25 – THE OAR, THE SPADE, AND THE GIANT SPOON – PART 2

Continued from part one.

The animals in Bosch’s Wayfarers (left and center) and in the Mat card (right).

Strikingly, a menacing animal pursues both wayfarers and the Mat’s pilgrim fool in all three images. What does that mean? The beast’s presence can be explained by a passage from Jean  Gerson’s treatise The Mountain of Contemplation (written in 1400), where the Parisian theologian compares the rise of the soul toward God to the ascent up a mountain (on Jean Gerson, see episode 24). Here, Gerson points out, among various obstacles to such a rise, a peculiar one:

There are yet others who are frightened as soon as they hear the bark of the dogs of hell. In other words, as soon as they have any ugly temptation, they stop doing anything and give themselves to chasing away such thoughts, while the best way to get rid of them should be to pay no attention to them. There is the example of the pilgrim who will stop whenever dogs bark on his path but will pass by, and they will fall quiet. The more he would stop in order to defend himself and make them cease, the more they would bark, and the more he would be held up on his way.[1]

The “dogs of hell” are the temptations assailing the pilgrim on his way, which he should ignore without trying to confront them. The image apparently depicts aggressive animals, who in reality should not be feared for themselves. Bosch represented yappy little dogs with bristling hair, showing their fangs, equipped with spiked collars made for wolf-hunting watchdogs – a threat that does not seem very intimidating given the animals’ small size. The dog that barks at the Rotterdam wayfarer is exemplary. A close examination of the painting reveals a pentimento: The artist chose to reduce the animal’s size, probably with a view toward increasing the disproportion between the animal’s aggressiveness and its actual offensive capabilities.

The reduced dog in Bosch’s Wayfarer tondo.

Moreover, the “dogs of hell” reappear in the interior right panel of the Haywayn triptych, which more precisely represents hell. There, we see them pursuing a man running away. As in the Mat card, one of the beasts puts its legs on the fugitive’s thigh and is about to bite his buttocks.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Haywayn (detail), ca. 1500-1510 (Prado Museum, Madrid)

Furthermore, it is most likely that Bosch had access to a copy of Gerson’s Complete Works. The frontispiece of the 1489 Basel edition is illustrated with an engraving showing Gerson dressed as a pilgrim.

Albrecht Dürer (attr.), Jean Gerson as a pilgrim, frontispiece of the 1489 Basel edition of Jean Gerson’s Complete Works.

This image obviously inspired Bosch to produce a painting representing Saint James as a pilgrim.

Hieronymus Bosch, Saint James (detail), ca. 1500-1505 (Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna).

There are enough similarities to discard the possibility of a mere coincidence: The general position is the same, with the face turned to the right, and the left foot taking a step forward; facial features are quite similar, notably the aquiline nose, brow arch, thick eyelids, wavy hair, and beard; both men wear the same rimmed hat decorated with an emblem on the front (the cross on Gerson’s hat was replaced by a shell on Saint James’); the sticks are of the same type, with a ring in the superior part, reinforced by a metal tip; they both carry a satchel with a flap; and the shield held by the pilgrim in Gerson’s engraving, with its characteristic shape, reappears suspended from the architectural structure, forming a base at the bottom of the painting.

Being familiar with Gerson’s works, Bosch probably recognized in the Mat card an image of the pilgrim attacked by the dogs of hell and was inspired by it to create his Wayfarers. In all likelihood, the animal in the Mat card represents the ugly temptations, to which the pilgrim should not pay too much attention.

To be continued in part three.

[1] Jean Gerson, Early Works, translated by Brian Patrick McGuire, New York, Paulist Press, 1998, p. 109.