Dutch Painter and Draughtsman
’s-Hertogenbosch, Brabant (now Netherlands)
’s-Hertogenbosch, Brabant (now Netherlands)
Summary of Hieronymus Bosch
It is quite a feat that a Dutchman who painted 500 years ago remains one of the most notable apocalyptic painters of the world and one of art’s first visionary geniuses. Hieronymus Bosch is most celebrated for his detail-drenched and symbolic narrative renditions of the dance between heaven and hell through biblical-themed landscapes upon which play a revolving cast of fantastical, and often macabre humans, animals, monsters, and make-believe creatures. His paintings demonstrate our age-old tales of morality and the eventual fate of all sinners who succumb to the pleasures and perversity of the ego. These timeless stories, masterfully portrayed upon canvas in Bosch’s impeccably steady hand, continue to challenge interpretation as well as position the artist as one of the canon’s first original thinkers.
Bosch’s work is often seen as an eerie portent to the ongoing existential struggles of man; he, himself is positioned as a sort of artistic Nostradamus who painted the issues of the modern world many generations prior to its realization. Today, we are seeing outrageous creatures coming from under the seas’ darkest recesses, global warming and mass pollution continue to threaten our waters, battles of religious ideology rising within the international social and political spectrums, and ultimately, the perpetual tango between saint and sinner is as relevant now as it was back then.
- Bosch was the first artist to visually express beings and realms unbeknownst to human comprehension. His creation of the bizarre and the non-real was revolutionary amidst the staid status quo of tradition where artists painted literal truths without veering from the norm. He has said, "Poor is the mind that always uses the inventions of others and invents nothing itself."
- Bosch is noted for his profuse imagery of hell — as metaphor of our greatest fears and deepest desires; making him the preeminent image-maker of the absurdity and terror in our on-going human search for balance between the natural and spiritual worlds.
- Bosch is also considered to be the first modern artist by the Surrealists because of his bold departure from depicting mere reality and his endeavor in bringing the interior life and its unconscious machinations out of the mind’s dark recesses and onto the canvas.
- An unerringly, observant eye and extreme capacity for capturing detail mark all of Bosch’s work, compelling viewers to revisit a painting multiple times in order to absorb its densely populated contents. The construction and presentation of his work, often through the use of triptych and separated panelling, mirrors the epic dimensions of the stories from which his inspiration sprung.
Biography of Hieronymus Bosch
"Pleasure is as fragile as glass" is a Flemish proverb depicted in the lower left of the center panel of the famous The Garden of Earthly Delights - two lovers are enclosed in a glass bubble that, emerging from a flower, is beginning to crack. Such images suggest that Bosch's life, of which little is known, and his mysterious and often shocking images were deeply rooted to the earthy folklore of his time.
Important Art by Hieronymus Bosch
The Garden of Earthly Delights is considered Bosch’s seminal masterpiece and the most successful and outstanding of his creations. Little is known about the origins of the work, despite the fact that its patron was Engelbert II of Nassau, of Brussels. The large-scale work is an altarpiece triptych, composed of three internal parts and an outer protective case.
In the outer case, Bosch portrayed the origin of the world in grisaille (monochromatic), representing the third day of Creation when the earthly paradise was formed. It features a small figure of God holding an open book in the upper left corner, with the inscription in Latin, “For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm”.
The interior panels reveal three specific scenes from the Bible that correspond to the origin of mankind. The left (first) panel represents the Garden of Eden where God, who has a central position and is portrayed with a young and youthful appearance, is presenting Eve to Adam for marriage, portraying the divine message to “go forth and multiply.” Their glorious surroundings are populated by animals, mythical creatures, trees, water, and an organic hut-like structure which floats on the lake. In the center panel, Bosch illustrates the development of the Garden of Eden and the growth of humanity with various human beings interacting in a blissful manner. Again, they are surrounded by an abundance of fantastic creatures, animals, fruits, and organic pods that seem to serve as habitats. The nudity of the figures indicates that the scene is prior to the expulsion of man from paradise. However, most of the actions being carried out by the figures are associated with personal pleasure and self-absorbed joy, a teaser in anticipation of the judgment, which might follow. The last and right hand panel portrays this Last Judgment, also synonymous with mankind’s life after its fall from grace. It features a landscape immersed in darkness and chaos, where nothing seems to blossom or grow and where man is stuck in a tortured and troubled state. The countless musical instruments in the scene are said to be representative of various forms of glut; for instance, the bagpipes purport the symbol of lust and fleshly pleasure. In the center of the scene is a ‘tree man,’ immersed in the chaos of the disturbing imagery yet somehow shielded with difference, a proposed reference to Bosch himself as merely an observer of the world around him and a fine example of his turning man and nature into hybrid characters. Art historian Walter Gibson summarizes Bosch’s artistic language, of which this painting is the most iconic example, as “a world of dreams and nightmares in which forms seem to flicker and change before our eyes.”
