Standing as Metaphor: H. Bosch

In April I spent a long morning in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, almost the entire time in the large room that displays eight or ten of Breugel’s best paintings (The Peasant Wedding, Saul on the Road to Damascus, Hunters in the Snow, Peasant Dance, and so on). I took lots of notes about the metaphor of standing in several of the paintings and am a little closer to an essay on the subject.

ImageAt one point, however, restless and wary of the crowd that had just arrived with a guide, I slipped into a row of interconnected smaller rooms, where I came upon a board standing in a glass case with paintings on either side. They were both works by Hieronymus Bosch, a naked boy walking with the aid of a little stand on the one side and Christ carrying the cross on the other side.

I thought of that magic moment when we take our first steps, of the awkwardness of the early move from four legs to two, from crawling to standing and walking erect. The painting, with its little three-legged device gets at that stage wonderfully.

The other painting, I thought, is of a human being (still like a man even if it is Christ) being brought low. Not only is he heavily weighed down by the cross, his feet are being destroyed by wooden pads with nails protruding through them.Image

As if to make a viewer think twice about the feet and their role in keeping us upright, one of the thieves is portrayed near the bottom with only one shoe.

These men are going to be killed. Christ’s feet will be nailed to the cross (Gruenewald’s depiction of the ruined feet in his Isenheim Altar is the most graphic). He will be brought low (Holbein’s Dead Christ is the most graphically horizontal and final of this stage).

I have never, however, seen the wood “sandals” with nails before. Does anyone know of other such depictions.

So, in the end, the two paintings that share the same board depict the moments of rising to ones feet and of losing one’s feet. Short of birth and death, these are defining moments for us.

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at
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2 Responses to Standing as Metaphor: H. Bosch

  1. Mike Roloff says:

    Standing up, as compared to being bowed, is a sign of confidence, for the human monkey anyhow. Weiighed down by burdens can bow the monkey down. Doesn’t take a cross to do that. The transition of the human monkey from crawling on four limbs to walking on two is determined by the length of our hindlegs as compsared to what are now our arms, didnt use to be like that.


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