Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516)
Hieronymus Bosch, brilliant and original northern European painter whose work reveals an unusual iconography of a complex and individual style. He was recognized as a highly imaginative “creator of devils” and a powerful inventor of seeming nonsense full of satirical and moralizing meaning.
Bosch was a pessimistic and stern moralist who had neither illusions about the rationality of human nature nor confidence in the kindness of a world that had been corrupted by human presence in it. His paintings are sermons on folly and sin, addressed often to initiates and consequently difficult to translate.
Unable to unlock the mystery of the artist’s works, critics at first believed that he must have been affiliated with secret sects. Although the themes of his work were often religious, his choice of symbols to represent the temptation and eventual ensnarement of humans in earthly evils caused many critics to view the artist as a practitioner of the occult arts. More recent scholarship views Bosch as a talented artist who possessed deep insight into human character and as one of the first artists to represent abstract concepts in his work. A number of exhaustive interpretations of Bosch’s work have been put forth, but there remain many obscure details.
An exact chronology of Bosch’s surviving work is difficult because, of the approximately 35 to 40 paintings attributed to him, only 7 are signed and none are dated. There exists little documentary information on the early life of the artist, other than the fact that he was the son and grandson of accomplished painters. His name does appear on the register of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, located in the city of his birth, and there is mention of him in official records from 1486 until the year of his death, when he was acclaimed an Insignis pictor (“distinguished painter”). In addition to painting, he undertook decorative works and altarpieces and executed designs for stained glass.
Works attributed to his youthful period show an awkwardness in drawing and composition and brushwork somewhat limited in its scope. Such paintings as The Cure of Folly, Crucifixion, The Adoration of the Magi, The Seven Deadly Sins, The Marriage at Cana, Ecce Homo, and The Conjurer are representative of that period. The presence of certain motifs, expanded in the more-sophisticated works of the artist’s middle period, and a limited technique, unsure yet bold, provide a beginning from which to view Bosch’s artistic origins. Between the first painting in that early group, The Cure of Folly, and the last, The Conjurer, a steady development can be seen. The iconography of the latter is more complex, and the characteristic themes that received their fullest expression in the great masterpieces of his late period have begun to emerge.
In those early paintings Bosch had begun to depict humanity’s vulnerability to the temptation of evil, the deceptive allure of sin, and the obsessive attraction of lust, heresy, and obscenity. In calm and prosaic settings, groups of people exemplify the credulity, ignorance, and absurdities of the human race. However, the imagery of the early works is still relatively conventional, with only an occasional intrusion of the bizarre in the form of a lurking demon or a strangely dressed magician.
To Bosch’s fruitful middle period belong the great panoramic triptychs such as the Haywain, The Temptation of St. Anthony, and The Garden of Earthly Delights. His figures are graceful and his colours subtle and sure, and all is in motion in those ambitious and extremely complex works. The paintings are marked by an eruption of fantasy, expressed in monstrous apocalyptic scenes of chaos and nightmare that are contrasted and juxtaposed with idyllic portrayals of humankind in the age of innocence. During this period Bosch elaborated on his early ideas, and the few paintings that survive establish the evolution of his thought. Bosch’s disconcerting mixture of fantasy and reality is further developed in the Haywain, the outside wings, or cover panels, of which recall the scenes of The Seven Deadly Sins. The cursive style that he worked out for the triptych resembles that of watercolour. In the central panel, a rendition of the Flemish proverb “The world is a haystack from which each takes what he can,” Bosch shows the trickery of the demon who guides the procession of people from the earthly paradise depicted on the left wing to the horrors of hell shown on the right one.
Bosch’s The Temptation of St. Anthony displays his ascent to stylistic maturity. The brushstrokes are sharper and terser, with much more command than before. The composition becomes more fluid, and space is regulated by the incidents and creatures that the viewer’s attention is focused on. His mastery of fine brush-point calligraphy, permitting subtle nuances of contour and movement, is fully evident. Bosch portrays the human struggle against temptation, as well as the omnipresence of the Devil, in his St. Anthony, one of the best keys to the artist’s personal iconography. The hermit saint in this work is cast as the heroic symbol of humankind. In the central panel St. Anthony is beset by an array of grotesque demons, their horrible bodies being brilliantly visualized amalgamations of human, animal, vegetable, and inanimate parts. In the background is a hellish, fantastically bizarre landscape painted with the most exquisite detail. Bosch’s development of the theme of the charlatan deceiving humans and taking away their salvation receives its fullest exposition in St. Anthony, with its condemnation of heresy and the seductions of false doctrines.
The Garden of Earthly Delights, representative of Bosch at his mature best, shows the earthly paradise with the creation of woman, the first temptation, and the Fall. The painting’s beautiful and unsettling images of sensuality and of the dreams that afflict the people who live in a pleasure-seeking world express Bosch’s iconographic originality with tremendous force. The chief characteristic of this work is perhaps its dreamlike quality; multitudes of nude human figures, giant birds, and horses cavort and frolic in a delightfully implausible, otherworldly landscape, and all the elements come together to produce a perfect, harmonious whole.
Bosch’s late works are fundamentally different. The scale changes radically, and, instead of meadows or hellish landscapes inhabited by hundreds of tiny beings, he painted densely compacted groups of half-length figures pressed tight against the picture plane. In those dramatic close-ups, of which The Crowning with Thorns and Christ Carrying the Cross are representative, the event is portrayed so near that the spectator seems to participate in it physically as well as psychologically. The most peaceful and untroubled of Bosch’s mature works depict various saints in contemplation or repose. Among those works are St. John the Evangelist on Patmos and St. Jerome in Prayer.
Bosch’s preoccupation in much of his work with the evils of the world did not preclude his vision of a world full of beauty. His adeptness at handling colour harmonies and at creating deeply felt works of the imagination is readily apparent. Though a spate of imitators tried to appropriate his visual style, its uniqueness prevented his having any real followers.