Hieronymus Bosch – A Window on God’s Creation

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, around 1500, Museo del Prado, Madrid

“The Master of the monstrous… the discoverer of the unconscious” –  C.G. Jung

There is a paucity of detail about Bosch’s (Jeroen Van Aken) personal life most of which was lived in s’Hertogenbosch in the Netherlandish province of Brabant. Bosch was born around 1450 and died in 1516, a period when the Duchy of Brabant was still a Catholic state. He came from a prosperous family of painters, which included his father, grandfather and a couple of uncles. After his marriage around the age of 25 to a wealthy woman he was well set up financially with a fine house as a man of independent means. His position in society was underpinned by membership of the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, open only to the nobility and powerful upholders of the Catholic Church.

  Portrait of Hieronymus Bosch. c.1550, Jacques Le Boucq, from the Recueil d’Arras

Bosch was bracketed in time by two other great Northern painters: Jan Van Eyck (1395? – 1441) and Pieter Breughel the Elder (1529 -1567). He was influenced by the former and strongly influenced the latter and perhaps also influenced Da Vinci and Raphael as well. Although his knowledge of Italian painting is said to have been negligible, some commentators maintain that he visited Italy and met Leonardo and Giorgione. Bosch was a near contemporary of Albrecht Durer (1472 – 1528), a more proficient draftsman but much less able than Bosch in the area of imaginative invention. However many drawings by Bosch show he worked from life and made detailed designs for his paintings. Like Leonardo, he indulged in caricature, both in drawings and in paintings such as Christ Crowned with Thorns, shown below.

Oil painting migrated from the Far East and first appeared in Northern Europe in the work of the Master of Flémalle, Robert Campin (1375 -1444) rather than in Italy. Bosch worked in oil on a prepared white ground on wooden panels. A sketch in black chalk would be adumbrated with pale beige and the painting completed with thin, transparent colours. Bosch eschewed the Italian emphasis on linear perspective and anatomical study in favour of his own version of space impregnated with spiritual or numinous force. He is thought to have worked quickly: this can be seen from calligraphic elements of his technique which harked back to a medieval tradition that was giving way to the innovations of the Renaissance in his own day. Despite his seeming insularity it is clear from his work that he was abreast of current religious and intellectual thought, such as alchemy, perhaps derived from figures like Erasmus who lived in s’Hertogenbosch.

In the late Middle Ages few Christians were literate. Church Services were held in Latin, so the role of the religious painter was to communicate the central doctrines of Catholicism visually. The painter had to satisfy: the Church authorities; the literate bourgeoisie; the ignorant masses; other artists and his own sensibilities. Fortunately for Bosch he was a man of means and could indulge his imagination within the bounds of doctrinal propriety, despite the operations of the Inquisition. The way in which he did this is controversial, some critics saying that he was a pious moralizer and others that he was a satirist who secretly espoused heretical views.

Christ Crowned with Thorns, 1495-1500, National Gallery, London

An examination of Christ Crowned with Thorns illustrates Bosch’s symbolic approach. The central figure of Christ, surrounded by the four apostles, had long been an established format, but in this work the four figures are antagonistic tormenters who represent the main classes in society: Knights, priests, merchants and peasants. In particular the top right figure represents Pope Julius II, the warrior Pope, identified by the oak leaf emblem. This pope was prosecuting a war with Venice at the time, in league with the Emperor Maximilian I, perhaps represented by the figure at the top left. The bottom left figure represents the merchant class, the crescent on the silk headdress implying infidel or heretical views. The figure on the bottom right represents the peasantry but also scholars, according to the dress.

From this rather superficial analysis it is clear that Bosch was not only a critic of church corruption, soon to be addressed by the Reformation, but also of the corrupt nature of society in general with its worldly sinfulness. The central figure of Christ appears passive and detached and perhaps represents ‘everyman’ or even the painter himself in his search for enlightenment. Psychologically the Jungian Christ archetype represents the perfect man, a balance between the humours of the surrounding figures: choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic and melancholic.

The Wayfarer, 1510, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Bosch painted two versions of The Wayfarer, the small one shown above and the figure on the outer panels of The Haywain, below. The century after 1450 was the golden age of beggars, who often travelled in large bands from town to town. The Liber Vagatorium, written in 1510 with a later introduction by Martin Luther, documented this phenomenon. The lone figure was called Picaro (wild man) by the Spanish and appears in early versions of the Tarot as the first card of the Major Arcana.

The figure depicted in both versions is an allegory of human life on earth, condemned to wander, suffering many temptations and vicissitudes. The Picaro was a misfit but enjoyed independence from the confining conventions of society whether religious or secular, perhaps indicative of the painter’s own attitude. François Villon was a typical example in Bosch’s time.

