The Hell Harp of Hieronymus Bosch

To the right is a detail from the right panel of Hieronymus (or Jheronimus) Bosch’s famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (Museo del Prado, Madrid, see also full image below), painted ca 1490-1500, and that I visited in the end of July (it was postponed from April, which was the earlier plan) 2016.

Bosch Prado selfies On the way I originally planned to also visit the grand exhibition at Noordbrabant's Museum in Bosch’s home town ’s-Hertogenbosch (from which he took his name) celebrating 500 years after his death (his birth year is uncertain but is approximately 1450). It turned out that the exhibition moved to Prado just after, to join with the collections there, which made it become an even bigger exhibition, the biggest to date of Bosch’s work, where some have been newly renovated and some triptychs that were split-up rejoined.

This will also be me, when I have built a full-size reconstruction of this torture harp from hell (the harp on the original painting is about 30-35 cm) where I will be hung between the strings to find out what the sound of the Harp from Hell will be. I will spend spring and summer doing the work and plan to be ready to premiere the piece in the autumn of 2016.

A few attempts have been made before to copy the instruments in his paintings, but as far as I could find never in “full size”, and with the essential element: a man “crucified” through his body by the strings.

I plan to realize it, in other words, as a musical performance object, where I myself will act as the tortured man hanging in the strings I play.

SecondHarp During the visit to the exhibition, I discovered that he reused the image of the man crucified by the strings of a harp in another work some time later (see detail to the left), in The Last Judgment Triptych (ca 1505-15, when not on loan to this exhibition situated in Musea Brugge, City of Bruges, Groeningemuseum – not to be confused with another triptych with the same name in Vienna, or a fragment in Munich, see also full image below). I was already considering an unorthodox way of realizing the image, not being true to the exact model, when I saw this variation, with different colour and shape of the harp, and a different position of the man too. It also confirms my opinion that the interpretation that you sometimes see that the harp is built together with the lute behind it is wrong.

I pay less attention to this second image though, not because it is debated if the picture was made by Bosch alone or by apprentices or students in his workshop (however, the renovators last year expressed no doubt that it is made by him alone) but because it has less expression in its details. The image is smaller in size, and so the perforation of the 11 strings is not clear, the man is simply painted in front of the strings, leaving it open for imagination how many of them that actually go through his body: maybe through both legs, arms and head, maybe just the torso as seems to be the case with the former image.

When examining that, it looks like of the 21 strings, only 6-9 go through his body (the last three might go through the head or just behind it), so two are free between his legs and 10-13 are free above his head (between his arms). At first, I thought I would be as true as possible to the original image and its proportions, then I realized that my interest is not to make a three-dimensional copy of the painting but to concentrate on the idea of hanging in the strings. See the development of the work below!

(Another detail I discovered, when seeing the x-radiograph of the work, displayed in the exhibition, is that Bosch did some changes to the harp during the work on the painting: he took away a draperie that covered the hips of the man as well as some of the harp, and a demon’s face looking at him from behind the strings. When I then looked back on the painting in a certain angle, I could clearly see the shape of the brush strokes of the drapes that he covered with other paint later.)

Earlier piano string works

The technique itself is not entirely new to me. I have in many years built constructions and music based on a number of long string instruments, of which many “acrobatic” in a similar way. Here are some examples:
- The Stringed Stirrups
- Down and Up
- Damplifly
- Rising Towards the Light
- The Aeolian Rowing Boat (unrealized)
- An Acoustic Study of the Wind
- An Acoustic Study of the Ocean
- Long String instruments at Skomvær Lighthouse

I use piano strings, which have an enormous strength. My education as a Piano- and Harpsichord Maker and my 20 years of practice as a piano technician have given me knowledge and skills for the instrument designing and building. I will from the start strive to make the instrument collapsible and transportable, to make it possible to perform in many venues.

Poetic oneirism throughout 500 years

If you read about Bosch and about the Garden of Delights, you will quickly get very confused, realizing that very little facts are known about Bosch’s life and his intentions behind the works. In the exhibition I was disappointed to find that they presented only the superficial idea that his intentions were the same as the themes he painted, very often obviously altar pieces depicting heaven and hell and the original sin, morals from the life of christ and of saints.

Bosch book Luckily, I brought with me as travel literature the only book I had in my library (probably inherited from my father) about Bosch, Hieronymus Bosch, The Paintings, Complete Edition, With An Introduction By Carl Linfert (The Phaidon Press, London 1959) (“complete” as they were believed to be at the time, some of them, like The Conjurer, later proved to have been made by disciples or followers but possibly based on his sketches; many others still debated about their veracity). Linfert stresses the ambivalence and ambiguity of the pictures as well as the themes in a very sympathetic and human way, not denying the pleasures from the warnings about the consequences of a sinful life, situating him after the Gothic (with its much more formal presentations of the devil’s shapes) and before the Reformation (which canalized some of the critique of the church and clergy which you can see in his paintings), and relating it to alchemical thinking as well.

