Hieronymus BOSCH Nothing „modern“ here: „Be good or else!“

Hieronymus BOSCH

(c1450 born Jerome (Joen / Jheronimus) van Aken (from Aachen), died 9 August 1516, age c66. Born and died in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Duchy of Brabant, southern Netherlands)

 A skilled idiosyncratic artist on a relentless one man reactionary didactic Christian mission

  •  Bosch was devoutly orthodox, conservative, applying his consumate painterly skills and a unique vivid visionary figurative imagination relentlessly to his reactionary polemical moralising, scolding the fallen sinful Man
  • And also his tarnished Church?
  • Striking is that he painted not one „secular“ non-moralising painting. He was 100% business.
  • He was categorically NOT modern. Critics who argue this, like Rachel Campbell-Johnston and Waldemar Januszczak confuse his purpose and the content of his work.
  • Yes his extensive lurid fantastical imagery resonates with the modern world, with interest in psychology, Man’s inner world.
  • But so do Bronze Age Cycladic figurines of the 3rd millenium BC, and „primitive“ African art.
  • Ironically Bosch painted in the early 16th C on the brink of the seachanging Reformation, as the Renaissance gathered pace in Italy and northern Europe.
  • But his response to the winds of change –his mindset and his art purpose – was hard core Medieval and patently anti-modern, looking back not ahead.
  • However while his reactionary moralising was conventional his art style and content was not. It was different, unusual for his time, in his adaptation of the triptych for his visual sermons, in his elaborate distinctive iconography.
  • According to one source some of his iconographic epiction drew on the then popular pseudo-science of alchemy, but applying a Christian interpretation.


Bosch, c1489 St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness (and detail,a beetle-rat)…………


Saint John the Baptist, by Jheronimus Bosch

Saint John the Baptist *oil on panel *48,5 x 40 cm *1489 or later

sir stanley spencer, 1939, christ in the wilderness, consider the lilies…….

ah-art spencer 1939 christ in the wilderness, consider the lilies

Master of the Karlsruhe Passion (active near Strasbourg), c1440-50, Arrest of Christ…….. an astonishing image.

Master of the Karlsruhe Passion, c1440-50, Arrest of Christ




Bosch was one off, a skilled singular artist, marrying: 1/ a powerful pessimistic didactic / polemical mission or purpose; and 2/ great technical art skills, in drawing and painting; and 3/ a powerful well-read imaginative mind.

Man of mystery?

No. Bosch was above all a product of his times: applying his powerful if unusual visual methods to sustained polemical promotion of his reactionary Christian message.

 Bosch the mainstream hardcore Christian moralist

  • It is common to style Bosch as a man of mystery, about whose life little is known, and whose art is strange and obscure.
  • But confusion over the broad meaning of his art is misleading, if not disingeuous. There is valid debate over the details of the welter of intricate imagery, but there is little doubt about his overall work purpose.
  • Bosch was a devout staunch orthodox Christian, conservative and reactionary, and all his work was informed by a powerful didactic moralising mission, earnest moral lecturing deploying two major themes:
    • Warning feeble, gullible, sinful Fallen Man to behave, to be good or else! The stick.
    • But also, on the positive side, offering the carrot! So his art also depicted Man’s scope for redemptive progress, for salvation through emulation, through „living like Christ“ (eg popularied by Thomas a Kempis‘ popular „The Imitation of Christ“) and like the Saints.
  • Painted on the brink of the seachange that would be the Reformation, Bosch’s work strongly reflects his historic context, the political and religious disquiet. He lived and worked in a region well aware of the relevant keen intellectual debates. Thus Erasmus was partly educated in Bosch’s town.
  • But his response was sternly pessimistic and reactionary. He was loyal to his Church and the Papacy, though critical of its lapses, perhaps, like some others, favoring a Revolution in the sense of the Church going back to the apostolic roots.
  • Evidencing the relentless focus of Bosch’s mindset is that his oeuvre is totally religious and polemical. There is not a single secular portrait, unlike for the great preceding Flemish painters Jan Van Eyck (c1390-1441) and Rogier van der Weyden (c1400-1464) in whose footsteps Bosch painted. Both these forebears were active 50-60 years earlier and both painted a number of non-religious portraits.
  • He painted some secular genre scenesCutting the stone (1475-80, Prado, now attributed to a follower), The Wayfarer (c1488, Rotterdam), and The Conjourer (1502, known only by a copy) – but all these carry a Christian moral message.
  • In the film “The Curious World of Hieronymous Bosch” Director of the Het Noordbrabants Museum (which hosted the major 2016 exhibition) Dr Charles de Mooji suggests Bosch’s work shows a streak of humour? But this seems far fetched given that all Bosch’s output was “business”?
  • Bosch repeatedly stressed the fallen Man: human folly, Man as fallible, gullible (eg falling for magic), tempted by sin, evil, as depicted in the famous triptych, The Haywain, c1500-02, a later work, based on a Flemsh proverb: „The world is a haystack from which each takes what he can, set in rolling landscape showing Fallen Man, seduced by wealth (symbolised by hay), hapless in his material indulgence and promiscuity (the vase), unwitting, oblivious to his sinful condition, watched by an owl (the Devil’s associate), being towed by demons towards the halls of punishment. Hell! The warning!


