PRINT November 1981


THE WORDS OF THE PSALMIST, For he spoke and they were made: he commanded and they were created (Ps. 32:9), written in Latin across the closed shutters of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Delights, ca. 1500, serve notice that this painting illustrates the allegorical meaning attributed to the word of God by His ministers. (A Catholic painter was entitled to do this on the strength of Saint Paul’s testimony that it is Jesus Christ Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life [2 Cor. 3:6].) To discover this allegorical meaning I consulted the works of Saint Augustine,1 the most prolific of the commentators on the Psalms. In his sermon on Psalm 101 this “able minister” of God claims that David’s words were pronounced “in the course of a commemoration of His works” (In Ps. 101). Augustine warns his flock that not only the Catholics, but the heretics as well, commemorate the good beginning; he therefore exhorts the faithful when singing this psalm, from which Bosch took his inscription (Psalm 32), to pray for those who have become its prodigal sons. In a sermon on Psalm 118 commenting on verse 9, Wherewithal shall a young man correct his way?, Augustine answers that he should do so the way the prodigal son did when “at length he came to himself,” an event whose timing has been a matter of theological dispute. This does not imply that he must be a young man: “Is then an old man to be despaired of? or doth an old man correct his way by any other means than by ruling himself after God’s word?”2 (In Ps. 118 Disc. 5:2).

Without naming him, Augustine was alluding to Saint Hieronymus (Jerome in English) who in his translation of the Bible into Latin rendered the Greek term neoteros (younger) by the Latin one of adolescentior (more adolescent). Hieronymus, after whom Hieronymus Bosch was christened, is the author of a lengthy dissertation on the mystic meaning of “The Parable of the Two Brothers,” as he calls the parable of the Prodigal Son. In his exegesis of the famous allegory, Jerome interprets the words, for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found (Luke 15:32), to mean that the prodigal son will return to his father’s house after death.3

In his own painting of the Prodigal Son,4 (The Vagabond, known also as The Prodigal Son) Bosch depicts his prodigal son as an old vagabond passing in front of a disreputable-looking house before which is a swine with her litter. According to Jerome, when Jesus says that the younger brother served the prince of a far country and was given the husks of the swine to eat, it means that he had reached the land of Satan. Hence in The Garden of Delights, where the prodigal son of the Catholic church is represented in Hell by a fool crowned with the bagpipe of the bad shepherd, the Church is understandably depicted in the form of a swine wearing the veil of an abbess—denoting Jezebel’s personification of the evil church in the Apocalypse.5 Bosch has placed this Hell under the sign of the testicles of the Antichrist through the allegorical figure of dismembered ears pierced by an arrow and mounted on either side of a knife. When God says to Job, Behold behemoth, which I made with thee (Job 40:15), Gregory interprets it to mean, “For how many have not beheld Antichrist, and yet are his testicles . . . whoever is exalted with pride. . . . what else is he but a testicle of Antichrist?” (Moralia 32:28).6 The ears Bosch depicts are both testicles and shields; behemoth’s “cartilage is as plates of iron; because that which any one would believe to be the weaker part of his body, is the very thing which wounds the more fatally” (Moralia 32:31). With rather ambiguous assertion Bosch implies that a prodigal son castrated himself for having interpreted literally the words of Matthew, there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake (Matt. 19:12), an obvious allusion to Origen, the third-century Biblical scholar who castrated himself.

The Mousetrap in Hell (right panel)

One might assume in Bosch’s Hell that the swine’s companion in the lower right corner is donating his earthly belongings to the Church in order to obtain remission of sins before he undertakes his return journey to his father’s house (the land of God). Augustine interprets David’s words, Mine enemies speak evil of Me, When He shall die, then shall His Name perish (Ps. 40:5), not only as a prophecy of what the Jews would say about Jesus, This is the heir [cleronomos], come, let us kill him, and the inheritance shall be ours (Mark 12:7), but also of what will happen to his Church; “Even after he rose, still spake His enemies, When He shall die, then shall His Name perish” (In Ps. 40:5). Bosch, I believe, concurs with Augustine’s allegorical interpretation of Mark in his depiction of Christ’s garments being torn in the two paintings of the Crowning of Thorns (in the National Gallery, London, and the Escorial). “For hence stirred up the devil persecutions in the Church to destroy the Name of Christ” (In Ps. 40:5).

