Sunday, August 10, 2008

"The Vagabond" by Hieronymus Bosch

To err is human.

Since we've discussed vagabonds here recently, I thought I would mention Hieronymus Bosch's painting entitled The Vagabond (or the Wayfarer) painted somewhere around 1510.

The portrait depicts a vagabond being turned out of an inn to wander the earth. He is barked at by a dog as he leaves. The painting was once part of a triptych whose other panels have been lost, and it is often said to be a painting to the prodigal son, although I don't buy that interpretation. It is, however, a good image of wayfaring, as well as a comment on the growing ranks of beggars and wanderers in 16th century Brabant.

I like Philip Leider's take on the painting as representing Cartaphilus, the "wandering Jew", who was fated by Jesus to wander the earth until his return. The wandering Jew is an evocative figure; the Romantics were especially attracted to him, as he wanders restlessly in the world, an eternal outcast.

The Vagabond is very similar in appearance to Bosch's "Haywain", and is thought to be the same person. To my mind, he also looks like images that are believed to be self-portraits of Bosch himself. It is interesting to think of Bosch as observing on and wandering through the bizarre and dazzling landscapes he presented, all the while as a vagabond. It's also clear that he intends the vagabond as a comment on our own short wandering upon the earth, where for a Christian we never really belong.

First then, here is the only-known self portrait of Bosch, done as an older man. If you'll notice the deep-set eyes and somewhat wide mouth, you'll understand why the "tree man" is often taken as another self portrait. Hopefully, you'll also see a similarity to the vagabond.

Today he's sold as a figurine, but the tree man appears originally in the Hell panel of the Bosch 1504 triptych masterpiece that has been since dubbed "The Garden of Earthly Delights". There are actually two images in the painting that are thought to be self portraits: a clothed figure in the center paradise panel and the enigmatic tree man in the hell panel.

First, let's take the Paradise panel...

The "Bosch" appears as a sort of commenter in the painting. I can't find a good representation of this detail, however, if you click the link (for the Museo National del Prado) there is a good version of the Garden of Earthly Delights that has a high level of detail and which you can zoom up on. The detail gets a bit fuzzy when you get close enough; however, I would agree that the figure in the paradise panel looks a bit like the self-portrait Bosch as a younger man.

So if you zoom up on the center panel and look in the lower left-hand corner of the picture (as if reading a text and this is the end of the page), you'll notice a melancholy looking blond woman behind a glass vessel being pointed at by a grim-looking figure who is notably the only person in the portrait who is clothed. This has been interpreted as an image of Bosch observing Eve before the fall. Hans Belting writes, in his study of the painting, "no matter how this controversial scene is interpreted, it does scratch the otherwise perfect surface of this fable. For it is here that consciousness comes into play- an awareness of the difference between good and evil that, according to the Bible, did not exist before the Fall of Man."

An image of Bosch is also thought to exist at the center of the Hell panel of the triptych, in the much more noticeable figure that is often known as the "tree man".
Here is Bosch's drawing of the tree man who later appeared in The Garden of Earthly Delights. In this version, the branches that pierce his chest cavity grow to a tree out of his back. Also (if it's actually possible to see this), note that the flag in this version is the Turkish flag.

Finally, here's the tree man as he appears in The Garden of Earthly Delights. Note the same ironic backward glance at beings in hell. I don't know if it's ever been noted, but he's wearing the same detached expression as the vagabond, wandering through a world that is bizarre and frightening, but in which he seems only to be a visitor. This is also the same expression of the Bosch who wandered into paradise, but kept his clothes on, and was seemingly the only person there who knew how it was going to end!
The idea of Hieronymus Bosch as an eternal wanderer in a world that is both astounding and frightening fits the Garden of Earthly Delights as well as it fits the Vagabond and evokes the wandering Jew. There is the same detachment- either the ironic detachment of the artistic observer, or the sadder detachment of the disappointed moralist.

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