The Mystery of the Master: Hieronymus Bosch

Bosch

Many consider Salvador Dali to be the master of surrealism, while Surrealists believe that Bosch was the first ‘modern’ artist. Salvador Dali studied Bosch and was heavily influenced by his painting and technique. Bosch is best known for his disturbingly vivid, dream-like works, which are perhaps the most original and morally complex of all Northern European religious painters. Today we will get a further look into the first modern artists and how his art pioneered an art movement for important future artists.


Early Years

Born 1450 in the present-day Netherlands, Hieronymus Bosch was the fourth of five children born to Antonius van Aken and Aleid van der Mynnen. Little is known today about the artist because he left no letters or diaries. Everything about him has basically been taken from references in multiple records and books. Even his name is a bit misleading. He was born Jeroen van Aeken and took his professional name, in part, from his hometown. In his early years, Bosch’s grandfather was one of the most prominent painters in Hertogenbosch during the first half of the 15th Century. Bosch’s father worked as a painter as well. Because his father was a painter, it is believed that he learned a lot of his skills aBorn 1450 in the present-day Netherlands, Hieronymus Bosch was the fourth of five children born to Antonius van Aken and Aleid van der Mynnen. Little is known today about the artist because he left no letters or diaries. Everything about him has basically been taken from references in multiple records and books. Even his name is a bit misleading. He was born Jeroen van Aeken and took his professional name, in part, from his hometown. In his early years, Bosch’s grandfather was one of the most prominent painters in Hertogenbosch during the first half of the 15th Century. Bosch’s father worked as a painter as well. Because his father was a painter, it is believed that he learned a lot of his skills and techniques from him or his father’s brother. Despite the fact that Bosch’s father and uncles were both painters, none of their works have survived to the present day. On June 13, 1463, a fire destroyed Bosch’s childhood home in Hertogenbosch. The artist is believed to have witnessed this disaster, which was one of the most heinous events of his youth. It is possible that the catastrophic incident influenced Bosch’s subsequent works, which feature raging fires in their backgrounds.

Bosch married Aleid van der Mervenne, the daughter of a merchant, sometime between 1480 and 1481. Aleid, who was a few years older than him, was the heir to a substantial inheritance, which included a family property in the nearby town of Oirschot, where the couple eventually settled. It is believed that Bosch never left the immediate vicinity of his hometown or ventured any further afield. A practicing Catholic, Bosch enlisted in the Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, a local religious organization dedicated to the Virgin Mary, in 1486. Some of his earliest commissions came from the Brotherhood, but sadly, none of those works have survived to this day.


Depicting explicitly religious scenes

Crucifixion with Saints and Donor

Crucifixion with Saints and Donor (ca. 1485–90), which is now in the collection of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Belgium, may be among Bosch’s earliest surviving works. It is a bit of an outlier in a body of work that favors disconcerting, dizzying, and eccentric compositions, and Bosch would later project his idiosyncratic style onto a variety of religious subjects.

In the 1940s and 1960s, some speculative research linked him with a heretical sex cult called the Adamites, but mainstream academic opinion offers a much tamer picture, nothing suggests that Bosch was anything other than a prominent, wealthy citizen, an orthodox Catholic and a devotional painter much in demand among patrons. When compared to other northern European artists, Bosch’s interpretation of biblical narratives was so unique that it completely jarred with the dominant Flemish style. He transformed religious parables into extraordinary new fantasy worlds dense with absurdity and ecclesiastical symbolism by filtering them through his imagination.


Series of Saints: Middle period

Bosch’s iconic style featuring contorted and distorted body shapes, vivid coloring, oversized and menacing foliage, and various devils and reptiles, begins to reveal itself through a series of saints during his very loosely defined “middle period.” Pieces such as St. Jerome at Prayer (c. 1485-90), St. John the Baptist in Meditation (1490), and an altarpiece, St. John on Patmos (1490-95), were possibly commissioned by the Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady.


