The Adoration of the Magi

an esoteric analysis of the painting by Hieronymus Bosch





 Copyright 2013 by Lee van Laer




This apparently simple and rather serene painting is, like many other Bosch works, carefully divided into realms of influence and action, which in this case may not be obvious at first glance.




The Adoration's realm of action is capped by five angels. Occupying the space of intersection between the heavenly and earthly realms, the angels are not exclusively clad in the spiritual pink we might expect; yet all but one of them (the diminutive figure on the left) sport it, whether in their wings or garments. They are touching the earthly realm and, like the divine influences in contact with the mortal realm in the Garden, the pink has become tinged with red.


Bosch introduces the use of substantial gilded areas here to indicate both higher spiritual values and the element air (see the reason for this interpretation below, in the discussion of the second magus' gift.) The varying colors of garment and wings indicate orders of angels. The group as a whole represents the heavenly host. What may be an archangel clad in gold presides over the greatest remaining portion of the castle, occupying the left side of the painting. Overall, the arrangement suggests a Swedenborgian assortment of angels from different levels of heaven; unsurprising, since visual evidence suggests that Bosch's inner revelations had a great deal in common with Swedenborg's.


The angels are spreading a green canopy over the affair because (when not applying it to foliage, where it represents the fecundity of life), when employing it as a symbolic element, Bosch uses variations of the color green to indicate the best that can be achieved under earthly circumstances. (See the analyses of the parrots in the Garden of Earthly Delights, center panel slides 42 and 43, for an explanation of this.) In both this painting and Death and the Miser, it's used for the robes of the pentitent.


The left hand side of the painting contains a ruined castle tower with a bird perched in the window. The whole castle represents the kingdom of God on earth, or creation, the material world of things; and the ruined tower on the left hand side represents, in the circulation of the spiritual path, abandonement; the leaving of all things, as the end of the path towards God. In final moments of the search for God and heaven, all of creation is left behind: the castle of our lives is abandoned for a greater glory.


The presence of vegetation and the bird implies the possibility of regeneration and new spiritual life: the spark of God, though much reduced, is not dead. Just in case we don't get it, however, Bosch has thrown in a tiny detail, a deft touch indicating the possibility of a new birth, in the form of a nest with an egg in an adjacent window—as usual, if read carefully, Bosch's meanings are explicit and leave little to doubt.


As we go forward, let's remember that the castle, or temple, represents man's inner life: the house he lives in, spiritually speaking. It ought to be filled with God's divine spirirt, but is empty.


The central region of the landscape reveals a pastoral scene behind the decaying walls of the castle.



In the distant background lies the motif of a mystical city representing the New Jerusalem.



We know the city is meant to represent a unique city because of the massive scale of the cathedrals, especially the one to the right. Both spires eclipse the size of the city gates, implying architecture on a scale that well exceeds the engineering capabilities of Bosch's times.


Although the countryside is pastoral, armies are still in action, patrolling, ever vigilant against the forces of evil.



In the right hand side of the landscape, two lovers stroll across a bridge, indicating the virtues of heavenly love. Like many of Bosch's vignettes from the Garden, tossed off almost effortlessly as adjuncts to his central theme, this touching image is a whole painting in itself. Note the cross on the right, indicating Christ's presence as a natural element of the landscape. It's tiny details like this that remind us of how thoroughly Bosch attended to his works. There is much more to this scene, however, than meets the eye; and we'll get to that.





The empty space spanning the area between the castle walls represents the prechristian era; a ruined entity, with religion almost entirely devoid of the reverence and worship which ought rightly to inhabit it. It also represents our own inner emptiness.


To emphasize the fact that knowledge of God's kingdom is closed to mankind, Bosch has gone so far as to bar the entrance on the left—a space that seems clearly, at one time, to have provided access to the temple. The significance of this will become more evident.



To be sure, the space is pregnant with potential, as the bird's nest and vegetation indicate; and it is not entirely forgotten or useless. The two men (who are actually one, as we shall see) on the right hand side warm themselves over a scant fire of sticks. Above them, two bars, which indicate that this entrance, too, was barred at one time. They seek whatever access they may gain to what little of God's flame still remains alight in this empty temple.


The central portion of the painting is dominated by the Virgin and Christ Child. Seated on a cloth of gold, she is poised on an expensive cushion better than one generally finds in mangers.