As with most of Bosch’s work, there are multiple interpretations, the first of which was conducted in 1605 by José de Siguenza. He described the painting as “a satirical comment on the shame and sinfulness of mankind,” which is perhaps its most popular translation. The strawberry that appears various times in the central panel is believed to represent the ephemeral aspect of personal enjoyment and personal pleasures, because it is a fruit whose sweet taste is both temporary and fleeting. In this sense, the work emphasizes the “transient nature of earthly vanity” as explained by the contemporary art critic Pilar Silva Marato. One other interpretation is found from the panel on the right, in the scene of God with Adam and Eve. Art historian Wilhelm Fraenger points out the fact that God is touching Eve and that Adam’s feet touch God’s cloak, creating an indivisible link between the three where “a current of divine power flows down, so that this group of three actually forms a closed circuit, a complex of magical energy.” In this perspective, the scene is a visualization of the Divine union between man and God.
The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things is also considered a significant work of Bosch’s. In it we see the sins depicted around a central circle via scenes of people from different social classes and backgrounds encompassed in various activities in their lives. Anger and wrath, for example, are depicted in the form of a drunken argument in a tavern, whereas gluttony is shown as a family gorging on a feast. In the middle, the attentive Christ watches humanity’s downfall; beneath him reads the Latin expression “Cave cave d[omin]us videt,” which means, “Beware, beware, the Lord is watching.”
Above and below this main circle are two banderoles that contain Latin texts from Deuteronomy warning against sin. The lower banderole’s translation is, “I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end shall be,” greatly emphasizing the underlying meaning of the work. At the four corners of the work are four smaller circles that depict the Death, the Last Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
This painting represents a customary motif of Bosch’s—the idea of the ever-present and all knowing “eye of God’ as a challenge to humankind to consider their moment to moment actions and to engage with him in the reflection of man’s constant juggling between good and evil while in earthly residence. One main interpretation derived from its Biblical subject is that Hell is reserved for all those who do not follow God’s path. By depicting the obsessions and sins of man the painting acts as a societal self-portrait, appealing to the faithful, trying to lead them away from sin and back into better ways. In this way, it is possible to understand that it also echoes the same subjects and underlying significance of The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Although the date is highly uncertain, the work is perceived to be one of Bosch’s later works, as it incorporates a wide brush technique found in his other late works such as The Haywain. The actual history of the painting is a mystery, and although it is signed, contemporary research conducted by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project claims that the painting was “probably produced in the studio of the artist, but not painted by Bosch himself.” Despite this uncertainty, the work is a fundamental example of Bosch’s creations, being representative of his techniques, themes, subject matter, and underlying religious significance.
The Last Judgment, a piece depicting the fall of humanity, is composed, like many of Bosch’s triptychs, by a more grim grisaille painting in its exterior shutters and a more lively and colorful panel in its interior section. The left panel portays God, sitting in the clouds, with angels being cast down to earth as insects, amidst a paradise in its infancy. Meanwhile Eve becomes manifest through the donation of Adam’s rib. In the central panel, Jesus sits in heaven surrounded by angels observing the earthly events occuring below, already rife with destruction and sin. This devastation extends to the third panel on the right, offering a representation of Hell. Unlike most of his other works, this piece depicts only heaven and hell, without giving recognition to the idea of a middle place, or limbo, where souls have the opportunity to reflect upon their actions prior to their fate’s determination.
As usual, this piece has garnered various interpretations. Some argue that Bosch's art was influenced by heretical points of view, but others maintain that it was based on the pure entertainment factor in showcasing our greatest moral tales from a more absurd or ridiculous perspective. Another possible interpretation is that his art simply reflects the orthodox religious belief systems of his age marked by a medieval morality.
Whereas art by the old Classical Masters who painted in the same time period as Bosch had been solely based on reality, especially portraiture, his work was completely derived from a combination of his own imagination and the Biblical stories that inspired him. This way of making work was revolutionary at the time and Bosch was the first artist attributed with creating scenes, which were all together new, mined in part from the unconscious. This allowed for a signature visual voice that placed him apart from the norm full of fantastical, profoundly intricate, and complex imagery, concepts, and contexts superimposed onto a single plane. It is this combination of various individual parts and narratives that most captures Bosch’s innovations and visionary approach. This work, painted in oil on wood, is also a good example of Bosch’s impasto technique that leaves the brushwork visible, (opposing the techniques of the Flemish painters that used transparent layers in a smooth and silky way), and of his usual color palette that was an intense and vibrant utilization of the pigments available at the time.
This painting can also be seen as a main example of Bosch's influence on Surrealism. The use of symbolic imagery and the juxtaposition of scenes and times creates a complex tableau alluding to the complexities of the subconscious. Surrealist Salvador Dalí studied Bosch’s and considered him a predecessor. Writer Boyd Tonkin claims that Dalí’s work “blurs the boundaries between life and non-life, animate and inanimate existence, organic softness and mineral hardness, in Bosch-like ways,” adding that the link is so clear that Dalí had to protest that he was “anti-Hieronymus Bosch.”