By Gina DiGiovancarlo
Hieronymus Bosch’s The Conjurer is a genre painting, set in a daily situation rather than a strictly religious one, which depicts a street magician entertaining a crowd. What appears to be a benign scene upon first glance, like many of Bosch’s paintings, is actually a visual representation of what he viewed mankind to be in the world: corruptions that are vulnerable to temptation. This is a common theme in Bosch’s works, often told by showing the results of lust, heresy, and indecency on mankind.
The Conjurer, in particular, is a depiction of heresy and the results of human ignorance. While the magician distracts the crowd by having an aristocrat cough up frogs, a pickpocket works to steal the person’s coin purse, unseen by the rest of the group. Meanwhile, a child watches the frogs come out of the victim’s mouth up close with a curious, almost pleased expression. It is as if he understands what is going on and is laughing at the gullible adult while everyone else simply takes in the spectacle before them, seeing it as no more than a magic trick.
Every symbol that Bosch placed in this image can be traced back to a meaning of depravity, cunning, or the devil, from the dog wearing a jester’s cap to the owl sitting in the basket that the magician is holding. The most interesting of all the symbols in this painting are the frogs coming from the audience participant’s mouth. The frog in particular has a deep connection with evil in medieval culture and sin in the Bible. Frogs are also used in Bosch’s depiction of Hell, where they are crawling over sinners and biting them. In the case of The Conjurer, the frogs most likely represent heresy, as the painting aims to attack false doctrine in every form.
The false doctrine in this case is the conjurer himself, who is using dark magic to force people to vomit frogs and presumably other acts of evil during his performances, while the rest of the crowd assumes that the display is nothing more than a street performer entertaining them. Thoughts that the performer means no harm, even with unnoticed pickpockets active in the scene, show just how powerful the allure of sin could be when it draws people from the teachings of Christ. This scenario shows that mankind, even those as devoted to God as the nun in the crowd, is capable of being tempted by such practices as unholy magic and they will reap the consequences.
Gina DiGiovancarlo is a senior at Western Connecticut State University studying professional writing.
Hamburger, Jeffrey. “Bosch’s ‘Conjuror’: An Attack on Magic and Sacramental Heresy.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, vol. 14, no. 1, 1984, pp. 5–23. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3780529.
Kuiper, Kathleen. “Hiëronymus Bosch.” Encyclopædia Britannica. April 7, 2017. Accessed February 26, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hieronymus-Bosch.