But a one off artist: with singular technical skills and artistic imagination

  • But while his polemical purpose was mainstream Bosch was a singular, one off artist in his execution.
  • He was a uniquely idiosyncratic artist, marrying powerfully imaginative contentsupernatural, visionary – with consumate technical artistic skills, through outstanding draughtsmanship and painting.
  • For his day – for any day! – Bosch‘s visual imagery was uniquely imaginative, especially in the visionary, supernatural dream-like scenes: dramatic, fantastical, grotesque, and bizarre.
  • He also cleverly employed searing confronting realism in the detailed imagery, like the bloody footprint of the scourged Jesus in Ecce homo (c1475, Frankfurt), and the spiked blocks at his feet in Christ carrying the cross (> 1500, Vienna, which neatly pairs with an image of the child Jesus with a walking frame on the reverse side).
  • The triptych format – traditionally used to advertise specific religious (Biblical) narratives, especially in churches – Bosch adapted for his purposes, for his grand moral sermons.
  • While Bosch seems not to have travelled much, lived and worked in the same town, the extensive detail evident in his iconography presumably reflects wide reading, tapping many sources, thus taking advantage of the radical consequences of the printing press emerging in early 15th C, which helped fan intellectual debate.


Bosch was noticed in his time, and still is

  • Bosch became well known in his time an soon after. His works were copied and disseminated in prints, and he was collected keenly by the nobility, and the Hapsburg court, including Philip II of Spain.
  • However despite his popularity his life details are sketchy, not well known, other than he was well off and a well-placed committed member of the conservative Church establishment in his important home town of s-Hertogenbosch, in southern Netherlands.
  • But Bosch’s unusual work confused some observers closer to his time. Some in the 16th C saw the fantastical dream-like content of his work as superficial, “created merely to titillate and amuse, much like the “grotteschi” of the Renaissance, in contrast to traditional emphasis on “the physical world of everyday experience” Thus in 1560 the Spaniard Felipe de Guevera wrote Bosch was regarded merely as “the inventor of monsters and chimeras“. In the early 17th C the artist-biographer Karel von Mander “described Bosch’s work as comprising “wondrous and strange fantasies””.
  • And still does.
  • Thus, in particular, the meaning of Bosch’s most famous work, the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (c1490-1510, Prado) remains controversial. Many read it as Bosch again warning fallible Man to behave or else, but some (cf Laurinda Dixon) instead see the work fit within an alchemical framework, not least because the „sinners“ in the strange centre panel don’t appear like real sinners, seem like they are „pre-Fall“, still in paradise. The Medieval pseudo- or proto-science of alchemy reflects in other works, presumably its tenets can be interpreted as meshing with Christian thought.


Bosch and the Modern? Bosch a Renaissance painter? No, of course not. He was Medieval not proto-Modern.  

  • Bosch’s striking unique 15th C visual fantasies have intrigued modern observers.
  • Most scholars correctly see Bosch as a man of his turbulent times, see work reflecting “the orthodox religious belief systems of his age”, though debate remains over detailed interpretations of some images.
  • But Waldemar Januszczak (March 2016) provocatively labels Bosch “Modern, not medieval” in promoting his new BBC tv series, “The Renaissance Unchained”, in which he takes on the “jingoistic Florentine multi-tasker Giorgio Vasari” for his misleading emphasis on the Italians and frecoes and instead champions Northern Europe (and oil painting) as being far more influential on the Modern.
  • So he backsthe inventive artistic firebrandBosch as a Renaissance painterWithout him there would be no Goya, no Dali, no Magritte, no Beckmann, no Chapman brothers… no dark and violent envisionings of hell on earth””
  • But surely he misrepresents to sell his show. Yes Northern Europe certainly contributed to emergence of the Modern but not through Bosch. As we see here, while Bosch was (as Mr Januszczak notes) a close contemporary of Leonardo, he was clearly Medieval not “Modern”, as Mr Januszczak explains! His “art was intended as a pictorial sermon, warning us of the outcome of lust and sin… This is hardcore Christianity, so fierce and obvious..”.
  • Rachel Campbell-Johnston in the film “The Curious World of Hieronymous Bosch” joins Mr Januszczak, claims Bosch’s art “transcends his time” and looks ahead to Goya etc.
  • Both critics have the wrong end of the stick?
  • Rather, what has inspired the Modern is some of the visual content of Bosch’s method, not his mindset, his means of sermonising: his vivid, theatrical, unnatural fantasizing in his depiction of Christian concepts, especially Hell. So ironically the method of this distinctly un-Modern painter resonates well with the Modern, especially modern interest in psychology, Man’s inner world, the subconscious.
  • And this is far from unusual. The objective content of much traditional art, from many times and jurisdictions, has inspired Modern artists, though the artists responsible were in no way “modern”.
  • Look at the important influence of:
  • 1/ Japanese prints in the late 19th C; and
  • 2/ “primitive” African (and other) art, c 1905. And
  • 3/ the “unnatural” imagery of a number of other Medieval artists, especially the like-minded reactionary, conservative, orthodox painters from the so-called ‘International Gothic’ appeal to modern artists, eg the Sienese Giovani de Paolo (,c1403-82, St Nicholas of Tolentino saving wrecked ship (1455)), and even Bosch contemporaries like German painter Mathias Grunewald (1475-1528).
  • An interesting analogous case study concerns the important late 19th C American painter James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903). Despite painting alongside the unfolding Modern art revolution, Whistler basically remained a Neo-Romantic, reacting against the then erupting European economies and its profound impact on cities and country and working people, focussed almost entirely on his own aesthetic quest (in his case non-religious), “art for art’s sake”.
  • While the subject matter of his famous waterscape Nocturne images from around the 1870s was clearly traditional, their quasi-abstract style (influenced by the then fashion for Japanese prints) was prescient, unintentionally appealing to the Modern painters