Talking about The Garden Of Earthly Delights, he says:

Even if one did not regard the picture in a sectarian, unorthodox way as a representation of Paradise one had no need to call it a ‘Warning against Lust’. Rather is it a combination of doubt and wish-fulfilment manifested in the creatures hesitating between the elements and finally eluding them, and shown also in other metamorphoses. Thus it is best described as a picture of the world in alchemical flux. (p19f)

How shall we define this enormous, perennially captivating picture? Perhaps nothing but a supreme delight in invention has impelled these embodiments of voluptious tenderness, of horror, exhaustion and extinction. Whether or not they were at the same time programme pictures of a ‘Freethinking’ sect is an open question. They are at all events – down to the smallest gesture – more astonishing than if they had been mere transcriptions of the rule of life of any such association. Bosch’s penetration is surely to be ranked higher than the vitalism of these fraternities, however consecrated. His pictorial sense is greater because instead of turning aside with an air of moral superiority he actually includes in his view of the world not only the loss and distortion of sense but sheer nonsense. One should therefore not look in these pictures for either unity or consistent sense. For it is chance itself that is incorporated into Bosch’s symbolism. All things, however fortuitous, are important. Everything which might make sense is simultaneously displayed in crisis and at a moment of decline. (p22)

I know it might be out of place to quote a scholar’s writing 57 years afterwards, but I don’t intend to be a scholar but to find a sympathetic viewpoint of how Bosch’s work affects us still today in a most profound way, and it seems to me that this, not in itself very difficult to grasp psychological and imaginative dimension is completely absent in the presentation of the exhibition.

In it, they want to link Bosch to the Brotherhood of Our Lady which was active in his town, but they have contradictory statements as to if he was ever a member himself.

One of the authors of the Wikipedia entry on The Garden Of Earthly Delights mentions a speculation of a possible membership in the Adamite society, which wanted mankind to return to the state before the original sin in Adam’s time, which utopian vision could be similar to the delights depicted in the center panel of the Triptych.

In any case, I agree that the impression from the painting to me, and moreover the importance for humans who watch it today, is the oneiric play of desire that breaks through the moral conflicts of sin and of daily hardships. Bosch is much more individualistic and complex in his thinking than the obvious and traditional themes (deadly sins, the passion of christ, the life of saints etc) he uses as vessels for the unconscious and imaginative flow of his daydreams and nightmares. Hell of noises

Hell of noises

On the side of the speculations as to Bosch’s intentions, I also want to connect this vision of his Hell, where musical instruments have turned into instruments of torture. It can be linked to writings of Schopenhauer, the work of the futurists to present day muzak terror, and the international acoustic ecology movement. I already mentioned such themes in my Muzakblocker – an audio perfume for self-defense. (Muzak is part of the environmental pollution in the form of sound which is not only disturbing for the spirit but also a big problem for people with hearing disabilities. Public loudspeakers also actualize a discussion about democracy in relation to the coarse dictatorship of the majority over the minority, which swedish cultural politics is supposed to contrast! Who decides over public sound space?)

Work plan

- Proposals for a performance to Stockholm New Music and other organizers (museums, galleries, festivals) from the autumn.
- Study trip to ’s-Hertogenbosch (cancelled) and Madrid (done).
- Detailed technical drawing and planning of the construction.
- Buying of materials.
- Workshop time (Konstnärernas Kollektivverkstad?, Nacka or Wip:sthlm?, Årsta) ca 2 weeks for the construction.
- Excercises, adjustments, composition work, practice ca one week (Fylkingen?). First sketch


I am still att the sketch-state. Before beginning the construction work, there are some important decisions that have to be made. Will I construct the harp as a functional instrument in which the full tension of the strings with me hanging in them will be possible to realize? I quickly decided that this is very impractical. The tension has to be taken by a solid construction that will be a framework around the shape of the harp, which will be more of a theatre prop than the actual instrument. It seems a stable frame of house building scaffolding should be the basis of the instrument. I have to find materials for that, that I can build up and down whenever needed.

The most complicated area of experimentation is the actual hanging of my body in the strings. It goes without saying (to me!) that I will not stick strings through my body. (That reminds me of a fascinated audience member at the 1996 Sound Symposium 8 who asked, after I tried to explain how the Stringed Stirrups work, with me “hanging in the strings”, –“Doesn’t it hurt?!”) Well, some people might like that idea, but I’m not particularly masochistic. I sketched where the strings should attach to me from above and from below, to make the impression that they go through me, and to also be free enough to make sound out of. I’ll scan the sketch in better quality soon, but I don’t promise it will be made exactly in that way – practical experiments will show how to make it so that I don’t loose my ability to breathe or that it stops the blood flow. I should also have some mobility to change the tension between the strings as well as changing the tension in my body so I can keep going and release pressure from different parts from time to time.

Information about further developments will be posted here.

Thanks to Paul Cowdell, who informed me of the exhibition through an article in The Guardian, which reminded me that I should finally realize this old idea.



[I have definitely decided now that I’m not first of all a musician. I have long said so, but in spite of me having an official status as such, hired as a free lance musician at Musikalliansen from Dec 2008, ending in July 2017, and a member of the swedish composers society (FST) since 2002, I increasingly have the perspective of my work as a constructor of physical interfaces for inspired auditory exploration. This meaning that I see my compositional work in making experimental musical instruments and exploring other, mainly acoustic sources of a meeting of my body with found and made materials and poetic objects whether they are usually called instruments or not. The execution of the composition is identical to the improvisation with the instruments or objects. Being a musician, musical performance artist or workshop leader, are just effects of the exploration.]

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Updated the 2nd of August, 2016.