Weird Symbolism

I don’t know if we have any medieval experts looking at this blog. Have a look at this:

goliards-perhapsI am rather intrigued by this group of dissolute-looking folk gathered around a book of music. I am brought to think of the famous Goliards, the monks and priests who floated around and didn’t take the Church very seriously. We should note that before about the seventeenth century, secular music was written in something very similar to Gregorian notation on a four-line stave. Modern editions of Renaissance music are transcribed into modern notation to make it easier for musicians used to reading G and F clefs.

The whole group appears to be sitting on what looks like a giant egg with a hole broken in its shell. At the bottom-left, a demon playing the lute and a man holding out a bag of coins. The man wearing a funnel on his head would a dunce or a fool. The owl represents wisdom in contrast to foolishness. We have a dead snake hanging from a dead tree and a couple of bats flying around. The magpie would represent good luck and the stork, perhaps the coming of a baby if such symbolism existed then. Two crows are feeding on a dead and plucked bird, perhaps a chicken, in the iron pot. A person at the back of the group is wearing some kind of building on his head, a lighthouse or a semaphore for guiding ships on the sea.

I haven’t been able to find the source of the image except for this blog posting on medieval music. This posting features a Youtube video with recordings of medieval music that might be of interest to you.

A penny for your thoughts…

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18 Responses to Weird Symbolism

  1. John U K says:

    My first thought is that is reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch. His triptychs are full of small groups like this. A very cursory examination of his wiki entry and associated images failed to find this precise group. The Garden of Earthly Delights has all the figures naked, and I couldn’t see it in the Hay Wain

    Have you managed to identify the score?

    Kind regards,

    * * *

    Searching here: reveals it to indeed be by Bosch and entiltled The Concert in the Egg.

    * * *

    see also and

    * * *

    This seems slightly better than the English version


    • I took the liberty of grouping your four comments. Many thanks for finding this image. I am brought to think of later imagery by Hogarth – this one of Bedlam loonie asylum:

      and Salvador Dali. The idea from Renaissance times (1561) suggests a notion of satire not found in earlier iconography by artists more “serious” about their faith and attitude about the Church. Thank you for these precious articles.

      • Warwickensis says:

        Dear Father,

        compare that image with the main picture in:

      • This guy looks as though he is having his head operated on. No anaesthetic and no aseptic conditions – Ouch!

      • Warwickensis says:

        As is the man in the Hogarth picture..
        There is also a woman with a book on her head in both.
        The “Papal tiara” in Hogarth appears as the funnel in Bosch. Interesting how the ideas repeat in about 250 years.

      • I wonder if Hogarth would have known Bosch’s work in the 18th century. Here are two coincidences: the woman with the book on her head and the man having his head operated on. In 2013, my wife and I visited the Naval medical museum, and we were surprised to know how much anatomy and surgery were advanced in the 18th century. The problem was anaesthesia (other than alcohol and opium) and preventing infection. People did survive surgery but they must have had an amazingly strong immune system! I imagine that in the 16th century, quite a lot had been learned from the Arabs and the Chinese.

        I also noticed the funnel and the tiara. Hogarth’s wannabe pope was also holding a triple cross. The tiara is conical (like Bosch’s funnel) unlike the barrel shape seen on a Pope’s head. This theme is beginning to fascinate me. Perhaps there are other comparisons between the Rake’s Progress series and Bosch’s triptychs.

  2. warwickensis says:

    I also have:

    The famous Egg-Man in Hell in the Garden of Earthly delights is certainly a recurring theme in the early Dutch artists. The egg is largely alchemical in its interpretation, I believe.

  3. Tom Lemmens says:

    The painting is called “The Concert in the Egg”, and was painted by a follower of Bosch. If I recall correctly, the music was identified to belong to a composer who was active after Bosch died.

    There’s a lot of debate surrounding the meaning. One interpretation is that it depicts heretics chanting, another that it’s a decadent party. There’s also a compositional and thematic link to the ship of fools trope, and the Dutch word for yolk has also been used to mean fool.

  4. Patrick Sheridan says:

    I have a CD of mediaeval musick with this image on the cover.

  5. Warwickensis says:

    While trying to find the music to The Concert in the Egg, I found the music written on a poor soul’s bottom in Hell in The Garden of Earthly Delights:

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Very interesting – and good detective work by the commenters who preceded me! The Dutch Wikipedia article, I see, has links to two other copies/versions (both without harp, one without lute, and each with different music in the book – as far as I can judge: is the chap corresponding to the harpist clacking around as part of the music, or up to something else?). And here’s something with text, modernization, and translation of the song:

    And here, a choral performance:

    Is the monkey (in a zoomed out reproduction) playing a cornett(o)/Zink?

    My first thought on seeing the purse being cut by the cutpurse next to the lutanist-creature, was that it looked a bit like a friction drum – but that may be mere mistaken fancy on my part.

    It reminds me of illustrations I’ve seen of liturgical song with the singers gathered around a book big enough for everyone to see and read – but that may be standard practice for secular song as well as sacred music.

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      When I wrote my last paragraph, I had missed your post with an illustration of a Sarum celebration with the Chalice draining – but at the bottom of the illustration as posted I see at least two men singing from a large liturgical book: it looks like the illustration is depicting an actual chant (though I suppose it could be just an ‘evocation’ of one) – I wonder if anyone has identified it (or suggested identifications)?

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