Bosch’s oeuvre: controversy

  • Determining Bosch’s precise oeuvre has been a painstaking long winded exercise, and is ongoing.
  • The application of relevant new technologies (eg estimating the the age of wood panels via dendrochronology) in modern times has trimmed the number of paintings attributed to his hand to only around 25. The number of attributed drawings is now 20.
  • The major research project out of s-Hertogenbosch (Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) in connection with the major exhibition there February / May 2016, “Jheronimus Bosch – Visions of a Genius”, ie 500 years since he died, http://www.bosch500.nl/en/the-event/2016-exhibition ) has trimmed the list further, though added at least one too.



Context – regional history

  • Profound and disturbing change arrived in his home region soon after Bosch was born. The Duchy of Brabant became part of the Valois Duchy of Burgundy in 1430, ie part of the Burgundian Netherlands. The Burgundy Duchy then extended from east central France up into the Low Countries, and had been a great patron of culture for a century or more.
  • Firstly, fatefully, in 1477 Burgundy’s independence suddenly ended when the last Duke, Charles I (the Bold?!), was killed fighting in France but left no heir. The Hapsburgs Maximilian I quickly married Duke Charles‘ only child, Mary, then their son Philip the Fair then married Joanna of Castile in 1495, so Burgundy was swallowed by Hapsburg Spain.
  • Secondly across Europe there was trouble brewing in the Church, culminating in the momentous Reformation, which sundering process was inaugurated by Luther at Wittenberg in 1516.
  • Thirdly, the growing political and religious disquiet, and the looming of year 1500, stoked support for extremist apocalyptic ideas.


Context  – Hertogenbosch religious life

  • s-Hertogenbosch had a strong religious life, focussed on its major church, St John’s cathedral, including many religious orders, at least 50 monasteries and churches at or nearby, “a devotional abundance”.
  • The cathedral was “begun in the late fourteenth century on the site of an older structure and …completed in the sixteenth, it is a fine example of Brabantine Gothic, noteworthy for its wealth of carved decoration. Of particular interest are the rows of curious figures, monsters and workmen, sitting astride the buttresses supporting the roof, some of which bring to mind the fantastic creatures of Bosch.”
  • The town also hosted two houses of the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, known as the Modern Devotion (Devotio moderna), a lay order founded by 14th C mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck (d. 1381), and influenced especially by Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, written in the early 15th century, proposing Man for his religious edification should be more hands on, trying to live a life more like Christ, all part of a growing Northern reformist movement inside the Church favouring a return to its Apostolic roots.


Context  – popularity of apocalyptic thought

  • A number of Bosh’s paintings refer directly to apocalyptic thought coming from Revelations, especially the two Last Judgement triptychs (Vienna, c1476, commissioned 1504 by Philip the Handsome, son of Maximilian I; and another at Bruges, c1480), plus two panels in Rotterdam (Flood and Devastation by Fire) and the four Afterlife Panels in Venice.
  • There was an outbreak of apocalyptic anxiety c1000D, and a number of times thereafter, partly enouraged by Joachim of Fiore’s 12th C prophesies. The world did not end 1260, as he expected, but then gullible believers rationalised this by saying his calculations were out! Thus the year 1500, about a millenium after the Church was established, brought on another irrational wave of fear.
  • Durer’s famous woodcut of the Four Horsemen (1498) was inspired by these circumstances.


