Tag Archives: nabi samwil

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.

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.

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Mount Joy: the view from Palestine

21 Jan

“And so they went on to the Holy Land until they could see Jerusalem. And when this creature, riding on an ass, saw Jerusalem, she thanked God with all her heart, asking Him for His mercy that, just as He had brought her to see this earthly city of Jerusalem, He would grant her the grace to see Jerusalem the blissful city above, the city of heaven…Then, for the joy that she had and the sweetness she felt in conversing with our Lord, she was on the verge of falling off her ass, for she could not bear the sweetness and grace that God performed in her soul. Then two German pilgrims went to her and kept her from falling off. One of them was a priest, and he put spices in her mouth to comfort her, believing her to have been ill. And so they helped her onwards to Jerusalem.” The Book of Margery Kempe.

The English mystic Margery Kempe, whose Book I have been translating recently, was making her way from Ramla to Jerusalem in 1413. She felt such sweetness and grace when she saw the holy city that she nearly fell off her ass. From Kempe’s account it’s likely that this moment – of both spiritual glory and embarrassing awkwardness – would have taken place on Mount Joy, the highest point around Jerusalem. Mount Joy  (Mons GaudiiMonjoie) is now the Palestinian village of Nabi Samwil [or Samuil], just 7 miles north of the Old City of Jerusalem, and less than a mile from the edge of the large Israeli settlement of Ramot, now a suburb of Jerusalem. It was customary, in the later Middle Ages, for pilgrims to travel on foot or by ass from Jaffa via Ramla and Emmaus to Mount Joy, there to gain their first view of the city, hence the name Mount Joy. Pilgrims like Kempe were led from place to place by Franciscans and local guides. Before Kempe’s time – certainly by c. 1100 – Nabi Samuel  had also become established as the burial-site, revered by Christians, Muslims, and Jews, of the prophet Samuel.

Mount Joy is interesting to me in the current context because of the ability of Jerusalem to be translated out of itself, which here extends to the hyper-mediated landscape around the city itself. In the later Middle Ages the view of Jerusalem from a hill known as ‘Mount Joy’ became as much a part of the pilgrimage route as visiting Jerusalem itself. In fact, medieval pilgrims would not have been able to see the now-iconic view of the Old City – the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – because these sites sit in a hollow, behind a hilly landscape. They would, however, have viewed the approaches to the city, and possibly some of the buildings on the suburban outskirts around the town.

The view of Jerusalem from Nabi Samuil, January 2014

The view of Jerusalem from Nabi Samuil, January 2014

The site itself is an interesting palimpsest of different religious traditions. Early Christians identified Mount Joy as ‘Ramatha’ (1 Samuel 25: 1) where Samuel died, although several other places (including the post-biblical, Arab town of Ramla, where pilgrims usually slept) were also identified with Ramatha. It is now controlled by the Israel Parks and Nature Authority (with a critique of the Authority’s control of the area, by alt-arch, here).

In the twelfth century, during the Crusaders’ establishment of a state in the Holy Land, a Premonstratensian monastery was founded at Mount Joy; but in 1187 it fell to Saladin and various battles were fought there. One story says that a hermit, named Elias, gave Richard I (the Lionheart) of England a relic of the True Cross there, which he had secreted at Mount Joy when Saladin took Jerusalem. Throughout this time, Jewish pilgrims often visited the site, and, possibly, a mosque was there in the thirteenth century. The Crusader church of St Samuel, photographed here, was significantly rebuilt in 1912 as a mosque, with the Crusader crypt and ruins incorporated into the new buildings (the tomb of Samuel itself, now a Jewish holy site, is in the basement, under the mosque).

The remains of the Crusader-era ramp and entrance to the buildings, a kind of fortress-church

The remains of the Crusader-era ramp and entrance to the buildings, a kind of fortress-church

The layers of different cultures came be seen very clearly and impressively now, following recent archaeological work there. Medieval Christian pilgrims always write about the view of Jerusalem from Mount Joy – like Mandeville, who says, ‘two miles from Jerusalem is Mount Joy, a pretty and delightful place. The prophet Samuel is buried there in a fine tomb. It is called Mount Joy because it is from there that pilgrims first see Jerusalem, a cause of great joy after their exertions’ (p. 49). The Christian pilgrims’ hearts and eyes were focussed on Jerusalem, shimmering in the distance and always full of spiritual promise. But, whilst pilgrims tend not to mention it, they must have noticed that they were taking part in something like cosmopolitanism: at Mount Joy, they would have seen Jews, Muslims, and non-Latin Christians praying, and the ruins left by the Crusaders who had been and gone before them.

The mosque (rebuilt in the 1920s) on top of the ruined Crusader-era church. In the foreground, Hellenistic and Hasmonean ruins, recently excavated.

The mosque (rebuilt in the 1920s) on top of the ruined Crusader-era church. In the foreground, Hellenistic and Hasmonean ruins, recently excavated.

Nabi Samuil has very far-reaching views over the entire area. Here, looking north, towards Givat Ze'ev, Bir Nabala, and Ramallah

Nabi Samuil has very far-reaching views over the entire area. Here, looking north, towards Givat Ze’ev, Bir Nabala, and Ramallah