Metropolitan Museum, New York
This particular work is a truly fine painting with a deceptively simple arrangement. Not every painting attributed to Bosch can be, with any certainty, assigned to his hand; but an analysis of the symbolism in this one leaves us with absolutely no doubt.
The work is anything but ordinary; as he did in the Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch has arranged a Tantric circle of action in this painting, showing a progressive deepening of spiritual influences directly related to the work I have done on Gurdjieff and his enneagram. As in the enneagram, there are nine elements placed around the circle which represent a descent of the divine into the natural realm, outlined by a deepening commitment to the spiritual life as one moves around and through the natural side of the circle, and then, at the bottom, entry into a deeper spiritual territory which informs the action of a real search for Being.
The fact that Bosch employed this device in more than one painting underscores his interest in, and understanding of, the process. His use of the circular Tantric device to indicate progress on the spiritual path is no accident; while I mentioned it in detail in in my commentary on the Garden, its repeat appearance here even more directly implies that he had been exposed to Buddhist artwork at one point or another in his religious studies.
We also, in this painting, encounter yet another figure expressing a Mona Lisa smile, suggesting that Bosch not only saw Leonardo's painting — or a copy of it — but was profoundly affected by the subtlety of its expression.
Or could it be that Bosch, in fact, was the one who influenced Leonardo? After all, Bosch was quite famous; and this motif appears in his works time after time, coupled with an impish sense of humor that Leonardo does not seem to a put on public display in his work, if he had one. It may well be, in the end, that Leonardo was favorably taken by the imagery and message Bosch presented, and assigned the same smile to his most famous portrait. The influences of Northern Renaissance painters on the Italian artists is, after all, well known, and although it may sound heretical, I think Leonardo cannot have been entirely above the influences of others himself.
In any event, I think readers will be fascinated to see how deftly Bosch once again, using a conventional subject, outlines the pilgrim's progress and the spiritual path, using the same set of symbolic references he employs to such great effect in his other paintings.
May your soul be filled with light.
Link to the commentary:
The Adoration of the Magi: Commentary