Hieronymus Bosch

(Dutch Artist)

[c. 1450 – 1516]


Page designed by Katherine Haynes.


Right Triptych

            The paintings of Hieronymus Bosch have been described in the twentieth century as surreal, fantastic, absurd, alchemical, and grotesque. Artists, critics, and casual viewers alike have been fascinated by his visions of incongruity, and as a result, reproductions of his works are readily available, on the web, in critical print editions, posters, and art history texts.  Even so are all manner of interpretations for what his paintings may mean. However, even though his works continue to attract wonder and appreciation, we know remarkably little about him.  It has been observed that his life (c. 1450 -1516) spans roughly the same time span as that of the Tuscan Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) on the one hand, and the Nuremberg artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) on the other, but Bosch’s art reflects a different tradition, his own version of the Netherlandish style that has been more frequently compared to that of  Jan Brueghel, the Elder (c.1525-1569).  Bosch’s hometown of 's-Hertogenbosch is near Belgium in what is now the Netherlands, and he took this name probably to distinguish himself from the other family members who lived there, too, and who also plied the painterly trade.  Otherwise, we would know him as Jeroen (Jerome) von Aken.  Bosch married a fellow townswoman of wealth and they lived on the main thoroughfare of the town, a thriving community in his day on a major trade route.  After two hundred years of relative obscurity, the early twentieth century rediscovered his art, this time in the light of surrealist art and the Freudian and Jungian schools of psychology.  More recent critics have interpreted his enigmatic paintings from the alchemical tradition of transformative processes.  However, no one interpretation has been able to explain all of Bosch’s imagery.  Today’s viewer may have more theoretical information to form an intellectual opinion but the works themselves still effect an ambivalence and fascination that belongs to the world of the grotesque.

            Bosch’s works, popular in his own day as well as ours, are not always signed, and  some that were traditionally been ascribed to him have been questioned in the twentieth century.  Certain paintings, however, are generally agreed by art historians to be his own.  These are commonly known as The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1470 or later), The Last Judgment (c. 1480 or later), The Temptation of Saint Anthony (c. 1495 or later), and The Haywain (c. 1510 or later). Modern dating of the wood panels on which Bosch painted has made it possible to place his paintings along a timeline of what could be the earliest possible date.  The latest possible date is not as clear cut, except for the record of his death.  The dates presented here are those recorded in the Phaidon Art and Ideas volume, Bosch, by Laurinda Dixon.

            These paintings were originally large, multipanel works, painted on the front and back with thinly applied oil on wood.  They were designed as trifolds, or triptychs, in order to present a different view depending on the religious calendar, and they were designed for viewing by a large number of people in the public space of a church, hospital, or family chapel.  It is important to remember that as bizarre as some might interpret a Bosch painting today, his patrons were princes and churches and many of these pieces were most assuredly designed as altarpieces, which in itself provides an insight into the expectations of visual art in his day.

