The Devil and his Works: the Owl in Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516)
By Benno Zuiddam
South African Journal of Art History, Volume 29, Issue 1 (2014)
Abstract: This article interprets the work of early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch from the theological perspective of medieval Christian symbolism. The art of the early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch should be understood as part of the theological framework of the Renaissance (14th-16th centuries) and earlier Christian art. In Christian symbolism the owl stands for the devil and his works, and this article investigates the possibly of this interpretation for several works of Bosch. The owl makes a regular appearance on the Dutchman’s paintings and many in the Christian society of Bosch’s day were familiar with the religious implications of its presence. This bird of the night and darkness is a key to understanding Bosch’s thinking and the message of his paintings, which were largely produced for a religious setting, e.g. as altar paintings. Bosch painted in a society where the devil was seen as a real and present danger to any person. This article concludes that from the perspective of Christian symbolism and medieval Theology, the owl should not be taken as a traditional symbol of wisdom, but as representative of the devil and his schemes.
Introduction: Demons, evil creatures, weird and outright nightmarish and grotesque pictures dominate the work of the Dutch Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516). Why did he paint in this way? History does not suggest any medicinal reason, so what inspired him? The key to understanding Bosch might well be found in a multidisciplinary approach, by involving the field of Theology, in particular the religious symbolism of the Renaissance. This article will test this hypothesis for a bird that functions prominently in Bosch’s paintings, the owl. Is this a symbol of wisdom or rather something very sinister? Either interpretation has crucial implications for understanding Bosch’s works of art and the message he wished to portray. Whether the owl represents great learning, or presides over many a scene of sin and destruction, has great consequences for one’s interpretation of Bosch’s art. How tenable is the popular view that in the works of Bosch the owl is a representation of great learning?
This view is not restricted to popular publications only, but has also been advocated in scientific journals, for instance by Elena Calas who takes the owl as traditionally symbolizing both wisdom and philosophy, or, alternatively, as a slightly arrogant mocker. This interpretation is found as early as Benesch who took a similar view and also wanted to recognize a notion of sadness, the wise owl who shakes his head, as it were. Calas saw the owl also in a positive light, at least with the moral high ground of a mocking bird. This article, however, will suggest that its presence is much more sinister than that of a wise observer shaking his head as he sees the follies of mankind.