Hieronymus Bosch (Flemish, 1450 - 1516) is a fascinating, enigmatic character. He is mostly known for his unusual (ok .... really f*ing weird) human/animal hybrid creatures. In this blog we'll look at some of the more bizarre examples and how they fit into the broader art history puzzle. For the beverage I've chosen a Bloody Mary because I found a new mix I really want to try. Let's get started!
Unfortunately not many documents from Bosch's time survived so there aren't many biographical details available. Based on what little we know he was born around 1450 in the Netherlands, had a father that was also a painter, and died around August 9, 1516. He married a woman from a wealthy family named Aleyt Goyaerts van den Meerveen between 1479 and 1481.1 Laurinda Dixon suggests that Bosch was wealthy and educated in his own right based on his choices to use Latin and scientific subject matter.2
Bosch was part of the Northern Renaissance art movement. This school is known for depicting human emotion as well as using realism and symbolism in their works. When looking at Bosch's work you may want to take a decoder ring. 3
Northern Renaissance artists frequently consulted with scholars and church leaders when planning their paintings.4 This makes sense since religion was a driving force both stylistically and financially in the art of Bosch's time. Stylistically because of the primarily religious subjects and financially as artists were commissioned to produce this art. Bosch frequently used morality as a subject and was very active in the church. 'In 1488 he joined the Brotherhood of Our Lady, an arch-conservative religious group.'5 So he was part of a very influential religious group and it showed in his painting.
In 1504 Bosch was commissioned by Phillip the Handsome to depict his vision of the apocalypse in The Last Judgement. He wanted the painting to include paradise, God, and hell. Bosch of course includes this religious subject as well as lots of fantastical creatures. Check out the details of the work below.
Last Judgement, 1476 or later, oil on panel
Bosch's interest in morality means he had "concern with folly, sin and the difficulty of maintaining one's way along the 'straight and narrow' path of life in a world filled with material distractions."6 It is not shocking that a majority of Bosch's works comment on morality.
In The Stone Cutting/The Cure of Folly the surgical removal of a'folly stone' is the subject. People in Bosch's time believed that there was a stone in the head that caused mental illness. Surgeries to remove it could have made a very lucrative scam but there is no evidence of this in Bosch's time.7 In the painting below the 'surgeon' wears a funnel, symbol of science. Bosch was commenting on immoral practices and preying on human weakness.
The Stone Cutting/The Cure of Folly, oil on panel 1488-1516
Morality is also the subject in Ship of Fools/ Allegory of Intemperance where people are enjoying a carefree debaucherous boat ride, not paying any attention or being helpful in any way. They are being watched over by an owl - a symbol of sin for Bosch's audience.8 In Death of the Miser a dying man is faced with the choice between greed (bag o' gold wielding demon) and redemption (the tiny crucifix in the upper left). The man reaches for the bag o'gold and there goes his invitation to heaven. Both panels emphasize the consequences of succumbing to temptation.
Ship of Fools/ Allegory of Intemperance (L) Death of the Miser (R)
circa 1488, oil on panel
Bosch also combines morality, religious subject matter and odd creatures in The Temptation of St. Anthony triptych. Look at the details below for some really crazy creatures.
The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1476, oil on panel
Bosch's most famous work is the Garden of Earthly Delights triptych where Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden are on the left panel, their descendants are in the center, and hell is on the right panel.
Garden of Earthly Delights, 1503-15, oil on panel
There is some crazy stuff going on inside the calm exterior in this one! The right panel, depicting hell, is the most intriguing and imaginative. I really suggest exploring the amazing interactive version here.
So where does Bosch's work fit in art history? He was active just after the medieval period so illuminated manuscripts where there is usually something freaky going on would have been widely available.
Book of Hours, Marginalia, Walters Manuscript W.88, fol. 115v detail
Jumping forward to the early 20th century it is easy to see how Bosch's works inspired surrealists like Salvador Dali.
Salvador Dali, The Poetry of America and Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man, 1943, oil on canvas
Like the medieval manuscripts and the 20th century surrealist works Bosch's fantastical creatures and 'real' animals live harmoniously together. I always find a bit of irony in the use of realism to create fantasy. The two coexist beautifully in Bosch's work. Well my delicious Bloody Mary is gone so I hope you enjoyed Bosch's creatures. Cheers!
1) http://www.hieronymus-bosch.org/biography.html accessed June 1, 2017
2) Dixon, Laurinda Bosch, Phaidon London and New York, 2003. pp. 19-22
3 & 4) Dixon, Laurinda Bosch, Phaidon London and New York, 2003. pg.35
6) Dixon, Laurinda Bosch, Phaidon London and New York, 2003. pg.69
7) Palmer, Jessica, The Stone of Madness, August 25, 2008 http://scienceblogs.com/bioephemera/2008/08/25/the-stone-of-madness/ accessed June 4, 2017
8) Dixon, Laurinda Bosch, Phaidon London and New York, 2003. pg. 76