In Garden of Delights it is in the name of the evil pact being signed by the swine (the Church) and a donor that a diabolic mouse is strangling his victim against an overturned tombstone in the lower left corner of Hell. I believe the mouse, with his raised heel, stands for Judas: Augustine, commenting on David’s prophetic words about Christ’s Church, says “The man of My peace, in whom I trusted, which did eat of My bread, hath enlarged his heel against Me: hath raised up his foot against Me: would trample upon Me. Who is this man of His peace? Judas.” (In Ps. 40: 9-10) Augustine identifies Judas as a devil on the strength of Christ’s words, “Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?” (John 6:70). The mouse’s cloak is in the form of a flat fish shaped like a chalice. The devil mouse is about to crush a wine vessel (directly below his left foot), symbol of the blood of Christ’s martyrs. The mouse’s victim is lanced against a tombstone (actually a book, as its rounded upper edge suggests). This reminds the viewer that with the money Judas received for betraying Christ was bought the potter’s field, to bury strangers in (Matt. 27.7).

According to Philo, the Hellenized Hebrew commentator on the Old Testament, Jacob sleeping on a stone signified that he had found a resting place on the divine logos.7 The stone in Bosch’s Hell is standing on one of its corners to indicate that Jacob, as the mouse’s victim, is martyred in the name of Christ, who is viewed as a descendant of Jacob. Augustine understood that "In that stone he [David] understood Christ . . . for the Stone which the builders refused this is become the head stone of the corner (In Ps. 117:22).

In Augustine’s manuscript David’s text, translated literally from the Latin, reads: gratis [freely] they have hidden for the corruption of their mousetrap [muscipula] (Ps. 34:7, author’s trans.). Therefore, Bosch depicts the diabolic Judas in the guise of a mouse trapping his victim. The wooden bowl on the mouse’s back, containing a severed hand balancing a die on its forefinger, recalls David’s name, which means “. . . Strong in hand . . . what stronger than That Hand Which touched the bier, and he that was dead rose up? What stronger than That Hand Which overcame the world, not armed with steel, but pierced with wood?” (In Ps. 35 Disc. 11).

The Musselbearer and the Colocynth (central panel)

Origen’s doctrine of our eventual return to God through a succession of rebirths stems from Plato. Addressing himself to the Gnostics, Augustine writes in the City of God that “as scholars of Plato, you hold that the world is an animal: and at the same time [you] believe that ‘It is forsooth, a degradation for learned men to pass from the school of Plato to the discipleship of Christ, who by His Spirit taught a fisherman to think and to say: In the beginning was the Word . . .’” (Civ. Bk 10, 29).8 Bosch illustrates this idea in the lower section of the central panel by showing a man carrying a fish coming out of a lobstered gate of Hell, which is shaped like a tombstone. This is both a reminder that, according to Plato, foolish men are reborn as fish,9 and of Christ, whose cross, as legend has it, bore the inscription (in Greek), “Jesus Christ Our God and Savior,” the acronym of which spells the word “fish” in Greek.

Following a right to left reading of Bosch’s painting, the fishbearer and, further to the left, mussel bearer, appear to be on their way back to Eden after having been reborn. The stance of the mussel bearer is a parody of Christ bearing the cross. This figure illustrates the passage in which David’s words, They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink (Ps. 68:22), are treated as a prophecy of Christ’s suffering by showing Christ as a bearer of “such a feast and dainties” (Civ., Bk 17, 19). David continues the prophecy of Christ’s suffering by saying, Let their table become a [mouse] trap before them (Ps. 68:23). In Augustine’s copy, “trap” is in fact the Latin muscipula, or “mousetrap.”10 A mus (mouse) puns with mus (mussel shell). I interpret Bosch’s man carrying the mus mare (mussel of the sea) on his shoulders, moving to the left toward the mus terra (mouse of the earth, shown under water) as a mysterium (mystery) that the viewer has to consider in terms of the mus Aranea (literally, mouse spider),11 and the couple trapped in its web, in a flowerlike glass orb at the far left of the central panel. It should be pointed out that the shellbearer’s feet have been hidden from sight to suggest that he is footless (in Greek, apodos) for having strayed from his road (ap’odos). The giant titmouse (meese in Dutch)—recalling the mouse (muis in Dutch)12—shown just to the right of the shellbearer is perched breast upward to a branch, to illustrate the words of David, who, after saying he hath delivered me from the mousetrap [muscipulam] of the hunters, adds, He will defend thee with his shoulders and under his wings thou shall trust (Ps. 90:3-4). Augustine interprets this to mean that “He shall defend thee between His shoulders and Thou shalt hope under his wings . . . between his shoulders may be understood both in front and behind . . . but in the words thou shalt hope under His wings it is clear that the protection of the wings of God expanded, places thee between his shoulders, so that God’s wings, on this side and that, have thee in the midst.” (In Ps. 90:4)

