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Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony 7 July 2015
Introduction and biography
My interest in Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) is primarily as an artist. I have used his grotesque human beings, nightmare visions, strange beasts and creatures of evil in some of my later artworks for a particular purpose.
I have been lucky and have seen a number of Bosch works in the original, in particular The Garden of Earthly Delights 1500-05 in the Prado in Madrid. The Triptych when closed by two panels has a world inside enclosed within a globe and may represent the flood or God’s third day of creation.
Bosch was very popular in the 1970s because of his shock value. The rumour went around that he had probably experienced hallucinations, after eating bread contaminated with ergot fungus and containing alkaloids and ergotamine, i.e. LSD. Although this is unlikely and very 1970s, I’d like to imagine that young people in the 1970s also recognised that his work was embodied in the transition between Medieval and Renaissance art and in the turmoil of religious disgust that led to the Reformation. Bosch certainly did not have a high regard for the clergy or the mass of humanity in his art.
Hieronymous Bosch was born Jereon (or Jheronimus) Anthoniszoon Van Aken (meaning from Aachen) about 1450 in Hertogenbosch better known as Den Bosch, now in Holland not far from the Dutch border. He signed his works Hieronymus Bosch probably to distinguish himself from the family art practice of three generations.
Bosch in documents led an uneventful or quiet life. In 1480 he married into a wealthy aristocratic family. He was already registered as a ‘notable member’ of the Brotherhood of our Lady, an influential brethren represented by a swan, who commissioned religious works (including several Bosch’s) and had an annual swan banquet. The Brotherhood also organised his funeral.
Some would have liked him to meet Leonardo Da Vinci in Milan, and Albrecht Dürer, and to have travelled to Venice (because several important paintings ended up there) but there is no evidence. Bosch’s paintings and influence spread widely in his lifetime and he certainly would have been aware of and seen the works of influential artists of the time. But, he may never have left home.
He was ‘one of the most enigmatic artists in the entire Western tradition’ (DK see below), but he was not outside the mainstream, his paintings while unique were not outside of what others were doing at the time and his themes followed and were copied by other artists. His work was embedded in traditions and conventions of the time.
Hieronymous Bosch’s influences according to IP (see below) were Gothic art, vernacular writing and the writing of Jan van Ruysbroeck (1293-1381), Devotio Moderna (a late 14th century movement that sought a renewal of the spiritual life), anticlericalism and alchemy.
The best known book of prayer in Bosch’s time was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas á Kempis, in which it is possible to recognise certain elements that herald the Protestant Reformation. Thomas á Kempis also insisted on the need to project contemporary reality on the events and personalities of sacred history. ‘To obtain a particularly realistic effect, he suggested giving the protagonists of the Gospel the features of people known to the artist and citing the episodes in familiar or everyday rural or urban locations. This recommendation explains the peculiar character of 15th century sacred painting, always set in a period context.’ (DK) (I’d say the statements also apply not only to the 15th but to the 16th and parts of the 17th century.)
The middle of the paragraph above is very important to me because it explains why I used Bosch and the Renaissance in my own work to place the Renaissance transition and contemporary life in the same framework.
The Renaissance by the way is a 19th century invention because the dates don’t really work, especially when one looks at painting, intellectual and economic changes together. Nevertheless a profound transition did take place, which ended the medieval era.
I’ve found that unless one is date-fixated it is often difficult to place an artist within a time frame, so I’ll try to do this. Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337) is often called the father of the Renaissance though the time gap is rather extreme. It is also argued that Giotto used some form of perspective in his painting (perhaps even inspired by Cimabue).
Brunelleschi, Masaccio and Alberti the promulgators of modern perspective (mentioned below) pre-dated Hieronymous Bosch. As did Jan Van Eyk (1385/90-1441) most known for the Arnolfini Wedding 1434 (not pregnant I found out).
Sandro Botticelli (1446-1510) and Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) were contemporaries.
