Peter Glum - Biblical and theoological references

At first glance, Peter Glum's idea that Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights can be explained through Biblical references seems entirely straightforward. It seems clear that Bosch would have been familiar with the Bible and no doubt drawn on it for some of his imagery. Glum's book, in two volumes, the first being 500 pages of solid text and the second 80 pages of illustrations and 170 pages of text, would seem to be exhaustive, however, once one reads into this mass of material one becomes less and less certain of the validity of his approach.

Firstly, Glum adheres to the Ernst Gombrich view that the outer panels do not refer to the third day of Creation but to the Earth after the Deluge. This, contrarian viewpoint, colours Glum's interpretation of the inner panels. He sees the program for the picture to be based on the Latin text of the Bible, the Vulgate. He says that he began to search the entire Bible for parables or images, which might have inspired Bosch's imagery. During his search Glum realised that he had to move on to sermons, and theological encyclopedias such as the De Universo of Rabanus Maurus, the Gregorianum (a collection of allegories), De natura rerum of Thomas de Cantimpre, De naturis rerum of Alexander Neckam, the Speculum naturale of Vincent of Beauvais, books of sermons and so on and on. His second book is taken up with the myriad of references he quotes. So Glum having failed to find references in the Bible to explain Bosch's painting, has to go trawling through a mass of theological tracts. This marks the point of failure in his thesis. There is no simple explanation using Biblical imagery, and it required many years of Glum struggling through all these theological texts and him writing many hundreds of pages for him to find explanations for the imagery in the painting. Bosch is unlikely to have been a Latin scholar. He was an artist struggling to make a confortable living. It is just so unlikely that he would have had time to read though all these theological tracts, were they accessible to him. Glum had time to do this, but he was not simultaneously creating wonderful large paintings.

So Glum's book is flawed by his need to source every component of every image in the painting, and locate it in some obscure theological text. He is happy piling complexity on complexity, making us as reader contort ourselves by crawing through a warren of tunnels of associations. The sheer over-elaboration of his interpretation collapses his thesis, on page after relentless page.

Let us just look at some examples.

First when considering the icy pond in the Hell panel, Glum says:
"However, since Bosch's picture does not represent a real hell, it does not follow that the people skating on the ice and breaking in on the ice we see there have the same meaning. Indeed, in one of his poems, a German poet of the thirteenth century called 'Der Marner' asks the Holy Virgin 'to melt off the ice of sin'. In other words, ice may mean just any kind of sin. On the other hand, the Liber angelus identifies glacies, ice with the synagogue, and gelu, frost, first with the Jews, but then goes on to say:
Frost means the harshness of tribulations, as in Job 37.10, 'By the breath of God frost is given...' that is, where ever God pours out his inspiration, the tribulations may sometimes become worse.
Perhaps more interesting is what Pierre Bersuire says under Frigus, cold, where we read:
The cold of the tribulations of the world dries out all of its delights, as we read in Ps. 147.17, 'He casteth forth his ice like morsels; who can stand before his cold?', Indeed, the cold of eternal damnation takes away all comforts, as in Deut. 28.22,' May the Lord afflict thee with miserable want, with fever, and with cold, with burning and with heat, and with corrupted air and with mildew...' The cold of malevolence, snuffs out the flames of love, as in Zech. 14.6 [D], 'And it shall come to pass in that day, that there shall be no light, but cold and frost...'
Moreover, Alexander Neckam says in his De naturis rerum:
.. .many are frozen by the cold of infidelity or greed, but as soon as the spirit will bring forth his breath, the water will melt again.
And again, in a sermon for the Monday after the fifth Sunday of Lent from the Sermones de tempore et de sanctis, by Bertrandus de Turre, O.F.M. (fl327) on the theme of John 7.38:
He that believeth in me, as the scripture hath said, Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water."
This seems too complex an analysis for a simple enough image. Would Bosch have really had all these things in mind when painting this part of his triptych?

