Saturday, May 27, 2006

(38) chronology: 1520

The main reason El Jardín de las Delicias/The Garden of Delights has remained mostly undeciphered since the late nineteenth century is probably that its iconography is both European and Mexican. Its chronology includes events that are well known on different sides of the Atlantic, and not always remembered as having been simultaneous. But Martin Luther was warned by the Pope to recant or face excommunication on June 15, 1520, and in Mexico the “Noche Triste” took place two weeks later. It is logical to find the glyph for 1520 in a dark hell scene.

Friday, May 12, 2006

(37) El Jardín de las Delicias, with labels

The chronology in El Jardín de las Delicias/The Garden of Delights can be followed by solving a long series of riddles. The idea seems to be that making the effort to decipher a complicated story, or listening to a long explanation, makes it easier to remember events and the hieroglyphics that correspond to the years.

(36) biombo representing the same events

On a biombo or painted screen representing the conquest of Mexico, the sequence of events is difficult to follow. The biombo includes a list with letters of the alphabet matching events to captions.

(35) a meandering time line

When European artists represented a long sequence of events, they often made it difficult to follow the narrative from one scene to the next.

(34) chronology: 1519

The pink castle resembles the cathedral in 's-Hertogenbosch, where Hieronymus Bosch lived, shown here in a photograph first published by Charles de Tolnay. But it also represents a Spanish language rebus. It is a tor de sillas, a tower with places to sit. When Cortés went to what is now Mexico, it had already been determined by the Treaty of Tordesillas that what is now Mexico was in the part of the world that would belong to Spain. The town of Tordesillas was also where Juana I, the queen of Spain, lived. This is probably why the tor de sillas is much larger and more prominent than the mermaid and merman representing the initials CV.

(33) chronology: 1519

Also in 1519, Magellan was leaving to circumnavigate the world. An allegory of Magellan's voyage in a drawing by Stradanus that was made into a print by Theodor de Bry late in the sixteenth century was partly copied from El Jardín de las Delicias/The Garden of Delights. Stradanus and De Bry added some fire at the left and a Patagonian giant at the right as a way to represent the Straits of Magellan, and seem to have assumed that readers would understand the images copied from the triptych.

(32) chronology: 1519

The codexes from Mexico were new to Europeans, but less mysterious than Egyptian hieroglyphics because there were people who could explain them, even though when Hernan Cortés first arrived on the mainland in 1519 translation was a two-step process. Malinche would translate Nahuatl into Maya, and Gerónimo de Aguilar would translate Maya to Spanish.
El Jardín de las Delicias/The Garden of Delights was painted about ten years later. It includes a chronology that covers Cortés's time in what is now Mexico from 1519 to 1528, and instead of copies of hieroglyphics it contains Hieronymus Bosch-like images that help to make it easy to remember how to read the hieroglyphics.
The first one, ce acatl (1-Reed, 1519) is semi-copied from a Mixtec version, and resembles a capital A. It is made to be easy for a humanist to remember since it illustrates a famous passage from Vitruvius about fresco paintings with people perched on reeds and stalks:
We now have fresco paintings of monstrosities, rather than truthful representations of definite things. For instance, reeds are put in the place of columns, fluted appendages with curly leaves and volutes, instead of pediments, candelabra supporting representations of shrines, and on top of their pediments numerous tender stalks and volutes growing up from the roots and having human figures senselessly seated upon them; sometimes stalks having only half-length figures, some with human heads, others with the heads of animals.

Charles V became Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, and a mermaid and merman represent the initials CV. An armada of mermen are carrying a fish that looks like a C, but it is not clear whether it stands for Carlos/Carolus or for Cortés.

(31) El Jardín de las Delicias

El Jardín de las Delicias/The Garden of Delights is in a completely different style than the triptych of St. Anthony in Lisbon. It may be that the main reason the two triptychs are generally regarded as works by the same artist (Hieronymus Bosch) is that they have never been in the same museum at the same time. (A much larger version of this photograph can be seen at, "best visited work of Bosch on this website.")

(30) St. Anthony in Egypt

The Hieronymus Bosch paintings that were most often copied and imitated were pictures of St. Anthony in Egypt, but art historians have not focused on how they might relate to what Bosch understood about hieroglyphics. Bosch was said to have been nicknamed Grillo since he imitated an Egyptian artist. The triptych of St. Anthony in Lisbon, shown here, has been examined for rebuses representing Dutch words (by Dirck Bax) and for images pertaining to alchemy (by Laurinda Dixon).

(29) comparing hieroglyphics

Not much is known about what Europeans already understood about Egyptian hieroglyphics when they saw the Codex Vindobonensis and Codex Nuttall, but it seems reasonable to suppose that they would have looked for resemblances.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

(28) glosses in the Nuttall Codex

It appears as though the person or persons who wrote notes in Spanish in the Codex Nuttall likely did so before the codex was taken to Spain, assuming that if it were already in a royal collection they would have written more neatly. Unlike the artist who painted El Jardín de las Delicias/The Garden of Delights, they have the year signs in the wrong order (they should be acatl, tecpatl, tochtli, calli). The glyph for ce acatl in the triptych might have come from one in the Codex Nuttall, or in the Codex Vindobonensis as shown in the previous post, or from another document. Only the first glyph in the chronology comes from a Mixtec source, and the rest are Nahuatl although they do not look much like Nahuatl glyphs.
These details are taken from a facsimile published by Dover Publications.

(27) vanitas

The key to decoding El Jardín de las Delicias/The Garden of Delights is not identical with its subject. The key is a Nahuatl language chronology that establishes the date of the triptych, and the subject is vanitas (as in Ecclesiastes 1:2, vanitas vanitatum dixit Ecclesiastes vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas), shown here in a seventeenth century painting. The example shown here is from the Charles Roelofsz collection. The key is more unfamiliar than art historians have expected, and the vanitas theme seems to have been almost too familiar to see. José de Siguenza hinted at it when he said the subject of the triptych was madroños.
This is not to say that the triptych was devised as a riddle with its date as the answer. When it was first painted it was probably obvious that it was new, and the people who first saw it may have seen Nahuatl chronologies, the Dresden Codex, and other things from the New World. Other keys to the vanitas subject include the star maps illustrated below, alchemical images, and the triptych format, which art historians have tended to regard incorrectly as mutually exclusive.