Religion has always played a large part in European art history. Some of the world’s most iconic artworks from European artists feature ethereal, divine depictions of stories from Christianity and the Bible, like Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495-1498) and Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (1512).
However, the religious works of 15th-century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch stand in stark contrast to the heavenly pieces we typically associate with Christian European art. Bosch’s most famous religious works—which come in the form of triptychs and polyptychs—embrace the grotesque, nightmarish, and macabre in a level of detail that makes his work hard to look away from.
The Life of Hieronymus Bosch
Bosch’s Early Life
Born as Jheronimus van Aken circa 1450, Bosch lived his whole lifespan in his hometown of 's-Hertogenbosch in Brabant, Netherlands. His surname, Bosch, pays homage to 's-Hertogenbosch, which translates as “Duke’s forest.”
During his life, he was an orthodox Catholic and a documented member of 's-Hertogenbosch’s confraternity “Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady.” ARTnews reports that a devastating fire swept through the town of 's-Hertogenbosch on June 13, 1463. Though his motivations are unknown, Bosch might have witnessed the fire as a young teenager, influencing him to create the hellish depictions seen in his art as an adult.
Little record of Bosch’s life exists in the first place, so it is unclear where Bosch received his artistic training. It’s assumed he was instructed by a family member, possibly his father or an uncle. ARTnews also reports that Bosch’s grandfather, Johannes Thomaszoon van Aken, was a prominent painter during the first half of the 15th century.
Hieronymus Bosch died in 1516 and was buried on August 9, 1516.
To date, only 25 works have been confidently attributed to Hieronymus Bosch. Bosch did sign seven of his paintings, which was unusual for artists at the time, but this action has helped scholars and art historians today differentiate Bosch’s works from those of his followers.
Bosch is most known for his triptychs and polyptychs—paintings that consist of three or four separate sections, respectively—that were used as altarpieces. His most well-known triptychs include The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510) and Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony (1501). For all of his triptychs, Bosch painted with oil on oak canvas. He painted at least 16 triptychs and polyptychs. Eight of them survive fully intact, while five remain in fragments.
As a notable representative of the Early Netherlandish painting school, Bosch adheres to many common characteristics of that period. His work features complex iconography, depicting religious events in the form of triptychs or altarpieces. One way Bosch differentiates himself from other painters of his time, though, is through his use of the technique known as impasto painting. Impasto painting involves laying paint onto the surface thickly so that the brushstrokes are visible in the final image. In contrast, many painters of the Early Netherlandish painting school used transparent glazes to ensure their paintings had a smooth surface, perhaps to emphasize them as divine creations.
Little is known about Bosch’s artistic intentions or why he approached depicting some religious stories and events so grotesquely. Scholarly debate continues to this day and many differing interpretations of Bosch’s work exist.
Holiness Made Horrifying
Characteristics of Grotesque Art
If you’ve ever heard someone refer to a work as being “Boschian,” they’re likely referring to Bosch’s signature horrifying, unnatural, detailed imagery that falls into the artistic concept of the grotesque. But what does calling something “grotesque” actually mean in the context of art?
In general, the word “grotesque” can be used to mean something that is “fanciful,” “bizarre,” or “departing markedly from the natural, the expected, or the typical,” according to the Merriam-Webster definition of the word. Coming from the Italian word “grotteschi,” the word was first applied to architecture, specifically ornamental arabesques. The term extended to describe visual art that evokes a feeling of discomfort and sympathetic pity. Art that inspires this kind of unease within the viewer can also be called fantastic art.
Common characteristics of grotesque art include combining natural and animal elements and the exploration of dream-like, alternate, and unearthly landscapes. Grotesque art may feature the supernatural, mythical, folkloric, or religious as its subject matter.
It should be noted that although Bosch uses many elements of the grotesque in these two specific works, he was not an artist who painted exclusively grotesque works. Some of Bosch’s works that feature no grotesque elements include Adoration of the Magi (1485-1500) and St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness (1489).
Many of the aforementioned characteristics of grotesque art can be seen in Bosch’s two most famous triptychs, however: The Garden of Earthly Delights and Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony. Through analysis, one can understand how Bosch creates a deep sense of the uncanny in both of these incredibly intricate pieces.
The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510)
At first glance of The Garden of Earthly Delights, one might be overwhelmed by where to look. The dimensions of the triptych itself are 7′ 3″ by 12′ 9″, and all three panels feature hundreds of human subjects. It can quickly become dizzying to take in the entire work at once. By exploring each panel’s focal points, one can better understand just how much care Bosch took in showcasing the nonsensical, explicit, and demonic.
The leftmost panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights depicts a daytime scene from the Garden of Eden. At the center of the painting’s lower third, God stands with Adam and Eve, holding Eve’s wrist. Below them, a myriad of strange, hybrid animals ascend from a pit in the ground. In the very center is a large, pink crystalline structure. Surrounding the structure, familiar animals like giraffes and elephants can be seen along with other crossbred animals. The presence of these otherworldly animals in a sacred place like the Garden of Eden indicates how Bosch saw these Biblical realms as ones that defied natural logic.
