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MLN 119.1 Supplement (2004) S247-S270

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Sicut in utrem aquas maris:
Jerome Bosch's Prolegomenon to the Garden of Earthly Delights

Charles Dempsey
Johns Hopkins University

In 1953 Kurt Wolff, the owner of Pantheon Books (publishers of the Bollingen series that had been established by Paul and Mary Mellon), suggested to Huntington Cairns at the National Gallery of Art that Erwin Panofsky might be an appropriate candidate for the Andrew W. Mellon Lectureship, inaugurated only three years before. 1 Although Wolff recommended Panofsky as a "brilliant lecturer," and even though the nomination was heartily endorsed by Bernard Berenson, Cairns rejected the proposal. He wrote in reply that, while he foresaw the time would soon come when professional art historians might be asked to lecture, he did not think the moment yet ripe for technical specialists to be entrusted with so prestigious and ambitious an assignment. Cairns' rationale is astonishing, given that Panofsky's Studies in Iconology, one of the most widely read and influential art-historical books of the last century, and which had already made a permanent impression throughout all areas of humane studies, had originated as the Mary Flexner Lectures at Bryn Mawr College. Nay, it becomes astounding in light of the fact that Panofsky's monumental Early Netherlandish Painting had been published, with the support of [End Page S247] the Bollingen Foundation, only the year before. This had originated as the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, on the direct model of which the Mellon Lectures had been conceived and established at the National Gallery of Art with the intent of doing for the visual arts what the Norton Lectures had done for the study and criticism of poetry. Early Netherlandish Painting is still, as it was from the day it first appeared, awe-inspiring for its learning (or technical mastery, as Cairns might have said), and it is beyond dispute one of the greatest, if not the greatest, art-historical books of the twentieth century. It is as famous for its breadth of vision, prose style, unflagging pace, accessibility, and its humor as it is for the depth of its scholarship. And anyone who has read Early Netherlandish Painting will always remember the book's famous ending, where, paraphrasing Ficino's German translator Adelphus Mülich, Panofsky with magisterial diffidence declined to treat of the work of Jerome Bosch. "This," he wrote, "too high for my wit, I prefer to omit."

Only Panofsky, who of course was fully aware of his own powers, could have pulled that joke off, for it is funny precisely because of the unparalleled wit and learning that informs Early Netherlandish Painting. Yet perhaps he made it too well, for it has obscured the fact that on the preceding page, and in the space of that page only, Panofsky wrote some of the most perceptive remarks about Bosch that have ever been penned. As anyone who knows the literature on Bosch even superficially will be aware, there is nothing more bewildering than sifting through all of the countless attempts to interpret his paintings in widely varying, and often seemingly incompatible, modes, sometimes based in scriptural exegesis, sometimes in heretical beliefs, and in turn invoking magical and alchemical treatises, folklore and popular proverbs, or attempting a psychoanalytical analysis of the libidinous symbolism of his strangely phallic forms, his swollen and unnaturally bright-colored fruits, and depictions of unconventional acts of lovemaking. Despite all this effort, according to Panofsky, the secret to interpreting Bosch's strangely hybrid imagery (his grilli as they were called by Felipe de Guevara around 1560, referring to ancient grotesques invented by the painter Antiphilos), or his comically macaronic inventions (as they were perceptively named by Fray José de Sigüenza in 1605), remains hidden. "We have bored a few holes in the door of the locked room," he wrote, "but somehow we do not seem to have discovered the key." And he added his conviction that orthodox Christian theology lay at the heart of Bosch's intellectual [End Page S248] life, even though...


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