The Path of Life (outer panels of The Haywain), after 1510

In the smaller but later painting, Bosch depicts The Prodigal Son on the point of entering his father’s house, symbolized by the gate. He looks wistfully back to his life of dissolution, represented by the ramshackle White Swan Inn and its disreputable inhabitants. The swan can represent the end of life because of its dying song, a possible interpretation of the journey’s end. The magpie behind the gate symbolizes doubt but promises freedom after passing through, unlike the caged magpies at the corner of the Inn who remain trapped. The owl in the tree above the wanderer means learning or intelligence but the coal-tit represents the inconstancy of man, always running after new experiences. The spindle in the hat, held in the prodigal’s hand, signifies that the thread of life has run out. The outer panels of The Haywain show the many perils of human life in the background to the figure, who is about to cross over a stream (Lethe), the latter motif signifying the end of the ageing vagrant’s life. 

“The world is a haystack from which each takes what he can”  – Netherlandish proverb

 Triptych, The Haywain, after 1510, Museo del Prado, Madrid

The theme of life on Earth is elaborated in the central panel of the triptych, sandwiched between the expulsion from the Garden of Eden and scenes from Hell. Christ, shining in the clouds, presides over a grand charivari, with nobles and churchmen riding in from the left.  Peasants support the hay juggernaut from below, which is being drawn by an assortment of devils and hybrid beasts. Riding high on the pile of hay a troubadour serenades a girl holding a musical score, flanked by a praying angel on the left and a piping devil on the right, while a pair of lovers makes out in a tree behind. The rural landscape recedes behind, deploying a blue aerial perspective which contrasts nicely with the pink and orange of the sunlit clouds.

Bosch’s most elaborate and puzzling work is the triptych called The Garden of Earthly Delights, a work of staggering invention and complexity. We should note that the Hebrew word ‘Eden’ means delight, so the central panel can be interpreted as Eden restored to mankind after the resurrection. The right hand panel would then represent the eternally damned. All of the figures are adult and youthful with no children or old people depicted. Furthermore the multitudes of figures seem more like curious investigators of a new world rather than habitués of the secular and corrupt world of The Haywain. After all, what boon would Heaven be if it did not permit enjoyment of everything in it, including intercourse among humans, animals or plants such as Adam was rumoured to have enjoyed before the appearance of Eve?

Triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1510, Museo del Prado, Madrid

A curious feature of the central panel is the disregard for the scale of natural objects. For example, a huge bird feeds a nest of tiny humans or naked figures sit within a seedpod. A near analogy to this is Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, where fairies cavort in the English countryside and influence human lives. The fantastic art of William Blake and Richard Dadd are weak cousins of Bosch’s monumental construction of a fantasy world. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and similar mythological works drew upon the Greco-Roman tradition, which is entirely ignored by Bosch who creates his world from the social materials to hand, including contemporary accounts of new animals like the elephant and the giraffe which appear in the left hand panel of the triptych. It is little wonder that the Surrealists embraced Bosch as a precursor of their rejection of rationality and realism.

Detail from central panel of Triptych

A notable feature of the left hand and central panels are the architectural, crystalline structures which grow from spheres, cylinders and cones into fantastic organic forms. The artist seems to delight in creating almost perfectly transparent structures which house humans, animals, birds and chimerical creatures. However, only the diabolical right hand panel contains manufactured objects, such as houses, furniture, knives, musical instruments and the usual human artifacts available in the 15th Century, albeit distorted in size and function to conform to the nightmare scenario inhabited by the host of devils and their victims.

Tree Man, Detail from right hand panel of Triptych

The central panel is made of a great many vignettes comprsing clusters of human figures engaged in bizarre activities, many sexual but some seemingly innocent play. Describing and interpreting these is a vast labour which several scholars have attempted. The video below explores the main scenes of the painting and provide the best way of coming to grips with the elements of the design, which is a masterpiece with few equals in the world of painting. A useful analysis of sections of the triptych can be found in this link.

Hieronymus Bosch was predominantly a religious painter who expressed a world view as complex as that of Dante. His work stands at the juncture of a declining medieval age and the rising influence of renaissance learning. He successfully combined folk knowledge, as a means of communicating with the peasantry, and religious doctrine, couched in an almost impenetrable cloak of private symbols. In this regard he resembles a poet who uses and expands familiar symbols and creates new ones. The result is a mesmerising and delightful synthesis of the beautiful and the terrible.

But perhaps we should allow Bosch the last word.


Tony Thomas

Tony Thomas was born in England in 1939, and is a retired bureaucrat living in Brisbane, Australia. He has an Australian wife, two adult daughters, a dog and a cat. He holds a degree in economics from the University of Queensland. His interests are catholic, and include: philosophy, writing fiction, poetry, and blogging political diatribes.

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