Symbols in the Paintings of Hieronymus Bosch

by Larry Solomon, copyright © 2002, 2005

Interpretation of a multitude of symbols makes it possible to "read" Bosch's paintings, many of which contain narratives of Christian stories that were well known in his time. The usual translation of these symbols involves a complex route where each image has many symbolic interpretations which depend upon context. Although context is important, the trouble with this license is that it results in confused contradictions, i.e., many conflicting interpretations of Bosch's symbolism. The results are so confused that there is virtually no agreement on what a painting like the Garden of Earthly Delights means. For example, scholars can't even agree upon the general meaning of the central panel. Some have concluded, like Fraenger, that the central panel is a positive image celebrating nudity and a devil-may-care attitude. He suggested that Bosch may have been a member of the Society of Free Spirits, Adamites, who celebrated nudity and denied evil. Most scholars, however, take the opposite view that Bosch was a Christian moralist whose recurring message is the warning that the torments of Hell will be retribution for a life of sin. See the References for sources on medieval and Bosch symbolism.

Some scholars have used an alchemical approach to the symbolism, suggesting that Bosch's images are focused in the alchemy that was practiced in his day. Others have sought to interpret the images in terms of general Christian or Medieval symbolism. There is considerable disagreement on this avenue of interpretation as well. Another route is to use either Freudian symbolism or Jungian archetypes as a basis to explore subconscious connections of which perhaps even Bosch himself was unaware. The dreamlike quality of his images certainly suggests that the last route should be included, or at least considered, in an interpretation.

In my translation of the images I considered Freudian and Medieval Christian symbols as well as Jungian archetypes. My purpose was to limit the symbolic meanings to include only those most consistent with the images and narratives. The result of the synthesis is a strong indication of Bosch's moralistic intentions. The following chart contains the results of this study.

Bosch's image

Meaning

Source

WordAssociation





Animals/beasts

Devils, Sin   

DH
bestial

Ape

Mimic, lie, mockery

DH
aping it

Arrows, piercing (also knives, swords, etc)

Punishment, Sexual Intercourse

M

Badge/shield

Shielding, covert evil

D
shielding

Bagpipes

lasciviousness, sex, androgyny, male testicles

M

Bat wings

Satan

FO
black
Birds, fleeing, flying Loss of morality, loss of spiritO

Birds, general (see also bird species)

Devils, amorality, depravity

DH

Bird, spoonbill

Drunkard

Tr

Black

Corruption, evil, death     

O

Blue

Deceit, folly

O

Boat or water-skis Fragile protection from sinking into abyss (of sin)

Book, reading or preaching from

Misused knowledge or scripture

H
"book learning"
Boot Hate M
"under the boot"

Branches, dead

Death, malignancy, scourge     

O

 Bridge
  Transition
F

Bubble, transparent cracked Fragile pleasuresO
Bubble is about to break

Butterfly

Inconstancy, Capriciousness

DMF

Cap/hat, blue

Hypocrisy, deceit,covert

O

Cave

Entrance to underworld

HF

Cherries, fruit

Sensual temptations, sexual appetite

MD
virginity

Circle/circling figures

Cycle of life and death/reincarnation

H

Cock

Pride, lechery

M
proud as a cock

Crawling creatures

Sins of the flesh



Crescent/Sickle shape

Devil’s emblem, evil omen, heresy, Islam, pagan

DMH

Crow/Raven Maleficent MF  

Crown

Authority

H

Deer

Soul, Christ

MO

Dogs eating man

Punishment for envy

M

Drinking, drink

Evil indulgence



Duck

Stupidity, drunkard (watery), deceit  

O

Eagle

Pride

O

Ears sliced by knife

Infidelity, defamation

O

Ears, droopy

Dumb, stupidity



Egg

Alchemy/magic, changeling, birth

DHM

Eggshell, broken

Defective birth/death, collapse, degeneration

H

Eye

All seeing, spying

H
All-seeing eye

Faces, grotesque

Evil intent



Fish in water Christians MH

Fish out of water

Death of Christian principles, licentiousness, sin

M

Fire/Flames

Torments of Hell

M

Sword, flaming

Judgment, sacrifice

F

Flowers

Sexual reproduction


deflowered

Foot, club or injured

Devil, morally degenerate (something wrong)