The shellbearer stands for an imitator of Christ, whose prototype is Simon Magus “who in the season of our Lord’s Passion bore the Cross in compulsion . . . For what we do by compulsion, we do not practise from a heartfelt devotedness of love” (Moralia 8). The mussel vulvae carry gemini (twins) to remind us that Christ was crucified during the consulate of Gemini (Civ. 18:54). Gemini suggests a pun with gemae (gems), denoted by pearls. The mussel shell forms a metra (in Greek, “womb”), which also means a bishop’s miter, which is often studded with gems.

Above the shellbearer a man plunged headlong into the waters may be said to have been crucified upside down as was Peter, and his hands cover the place where his genitalia have been cut off. I believe that this scene was inspired by the following text of Gregory, “For ‘moist places’ are voluptuous deeds. For the foot does not slip on dry ground. . . . They [the ungodly] therefore journey through this life in moist places, who cannot herein stand upright in righteousness . . . But some suppose that by ‘moist places’ are meant the genitals.” (Moralia 33:9)

Balanced between the man’s legs, the mulberry (Morus rubra) or sycomoron (literally, “foolish fig” in Greek), viewed in combination with the ibis bird “hatching” out of it and the Y-shaped thorny branch, indicates that this man slipped because he was on a bifurcated road.

The imitator of Simon Magus (the shellbearer) is advancing to the left toward an imitator of Jonah in the belly of a round, red fish or gourdlike creation, to remind us that Jesus had said that this wicked and provoking generation seeketh after a sign: and there shall no sign be given it, but the sign of the Prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so the Son of Man shall be in the heart of the earth (Matt. 12:39-40). The whale of Jonah has been turned into a round, red vessel, as the Septuagint says that the Lord prepared a colocynth [pumpkin] and made it come up over Jonah that it might be a shadow over his head . . . so Jonah was exceedingly glad of the colocynth (Septuagint, LXX, Jonah 4:6).

From Jonah’s vessel springs a double row of red liliaceous leaves, for Pliny says that the purpurea (red lily) has a double gemino (stalk) and leaves that grow by the root. He adds that it is the tallest of flowers, and has a collar languidly bent over. According to Pliny the colocynth, together with the papyrus, is the most famous herb of Egypt, and when cooked it is like the thread of spiders (the araneoso).13 The spidery veins of the globe growing out of the flower recall the veins of plants. Bosch’s lily is fused with the scirpus (rush), punning with scirpus (enigma). A possible source for this pun can be found in Job’s words: Can the rush [scirpus] grow without moisture; can the flag grow without water? When it is yet in flower, and is not plucked up with the hand it withereth before all herbs. . . . and the hope of the hypocrite shall perish. His folly shall not please God, and his trust shall be like a spider’s web. He shall lean upon his house and it shall not stand. (Job 8:11-15)14

The cobweb glasslike globe that rests upon the colocynth/whale of Jonah’s imitator represents the stage in which the psyche (both “butterfly” and “soul” in Greek) is still a worm covered by a sort of cobweb called a chrysalis (Pliny Bk. 11. 32, 27).15 Bosch’s fanciful chrysalis grew out of the cross-fertilization of a lily rush and a dandelion to give birth to lovers whose carnal delights are symbolically represented by the earthly strawberry within the globe. Bosch has studded the flower’s blue corolla with little gold stars, probably in imitation of the painted decoration of churches.

The couple flowering, as it were, in the glass globe, cannot possibly be anything but a parody of lovers sitting next to each other. The man’s legs remind one of the position of the legs of the infant Christ seated on his mother’s lap and holding a crystal orb in one hand while blessing the Chancellor Rolin with the other, in Jan van Eyck’s Madonna with the Chancellor Rolin. Furthermore, the lover’s hand pressed against the maiden’s belly is the counterpart of the Virgin’s hand pressed upon her child’s belly. In this scene Bosch seems to be satirizing the passage in which Gregory says that “the same virgin could be at once the handmaid and the mother of the Lord . . . The Virgin herself at her conception said Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (Moralia 18.45).