The central panel depicts the titular Garden of Earthly Delights. This scene is an extension of the Garden of Eden after Eve has bitten the apple and committed the original sin, changing the Garden of Eden from a place of purity to one of debauchery and lust. Large groups of nude, fair-skinned people ride on hybrid animals, engage in sexual pleasure, and eat oversized fruit while sitting atop several strange stone pieces of architecture in a seemingly utopian world. This panel is brightly lit, with the foreground hosting most of the action. It uses the same vibrant colors as the first panel. In contrast with the first panel, this scene presents a clear focal point: the enormous architecture in the background.
The rightmost and final panel is perhaps the most analyzed portion of all of Bosch’s works, as it illustrates the artist’s understanding of the Last Judgment in hell. In comparison to the previous two panels, this one is darkly lit with brighter contrast, drawing your attention to the scenes of torture in the foreground. These the souls of the damned experience brutal and gruesome fates. Within the claustrophobic lower third of the panel, legions are crushed beneath large musical instruments or are feasted upon by the now unrecognizable hybrid creatures. In the central third, focal points include two colossal dismembered ears severed by a knife and a hollowed-out humanoid torso with people seated at a table inside. A handful of dwellers drown in an icy lake below the humanoid torso. The upper third features thousands and thousands of people being led into hell as fires rage in the background.
This singular section of The Garden of Earthly Delights persists as one of the most unnerving representations of hell in art. Bosch’s version of hell is so far removed from our comprehension that the exact meaning of this piece has sparked discourse among scholars for years.
Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony (1501)
Like The Garden of Earthly Delights, Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony recounts a Biblical story through its three sections in chronological order from left to right.
Saint Anthony (January 12, 251-January 17, 356), or St. Anthony the Great, was a Christian monk from Egypt. At the age of 20, he retreated to a desert near the Nile River to practice a life of asceticism. He remained in isolation near the mountain of Pispir—now called Dayr al-Maymūn—for 19 years. According to religious legend, during this time, St. Anthony was tormented and tempted by the Devil as a test of the saint’s faith. This event has been frequently expressed in visual art, and Bosch’s variation is no less terrifying than St Anthony’s ordeal itself.
The first panel of the triptych displays the flight and fall of St. Anthony. He is carried into the sky by hostile demons and then is helped across a bridge. The hybrid bird creatures that can be seen in The Garden of Earthly Delights also return in this triptych, with one hatching from an egg in the lower-left corner.
The central panel depicts St. Anthony’s temptation. St. Anthony appears to be held captive in a cell within a crumbling tower. He is surrounded by symbols of luxury and more crossbred creatures. In the background, a village is seen erupting in flames, again supporting the claim that Bosch was deeply scarred from witnessing a fire.
After the chaotic central panel, the final relief appears the brightest in color, contrasting with The Garden of Earthly Delights. Exhibiting the contemplation of St. Anthony, the background consists of an earthen landscape dotted with windmills and settlements. He is again encircled by symbols of luxury, this time in the form of nude women whose bodies are presented to the saint. In the lower-left corner of the section, a table with bread and a jar of wine is held aloft by a group of naked, feminine demons, another form of temptation. The Bosch Research and Conservation Project summates this panel as “Satan tries to tempt [St. Anthony] with feminine beauty.”
While featuring far fewer grotesque elements than The Garden of Earthly Delights, Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony is horrific in the way it showcases the brutality St. Anthony endured during his solitude in the desert. Britannica states that “Bosch’s development of the theme of the charlatan deceiving humans and taking away their salvation receives its fullest exposition in St. Anthony.”
The raw way Bosch paints the human suffering outlined in these holy stories is, some viewers think, an honest representation of Christian beliefs in medieval Netherlands.
As previously stated, there are many theories and interpretations regarding Bosch’s grotesque work. Because so little is known about the artist’s personal life, it is difficult to say whether Bosch’s disturbing style can be attributed to a particularly traumatic event in his life, like the 1463 fire he possibly witnessed as a young man in 's-Hertogenbosch, or perhaps another outside influence like the family member who taught him to paint.
A more likely explanation for Bosch’s hellish depictions is the religious anxiety that completely enveloped Europe during the Catholic Church’s rise to prominence throughout the medieval period. During this time, the religious took the threats of sin and the descriptions of hell outlined in the Bible very literally. Bosch’s depiction of hell in The Garden of Earthly Delights was perhaps not so much an exaggeration but, to him, was a genuine, accurate picture of the realm one might be sent to if one committed a blasphemous act.
Influential 14th-century works like Dante’s Inferno, the first part of his epic poem Divine Comedy, describe hell as a place with nine circles of brutal torment and torture. The lowest circles of hell encompass those who have committed the most egregious of sins, like violence, fraud, and treachery. This portrait of hell could be what influenced Bosch’s idea of hell. In a video from Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain, where The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510) is housed, art historian Reindert Falkenburg notes that “people at the time must have been as bewildered and as fascinated [with Bosch’s work] as we are nowadays.”
Hieronymus Bosch stands out from other European painters of his time due to the way he chose to depict religious stories in disturbing detail. The frequent use of the term “Boschian” to describe the upsetting and fantastical in contexts outside of art shows just how enduring Bosch is in our culture—notably, his influences can be seen in the Surrealist movement, which embraces many of the same unnatural characteristics seen in Bosch’s art.
The mystery of why Bosch chose to paint such grotesque imagery within his most lauded triptychs is what keeps scholars, art historians, and amateur enthusiasts returning to his work centuries later. As long as the mystery remains, Bosch’s work will continue to be cited among some of the most chilling artworks of all time.
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