Hieronymous Bosch and the Hurdy-gurdy


Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted by Hieronymous Bosch

This painting, which is dated from the latter part of the 15th century, shows a medieval or Renaissance style of hurdy-gurdy. It is part of the panel depicting the souls of the dead being tormented in hell. Because the instrument is greatly oversized, it's not clear from this depiction how large the actual instrument was, though Bosch also sketched and painted people playing the hurdy-gurdy, as did other artists of the time. This painting is historically significant because Bosch paid such attention to detail: for example, this is one of the first instruments to clearly show the tirant running from the tailpiece to the trompette string, which indicates that this hurdy-gurdy had a dog. (Unfortunately, Bosch forgot to include the tirant peg that adjusts the tirant.)

Bosch's inclusion of the instrument in Hell is not really his judgment on the hurdy-gurdy, but rather of music in general. Bosch and his contemporaries viewed music as sinful, associating it with other sins of the flesh and spirit. A number of other instruments are also depicted: a harp, a drum, a shawm, a recorder, and the metal triangle being played by the woman (a nun, perhaps) who is apparently imprisoned in the keybox of the instrument. The hurdy-gurdy was also associated with beggars, who were often blind. The man turning the crank is holding a begging bowl in his other hand. Hanging from the bowl is a metal seal on a ribbon, called a "gaberlunzie". This was a license to beg in a particular town on a particular day, granted by the nobility. Soldiers who were blinded or maimed in their lord's service might be given a gaberlunzie in recompense.



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Alden and Cali Hackmann
Olympic Musical Instruments

Beati illi qui in circulum circumeunt, fient enim magnae rotae.

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