Back to Hell (right panel)

A second mousetrap is represented in Hell by a hare turned hunter, shown trapping a woman falling headlong before him, in the bottom center of the right panel. In Greek the hare is also called a mus (mouse) by Herodotus.16 Augustine says, “many have fallen into the hunter’s mousetrap through a harsh word. What is that that I say? The devil and his angels spread their snares as hunters do” (In Ps. 90:3), which is a comment on David saying, for He Himself shall deliver me from the mousetrap [muscipulam] of the hunter and from the harsh word (Ps. 90:3). As was said, the first mousetrap is laid by a diabolic mouse who is a Judas in the eye of a Church that teaches that Christ is a descendant of Jacob, while the hare turned hunter traps heretics in the snare of this Church that believes its prodigal sons must return to it in this life, rather than in the next.

The Garden of Eden (left panel)

Augustine teaches that allegorically Eden denotes the Church: “Paradise is the Church . . . the fruit trees the saints. . . . the tree of life is Christ, the tree of knowledge of good and evil will’s free choice. This and similar allegories may be upon Paradise.” (Civ. 13, 21) Bosch’s Adam is under the tree of knowledge with one foot placed on top of the other, as Christ’s feet are nailed upon the cross, notably in van Eyck’s Crucifixion. Bosch is thereby suggesting that Adam represents a prodigal son who in a previous life believed that he would be reborn. According to Augustine, Origen’s doctrine implies that Christ also will have to be reborn. The tree to the left of Adam denotes the Church of the prodigal son, for Augustine says: "To what is it that though Adam didst flee from Him and didst hide among the trees of Paradise? . . . There is sought the lost sheep and behold there it is said, concerning the sheep that is found was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found (In Ps. 70.2). A strange spotted cat carrying a mouse in its jaw to the left of Adam may stand for a panther, to remind the faithful that, according to Celsus, Jesus was begotten by Mary through her adulterous relation with a Roman soldier called Panthir (panther).17

Bosch’s Christ holds Eve’s hand in such a way that he could be mistaken for a physician counting her pulse. Having Origen’s self-castration in mind, Augustine reminds us that “evil is removed not by removing nature, or part of nature, which has been introduced by evil, but by healing and correcting that which has been vitiated and depraved. The will then is truly free when it is not the slave of vices and sins. Such was it given to us by God and this being lost by its own fault, can only be restored by Him who was at first able to give it, wherefore it is said if the son shall make you free indeed.” (Civ. 14.11) And in a sermon Augustine says: “A sick man asketh many things of the physician, but the physician gives them not. He doth not comply to the sick man’s will but to the needs of his health. Make God thy physician, ask from Him salvation.” (In Ps. 85.5)

The presence of Christ is an allegorical representation of the Church in Eden, illustrating Augustine’s claim that when David says, Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly (Ps. 1:1), “this is to be understood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord Man. Blessed is the man who has not gone away as the man of earth did (1 Cor. 15:47) who consented to his wife deceived by the serpent.” Augustine then subjoins, “and hath not sat in the seat of pestilence,” for “the seat of pestilence may be more appropriately understood of hurtful doctrine; whose word spreadeth [in Latin, serpit, literally, ”crawls“] as a canker” (2 Tim. 2:17, In Ps. 1:1). The oddly shaped lips of Bosch’s Christ suggest that he has a canker in his mouth. According to Anna Spychalska-Boczkowska, the leaves of the fountain (directly above Christ in Eden) that look like petrified coral are in the shape of the claws of a crab, the zodiacal symbol of Cancer.18

Futhermore, this Christ is abnormally red, as red as the fountain of Eden above Him. Commenting on the verse wherein it is said of wisdom, It cannot be compared . . . with the most precious sardonyx or the sapphire (Job 28:16), Gregory adds that “we must understand by this that the sardonyx, which is not actually a precious stone, signifies Adam because by red earth human beings are denoted, for Adam himself who was created the first is called in the Latin tongue red earth” (Moralia 18:85).

In a previous article I drew attention to the resemblance of Christ and Eve’s union to that of the couple in van Eyck’s famous double portrait (known as The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami).19 Commenting on the following verse written about Leviathan, Who can uncover the face of his garment (Job 41:13), Gregory says, “Who inspire into the minds of my servants the grace of most subtle discernment, in order that, on the unveiling of his malice, they may see his face exposed which he conceals closely covered under the garb of sanctity” (Moralia 43:45). In Bosch’s painting, Christ’s garment conceals in its folds around his waist the horizontal profile of a man resembling the elongated face of the bridegroom in the double portrait (which I believe was undoubtedly van Eyck’s self portrait). If, as I have explained in a previous article, van Eyck delved in hermetic doctrines, he would certainly have studied Origen. The latter, in his Contra Celsus, quotes the Septuagint version of Ecclesiastes 1:6. Translated verbatim it reads, In circles of circles does the mind walk and upon its circles does the mind return. I believe that in the double portrait, van Eyck’s strange hat with its parallel circles illustrates this idea, and in the Garden of Delights Bosch’s Giant in the Hell panel is likewise crowned with a circular parody of a stone around which evil spirits walk in a circle.

