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The hearing forest and the seeing field

Painting, XVI century, 20.2×12.7 cm

Description of the artwork «The hearing forest and the seeing field»

Bosch’s The Hearing Forest and the Seeing Field drawing is the jewel of the Berlin
Kupferstichkabinett, the largest collection of graphics in Germany. This small (20.2×12.7 cm) image concentrates many of the most important symbols of Bosch’s figurative system: a forest, a dry hollow tree with a hole and an owl lurking in it, birds, ears.

Technical moments
The Hearing Forest and the Seeing Field is executed with a goose quill. As a colouring medium, not ink, but bistre was used, a brown water-soluble pigment of the boiled soot of charred beech or other resinous wood. It is believed that no one
had used quills in the Netherlands before Bosch. Bosch became a pioneer in this area, he laid a new tradition and expanded the technical arsenal of artists: later other great Dutch masters, such as Bruegel, Rembrandt, would work with quills. The
very formation of drawing, an intuitive sketch as an independent genre in European art is also associated with the name of Hieronymus Bosch.

The drawings that Bosch made, apparently, not for the public, but for himself (therefore they are sometimes called “intimate”), reveal in a virtuoso and, oddly enough, a much more sophisticated draftsman than some of his paintings do.


Semantic components
The Hearing Forest and the Seeing Field occupies a special place among the drawings attributed to Bosch with a fair degree of confidence. According to researcher Lev Dyakov, this is “an allegorical proclamation of the creative program of Bosch.” The scholar wrote: “The forest is a hint of his name, and the inscription at the top reads: Miserimi quippe est ingenii semper uti inventis et numquam inveniendis (Miserable are those talented ones who always use the inventions and
never invent). And at the same time, the drawing is an illustration to an old Dutch proverb: ‘Fields have eyes, and forests have ears, and I will hear if I remain silent and listen’. Does the artist hint at the meditation he often resorted to?”

The forest. During the late Middle Ages, it symbolized everything unknown and mysterious. The countless treasures hidden in its dark thickets attracted inquisitive adventurers and at the same time threatened with the unknown dangers. In this
sense, the forest became a metaphor for the path of life. Interestingly, ’s-Hertogenbosch is the name of the city in which Bosch was born and spent his
entire life, it means “ducal forest”. The nickname of one of the most mysterious artists is derived from the city’s name and means “forest”.

The hollow tree. This is one of the key images for Bosch. For example, in the right wing of the Garden of Earthly Delights, a hollow tree represents the body of the so-called “melancholic monster” (a possible self-portrait of Bosch); in Temptation of St. Anthony in Madrid, the righteous man is depicted sitting in a rotten tree trunk, and in the triptych of the same name from Lisbon, a naked devil appears from the rotten
wood core tempting Saint Anthony. A hollow tree is a symbol of unbelief, sin and death; the emblem of empty and meaningless existence.

The owl is also a frequent subject in Bosch’s work (see Ship of Fools, The Garden of Earthly Delights etc.). The owl is ambivalent. In the ancient tradition, it symbolized wisdom, but in medieval semiotics, a night bird and, moreover, a predator is a symbol of evil and sin.

Birds are most likely the personification of vices. For example, in the time of Bosch, the hoopoe was considered “more sinful than the devil himself”, because it feeds on excrement despite its magnificent plumage. Birds, from ravens to sparrows, have often been associated with the tools of devilish powers. The devil is “ruler of the
kingdom of the air” (Eph. 2, 2), which means that everything in the air is connected with the world of demons or serves as their exposure. Hence the idea of the involvement of birds in demonic forces, supported by the Apocalypse (where the Angel gathers birds ‘for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small’ — Rev.19, 17—18)”, states Alexander Makhov in his dictionary titled Categories and Images of Medieval Christian Demonology.

The autonomous ears that do not belong to a specific body also appear in The Garden of Earthly Delights, where a knife is depicted next to them. Perhaps they are
connected with the statement of Christ “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”. Therefore the cut off ears of Bosch are a punishment for the fact that the organs intended for hearing and perceiving the truth continued to remain deaf and impervious to the divine word. The ear, as a receptacle of truth, could also be identified with the human soul, perhaps this is why the auricles from Bosch’s
drawing resemble human embryos.

The eye, which is interpreted as the All-Seeing Eye, is also found in The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things painting, where the idea of total divine omniscience is supported by the Latin inscription Cave cave Deus videt — Beware, beware, God sees you!

The fawn that is depicted in Bosch’s drawing at the roots of a tree is a symbol of righteousness. In the Book of Psalms, a deer rushing to streams of water
signified a righteous person persistently seeking God; later, the deer was clearly associated with Jesus Christ.

Beside The Hearing Forest and the Seeing Field (by the way, there are also drawings on the reverse side of the sheet), the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett owns three more drawings by Bosch: Two Monsters, Turtle and a Winged Demon and Study of Monsters.

Written by Anna Vcherashniaya
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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Landscape

Style of art: Northern Renaissance

Technique: Feather, Bistre

Materials: Paper

Date of creation: XVI century

Size: 20.2×12.7 cm

Artwork in selections: 31 selections