Context  – Flemish, Netherlands and German art

  • Bosch’s main Flemish predecessors were Robert Campin (c1378-1444, worked out of Tournai), Jan van Eyck (c1390-1441, based Bruges), Rogier van der Weyden (c1400-1464, trained with Campin, worked Brussels), famous for smooth detailed oil paintings.
  • Important earlier near contemporaries were Dieric (Dirk) Bouts (1415-75) in Louvain, Hans Memling (1430-1494) in Bruges, and Hugo van der Goes (1440-82) in Ghent. Following him were Gerard David (1460-1523, mainly in Bruges), landscapist Joachim Patinir (1480-1524, in Antwerp)an especially Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c1525/30-69).
  • Flanders was wealthier than the Netherlands in the early /mid 15th C.
  • Later much Dutch art of this period (eg from Haarlem) was destroyed in Protestant iconoclastic riots of Reformation.
  • Bosch was an almost exact contemporary of Leonardo (1450- 1519) and some think Bosch may have visited north Italy c1505, including Venice (cf Craig Barbison), the influence of which seems apparent in some of Bosch’s later works, eg the well known striking Christ Carrying the Cross (c1510 or later, Ghent, now attributed to a follower), showing the calm beatific Christ’s head in the centre, eye of the storm, an island in the close-up press of heads of his tormentors, a grotesque tapestry of expressive lunatics, the physiognomic features for whom Bosch may have been inspired by drawings of Leonardo.
  • An important similar painting is Christ Crowned with Thorns (oil on wood, 73 x 59cm, National Gallery London). But its date of 1495-1500 seems inconsistent if Bosch did visit to Italy after this time, which visit appears to reflect in this painting as it does in the Ghent work. The work seems to relate closely to Durer’s Christ among the Doctors (oil on poplar panel, 65 x 80cm) of 1506, painted while Durer was visiting Venice.
  • Bosch’s work (like Durer) presents a bold close-up of heads and carefully composed interacting hands. It also uses a typical clear four part iconography, again with polemical purpose, whereby Christ’s tormentors are here represented by all 4 classes – ie no one is blameless – Pope (Julius II), Emperor (Maximillian I), merchant (whose crescent decoration suggests he trades with Turkish infidels?) and scholar/peasant (Jewish? Alluding to Julius borrowing from Jews?).
  • Some of Bosch’s scenes of Christ seem to also reflect late 15th C German painting, eg work by Martin Schongauer (c1430-91), Cspar Isenmann (c1430-80) and especially the Master of the Karlsruhe Passion (c1430-80), ie intense, dramatic, energetic crowded scenes which might presage 20th C German Expressionism.


