Bosch Decoded: The Esoteric Bosch, Vol. II, by Lee van Laer

Announcing the publication of Senior Editor, Lee van Laer’s new book on symbolism in the artwork of Hieronymus Bosch. […]

Bosch Decoded: The Esoteric Bosch, Vol. II
Bosch Decoded: The Esoteric Bosch, Vol. II, by Lee van Laer

Announcing the publication of Senior Editor, Lee van Laer’s new book on symbolism in the artwork of Hieronymus Bosch. The new ebook is available now in ibooks and .pdf format.

I have often pondered the fact that so much of what Bosch definitely meant has been lost to us. We are forced, in the end, to attempt to reconstruct his narrative very nearly by instinct; and simply stringing together individual facts about potential sources for the various illustrations in his paintings, separating symbolic meanings into individual compartments, never seems enough to me. Each painting is a whole narrative, an entire story unto itself; and this understanding demands a reinvention of the narrative, even if we miss some of the exact details. The narrative is, after all, universal and eternal; and I believe that Bosch trusted both the intelligence of his viewers and the excellence of his skills enough to deliver us works that can still be read, in their essence, even today, despite the daunting span of time, understanding, and experience that lies between his age and our own. The inner human condition, after all, does not change much from age to age, as our technology does; in the technology of the soul, things remain the same, no matter how much we change our outward circumstances.

Outward circumstances, as it happens, have in many senses barely changed since Hieronymus Bosch painted his works. Over 500 years later, men are still murderous and brutal towards one another; mayhem and torture are common, war is endemic, greed rules behavior, and we have forgotten our own humanity — all themes Hieronymus Bosch would have been completely familiar with, and which we find in his paintings.

In this sense, his paintings are not ancient at all — they are paintings of now, and they always have been. They ask us to look inside ourselves and become responsible; and how many arts in this day, or any day, truly do that?

Bosch painted mythologies, by any measure. Mythologies may be decorated with yesterday’s architectural details, and yesterday’s clothing, but they always wear today’s interpretations—which are, in the end, valid because mythology belongs to all times, not just the ones we find ourselves in. Every generation, every culture, finds itself the custodian of their mythologies and is called to reinterpret them according to their own time and their own understanding. This is, perhaps, the whole point of mythology.

So pretending that Bosch’s paintings, the symbols, and the ideas in them belong exclusively to the time when he painted is errant — the paintings, as we have them, always belong to today. As such, my interpretations are today’s interpretations. They may not cleave to the explanations of the traditionalists; they attempt to explore a deeper and more universal territory than the idiosyncrasies of what monastic order this or that figure represents, or which folktale is being illustrated in an often bewildering juxtaposition of objects and images. Bosch’s images, after all, well up from the collective unconscious, from Jungian territory that touches us deep in the soul, in the dark places we cannot see with our eyes or explain strictly with our own words.

All of my work on Bosch is thus an attempt to lift at least a small corner of that veil.♦

—Lee van Laer, from the Introduction to Bosch Decoded: The Esoteric Bosch, Vol. II. 264 pages. 

For the ibooks format (apple book format for ipad, iphone, and mac) please visit the itunes bookstore.

Click here for the .pdf format (compatible with both PC and Mac readers)


By Lee van Laer

Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor of Parabola. For more information, please visit