The Mousetrap and the Swine-Abbess (right panel)

The pact that is being signed by the Church, in the figure of a swine-abbess, and a learned-looking man, in the lower right corner, is about his return to the Church in his lifetime, that is, before the coming of Antichrist. Augustine interprets David’s words, Arise O Lord, let no man prevail, place a lawgiver over them (Ps. 9:21), by adding simply, “it seems to me to point out to Antichrist” (In Ps. 19:19).

The diabolical messenger (angelos in Greek) offering an inkhorn to the swine-abbess of Hell is cryptically tempting her with a mousetrap. The mousetrap is represented metaphorically by the messenger’s panache consisting of a foot dangling from a thorny branch, which recalls the crown of thorns. Augustine interprets David’s words, In that mousetrap [muscipula] which they hid for me has their foot been taken (Ps. 9:16), to mean “the hidden mousetrap of crafty devising. The foot of the soul is well understood to be its love, that when depraved, is called cupiditas and when upright libido or caritas . . . Cupiditas is called a root. . . . the root, moreover is taken for the foot of the tree.” (In Ps. 9:15) This foot hanging on a thorny branch indicates that according to Bosch the fool who hath said in his heart that there is no God (Ps. 13:1) is certainly wiser than the fathers of the Church.

Nicolas Calas is a poet, diagnostician and polemicist.



In this interpretation of certain figures in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Delights, the following abbreviations are used: “In Ps.” followed by a number refers to Augustine’s Exposition of the Book of Psalms; “Civ.” refers to Augustine’s City of God; “Moralia” refers to Gregory’s Morals of the Book of Job. Quotations from the Bible are always given in italics, even when within a passage from Augustine or Gregory. In most of those cases the Biblical quotations are from the translations of Augustine or Gregory cited in the footnotes; in other cases the source of the translation varies.

1. Augustine, Exposition of the Book of Psalms, English translation, Oxford, 1844, 6 vols. Latin original in Patrologia Latina. vol 36-37. I have followed the Latin numbering of the Psalms, which differs slightly from the numbering of the King James translation. In the text, I have adopted the abbreviation "In Ps.’’ to refer to Augustine’s exposition.

2. Luke 15:12.

3. Hieronymus’ Letters, Patrologia Latina, vol 22.

4. Bosch’s painting, The Prodigal Son, has been renamed The Vagabond, Boymans Museum, Rotterdam.

5. Nicolas Calas, “Hieronymus Bosch and the Parable of the Two Brothers,” Coloquio/Artes, June 1978, Lisbon.

6. Gregory, Moralia (Morals of the Book of Job), Patrologia Latina. vol 75-76. English translation, Oxford, 1844. 4 vol.

7. Philo, Works, Greek and English translation, F.H. Colton, Cambridge Mass., 1968. On Dreams XX 120-337.

8. Augustine, Civitatis Dei (The City of God, abbreviated hereafter as Civ.). English translation, Modern Library, 1950.

9. Plato, Timaeus 92 a-b.

10. Patrologia Latina, vol 41. col. 55.3.

11. lsidor de Sevilla, Etimologiarum, in Patrologia Latina, vol 82, col 44-443.

12. For the shellbearer and the figures surrounding him I am indebted to Elena Calas’ “Bosch’s Garden of Delights: A Theological Rebus,” The Art Journal, Winter 69/70, XXIX/2. pp.184-199, and also E. Calas’ “The Wicked Walk in a Circle in Bosch s Garden,” Coloquio/Artes 36, March 1980, Lisbon.

13. Pliny, Natural History, 51-52, Loeb edition.

14. This is from the Douai translation of the Bible.

15. Pliny, 1634.22.

16. Herodotus, 4. 191-192.

17. Origen, Contra Celsum Patrologia Greca, vol. 11 col. 721-722.

18. Anna Spychalska-Boczkowska, “Material for the Iconography of Hieronymus Bosch. Triptych, The Garden of Delight,” Studio Musealne Poznan, 1966.

19. More on this subject in N. Calas, “Two Mockings of Christ by Hieronymus Bosch,” Coloquio/Artes, June 1979, Lisbon.