Context  – alchemy interfacing with religion

  • Despite it being subsequently revealed as nonsense by the late 17th C, alchemy in Bosch’s time was still an important intellectual endeavour, especially because believers saw it interfacing, resonating with the Christian story. It became more popular in the 14th C, and later printing helped it spread. It was patronised, encouraged at the highest levels, by the Church and nobility, by the Dukes of Burgundy and the Hapsburg court.
  • Alchemy was based on transmutation, conversion of base to precious, by bringing the 4 elements into balance, thus creating a 5th, the so-called quintessence.
  • But this conception consciously mirrored the Christian story of Man’s sins being „cleansed“ by Christ’s resurrection, Man being redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice and thus regaining the paradise lost by Adam and Eve. Thus alchemcal experiment was usually accompanied by Christian liturgical activity.
  • Some scholars think Bosch seemed to apply alchemical imagery through much of his art (cf extensive explanation by Laurinda Dixon in Bosch, Phaidon, 2003).
  • Case study: This is evident for example in the triptych of The Adoration of the Magi (1485-1500, Prado) without which alchemical references the work seems inexplicable (cf Laurinda Dixon). Typically the work alludes to the Christian Mass (ie when bread and wine are „mystically transformed through transubstantiation into the true body and blood of Christ“) and to Christ’s foretold Passion. The exterior of the closed three-panel work shows Gregory’s Mass. But the central panel is unusual, „the extraordinary presence of six menacing figures..“, which are explained alchemically as the „six contaminated metals“, within the Aristotelean „scientific“ hierarchy of planets and metals. They are the „six unclean metals awaiting transmutation through the grace of incarnate God“.
  • This „parallels“ the „cleansing of souls on the Day of Judgement“ and „a debased world redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice‘.
  • More importantly the panel also incorporates chemical laboratory apparatus, a distillation flask atop a furnace. This becomes a chemical metaphor whereby the equipment „houses“ the ingredients during their transmutation, much as Bethlehem „houses“ the ingredients for the Christian miraculous outcome, comparing the birth of Christ to the alchemical transmutating agent, the „philosopher’s stone“, the „lapis“. This connection was made by Petrus Bonus‘ New Pearl of Great Price, printed 1503. Thus the Magi in finding the baby Christ are also finding the „lapis“.
  • Case study: Likwise the elusive complex triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (c1470 or later) seems only to make sense via an alchemical interpretation. The painting was seen in 1517 in the Nassau court, then was later confiscated, looted, by the Duke of Alva in 1568 and taken to Spain.
  • Some today think the painting was viewed then as heretical, or a warning against immorality (eg because of the nudity), but this seems misguided?
  • And a traditional interpretation, trying to see it as Man being punished for his sins, does not quite fit. Thus the „sinners“ in the central panel don’t really look the part?
  • Again it seems that alchemical knowledge is woven into a complex pattern of imagery drawing on „Biblical, astrological, erotic, millenial and proverb“ sources, all harnessed to the alchemical goal of finding the „elixir of life“, ie enabling a return to Eden.
  • So the main themes of the work are creation, and salvation.
  • The ultimate alchemical allegory was to see the earth itself as the philosopher’s stone, which will be destroyed and reborn perfect and in paradise. Thus the work contains the four basic steps in the alchemical process: 1/ conjunction, ingredients are assembled for mixing (left interior scene, joining Adam and Eve in „alchemical marriage‘); 2/ „child’s play“step: slow cooking of the ingredients (in „riotous“ central panel); 3/ burning and „killing“of substances (in hell, right panel inside); 4/ cleansing / resurrection / transmutation (on triptych exterior).
  • This view explains the rampant but curiously „lust-less“ sexuality for the alchemical theory saw all components of the world in incessant copulation, and „all substances reproduce in a mystical marriage or conjunction of opposites..“
  • The dragon palm near Adam fits this iconographical scheme, a tree from Spain which exudes red sap, like Christ’s healing blood. Vines (cf Eucharistic wine) wrap the tree but growing wafers not grapes!? This alludes to the healing power of the Mass. The delicate pink fountain resembles a pelican vase, another lab item. The dark mound on which it rests contains gems, pearls, refers to alchemy’s prima materia (cf Roger Bacon, Hermes Trismegistus), the source material for all substances. Bottom right of the left panel is a primeval pond, oozing weird new life (one reading a book!). some of these creatures appear in the then popular Garden of Health. Top left is a rounded-furnace like building from which issue blackbirds, like unclean vapors which will be cleaned by the chemistry.
  • The central panel, billed „child’s play“, step 2, as the prima materia „joyfully couples“, an erotic visual extravaganza. As God said to Adam, Be fruitful and multiply. The marriage of opposites, like black and white. Cf mid 12th C translated (from Arabic) Turba philosophorum: „.. things contrary are commingled..“. And we see gymnastics! A chemical metaphor for the alchemical „turning upside down“, which reacting vapors do as they swirl. Why the shiny red cherries? But without stems? Because they are not cherries but the alchemists‘ „lapis“, eg described by George Ripley (court alchemist to Edward IV) in his Roll. And in the TP. See them here in lake above where four rivers of paradise arrive. Another alchemical reference: „The arrangement of the central panel.. resembles the frontispiece of.. Brunswyck’s Book of Distillation (1500).“ Explaining te dark blue fountain in the lake of paradise, which refers (again) to the alchemist’s pelican retort, the „marriage chamber“ where opposites „mate“. The TP mentions this device, drawn from the c1330 New Pearl of Great Price? We also see glass test tubes, centre and left.
  • So the central panel is a vision of paradise awaiting the Good Boys? The elect after the Day of Judgement explained in Revelations, thus fitting too the apocalyptic flavor of those times. Attainable through God’s salvation. And chiming with the alchemical goal of achieving paradise through the „transmuting eliir of life“.
  • The egg is another popular alhemical motif, as a „creation chamber“, thus alchemists liked egg shaped retorts. It is prominent also right in the „Hell“ panel. This panel shows sinners getting their comeuppance, especially for sins of „avarice, gluttony and lust“. But again the panel fits the overall alchemial scheme, the „putrefaction“ stage, thus refers to „Saturn, melancholia, chaos, hell and end of the world..“ And leprosy. Ingredients are „punished“ before being transmuted. The knives? Used to destroy, preparing for revival. One bearing the Greek letter Omega, last letter of the alphabet, and referring to Saturn.
  • The exterior panels also fit the alchemical scheme, showing a flask. God at the top and inscriptions: „He spoke and it was.“ And, „By his command they were created“.
  • This work was hung in the new Escorial in 1593, built by Philip II, a keen fan of alchemy, as was the Hapsburg empire generally, eg Rudolf II in Prague in the late 16th C. Under the Hapsburgs alchemy „flourished until closeof the 17th C“?!.



Work – oeuvre, attribution.

  • Unusually for his day, Bosch appears to have signed at least some (7?) of his attributed works?
  • For his age Bosch did not leave a big oeuvre? Only 25 definitely attributed? And this number is much lower than the „30 to 50“ attributed in the early/mid 20th C.
  • Attribution remains controversial. Thus in connection with the important Feb./May 2016 Bosch exhibition at his home town the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) since c2010 has been exhaustively reviewiing Bosch’s total oeuvre, demoting some images, promoting others, also restoring some.
  • Dendochronological analysis demoted the popular The Marriage at Cana to a follower of Bosch, dating it to c1560 earliest.
  • Bosch “produced at least sixteen triptychs, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments.”
  • Many were acquired by Spain’s Philip II, appealing to his religiously warped mind!? So about half his surviving ouvre is in Spain.