The Mary we see here, serene and unperturbable, bears tresses identical to Eve's in the Garden: she is, symbolically, the same woman: the essential woman, womanhood itself.



The perfection of her tresses, shining with the reflected golden light of God's Grace, offers us womanhood untouched by mortal sin. She offers a stunning contrast in simplicity to the baroque finery of the Magi, indicating her inherent simplicity, and renunciation of both mortal and venial sinfulness. Her austerity does not admit even the possibility of corruption.


The Christ child cuts a sporting figure in this painting, alert, interactive, and perhaps even puckish. There's nothing stilted or awkward about Bosch's Christ child: no hints of the misplaced adulthood so often seen in renaissance portraits of children.


Christ's hands are spread in a mudra of confidence, as though he already knows he is master of this world, despite the opulent costumes and rich trappings of his visitors. This Christ child is, in other words, nothing like the corpulent infants grasping at breasts we see in other versions of the madonna and Child. It's deftly understated, so subtle it's nearly unnoticeable. Yet Bosch has ingeniously given us a remarkable and highly original image: a Christ child who is actively and truly embodying an authority which extends far beyond the fact of His infancy. Despite His tiny size, He is in charge of the events here.


In order to better understand Bosch's overall intentions, one must see that the painting creates a circle of divine influence. This device, as we shall see, is an ingenious recreation of the tantric circle in the Garden.



 In tantric art, the world typically revolves around a central sacred image which influences everything around it. Bosch, who employed this to extraordinary effect in the Garden,  has not only re-created, but reinvented this device for this painting.


The circle of divine influence is, like that of the Garden, a progressive movement from the earthly, or natural, side of spiritual development into the spiritual realm. This movement and its specific inner meaning is also a defining feature of Gurdjieff's enneagram— and, of course, Swedenborg's cosmology.


As with the enneagram, Bosch's circle contains nine positions; and each one can be interpreted as exerting an influence belonging to its own position. (There is nothing, perhaps, particularly surprising in this arrangement; ninefold iterations of divine influences stretch all the way from the levels of heaven and hell in Dante's Divine Comedy to the Memphite Theology of Egypt's 25th dynasty, circa 700 BC or earlier.)


The movement begins at the 12 o'clock position above Mary and the Christ child. In this position, we see the opening through the castle walls that leads into the landscape where the new Jerusalem is located. It represents the higher influences of heaven as incorporated at the top of the painting.


Immediately to the right, in approximately the 1 o'clock position, we encounter two rather ordinary men reaching for the flame of God within the ruined castle. This is the initial effort of the ordinary man towards Grace; his first inkling that there is an inner state he must reach towards. Take note that these two figures actually represent one man, in two stages of his life; and they represent the element earth, or, the material incarnation of man.


One of the two, with his hand over the flame, is dressed in red, indicating divine influence on an earthly level; his white hair suggests that he is an older man who has finally come to a certain level of understanding, causing him to reach for God's warmth. The younger man to his left, holding his hand to his breast, is eagerly professing a spiritual belief—his expression says it all, doesn't it?—which he claims he holds. This is contradicted by his essentially egoistic gesture and his failure to reach for the flame. The remarkable little vignette deftly illustrates the difference between youth and old age in terms of understanding the spiritual path.


 Continuing our journey, we encounter the three wise men. We might expect them to  have exemplary spiritual qualities on display; but the lesson here is that even though they are wise men, they haven't yet been informed by the Spirit of Christ. They can't be, of course; they appear at the beginning of Christ's passion, not during the middle years of His teaching, or the culmination of His life and work. Each one of them represents a sincere, yet distinctly worldly, effort to relate to Christ's presence. And each one of them represents a progressive step closer and closer to the attitude that is necessary in order to submit to God.


 In order to understand this, we need to examine the figures in much greater detail.


 The first of the three wise men faces the viewer. He is clearly turned away from the action, inattentive to the holy influence of the Virgin and Christ child. Dressed in exotic clothing and Baroque headgear, his crown and robe are studded with pearls, a symbol of earthly lies already known to us from its employment in the Garden of Earthly Delights.


 This king holds a container of frankincense. Because incense is burned, it's also a symbol of fire, an earthly— not heavenly— element. Appearing as the first of the three gifts— which represent Christ's progressive influence on earthly matters—symbolizes the birth of Christ and his initial entry into the world.


