Tag Archives: holy land experience

Hieronymus Bosch, virtual pilgrimage, and the memory of the crusades.

29 Aug

The paintings of Hieronymus Bosch (Jheronimus van Aken, c. 1450-1516) are famously rich in detail, beguiling, and hard to interpret. Amongst Bosch’s enigmatic works, one has been singled out as being especially hard to understand: his Epiphany panel triptych of c. 1495, now held at the Prado Museum in Madrid. The image shows, in the foreground, the Magi visiting the infant Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem. In the distant background is Jerusalem. At the top of the image, in the central panel and at the formal ‘summit’ of the triptych, is the star which guided the Magi. In the side panels, the donors kneel with their patrons saints. There’s obviously a wealth of other imagery here, but in the current context, I’m particularly interested in the Holy Land scene that Bosch sets up here.

Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Controversy around the image’s meaning has focussed on the figures in the foreground, in particular the gurning figures in and around the stable. Who is the ‘Fourth Magus’, grinning somewhat maniacally out of the door, with a variety of hideous figures behind him? The picture has been variously interpreted, with most scholars seeing this figure either as Antichrist or the Jewish Messiah (according to an influential reading by Lotte Brand Philip), or as the sorcerer and flawed prophet Balaam (בִּלְעָם; Numbers 22-31; Deuteronomy 23:3-6). Behind this figure is a crowd of what seem to be disfigured and threatening Jews, gazing on the infant Christ, who will, in time, crucify the child on which they gaze at the place depicted in the background, a Calvary marked with the cross of the sails of a windmill.

Close of the 'fourth magus' (Jewish Messiah? Balaam?). Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Close-up of the ‘fourth magus’ (Jewish Messiah? Balaam?). Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Without a doubt, the image is concerned with the idea of making a trip to the Holy Land: that is the subject-matter of the Epiphany, as the Three Kings journey from the East. Bosch’s picture is also concerned with right and wrong ways of seeing: various figures populate the image, straining to glimpse the tiny Christ-child in his mother’s lap: there are figures climbing on the roof, around the side of the building, and, through the ramshackle stable (representing the ramshackle crumbling of the Old Law as the birth of Christ announces the New), a particularly memorable face peers through the holes in the wall:

Figure looking on at the Christ-child. Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid

Figure looking on at the Christ-child. Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.

There’s much more to be said about the foreground, but there are many interesting things happening in the background too, as Bosch sets up what I suggest is an imagined Holy Land which connotes both virtual pilgrimage and the memory of crusading, possibly as a call to a renewed crusade. The world of the pilgrimage is suggested not only in the image’s construction as a ‘route’ through the Holy Land, including a bridge and a tavern, but in the various figures on the side panels, who seem to represent the perils of pilgrimage: on the left, a man lifts up his tunic to flash his genitals at a woman, and three other figures dance riotously (below); on the right, on the bleak wayside, a wolf chases a woman and a boar or wolf savages a man amid a landscape of broken-down trees. These are, I suggest, ‘wanderers on the way’, struggling on the route to Jerusalem with both the perils of the landscape and with their own concupiscence. The entire landscape, beautiful on first sight, bears the marks of bad stewardship, human misbehaviour, and sinister hazards.

Fleeing from a wolf, gored by a boar. Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Fleeing from a wolf, gored by a boar or wolf. Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Between Bethlehem and Jerusalem two armies hurtle towards the image’s centre; both are wearing turbans, and the army on the left bears a standard with a crescent on it. They seem to represent the Mameluke forces who then held the Holy Land and had driven out the Christian crusaders, several centuries earlier. Behind them is a wonderfully rich and interesting Holy Land landscape. Here’s a close-up of Bosch’s Jerusalem and its hinterland:


Jerusalem. Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Between the two armies, an Islamic idol is situated on a small hill – a man tied to a golden post with an Islamic crescent on top. This seems to be an anti-crucifix, a perverted idol. At the entrance to Jerusalem, one can see a third army entering the city. These three armies – which echo the Three Kings of the Epiphany – seem to be the late-medieval Islamic forces which, unlike the good magi, fail to accept the authority and lordship of Christ. On a green hill outside the city is a windmill: at first this looks like a Netherlandish anachronism, a glimpse of Holland in the Holy Land, but it might also be a symbol both of Calvary – a cross at the compositional centre of the cityscape – and of a compass, as Jerusalem was held to be the centre of the world.