Work – patronage

  • The Brotherhood of Our Lady in ‚s-Hertogenbosch was important in securing commissions for Bosch, both directly and through patronage from important fellow members, like the Counts of Nassau, a Spanish nobleman Diego de Guevara who owned 6 of his paintings, and at least two wealthy business families.
  • The nobility were also keen sponsors, including from the Spanish royal familty.
  • An Italian Cardinal from Venice owned several works.


Work – reception, influence and interpretation 

  • After his death Bosch’s work soon became very popular, was widely copied. Thus over 20 copies were made of the St Anthony triptych. But in time interest faded until he was rediscovered in the 20th C, especially through excited Surrealist interest in Bosch’s extravaganza of detailed intricate dream-like visionary fantasy.
  • Bosch influenced Joachim Patinir and Pieter Bruegel, eg his Mad Meg (1562).
  • But modern interest in Bosch’s unusual offering has elicited much controversy.
  • Some modern observers suggest Bosch’s unusual imagery reflected heretical sympathies but this seems very unlikely considering Bosch‘s high social rank and apparent keen patronage of his work by the then aristocratic establishment.
  • Rather his work reflects a polemical moralising take on life – aimed at the daily life of clergy as well as common people – of a profoundly orthodox, mainstream religious late Mediaeval mindset, which approach also resonates with some contemporary literature. Like Adagia (1500), Common Proverbs (12 editions 1480 to 1500), and the sarcastic In Praise of Folly (1509) by Erasmus. Ship of Fools by Brant, 1494, best seller.
  • The persistent theme through near every painting was moral lecturing, in the triptychs, and in other less formal paintings, especially The seven deadly sins (c1500, now attributed his school), The conjourer and the stone operation, both condemning trickery / dishonesty and gullibility.
  • However his expression of orthodox ideas was certainly idiosyncratic and singular, vividly colorful and imaginative, and employing a complex and extensive pictorial iconography, but suited to times when literacy levels much lower.
  • Laurinda Dixon (Phaion, 2003) argues persuasively that alchemical references feature prominently in many of Bosch’s paintings, notably the Garden of Earthly Delights, and there interface with, support the Christian story. Though this is not accepted by all?
  • Ms Dixon also writes that Bosch, again in sympathy with his times, in some of his work also referred to apocalyptic themes, again popular, not least as the year 1500 approached.
  • Some modern observers also see irony and detachment in his work? And also even anti-Spanish nationalistic comment (Oliveira, Paulo Martins, Jheronimus Bosch, 2012)?


Work – meaning: The seven deadly sins and the Four Last Things

  • The circular format of The seven deadly sins and the Four Last Things, c1490 (Follower, Prado. Recently demoted by BRCP) refers to the eye of God, as cited in a number of contemporary moralising religious texts, including Nicholas of Cusa’s Vision of God (De visione dei). It is also ntended as a mirror tohuman nature. Also Psalm 11:9 adds, „The wicked walk around in a circle“. To emphasize his point Bosch adds „Beware, beware, God sees“ beneath Christ in the pupil!
  • But in keeping with the new worldly Renaissance spirit Bosch illustrates his points with real scenes from contemporary Dutch life..
  • „the Four Last Things were also „a fixture in popular moralising treatises“. In the scene of Hell, the eternal torments allocated to perpetrators of each type of sin are carefully devised by Bosch to reflect the sin. Thus „Bosch devised a painful and unique punishment for sloth“, spanked forever by a devil with a hammer.
  • The common man would undertsand the images but the text is in Latin, aimed at the educated, literate.


Work – categories

  • Features of Northern Renaissance Ars nova (New style) painting (cf Ervin Panofsky), which Bosch absorbed, were
    • applying complex carefully devised iconography using symbols and allusions.
    • Using understated naturalistic worldly realism to depict traditional religious themes or subjects, both in the figures and in the locational settings, landscapes and towns and houses, eg Geertgen (Gerald) tot Sint Jans (c1465-c1495), who worked in Haarlem.
  • Bosch painted detailed landscapes but not in the league of Bruegel. Or Joachim Patinir.
  • Categories of Bosch’s work:
    • Moralising triptychs:
      • The Garden of Earthly Delights, c1470 or later, 1490-1510? Prado. This is the most famous of all Bosch’s paintings,
      • The Last Judgment, c. 1476 (Vienna),
      • The Last Judgment, c. 1480 (Bruges),
      • The Haywain, 1501-02 (Prado, read from left to right, each panel was essential to the meaning of the whole.eruption of fantasy, expressed in monstrous, apocalyptic scenes of chaos and nightmare that are contrasted and juxtaposed with idyllic portrayals of mankind in the age of innocence…. disconcerting mixture of fantasy and reality..”.The closed outer panel shows The path of life, or Wayfarer), parts of a sundered triptych, Ship of Fools etc.
      • Dispersed triptych. Another triptych was broken up, some of which survives, though not the central panel: left interior panel, Death of a miser (c1488 or later), right interior panel, Ship of fools (c1488 or later, alluding to  Sebastian Brant’s 1494 Ship of Fools, collection of poems, which satirised behaviour of clergy well as others), above Allegory of Intemperance (gluttony) (c1488 or later); exterior panel The Wayfarer (c1488 or later, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. The pilgrim on the road of life has a choice of roads, the good or the bad. Moralising detail includes the datskin on the back pack, the owl in the tree, the upturned jug on the roof apex, the pig’s trotter as an amulet).
      • Polyptych Visions of the Hereafter (c1490, Palazzo Ducale, Venice), comprising Ascent of the Blessed, Terrestrial Paradise, Fall of the Damned into Hell, and Hell)


