Music from “Hell”: Hieronymus Bosch’s 600-year old ancient ass music

By on June 16, 2015

Earlier this year, a blogger named Amelia Hamrick — she’s a student at Oklahoma Christian University, double-majoring in music and visual arts, with a computer science minor — decided to transcribe the musical notes hidden in the third panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, notes that originally appeared on the naked ass of one of Bosch’s sinners.


As you know, dear netizens, the interwebs go a little crazy when viral videos like this start making the rounds and so you may have already seen and heard her version, which is quite simplistic and by her own admission was merely “thrown together” in “like, 30 minutes at 1 in the morning” -- it’s also been played at her blog over 2 million times, so she doesn’t really need further exposure, right?

We’ve learned, however, that it’s subsequently been recorded by a wide variety of artists, of varying degrees of musical talent, who have been posting their own versions to sites like Youtube, Dailymotion, etc.

We were hunting around and listening to some of those versions, and found this lovely one, recorded by James Spalink, and played on lute, harp, and hurdy-gurdy. It’s based on her transcription. Not bad for 600-year old ancient ass music, right?! Click on this link to buy a CD by James Spalink. He’s got four of them.


As for Ms. Hamrick, posting on her Tumblr, this self-described “huge nerd” explained that she and her friend had been examining a copy of Bosch’s famous triptych, which was painted sometime between 1490 and 1510 and now resides in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain.

“Another OC student and I were looking at the painting one night,” Hamrick explained in one interview she did. “We noticed, much to our amusement, music written on the posterior of one of the characters, in an area that’s easy to overlook. I decided to transcribe it into modern notation, assuming the second line of the staff is C, as is common for chants from that time period.”

We probably shouldn’t point out how it’s a little funny that student at a Christian university would be concentrating on that third panel, the Hell panel of Bosch’s triptych, in order find this lovely little piece of written music on the naked ass of a sinner. No, we shouldn’t go there.


About the painting:

The right panel (220 × 97.5 cm, 87 × 38.4 in) of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights depicts his vision of Hell, the setting of a number of Bosch paintings.


Wikipedia‘s entry about the third panel says: “Bosch depicts a world in which humans have succumbed to temptations that lead to evil and reap eternal damnation…. Lust is further said to be symbolised by the gigantic musical instruments and by the choral singers in the left foreground of the panel. Musical instruments often carried erotic connotations in works of art of the period, and lust was referred to in moralising sources as the ‘music of the flesh.’ There has also been the view that Bosch’s use of music here might be a rebuke against traveling minstrels, often thought of as purveyors of bawdy song and verse.”

The Garden of Earthly Delights is discussed in depth in an episode of the fine BBC documentary series “Renaissance Revolution” – here’s the section that discusses Hell:

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.