A further detail, which seems to have gone unnoticed by art historians, is the highest hill outside Jerusalem, to the right of the central panel, on which stand two riders on horseback, gazing down on Jerusalem below them. It is this detail which originally caught my attention, as I am currently researching medieval visitors to Mount Joy/Nabi Samwil, the hill outside Jerusalem from which the crusaders and pilgrims took their first view of the Holy City. The pilgrims at the top of the hill are directing their gaze on Jerusalem just as the people in the foreground direct their gaze on the Christ-child – and so, in one of many parallels in the image, Bosch sets up a chain of meaning between Christ’s birth and the city where he will suffer his Passion.

Islamic idol and riders taking view of Jerusalem.

Islamic idol and riders taking view of Jerusalem. Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Epiphany, c. 1495, oil on panel. Museo nacional del Prado, Madrid.

The inclusion of Mount Joy, and the horseback pilgrims taking their vista of the Holy City, suggests Bosch’s familiarity with pilgrimage literature and itineraries of the Holy Land; moreover, his paralleling of the Magi’s submission to Christ with the Islamic control of the Holy Land of his own day suggests stages a bold movement between biblical and Mameluk moments. Indeed, the image might, in part, suggest both the importance of pilgrimage and the corrupting, run-down and perilous route through the Holy Land as held in Bosch’s time by the Mameluks.

There are, assuredly, many ways of interpreting an image like this. But the connection between the image and an aesthetic call to a new crusade against the Mameluks is given more authority if we consider the identity of the image’s donor. The donor, as discovered by a French scholar a few years ago, was Peeter Scheyfve, a mercer of Antwerp, and his wife Agnes de Gramme. They are the kneeling figures on the front of the image. Peeter Scheyfve is also depicted on the rear of the image along with his son Jan. Jan Scheyfve completes the Holy Land connection, because he was a Knight Hospitaller in the Order of Jerusalem. Whilst it is true that the image of Jan Scheyfve may have been added a few years after Bosch’s original composition of the image, the fact that the donor’s son was involved in the rhetorical crusader orders which fetishised the Holy Land and its loss suggests that the contemporary state of the Holy Land – for pilgrims or would-be crusaders – informs Bosch’s wonderful image. Can we see in the Prado Epiphany a comment on the shameful state of the Holy Land, or a call to retake the Holy Land from the poor stewards who held it in Bosch’s time?

These are very much the ideas-in-progress of a non-art historian, at a tangent to the work I’m doing on Nabi Samwil. Further high-quality images and some interesting interpretations, including a full account of the picture’s biblical allusions, are available here.

At the Whipping Post, Florida

23 May

I’ve been based in the USA since August 2012, at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, with not many medieval Calvary sites close by. I did, however, make the journey in May 2013 to Orlando, Florida, to the Holy Land Experience theme park, a large and apparently successful venture only a few miles from popular tourist destinations like Universal Studios, Walt Disney World, and Wet n Wild. I was interested in seeing what the Holy Land Experience had in common with the medieval sites I’m studying and how visitors interacted with the sites there. One scholar, Annabel Wharton of Duke University, has written some interesting material on the Holy Land Experience in her book Selling Jerusalem; in brief, she explores the park through a Marxist/Situationist lens, thinking about the relentless commercialisation and commodification of Jerusalem-as-spectacle, as spiritual capital is turned into financial capital. I was interested to see if my reactions to the park chimed with those of Wharton.


Whipping Post

This picture shows the Whipping Post, a replica of a non-site, ‘the place Pilate had Jesus scourged’: a place known from liturgy and iconography, rather than archaeology or history. It’s one of the first sites one encounters on entering the park, in a dazzling and rather bewildering jumble of religious times and narratives: the Whipping Post is situated on top of the Tiny Town of Bethlehem, a miniature model of Bethlehem, and just in front of a bold and rather dazzling replica of the Second Temple. The Whipping Post does not strive for authenticity – the ‘blood’ is so thickly applied that it appears that someone has dropped a pot of paint onto it. Most of the visitors to the site walked past it, apparently oblivious, but one little girl walked up to it, touched it, as if to check if the blood/paint was dry. She examined her fingers and walked away.