  • Moralising secular set images.
    • The seven deadly sins and the Four Last Things, c1490 (Follower, Prado).
    • The conjourer , 1502 (Saint-Germain-en-Laye),
    • Stone operation (Follower, Prado, Madrid).
  • Setting a good example: the life of Christ.
    • Adoration of the Magi, > c 1468 (panel, NY),
    • Ecce Homo, > c1475 (Frankfurt),
    • Crucifiion with Donor, > c 1477 (panel, Brussels),
    • Christ crowned with thorns, > c 1479 (panel, London), Ecce Homo, 1490s? (Or follower? Indianapolis),
    • Christ carrying the Cross, > c 1492 (panel, Madrid),
    • Adoration of the Magi, > c 1493 (panel, Philadelphia),
    • Ecce Homo, 1496/1500? (Workshop of Bosch, Boston),
    • Adoration of the Magi, c 1500 (triptych, Madrid),
    • Christ carrying the Cross, > c 1500 (panel, Vienna) / reverse: Christ child and walking frame (sustentacula),
    • Christ carrying the Cross, c 1515 (panel, Ghent),
    • Christ crowned with thorns, > c 1527 (follower, panel, Escorial),
    • Marriage at Cana, > c 1555 (follower),  mid 15th C (follower, Philadelphia),
  • Setting a good example: „Sufferings of the Saints“ The „most peaceful and untroubled of Bosch’s mature works depict various saints in contemplation or repose..
    • The Temptation of St Anthony, > c 1462 (Follower? Panel, Prado);
    • Martyrdom of St Julia (?), triptych, c1491 Palazzo Ducale, Venice);
    • Hermit Saints, triptych, c1487 or later (Palazzo Ducale, Venice);
    • St John the Baptist, c1474, Madrid (Pairs with St John of Patmos, once part of altarpiece for St. John’s Cathedral, ‘s-Hertogenbosch? In which case date is c1489. The pose of St John is very unusual);
    • St Christopher (1490-1500, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands);
    • St John of Patmos (c1500, Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Pairs with St John the Baptist, once part of altarpiece for St. John’s Cathedral, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, in which case date is c1489.”Monster” lower right has face which may be self portrait of the artist?);
    • St Jerome (c1482, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent, Belgium. St Jerome was popular with Bosch, as his namesake and as a dedicated Christian warrior);
    • The Temptation of St Anthony, c1501, triptych. Lisbon, . St Anthony, lived Egypt c251-356AD, a founder of monasticism, a popular subject for Bosch, and others (eg Schongauer and M Grunewald). And this work was popular, many copies being made. A popular saint, the cult of St Anthony, especially in 15th and 16th C, associated with unpleasant disease Holy Fire („ignis sacer“), ergotism, which hurt poor peasants, caused by mouldy rye grain. This grain heated produces a form of LSD! Antonite monasteries ran hospices for afflicted, esp by Holy Fire. They proliferated. And employed chemists (apothecaries) to make „cooling elixirs“, esp the „holy vintage‘, adminstered at Feast of the Ascension, ie 40 days before Easter, when the concoction wouldbe strained through bones of St Anthony to boost its power! But therefore problems with fake bones1 Thus „regulation of cures for holy fire was the subject of at least 3 papal bulls during Bosch’s life“!? St Anthony in visual depictions was intended as an example to emulate, identify with, and the saint’s sufferings in turn referred to Christs‘. The chemists brewed many „medicines“, many using the mandrake root, though perversely it only aggravated the hallucinatory symptoms of ergotism. Bosch includes much lab apparatus in his images, embedding some in the architectural fabric. Eg referring to Brunswyck’s Book of Distillation


  • Some observers see three phases in Bosch’s work, though this seems problematic given the loose dates for most of his work, apart from the debate over which works he did do:
    • 1/ Early 1474 to 1485, generally conventional?
    • 2/ Middle, C1485-1510.
    • 3/ C1510-1516. Later works were „..fundamentally different .. the scale changes radically, and, instead of meadows or hellish landscapes inhabited by hundreds of tiny beings, he painted dramatic close-ups, densely compacted groups of half-length figures pressed tight against the picture plane.”


