Jheronimus Bosch painted a man having a flower removed from his head, with an inscription speaking of a stone being cut out. Schwartz cannot explain why, but he nonetheless proposes a new theory of what is going on in the painting. He sees more empathy in it than scorn.
Jacket design by Bregt Balk.
Day-filling work on my book on Jheronimus Bosch continues. Not to let the year end without sending you another Schwartzlist column, let me show you an advance spread from Gary Schwartz, Jheronimus: the road to heaven and hell, to be published in February 2016 by Fontaine Publishers, Hilversum. The book is built up of eight sections divided into 80 sub-sections of one or more double-spreads, each covering a distinct subject. The idea is to provide complete, concise information and gorgeous images in accessible writing and a brilliant, easily navigable layout. Not all the information derives from other sources. The section below advances an interpretation that I have not encountered in the literature. It fits a certain pattern I have noticed in the book. I seem to be looking for more humane interpretations of his work, less weird and less disdainful than he is usually seen.
Jheronimus Bosch’s most fun painting is a delightful play on the coats of arms borne by knights of the Golden Fleece. The Order was established in 1430 by Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy and became one of the foremost aristocratic distinctions in Europe. Usually the painting is regarded as a spoof on foolishness and mendacity: the patient thinks that his mental deficiencies can be cured by having a stone removed from his head, and a fake surgeon obliges him. Here, a new theory on the painting’s meaning is launched.
High Burgundian patronage
Jheronimus Bosch and a Burgundian court calligrapher, Extracting the Stone, 1501 or later
Oil on panel, 47.5 x 34.5 cm.
Inscribed: Meester snijt die keye ras / Myne name Is lubbert das (“Master, cut the stone out quickly / My name is Lubbert Das”)
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, nr. 2056
Pierre Coustain or associate, coat of arms of Jacques de Luxembourg, lord of Fiennes, as a knight of the Golden Fleece, 1481
Oil and gold on panel, 101.1 x 67.5 cm.
Inscribed: Jaques. de luxembo // Seignr. De Fiennes
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, nr. SK-A-4642
In 1991 it was noticed for the first time, by Jos Koldeweij, that the lettering on this painting bears an overwhelmingly strong resemblance to the golden calligraphy on coats of arms painted for knights of the Golden Fleece. Everywhere an assembly of the Order was held, a complete set of panels was painted, which remained in place as a memento of the great event. Several of the panels made for the 1481 assembly in ’s-Hertogenbosch have been preserved, and they display the letter forms, adorned with elaborate curves, that occur on Extracting the Stone.
By fortunate chance, we know who owned Extracting the Stone in the 1520s. Among the possessions of Philip of Burgundy (1464–1524), the bishop of Utrecht, at his luxurious castle in Wijk bij Duurstede was “A picture of Lubbert Tas, having his stone cut out.” This could not be more interesting. Philip was an illegitimate but recognized and highly placed son of Jheronimus’s patron Philip the Handsome. From 1501 on he was a knight in the Order of the Golden Fleece.
For reasons that I cannot fathom, the painting is regarded as a copy from about 1520, ordered by Philip of Burgundy, after a lost original by Jheronimus. This seems to me highly unlikely. The calligraphy cannot possibly be the work of a copyist. It was made by one of the highly skilled court artists specialized in heraldic emblems. Why, then, should the image in the roundel be a copy after something else? I cannot readily imagine that Philip, a major patron of the arts, would have commissioned a copy of a small painting of any kind to hang in his “new dining room.” I consider the painting an original commission by Philip to a court calligrapher and Jheronimus Bosch. Whether Jheronimus wielded the brush himself or delegated his best assistant to do the job is not what counts. Through the damaged surface I see a first-rate piece of work, fit for the collection of a wealthy, art-loving aristocrat.
A new interpretation
The main action of the scene, the cutting of the stone, has been described as a fake operation by a fake doctor. However, the garb of the man and his pose are entirely consistent with late medieval depictions of operations by surgeons. The other objects in the painting are also perfectly realistic. And the mood of the work, to my eye, is not mocking or condemnatory.
Notice that all three figures in attendance have serious expressions on their faces and raise a hand toward the patient. This I interpret to mean that all are attempting to help him. They can be viewed as representatives of three institutions, the surgeon standing for medical practice, the monk for the church, and the woman with a book on her head for universities. The patient has come to all three for help, but has not benefitted from therapy, spiritual succor or academic learning. The lettering says as much as this: “My name is not Seigneur de Fiennes, it’s just Lubbert Das. But even were I so high in station as to be a knight of the Golden Fleece, I would find no cure for my ails from the institutions that be.” Neither the Order, the patient nor the institutions are being mocked. What the painting says about the Order is that its members are mortals just like everyone else, and just as subject to pain and illness. What it implies about the institutions is that they are human creations, and their capacities limited.
Allow me to be the first to admit that this interpretation is based no more than the existing ones on solid external evidence. Nor does it provide a meaning for the fact that what the surgeon is removing from the patient’s head is not a stone at all, but a flower. It does, however, reconcile the picture with the inscription. For this reason, I have abridged the painting’s usual title, Extracting the Stone of Folly. That title relates the representation to a parable of a foolish man who thinks that his lack of sense is due to a stone in his head and asks a surgeon to remove it. However, as Eric de Bruyn has observed in his study of figures in speech in Bosch’s imagery, that topos is unrecorded in Bosch’s time. A.M. Koldeweij, De “Keisnijding” van Hieronymus Bosch, Zutphen (Walburg Pers) 1991, p. 7: “Een tafereel van Lubbert Tas die men de keye uyt snijt.”
 Ibid., p. 7. In 1529, the revised inventory of Philip’s estate included, in “de nyeu eedtcamer,” “Een taeffereel van Lubbertas, die men de keye snyt.” J. Sterk, Philips van Bourgondië (1465-1524), bisschop van Utrecht, als protagonist van de Renaissance: zijn leven en maecenaat, Zutphen (De Walburg Pers) 1980, p. 248. Philip owned another painting by Bosch, “een bort geschildert op doeck bij Jeronimus Bosch,” interpreted by Sterck to mean a comic subject painted on canvas. No painting on canvas is currently accepted as a work by the master. Ibid., p. 225.
 My dating of the painting to 1501 or later is based on the assumption that Philip, who became a knight of the Golden Fleece in 1501, would not have felt free to play with its attributes before then. The dating accords with dendrochronological findings, which make it unlikely that it was painted any earlier.
 H.J. Verboom, Jheronimus Bosch en de chirurg: interpretaties van De Keisnijding bezien vanuit de middeleeuwse medische praktijk, bachelor paper at Open Universiteit Nederland 2011 (available online at dspace.ou.nl)
How I wish I could discuss these ideas with the author of an indispensable book on art at the court of Philip of Burgundy, Joos Sterk. But he is no longer with us. Before his early death in 1998 at the age of 56, I used to run regularly into Joos in Utrecht – in the street, where he seemed to spend all his time. He always had a captivating smile on his face and something interesting to tell about his research. I liked him and miss him.
Two lectures on Jheronimus Bosch on my calendar are to be held at the Bucerius Forum in Hamburg on 13 January and at the LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur in Münster on the 8th of April.
Wishing you good health and much satisfaction in the new year.
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