There are many things to be said about the Holy Land Experience, but here I’ll restrict myself to just a few of the things that struck me most about it.

The most noticeable thing about the park is its thoroughgoing and strident Christian Zionism. In the car park, the Bethlehem Bus Loop is surmounted by a giant Star of David. One enters through the ticket booth to be greeted by staff with a ‘Shalom’; staff wear name badges saying ‘Shalom my name is …’. In the entrance area the bracing sounds of Hava Nagila blast out on a loop. In the gift shop, one can buy a menorah, a kippah, a tallit. There is mock-Hebrew signage (pictured below). In the restaurant, ‘authentic Israeli food’ was on offer, though lamb kebabs don’t seem to me particularly authentically Israeli. This uninflected Zionism is messianic and eschatological in flavour, and uses Jewish narratives as a way of constructing a Christian story. It is telling that, nestling amongst the Judaica in the gift shop, one can buy the Life of Jesus. The politics of the project are revealed in the labelling of Bethlehem as being in Israel, when the town is, in fact, in the West Bank area, occupied by Israel in 1967.

The other thing that very much struck me was that very few of the visitors were wandering, gazing, exploring – that is, they were not acting like tourists. The Holy Land Experience is organised by itineraries and activities, recalling the directed, teleological itineraria that governed medieval pilgrims’ journeys. On entry to the park, one is handed a timetable of the day’s events: this includes ‘Holy Communion with Jesus’, in which one sits at a Last Supper-style table, with a little piece of matzo and a tiny communion cup made of Israeli olive wood, and takes communion under the instruction of an actor playing Jesus; ‘Sermon on the Mount’, a live drama on the He is Risen hillside, complete with a living hedge bearing the legend ‘He is Risen’; and emotive playlets based, loosely, on biblical narratives (I found myself gripped by the melodrama of the repentance of Hosea’s wife, the harlot Gomer, but the canned applause was bathetic).

I wouldn’t say that the park discourages reflection, but very few, if any, of the guests seemed to be entering it in a spirit of contemplation. It’s a very noisy place, with music emanating from hidden speakers all over the place. Instead, large groups went busily from place to place, tableau to tableau, mostly photographing as they did so. Yet there was a great deal of prayerfulness: the whole park was imbued with a meaningful religiosity for many of the guests, who prayed at various sites, not just in the giant church at the back of the park.

Perhaps most instructively for medievalists, the Holy Land Experience revels in its dizzying mixing of different times and places: it does not seek a seamless authenticity but revels in a medievalish ‘double-think’ (pace the scholarly work of Richard Krautheimer and Sabine McCormack) in which the original and the copy, the old and the new, co-exist quite happily, seamlessly, purposefully. This might be troubling to professional historians, concerned with chronology and authenticity, but it is decidely enabling in the transference of holy space. A case in point is the fibreglass fishing boat (pictures below, with the He is Risen hedge in the background): visitors are attracted to the forlorn boat by a placard asking ‘Was this the boat that Jesus used?’ The boat can be seen in the third picture, below, with a sign saying ‘Please, no passengers! (I’m an antique).’ It’s a copy of a boat found on the Sea of Galilee in 1986, which has almost no relationship to the historical Jesus (it is simply the kind of boat Jesus may have sailed in). The Holy Land Experience deals in emotive simulacra, copies without originals. These things mostly have only a slight resemblance to the physical Jerusalem; even the fruit in the Jerusalem street market (pictured below) is not real. Unique things can disappear, whereas copies, simulations, fakes and replicas certify each other through their mutual, but apparently valuable, inauthenticity.

Further photos are available here: https://rememberedplaces.wordpress.com/the-holy-land-florida-photographs/


Plastic fruit at the Jerusalem street market


Jesus boat with He is Risen hedge in background


Guest Services sign in ‘Hebrew’ script


Second Temple