            By far the most famous now, The Garden of Earthly Delights, may also be the earliest of the works listed here.  The outside panels, when closed, present a still, transparent ecosphere in grisaille (neutral tones of gray).  Hovering in a break in the dark clouds of the space from which the sphere is floating, above and to the left, is a small, seated, bearded figure in a mantle and tiara, pointing to an open book.   This panel is known as Creation, and the figure is recognizable by the common visual currency of the day, as the Creator God of the Judeo-Christian heritage.  The ecosphere is the newly created earth of Genesis, as yet without humans and viewed from the vast abyss.  Once opened, the three panels reveal an astonishing scene of color, and light that is teeming with life.  Read from left to right, the panels continue to display biblical time, from paradise on the left to hell on the right.  On the left, scene is tranquil and life in all its variety is ordered and peacefully going about its existence. It appears that Adam and Eve are just being introduce to one another by God and there is a fanciful pink fountain in the midst of the garden.                The middle panel is what captures immediate attention, however. This is the proverbial garden of earthly delights, indeed, not of a prelapsarian innocence, but a world of carnal pleasure. Art historians differ on the fine points, but generally agree that alchemical symbols of birth, life, and regeneration are repetitively at work throughout the triptych. If that is correct, one can agree that it is most in evidence in the central panel. The proportions and perspectives are multiple, yet there are unifying principles as well.  The delicate spring morning landscape in which the multitude of living creatures cavort, human, bestial, and fantastic, and the placement as the central panel, provide orientation.  The more one reads the scene, the more it become apparent that everything is pursuing personal pleasure but that these are in essence all the same, without individuality or overarching goal beyond the enjoyment of the senses.  According to Hans Belting, “[w]e are looking at a human race we do not know.  This is not an image of redemption and death overcome, but a utopian vision of a world that never existed” (Garden of Earthly Delights 54). Perhaps that viewpoint is the most comforting, after all, to think that we are, surely, not that. The blandness of the human features, the mindless busy-ness of experiencing constant sensual pleasure does not depict earthly reality, does it?  Yet, the exuberant attractiveness of the enjoyment of ample pleasure is very compelling, and we don’t know how to respond and we find ourselves glancing to the right for clues.  If the panel depicts the alchemical process of the marriage of opposites and the completion of the “work,” as some scholars suggest, then third panel is more palatable.  For on the right hand panel, in the final scene, hell waits. All that was light and open in the first two panels has become a chaotic night of cramped, tortured, bodies and their instruments of pain.  The garden has been replaced by the detritus of human society made monstrous.  There were eggs in the central panel, where they may have served as symbols of new life and the creative process, and the exterior grisaille featured a sphere, but here the egg man peering back at us from the center provokes something quite different from us in response to the scene.  What once was designed to give pleasure, most especially, but not exclusively to humans: music, gaming, eating, companionship, sex, are now the operatives of pain. In the top background is the silhouette of a cityscape, eerily lit even at night, and overwhelmed with the interminable multitude streaming in.  Everywhere humans are the objects of suffering and to the same degree of abandon to which they had released themselves to pleasure in the previous scene.  This may be a lurid depiction of damnation, it is repugnant enough.  According to the medieval alchemists, one of the stages of transformation is putrefication (Dixon 269), a suggestive description of the egg man in the center of this panel.  All around him people are being tortured, eaten, or destroyed in some way.

             If the Garden of Earthly Delights is a narrative painting, is there a moral at work here?  If so, can we read properly?  The triptych appears to be orthodox in design, but the juxtaposition is startling.  Is the message that a life of pure pleasure seeking will lead only to its perversion acting on us as interminable pain without hope of escape?  Is it rather a depiction of the alchemical process in all of its stages?  Who knows.  There is no direct contemporary commentary, although there are records of a panel described in similar fashion as hanging in a Brussels palace in 1517 (Dixon 132).  The more you look, the more there is to see, and the more you may find yourself at a loss for the right response.

Works Cited

Belting, Hans. Hieronymus Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights. New York: Prestel, 2002.

Dixon, Laurinda. Bosch. New York: Phaidon Press, 2003.



Two BBC sites on Bosch



http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/ documentaries/features/bosch.shtml


Philip Leider’s PDF Article, "The Identity of the Haywain"



Elina Gertsman’s PDF Article, "Illusion and Deception: Construction of a Proverb in Hieronymus Bosch’s The Conjurer"

http://www.fsu.edu/~arh/events/athanor/athxxii/ ATHANOR%20XXII_Gertsman.pdf


The Web Gallery of Art


Ship of Fools

The Creation of the World

Altar Panels Closed

Ecce Homo

The Haywain Atlarpiece

Central Image

Garden of Delights Left Wing

Further Readings:


Bax, D. Hieronymus Bosch: His Picture-Writing Deciphered. Trans. M. A. Box-Botha. Rotterdam: A. A. Balkema, 1979.


Belting, Hans. Hieronymus Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights. New York: Prestel, 2002.


Dixon, Laurinda. Bosch. New York: Phaidon, 2003.


Marijnissen, Roger H., and Peter Ruyffelaere. Hieronymus Bosch: The Complete Works. Antwerp: Mercatorfonds N.V., Tabard Press, 1987.

Garden of Delights Right Wing

Last Judgment

Left Panel

Major Works


The Haywain, The Garden, The Judgment


Garden of Earthly Delights | Another Online Version of GED


The Ship of Fools | Temptation of St. Anthony | The Mocking of Christ


Ecce Homo

The Haywain Atlarpiece

Central Image

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

Left Wing

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

Right Wing