 The second of the two wise men has improved his spiritual attitude; he faces towards the Christ child, but his attitude and demeanor indicate a haughtiness inappropriate to the spiritual search. Like the first king, he is adorned with gold and pearls; the gold indicates a pretension to higher qualities, but the pearls decorating it indicate that the pretensions are just that — flashy outward emblems studded with false embellishments.


 This king holds a golden eagle, symbol of St. John, or, the logos, or word of God:  the second of Christ's progressive influences on man. This is also a symbol of air,  another earthly element. Like the frankincense, it is studded with pearls, indicating that although the gift is sincere, it cannot escape earthly corruption.



 Juxtaposing the black and the white wise men in this manner emphasizes the idea that in the natural world, man exists in a universe of dualities and contradictions.



 The third of the wise men has considerably improved in terms of his spiritual search. No gaudy clothes are pearls adorn him; his hat, which does have pearls, has been removed and lies respectively before him on the ground. He presents himself, in other words, bareheaded and without pretensions.


He is furthermore kneeling, indicating a deeper degree of respect; and he is clothed in the red gown of one who is under more spiritual influences.


 This third wise man holds what is perhaps the most important valuable of the three gifts — myrrh,  the third stage of Christ's influence on man. Myrrh, an embalming herb, represents Christ's death. Because Myrrh is typically used as a liquid oil, it represents water, the last of the earthly elements, all found on the natural, or material, side of the tantric circle.


Bosch has made a subtle but brilliant symbolic observation here by studding the container with the myrrh in it with pearls. This suggests that the idea of Christ's death itself is a lie; His resurrection is implicit in the imagery, hidden in plain sight.


 There is even a message in the headgear of the three wise men. The first one wears an exaggerated turban and a crown; the second one has a smaller, less overstated single crown; and the third one's crown, although very elaborate, has been taken off and is on the ground. Taken together, the three pieces of headgear represent progressive stages in submission to Christ. hence the first wise man sees himself as the most important; the third, the least.



 The headgear of the third wise man is amply adorned with pearls, or lies, but he has put them aside, and bared his head, implying that he has finally understood how he lies to himself.


It's worth a moment to reflect on how thoroughly Bosch has managed to confound our expectations here. Rather than depicting the three kings as important personages, he has assigned them positions in the scale of inner development which are lower than the homespun hermit that follows them in the progression. They're bit players, minor notes in the scale of Being: here, their royalty is a liability, not an asset. Because they're accustomed to ruling themselves, they don't know how to submit; and here, in the presence and authority of Christ, submission is paramount.


If we understand the subtle arrangement of figures around the Madonna and Child, we see that Bosch is telling us that all the trappings of royalty and all worldly success take place at relatively low rungs on the ladder; the achievements, status, power and wealth these men have is not enough to qualify them for an inner search, earnest though their aspirations may be. The artist has skillfully managed to hide this truth in plain sight.


As we move through this group of five figures, we see a steady progression of deepening spiritual influence. The culmination of the grouping occurs as we pass from the right to the left side of the circle of influence, where the first figure we encounter is the white hound.


 The hound, wearing a golden collar, symbolizes the vigilant pursuit of Christ. The symbol, which might seem peculiar at first glance, is well-known from the unicorn tapestries, where the Huntsman and the hounds seek the unicorn,  which symbolizes Christ. the hound is white to represent a greater purity, and hairless to represent an inner quality, like Jacob, who was smooth skinned— unlike his brother Esau, who was hairy, or outward.



Continuing our progression around the circle, we encounter the penitent or hermit, a figure who — finally — represents a quality worthy of the influence of the divine nativity. Clothed simply, in an unadorned manner that corresponds well to the austerity of the Virgin, he kneels reverently and attentively towards the influence of Christ.


Clothed in the green robe which symbolizes the best that can be attained under earthly circumstances, he corresponds to the green canopy stretched over the entire scene, creating a bridge between heaven and earth. The cane indicates not infirmity, but an awareness of his own weakness.


 It's worthwhile to compare this figure to the miser in Death and the Miser. Both figures wear similar garb, are stooped in submissive postures, carry canes indicating their inner acknowledgement of spiritual weakness, and serve similar purposes: both of them indicate a man of inner qualities who has recognized his failings, and is actively engaged in an inner spiritual pilgrimage.