  • Case study: St John the Baptist, (c1489, Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid. It seems to have been a wing for an alterpiece for St. John’s Cathedral, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, paired with St John of Patmos), This shows the saint as a hermit holy chap in the wilderness (but in Holland not the parched petrine Egyptian deserts) reminding us of his role in preparing the way for Christ, here symbolised by the lamb. Bosch the ruminating saint as melancholic, here tapping the Renaissance humanist revival of Aristotle’s theory of personality whereby great thinkers, geniuses (thus for Christians, the prophets) were melancholic because „great intellectual effort produced a combustion of humours wthin the body, „a fire of inspiration“… „ which gave off vapors irritating the brain. The Renaissance revival of the Classics was harnessed by the Church to tell their story and thus in Bosch’s time Florentine physician/priest Marsilio Ficino wrote of Aristotle’s theory in his 1489 Three Books on Life. Melancholy was associated with Saturn and Bosch also alluded to melancholy and Saturn in his Wayfarer (c1488, Rotterdam). And Durer famously engraved Melencolia I in 1514. But apparently the idea of the melancholic saintly hermit was old, suffering „enthousiasme“, a fiery cerebral denouement born of „divine ravishment“ when gripped by intense prophetic inspiration. „Miscreants and earth-workers“ were also seen as „progeny of Saturn“.


Work – technique

  • Bosch’s oil painting style shifted significantly away from important predecessors like van Eyck. Bosch did not “apply.. colors laboriously in micro-layers.“ He did not „present the glossy gem-like appearance typical of mid 15th C Northern paintings
  • His style was sketchier, rougher, using some impasto, not so concealing of brushstrokes. He sketched on then painted irectly on white ground on panel.
  • Bosch used sketches to prepare for his paintings and he also often reworked images.



  • Details of Bosch’s life are scarce, but which is in accord with his times, when artists were generally regarded as craftsmen, carrying a lower status, though this attitude was soon to change, as part of the Renaissance, starting in Italy. He left no personal documents (unlike Durer who – about 20 years younger and who definitely travelled to Italy – was copious), so is known only from his art, and from local aministrative records, in three categories: city tax rolls, notarised legal records, and “factures”, the account books at Brotherhood of Our Lady.
  • Bosch was born Jerome Anthony van Aken, in ‚s-Hertogenbosch, in the north of the Duchy of Brabant, one of the seventeen Dutch or Netherlands provinces, in the south. So today ‚s-Hertogenbosch is in the Netherlands, close to the Belgium border. The Dutch Provinces were then part of the Duchy of Burgundy and ‚s-Hertogenbosch was one of the 4 largest cities in Brabant, along with Brussels, Antwerp and Louvain.
  • ‚s-Hertogenbosch was a thriving commercial and cultural city, which enjoyed good times during Bosch’s life, eg reported population growth from 17,280 to 25,000 from 1496 to 1500. It was quick to gain a printing press.
  • He was the grandson of Jan van Aachen (d.1454) who moved to Hertgenbosch from Aachen (also known as Aix-la-Chappelle), and was part of a family of painters, the son of artist Anthonius van Aken (d c1478), brother of Goessen, also a painter.
  • He first appears in the municipal record on 5 April 1474. He Latinised his first name and also replaced his family name in order to publicise his association with his important home town.
  • Bosch was a devout Christian, in a town where about one third of the population was affiliated with religious bodies.
  • Around 1488 he joined the Brotherhood of Our Lady (Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady), a conservative lay confranternity comprising about 50”sworn members”, senior members, of whom Bosch was one from c1488, and some 7,000 ‘outer-members’ from around Europe. It was established early in the 14th C and like an exclusive club it became “one of the most important confranternities in northern Europe”, membership drawn from senior people in the Church, nobility and the bourgeoisie. They held appropriate ceremonies and banquets (eg one of which Bosch hosted March 1510), and during Bosch’s life funded a late Gothic chapel inside the cathedral.
  • s-Hertogenbosch suffered a major fire 18 Nov 1421, in which c100k died? And Bosch himself probably witnessed a big fire in his home town in 1463? God’s wrath?!
  • Bosch was raised in a reasonably well off family (in 1462 his father bought a large house on the main square). He married into a well off family c1481, but one of similar social standing. In wealth terms Bosch was probably in the top 10% of the town’s inhabitants.
  • He may have visited northern Italy (refer above).
  • Exhibition Rotterdam, “Hieronymus Bosch and his World.”
  • Major exhibition, Visions of Genius, Noordbrabants Museum, ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, February 13–May 8, 20



Comment on the commentators: moths to a flame.                                                                                            16 august 2016 

Why is he such a popular subject?

1/ Because he was different, because his fantastical imagery was so intense and extreme, and there was lots of it;

2/ Because little is known about the artist let alone what the artist thought he was trying to say.

But we must be wary of some comment because, like all professional authors, they are conflicted, bring an agenda.

Their main mission is to sell books so there is always the temptation to lure customers by embellishing the story accordingly.



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