The Adoration of the Magi

His moralizing compositions are teeming with terrifying demons and monsters, goading and torturing humanity’s frail sinners. Each of his amphibious abominations and bat-winged freaks is an unnatural yet convincing fusion of disparate elements that could only have been fused together by the artist’s powerful imagination. Bosch’s Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi (circa 1494), which is on display at Madrid’s Prado Museum, is widely regarded as a masterpiece. The interior panels depicting the biblical event were commissioned by Antwerp donors Peeter Scheyfve and Agneese de Gramme. The painting, which is rich in detail and religious symbolism, depicts Mary and Jesus receiving gifts beneath a dilapidated thatch roof.

Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi (circa 1494)
Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi
Ca. 1494. Grisaille, Oil on oak panel

The Last Judgment

In 1504, Bosch painted “The Last Judgment,” which depicted humanity’s fall. He begins the triptych with Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The world’s descent into sin, violence, and chaos is depicted in the final two interior panels. A few years later, Bosch created another triptych, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (c. 1505-1506). He depicts the saint resisting the devil’s efforts to convince him to submit to evil. Saint Anthony is seduced and then subjected to various forms of violence, but he is shown in the final panel being led away by a group of believers. In his later works, Bosch created “The Garden of the Earthly

Delights” (c. 1510-1515). The final panel of this triptych depicts a beautiful garden turning into a dark, fiery nightmare as a result of sin, primarily lust. In the same vein as many of his other works, this one also serves as a visual tutorial on moral principles.

The Last Judgment Bosch missing one part
Triptych of The Last Judgment
Ca. 1504. Oil-on-wood

Last few years

The Garden of Earthly Delights is, without a doubt, Bosch’s magnum opus and most recognizable work. His style had matured to its full potential with his earthly paradise, which perfectly juxtaposed images of woman’s creation and temptation with deeply distressing images of the world of debauchery and pleasure-seeking. The painting’s dreamlike/nightmarish quality has become legendary, as does its inclusion of a variety of ominous creatures, tiny naked human figures, and misshapen animals believed to have been evoked directly from the artist’s limitless imagination. History has speculated that the ‘Tree Man’ in the Hell panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights was actually based on the artist, but there is only one confirmed self-portrait of the artist, the 1508 self-portrait drawn by him in 1508. It is possible that Bosch deliberately “exaggerated” his age in this drawing, which was drawn eight years before his death. The drawing, in any case, seems to indicate that Bosch needed to give a face to his legacy, perhaps in light of the fact that he was nearing the end of his life. As documented by the Brotherhood of Our Lady, Bosch died on August 9, 1516, and the church of Saint John in s- Hertogenbosch held his funeral service.

The Garden of Earthly Delights - Museo del Prado - Bosch
Triptych of The Garden of Earthly Delights
1490 – 1500. Grisaille, Oil on oak panel

The popularization of Bosch’s art years later

People started to look at Bosch afresh with the advent of modern art during the 20th Century. In particular, the Surrealists admired his relish for depicting the “strangeness of life” and rehabilitated his reputation. In the 1960s, when free love and psychedelia were all the rage, Bosch’s work regained popularity. At this time, the frenzied, orgiastic coupling of lusty sinners in his paintings was particularly seductive. Bosch was regarded as a proto-hippie, a forerunner of the counterculture. He was also (erroneously) regarded as a heretic. Of course, the 20th Century was also known as the golden age of cinema. There are a number of filmmakers who have been inspired by Bosch’s work, including Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro. The aliens in the Star Wars franchise were inspired by Bosch, according to George Lucas. Designers of fantasy computer games have also cited Bosch as a source of inspiration.

His odd, crowded landscapes have thus been a popular target for speculation. It is now widely accepted that Bosch’s paintings were created to instruct and communicate. He referred to the Bible and Flemish folklore to create unique visual manifestations of established metaphors and puns. The moralistic bent of Bosch’s paintings, however fantastical their imagery, fits perfectly with late-medieval didactic literature. The power of Bosch’s symbolism is undeniable, but the meaning of his works and their odd inhabitants has long been a source of intense debate. This is made more difficult by the fact that he left no writings or diaries to explain his artistic intentions. It is easy to understand why the painter continues to fascinate us today: the apocalyptic tone of his work resonates during our era of global conflict and international terrorism.

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