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and Michelangelo (1475-1564) were younger contemporaries, twenty-one and 28 years, respectively separated them. Pieter Bruegel the elder (1525/30-1569) was Bosch’s immediate heir and successor in the Netherlands. The tower of Babel is a worthy successor to Bosch (see video below).
Linear perspective was invented or rediscovered by Fillipo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) with his famous experiment in front of the Baptistry in Florence in the early 1400s. Masaccio (1401-1428) was the first great painter to demonstrate full command of the new rules of perspective and the Holy Trinity 1427-8 in Santa Maria Novella Church, Oltrano in Florence is frequently cited as his masterpiece of the new perspective. Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) was the first to codify these findings on perspective into an influential book called On Painting 1435 (see below for more information on perspective).
One can assume that Bosch was aware of these new ideas of perspective at some stage of his life and appears to have incorporated perspective into some of his later paintings, but linear perspective does not seem to have influenced or excited him that much.
We covered influences on Bosch above, according to IP again, in addition to Breugel, Bosch influenced Francisco Goya (1746-1828), James Ensor (160-1949), the Surrealism Movement and Modern Film.
Allusions and icons
In the Temptation of St. Anthony Detail above the weird bird on skates with the red cloak is bringing a lewd written message. Underneath the bridge that crosses the frozen pond, an infernal group listens to a monk who reads from a letter. This may be an allusion to those members of the clergy who enrich themselves by the selling of indulgences. Today one can only imagine how Bosch would have dealt with priests who sexually abuse children under their care. The frozen pool is another allusion. Some of these allusions would have been obvious to people of the time and some obscure.
In the Christ Carrying the Cross above, keeping in mind Thomas á Kempis’s exhortation to the artist to ‘use the features of known persons’, one would like to imagine that the face in profile is someone known in caricature. The man appears angry, determined and one suspects focused on some business that makes him wholly indifferent to the plight of Christ beside him. I tried to do this in a gentler way with my portrait of a tourist reading her guidebook completely oblivious to the figure of Remorse beside her (above).
The man to the right of the man in profile is the penitent thief whose eyes are rolled back (perhaps with remorse) and who stands out from the other figures around him, as does Christ and Veronica on the same diagonal. There are a total of eighteen portraits in the painting plus one on Veronica’s veil. The penitent thief appears to be menaced by another unsavoury character beside him. The group at the bottom in the foreground are marvellous. The unrepentent thief egged on by his devilish friends seems to be preparing for his fate with defiance. The attribution of this painting to Bosch is disputed, however. It may be by a follower.
The Garden of Earthly Delights Detail in the next section above is from the ‘so called’ musician’s hell (because of the musical instruments), on the right panel at the bottom the sow wears a nun’s veil, another dig at the clergy. The hollow body of the tree-man in the right wing painting of The Garden of Earthly Delights (see early text above) is where alchemy is performed and elements transformed. Above the sow to the right of the painting the creature with a bird’s head swallows the damned and excretes them into a pool where a miser is compelled to expel his gold coins while another vomits, clearly a punishment for gluttony.
Bosch was aware of strange animals brought back from remote parts, such as Africa but he also used animals for the symbolic value that they served in medieval bestiaries. The fish when alive is a symbol of lust or sin in general, the owl conveys either wisdom or heresy.
In the left wing painting of The Garden of Earthly Delights of paradise (see mid-text above) there are a giraffe, an elephant and a unicorn; but beside the giraffe is a bizarre hybrid of a dog. Bosch created fantastic beasts and monstrous hybrids, in company with infernal creatures to make his statements. Even in paradise in front of God and Adam and Eve at the bottom of the painting all is not perfect. The pond is seething with creatures and a cat to the left is carrying off its prey. The seal just above and the beast swallowing a frog are from this pool (as are the lolling fish and creature reading a book below). Above these in the picture, to the right of the central feature of paradise and its pond, evil creatures and strange hybrids are crawling from the water.