Next, let us see what Glum makes of this image from the central panel:

First of all, regardless of its giant size, the flower we are shown here does not exist in nature. Therefore, it can only stand for one of the many allegories of the word flower, Latin, flos, and certainly not a good one. Indeed, what we should expect here, would be most likely the proverbial words of Is. 40.6:
'All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth.'
Indeed, both the Gregorianum and Rabanus Maurus give us but this quotation for the meaning of a flower, in the negative sense. The Liber angelus gives us a few minor variations and says, for instance:
'A flower designates the elegance of this world, as in the Book of Wisdom 2.7, 'Let not the flower of the time pass by us . . .' that is, 'Let us not give up the elegance of this world.' A flower signifies the tenderness of youth, as in Jb. 14.2: 'He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down', that is, that the age of man comes forth like the petal of a flower. A flower designates the praise of hypocrites, as in Jb. 8.12: 'When it is yet in flower, it withereth', that is, sometimes even a flatterer may find no praise.'
For Giovanni de San Gimignano, the flower is again only a metaphor for the fleeting life of man on the earth. However, among other things, Pierre Bersuire quotes: 'All flesh is grass', and then goes on to say:
'These words may be said indeed, about men who are either hypocrites, or changeable, or fickle, whose feigned perfection might be ever so graceful and flowery, but has no strength, nor does it last for when it is only slightly tempted, it may vacillate, and fall, be broken or drop like a flower. Hence, Jb. 8.12, 'When it is yet in flower, and not plucked by the hand, it withereth before all herbs.'
Does this give us any insight into what Bosch intended in this component of his painting ? Would Bosch have been thinking of such texts when he prepared his brushes and pigments on the day he worked on that image?

Now let us see what Glum makes of the fish lying on the ground.

...if we take it just as a 'fish', in the general sense, that may have a rather large number of allegorical meanings, it is not very hard to find the meaning of this particular fish, for it happens to be no longer swimming, but is lying dry on the ground. The meaning of it may indeed be explained by what St. Vincent Ferrer (ca. 1350-1419) says in a sermon for the Friday after Whitsun, where we read:
. . . Such are the lusty whom the devil captures like one catches fish with a hook, for just as the fisherman covers his hook so that the fish would not see it, so the devil catches the sinners, and especially the lusty by showing them the lusts, while he hides the hook, that is the tortures that will follow the sin, and then he pulls them into hell by their sins. Hence, we read in Ecclesiastes 9.12: 'For man also knoweth not his time; as the fishes that are taken with a hook, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time when it falleth suddenly upon them.'

On the other hand, this big fish we see here could also be seen as connected with the large pumpkin or melon on the left side of the picture, and recall Nm. 11.4, where the children of Israel complain:
'. . . Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers and the melons, and the leeks and the onions and the garlick. But now our soul is dried away there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes. And the manna was as coriander, and the colour thereof as the colour of bdellium.'
That the Vulgate says here 'cucumeres et pepones', the Authorized Version, 'cucumbers and melons', the Low German version gekyrffte unde pepone and the Dutch cucumeren en die cabuyscolen would make no difference here, while it certainly perfectly fits the fruity context of the painting.

Yet in the last analysis the conclusion may be that this dead fish lying on the ground in the centre of the bottom of this 'Garden' is there to sum up the meaning of all the groups indulging in the earthly delights, shown in it. For, as the canon and rector of the University of Bale, Johannes Gritsch (ca. 1420-1470), says in the fourth sermon of his Quadragesimale:
'. . . Plato says in his Phaedrio [sic]: 'the bait of all evil is lust, for men are caught by it as fish are by the hook.'
Sadly, this gives me no insight into this fish symbol. One almost senses Glum's desperation as, having embarked on this massive project of sourcing Bosch's imagery in Biblical allegory and parables, he is forced to find unsatisfying, indirect and obscure references. This piles up to 500 pages of dense text. I cannot see the point of his analysis. One can applaud Glum for effort and sheer determination, but surely Bosch did not have access to these obscure sermons and theological treatises, and if he did, how exactly did this direct his brush when he worked on his painting? Had Bosch read all this material, the poor man's brain would have been reeling with a myriad of contradictory interpretations. He would have been paralysed, unable to make a mark until he had read yet another sermon, to make sure that the fish was truly the correct image for the meaning he wished to convey in this part of his painting.

If Bosch had really read and understood such material he would have been a scholar like Erasmus, not a humble painter.