Fountain

Lord’s word (fount), elixir of life



Fruits/cherries

Sensual temptations, reminder of original sin



Funnel

Madness, corruption, deceit

BaxDM
empty-headed

Gibbet/Gallows

Indictment, guilt

H

Gnome/Grillo

Underworld spirit, demon

M

Halo

Divinity



Hand, left

Deviousness

F

Hand pierced by knife

Christ’s teachings stabbed



Harp

Deceptively divine (of the earth), seducer

M

Hat, top Deceiver (pretentiousness)

Hay

Materialism, measure of greed and wealth

MH

Horse, winged

Capriciousness



Jewels

Souls

H

Jug or vase

Emptiness, female sex, vagina, female trap

MHTr

Jug or hat on stick or foot Sexual act

Key

Opening conjugal door, phallus, sex

M

Knife

Anger, male sex symbol

M

Knight, merman Demon searching for victims

Ladder, climbing (also staircase)

Ambition, transition, sexual invitation

MH

Lamb

Jesus/obedience to God

MH
Lamb of God

Lute

Erotic temptation

M

Magpie

Babbler, deceiver, thief, drunkard



Mask

Concealment



Mermaid, Merman sexual seduction, lechery MH  

Mirror

Vanity

H

Money

Greed


"Money is the root of all evil"
Mollusc (see oyster)      

Monkey (see also "Ape")

Lies, mimic, gossip

O

Musical instruments

Temptation, pernicious pleasures



Nudity

Sexual provocation, lasciviousness, shame

O

Nun in window or door Procuress

Obesity Gluttony

Owl peering

Satan looking for victims, creature of the dark

HDOBald

Ox

Servitude, strength

H
"Strong as an ox"
Oyster or Mussel shell Adultery, Female, sexual passion, entrapment MHF

Palm Tree Tree of Good and Evil M  

Peacock

Pride, vanity

DM  

Pig

Gluttony

MF
pig

Pigeons or other birds in loft

Brothel

H

Pine cone

Purity, fertility  

O

Pink

Sensual world



Rabbit

Fecundity

MF
"they breed like rabbits"

Rat

Deceiver, untrustworthy

H

Raven, Crow

Evil omen, devil

All

Robin/Redbreast

Lust, lechery

M

Reptiles

Devils

O

Riding

Sexual act

H

Rooster

Pride, Infidelity, lust

O

Salamander

Alchemy, Trickster



Satyr (half man, half goat)

Demon, pleasure seeking

FH

Scorpion

Treachery, hypocrisy

H
sting of a scorpion

Scroll

Misuse of scripture



Sexual pleasure

Sinful indulgence



Sheep

Stupid, unclean, Christian flock



Shell, broken

Corruption, lost virginity, rape



Shield, armor Covert H  
Spectacles, person with One who cannot see, easily misled

Sphere, blue

Adultery, deceit

H

Ship

Roman Church

DH

  Sirens (see mermaids)
 


Skull

Death



Snake/serpent

Devil, demon

M

Sphere, cracked Bubble of pleasure is about to break

Spikes

Hazards, warnings



Spider

Web of Satan

F

Sun

Christ/prophet



Swan

Devil’s emblem, hypocrisy, prostitution, corruption

M

Swan on flag Prostitution H

Sword

Weapon of murder, anger



Sword, flaming

Sacrifice



Table, game

Conniving, gambling, drunkenness

H

Thistle

Corruption, hazard



Thorny fruit

Painful, hazardous temptation



Thorns

Hazard, pain, punishment


a thorny problem

Toad/frog

Filth, devil, evil, cruelty

DMHWF

Tower

Refuge of God



Tree

Life, spirit

M

Tree of knowledge

Expulsion from paradise, Fall of man



Tree-man

Knowledge



Tree, palm

Righteousness

F

Trees, barren or rotten, hollow

Sp ritual death, evil, corruption

H

Trumpets

Last judgment

Tr

Tube

Female trap



Undercover/shawl/blanket

Deceit, covert, concealed



Unicorn

Purity, Virgin, Christ

M

Vomiting

Gluttony, corruption



Water, immersion in Hazard, warning

Wheel

Torture, machination

H

White Divine power M  

Woman, nude

Lasciviousness, sin, prostitute, seduction

D

Wounds

Corruption (something wrong)

H

Yoke

Subservience







The following image map shows how these symbols may be used to interpret the meaning of part of the Lisbon St Anthony triptych by Bosch.


Sources:
D=Delevoy
M=Torviso & Marias
T = Tolnay
H=Harris
O=Orderr
F=Fontana
Tr=Trnek
W=Whittlesey
B=Bax
Bald=Baldass