Looking at Hieronymus Bosch is looking at yourself – Part 2

What path of self-redemption from this demonic world would Hieronymus Bosch have envisioned?

Looking at Hieronymus Bosch is looking at yourself – Part 2

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The Scottish researcher Lynda Harris[2] makes it credible that he is strongly influenced by the gnostic-inspired, dualistic ideas of Bogomils and Cathars. Surprisingly, there are also clues to this.

– Let’s take, for example, The Death and the Miser, a painting that pervasively depicts the choice that the soul faces.

Death Miser


In a preliminary study we find an anthropomorphic Cathar cross. It is a cross that depicts that evil in the world will be embraced by the good with love. In the final version of the painting it is omitted.

– Cutting the Stone, also known as The Cure of Folly, also offers clues. With Lubbert Das (Lubbert=name for stupidity; Das=fatso) a ‘stone is cut’. ‘Cutting a stone’ was a mediaeval custom to become completely healthy again. What is cut is what conventional Christians consider to be foolishness, a kind of exorcism, something for which there is no place in the established church – the spiritual potential of the man. In the painting it is not a stone at all, but a kind of lotus bud, an ancient symbol of spiritual consciousness, of the divine primal core of man.

Cutting the stone


The bud is still rather closed and stupid Lubbert has it removed by representatives of the church. Remarkable is the typical Cathar clothing of the woman, who by the way is completely ignored, with the gospel of John on her head. We see a round table leaning on a kind of mushroom and it looks very much like the round, flat stone on legs that was used at the Cathar ceremony of the consolamentum.

– In a preliminary study of the haywain we see inside the world of the haywain far away a (traditional) cross. But just outside there is a universal light cross depicting a way of salvation. An almost identical light cross adorns Bogomil tombstones in Sarajevo and in Radimlja, Bosnia. These Bogomil tombstones are often explained as the resurrection of the imperishable. It cannot be ruled out that Bosch refers to this with this cross of light.

– In the beautiful painting St. Christopher Carrying the Christ Child the giant Reprobus carries a child (Jesus) in distress to the other side of the turbulent water.



Halfway through his task becomes a lot lighter when he discovers that it is Jesus he is carrying: giant Reprobus becomes the bearer of Christ = Christopher. Another connection between two worlds with Bosch. Although the child comes from a beautiful landscape, far away and almost invisibly a village is on fire. Reprobus / Christopher brings it into a safe ‘harbour’, leaning on his staff (symbol of his budding faith, that is a living faith, judged by the green vegetation on his staff) and guided by the bloody fish on his staff: fish /= (Greek) ichtus is often the symbol of Christ. ICHTUS: for early Christians this was the core of the biblical message. Iesous Christos Theou Huios Sooter – Jesus, Christ, God, Son, Saviour. The motif of Christopher can be found on Bogomil tombstones. In the Bogomil topographical biblical symbolism, the neophyte had to cross the always stormy Lake of Galilee safely: the lake stood for the ultimate turbulence of life to be overcome. Only then could one reach Kapharnaum, the city of the Comforter, on the other side of the lake. Bosch as well as the Bogomils had to veil their insights when making them known, in symbols that would only be understood by kindred spirits.

The fact that Bosch also offered the tormented mankind an undisguised view, can be seen best in the beautiful fragment depicting the ascent of the cleansed, personified soul towards the redeeming fathomless light. Through a shaft-like tube, the soul is led guided to paradise – in a pose of prayer – by the angel.

pilar of glory


We see the same prayer attitude on St. Jerome the Hermit, depicted on the ‘pillar of glory’ in which the soul ‘transcends’ different levels of the universe to reach the gateway of the land of Light. This process of soul ascension is described in the Vision of Isaiah, which is said to have been written in a Bogomil monastery in Macedonia.

It is not so important to know for sure whether Hieronymus Bosch was a ‘late’ Cathar or a Bogomil. That he was an initiate is indisputable. There is no artist from the past who claims the title of magician or initiate more than he does. But his greatest merit is that even after 500 years he still encourages self-reflection and self-knowledge. And with that he connects us with a classical, universal truth:

He who knows himself, knows the All.



[1] This article is partly taken from Jeroen Bosch, wijsheid-schrijver met beelden, Rozekruis Pers, Haarlem 2016

[2] Lynda Harris, Secret Heresy of Hieronymus Bosch, Floris Books, 1995

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Date: March 23, 2020
Author: Dick van Niekerk (Netherlands)
Photo: Hieronymus Bosch

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