The fabulous ears and knife above from The Garden of Earthly Delights Hell wing, with an arrow through them always amazes me. There is no movement but you can imagine the ears as giant wagon-wheels trundling inexorably forward like some vast juggernaut (from the Jagannath Temple in Orissa) crushing the damned beneath it.
The illustrations in this section are from the two large triptychs above The Garden of Earthly Delights and Temptation of Saint Anthony. They show the weird and infernal creatures, witchcraft, alchemy, allusions to proverbs, folktales, sin, bestiaries and commonly held beliefs. Bosch was not alone in portraying these things but he was much more complex than others. He packed a great deal into his paintings. Pieter Breugal the elder his successor did too, but his preoccupations dealt more with ordinary life.
The other two illustrations below I like to think of as the platypus and the whale. Although Bosch could have had no inkling of the platypus and the whale only looks as such from a long way away (see if you can find it in my artwork above).
The other element in Bosch’s paintings I find attractive are the back-lit burning buildings of urban areas and the seeming conflagration of cities. On 13 June 1463 the town of Hertogenbosch burned almost to ashes (4000 houses were lost), Bosch was about 13 years old (perhaps) and the memory may have remained vivid throughout his life.
Bosch was still influenced by a medieval mindset, while others in Italy were creating the Renaissance. However, it also seems apparent that he was ready for change and very critical of his age and of what was going on around him. Although he was not necessarily progressive. Most people when they first come across Bosch think of a crazed outsider consumed by his visions (I did). However, what little we know of him is that he was a comfortable burgher and may well have led a sedate and satisfied life with his family.
My prime interest in Bosch as an artist is his complexity. The number of stories he packs into an intelligible space. In my own art I had moved from my beginnings consciously towards simplicity, what I called my primal breadtags. Then, in reaction at the time of my artwork above, I’d tried to embrace complexity. I’m not sure how successful I was, but certainly Bosch was an excellent guide in this respect.
The other reason I embraced Bosch was because he made a strong counterpoint to his Italian Renaissance contemporaries, such as Botticelli and Michelangelo. However, I must point out that both of these artists could descend into medievalism, wonderful sin and infernal imagery, whenever they pleased (as you can see in similar artworks of mine, at a later time perhaps).
Today, we cannot understand the mindset of these 15th century artists because their religion was real to them. These icons of hell, sin and salvation were real. Nevertheless, they were reacting against the medieval certainty that nothing would ever change and moving into an era where everything was going to change; whether this has anything to do with the current era is another matter. Despite the crucified Christ above, I don’t think that my art on this topic is particularly religious, but that is for others to decide.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick tour through the work of Hieronymous Bosch. I’ve certainly found it a thought provoking and stimulating re-visit.
Wikipedia is as good as anywhere for a rough list of Bosch’s complete works.
I’ve seen the Bosch paintings in The Prado, Spain; Kunsthistoriches, Vienna; and the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin relatively recently; and perhaps others in Venice and elsewhere. I’ve tried to see the Bosch and Vermeers in The Louvre on several occasions, but they seem to shut the appropriate section regularly to annoy tourists; and in Paris one is often diverted. The dates of Bosch’s paintings above are all distinctly rubbery. Bosch never dated his paintings and signed only a few of them. Only about 25 extant paintings are agreed by experts to be by Bosch. We actually know very little about his life.
Books used in this post (DK primarily)
Gariff, David The world’s most influential paintings and the artists they inspired, A quarto Book, London, 2008. (IP)
Art book Bosch, a DK Publishing Book, 1999. (DK)
Hieronymus Bosch on Wikipedia
Hieronymus Bosch Art Centre in Hertogenbosch
Further information on perspective
Filippo Brunelleschi Wikipedia
A brief summary of perspective in art Op-Art, UK
Khan Academy videos and text
Key words: Hieronymus Bosch, Flemish painter, artworks, Garden of Earthly Delights, Temptation of Saint Anthony, medieval, Renaissance, Christ Carrying the Cross, Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Alberti, linear perspective, Botticelli, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dürer, Pieter Bruegel the elder