explain the image. The explanation ought to be simple, realistic, consistent, and follow logically.

This means that we have to begin with fundamental observations about the painting and see whether they can help us understand the direction the painting makes in terms of developing its own story line, symbolism, and internal logic. It’s certain, by the way, that the painting has a story line, and that it was meant to read from left to right. This follows common pictorial conventions of European art, already well established by Bosch's times, and well known from many other works.   It is, in other words, a kind of book, or illustrated manual; a storyboard, seen through a modern lens.


Understanding it as a book, we can then begin to look for the terms at the beginning of the book which define the line the plot will take. This is exactly what I did when looking at the painting. My theory was that it ought to be possible to understand this painting without resorting to a pile of academic textbooks or earlier interpretations. The explanation for the painting, if there was one, ought to be straightforward, intelligible, and something that would both delight and intrigue the viewers. The subject matter could convey layers of depth or meaning, but it would begin with a straightforward enough explanation that the average person could follow.


 And perhaps most importantly, my premise was that any legitimate interpretation had to explain the whole painting; that is, every part of it, and all in the correct context with one another.

I began with the assumption that the work was expressing certain truths about the inner life of man. That was based largely on the complete lack of man-made objects in the center panel, which is clearly the dominant visual theme, despite the sensationalist (or at least supposedly sensationalist) imagery in the right-hand panel.

My hypothesis was that the artist introduced symbolic themes in the left-hand panel that would follow through consistently throughout the course of the painting. I picked some of the most dominant elements, such as the mountains and the pink fountain, and intuited their meaning based on the ideas of creation and the influence of divine forces on the earthly world. The painting is, after all, clearly about influences; and this conjunction of the divine and the material was clearly the dominant theme.

Almost every single observation I have made about the painting followed through from my very basic initial observation that the artist color-coded the earthly and the divine using pink and blue colors.

This is a fairly simple and obvious device, which turned out to follow through in almost every single instance in the painting, without any exception whatsoever. While I’m not sure whether other experts have noticed this, it is so glaringly obvious, once one studies it, that they should have.

Once I understood that color was a major key to understanding the symbolism in the painting, it unlocked a door that revealed other intentions of the artist which played themselves out consistently throughout the course of the painting. It was, the way I read it, indeed a book; and, furthermore, a book with fairly clear instructions about how to read it in the left-hand panel. A little bit of intelligent initiative, taken with some fairly straightforward logical deduction, leads one directly into the story line, which can be understood without invoking obscure mythology, arcane or forgotten proverbs and folk sayings, or the secret rituals and doctrines of esoteric cults.

What esoterica there is in the painting does the same thing that all esoteric knowledge does: it hides in plain sight. The esoteric meanings in the painting are buried in layer after layer of rich symbolism that raises questions about who we are and what we are doing. The painting was an inquiry into our activity; and like all inquiry, each illustration of a problem raises ever more questions. Bosch illustrated many different problems; he did so with ingenuity, humor, and sensitivity.

An acute intelligence was at work, I sensed, as I made my way through the painting, almost by feel and by touch. There were moments when I felt as though the artist himself was telling me what he was thinking — and, indeed, he was, because he had recorded what he was thinking in his images and the very logical, intelligible, and even thoughtful and considerate introduction of symbols with clear indications as to what they meant. He all but held my hand as I went forward; at times, I actually imagined I could sense his presence next to me in the room.

No one was more surprised than me to discover that the painting could be read in this manner, or that it was nowhere near as obscure and impossible to understand as I had been led to believe throughout a lifetime of reading about it.

It turns out that this painting is, in some senses, everyman’s painting. It deftly avoids making any nasty remarks about a specific religious sect, church, cult, or practice; it doesn’t comment on man’s outward activities in the least, except to let us know that they are corrupt and violent — hardly a surprise to anyone of that or any age. As such, it neatly skirts any possible accusations of heresy that the church might level at it. There’s nothing in there to sink one’s teeth into.

And indeed, there isn’t; because what is being critiqued here is not the church, or any societal institutions (except in the broadest and most vulgar sense, as with the judicial system) but the individual and his inner state. (See the essay about the inner state of man in the painting for more observations about this.) And it is very difficult for a church to bring up a man on charges of heresy when all he has done is make a painting that tells us our inner life is in error, and that we are sinful.

It is, furthermore, everyman’s painting because, while it is bound to create delight and consternation in the eyes of the average or uneducated viewer, it also contains layers of depth that a discerning individual, engaged in an inner search, will surely recognize as symbols of deeper levels of meaning and inquiry into the nature of our consciousness.

Many of the symbols and ideas are rather sophisticated psychological observations that were centuries ahead of their time; for example, Bosch invented and illustrated a visual understanding of Jung’s collective unconscious nearly four centuries ahead of him. He anticipated Surrealism and its inherent critique of the absurdities in life, as well, by the same four centuries; and, we might argue, perhaps even Dadaism, with its complete rejection of life itself and all of its commercial considerations.

Even more astonishingly, the visual arts of the 20th and 21st century have, in the form of video games and fantasy films such as Lord of the Rings, enthusiastically taken to re-creating the worlds that Bosch invented for us. His work, in other words, was prescient and timeless: he invented an inquiry into the mind and the nature of consciousness, as well as morality, that entered the popular consciousness of mankind and reformed it for all time.

Like Ibn ‘Arabi and the Sufi dervishes that followed him (some of the greatest masters of philosophy of any age) he put the imaginal world at the center of man’s inquiry into his spiritual nature, employing it to create worlds we cannot see and do not understand as mirrors for the one that we do. The sophistication with which he achieves this puts him at the same level as the philosophers; he achieves the same effect with images, each one of which speaks like a whole volume.

There is something for everyone here: bright colors, complex action, comedy, tragedy, mystery, intrigue, suspense, sin, redemption, life, death, and even perhaps resurrection. So the popular mind of his, and every century, can appreciate the painting, whether it is understood or not.

At the same time, the philosophical inquiries he engages us in, once we grasp the nature of it, leads one deep into questions that have been explored for many centuries, and which man is still looking for the answers to.

People may argue that my interpretation of the painting is inaccurate; but those who do so will then need to offer an alternative explanation that follows the story line and explains the obvious division of the painting into levels, according to an alternate, but still internally consistent, methodology. They will furthermore need to deal with all of the symbolic elements I have introduced and explained, offering alternate explanations, or, much less likely, arguing that they are coincidences — something I find rather impossible to believe.

The absolute test of any hypothesis regarding a piece of art, or a scientific question, is whether or not the evidence bears the hypothesis out consistently throughout a series of tests. My slide shows explaining the painting attempt to apply just such a group of tests, in order to see whether we can reasonably (without undue and baroque machinations) explain the many identifiable devices the artist has so clearly used in order to explain the storyline, the action, and even the role and nature of the individual players.

It is up to the viewer of the slide shows to determine whether or not the hypothesis has been successfully tested. In my opinion, it has. The interpretation returns the painting to a whole state in which all of the elements are intelligibly related to one another, rather than a fragmented collection of dubious parables, folk sayings, and fables.

There’s no doubt whatsoever that some of the figures and some of the action will remain obscure, but the template I provide seems to consistently yield more and more meanings within individual groups of figures which turn out to be consistent with my explanations.

I will be updating the slide shows and my work on the painting as further material comes to me.



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All material copyright 2013 by Lee van Laer.  This work may not be reproduced without permission.