Hieronymus Bosch and the Concert in the Egg

This is not the actual painting by Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), but a copy of a lost work by an unknown follower.

This conclusion was reached by an analysis of the music in the open book, which contains notes written by Netherlandish composer Thomas Crecquillon in 1549. We do have a drawing of the scene by Bosch, and some scholars believe the copy is of the drawing and that Bosch never rendered the scene in a full painting. Whatever the true origins of the piece, and whether or not the details are from Bosch’s own mind, the painting is quite representative of Bosch’s distinctive style.

Bosch was, and is, extremely unusual within the canon of Renaissance painters. His work is well known for its use of fantastic imagery, bizarre settings and situations, and grotesque occurrences.

Bosch’s most famous piece is his monumental triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights.

The Concert in the Egg, though less well known, exhibits many of the same traits to a lesser degree, except perhaps the religious philosophy that many have seen in the triptych.

Bosch who was immersed in the esoteric culture of his time can be defined with a sapiential double sense. His work, if not read through the alchemical lens, might seem childish or immature.

The “egg” was frequently employed in alchemical literature to signify one of the pieces of laboratory equipment used in the attempt to convert base materials into higher, spiritual forms.

Usually described alternately as a hymn to the stupidity of the human habits, or otherwise to salvation from the foolishness through learned brotherhoods.

Here, the group of musicians form the yolk of the egg, which apparently symbolizes their foolishness.

The monk with his back to us is attempting to lead the group, pointing to the score, but the others seem to have little interest in following him. He is so engaged in his pointless task, either because of dedication or self-importance, that he does not notice his purse being stolen by the small man who stands with the donkey-headed lute player.

Much of the bizarre imagery in this piece is likely connected to popular Dutch expressions of the sixteenth century, the significance of which, like Bosch’s original painting, have been lost to time.

Incorporating popular expressions and proverbs into paintings was a favorite practice of Netherlandish art of the time (in fact Pieter Brueghel the Elder devoted an entire painting to it) that Bosch used in other works. Some of the features are a fish that a hand is reaching for but is also being eyed by a cat (lower left corner), a basket that contains a cooked bird but which live ones are now perched on (upper right), one man with a water bird on his head, another with an owl, and another with a building mid-construction.

The lower right corner shows small people, both human and less-so, around a table and working, while the left side appears to show a town on fire. All of these details are fascinating and the meticulous work of the unknown painter is very effective in bringing them to life.