Passing on clockwise towards the 9 o'clock position, we encounter the bull, symbol of Luke, representing the atonement and sacrifice of Christ. Moving through the progression on the circle, the bull represents the ultimate conclusion of Christ's progress through life, as well as his dominion over it. The bull is furthermore housed in the remains of the castle, indicating that the church, representing man's inner life, will be repopulated through this act the resurrection.


 Lest we think we have escaped from Bosch's arch sense of humor, and his Hitchcock- like presence in most of his paintings, take a look at the bull. It sports the same understated, Mona Lisa smile we are accustomed to encountering in other pieces: knowing, informed, and subtly humorous, sharing, as it were, an inside joke with the viewer.



How Bosch managed to pull this little personal joke off in the middle of this very serious and religiously adept painting is a question. It takes a peculiar and perverse kind of genius to manage to be both deeply religious and humorous at the same time. Bosch, however, was never above having a little fun in the midst of serious questions, which is a testament to his own inner mastery.


Moving to the final element in the circle, we come to the barred gate — a symbolic element which serves a dual purpose. In its role as the final element in the Tantric circle of heavenly influence, it represents a barred passage to the kingdom of heaven.  This is made clear by the fact that behind the bars lurks the same landscape we see in the starting position, the landscape which contains the new Jerusalem and passage to the kingdom.


This position, in the enneagram, represents wisdom, the final stage before the return to the divine. The wisdom, however, is still earthly wisdom... and, intriguingly, the barred gate suggests that the artist is informing us that even wisdom is not enough. It indicates, in other words, that only faith can bridge the final step between man and God.


So from this position, moving around the circle, the viewer is forced to default back to the Virgin and Christ. We are deflected back into the center of the circle, which represents the only passage towards God: we're being told that the spiritual passage does not consist of a voyage around the periphery of the circle, that is, the path itself, but rather a journey into the heart—the center of the circle. And this is exactly the message we would expect from the master of a school centered around Christ and the Virgin.



We've passed over a few elements which still need to be dealt with here, notably the left side of the painting.



Hidden beneath the roof — which, although dilapidated, probably represents the protective influence of the Lord — a swarthy, unshaven spectator takes in the scene. Given the fact that the window is a narrow slit, this may be an indication that the way to heaven is straight and narrow. Perhaps a bit more interesting, however, is the cryptic figure of the owl that lurks under the eaves. So well concealed that the casual viewer will never notice him, the owl seems to be a nearly ubiquitous presence in Bosch's most symbolic paintings. This is the same character we see lurking in the divine fountain in the Garden.




 The owl, representing divine wisdom, is a subtle but recurring figure who supervises sacred activities, a tiny observer that dwells within the inner self of the soul, keeping an eye on things. Friendly, nonjudgmental, and always seeing what takes place, the owl is a symbol of the kind of self-observation that Bosch encourages us all to undertake in our spiritual effort. Bosch consistently included tiny owls in the paintings that encode wisdom teachings. Generally speaking, paintings without the owl are either not from the school of Bosch, or were merely commercial works. The owl, like many of the other icons and motifs Bosch employs throughout his ouevre, always signifies when he appears.


Summarizing the spiritual path that the artist lays out on the Tantric Circle, we are given a progression of stages through which a man must go in order to submit to God and discover the nature of his inner Being.


 In youth, a man professes faith.

In old age, he seeks it. (The two men in the window.)


The moment that he begins to acquire a sense of inner work, first, he thinks it is about himself. (The magus facing the viewer)


In the third stage, he believes he is important and wants God to recognize him. (The black magus.)


 Next, he finally realizes submission is necessary. (The kneeling magus)


 Then his real search begins, acquiring a sense of urgency, or will. (the hound)


 He acquires a sense of humility and servitude (the kneeling hermit.)


Then he undergoes a ritual of sacrifice and purification to make himself acceptable to God. (The bull.)


 Finally, he discovers that his way is still barred, and the only path to God is through Christ.


 The practice circulates around the heart of Christ, symbolized by the Virgin Mary and Christ Himself. In a like manner to the motif of the lock in Death and the Miser, life circulates around the central influence of the holy Trinity.


 Readers should refer to the second page on this painting for a more detailed discussion of the background.