Unknown Masters Hieronymus Bosch: paint, us, sinners
Within the world of art, Bosch occupies an unfortunate niche, as few have been able, or even willing, to tackle his paintings. The insurmountable obstacle is defining where Bosch got his inspiration from. The answer might have been staring us in the face.
by Philip Coppens
Such is the originality of Bosch’s paintings that experts have no clues as to the possible influence of better known contemporary artist – even though he was an almost exact contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci. “His is a world apart, self-sufficient, indivisible. Analysis of his art, however close, leads nowhere” is what Robert Delevoy has to say on the painter. Hence, this could therefore be the shortest article ever written. But Bosch deserves better. The Garden of Earthly Delights – Hell Few painters went under so many names as Jeroen, Jheronimus or Hieronymus Bosch. His real name was Jeroen van Aken and in Spain, he is known as “El Bosco”. Bosch was a Dutch painter of the 15th-16th century, and he is often left out of the overviews of Dutch painters of the 15th century, as art historians do not know what to do with him – or his art. Delevoy notes that when Dürer visited his home-town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (from which he took his name), he did not say a word about Bosch, possibly because he too did not know what to do, or think, of him.
Bosch has been labelled the “Dante of the painters” and is general described as a critic, exposing the corruption, greed and deception of society. What his fellow Dutch contemporary Erasmus did in writing, Bosch did in his paintings. Others, however, have argued that he used lots of iconography, so much so that for some, he was more of a sectarian mystic or even someone who imbibed his paintings with alchemical codes. In Seven Deadly Sins, one of his early paintings, the centre of the painting represents an eye, with 128 rays of light emanating from it. For art historian Wilhelm Fraenger, this is evidence that Bosch belonged to a sect of heretics. Bosch used images of demons, half-human animals and machines, but it is said that these were merely tools to evoke fear and confusion, in his efforts to portray the evil of man. But such symbolism has meant that Bosch’s painting contain complex, highly original, imaginative composition, that are set in surreal landscapes – landscapes of the mind. Indeed, if Bosch was purely trying to depict the evils of his time, then it is clear he seemed to think evil occurred within the mind, rather than in the real world. Either way, he is sometimes said to have been the spark that ignited the surrealist movement of the 20th century, which would produce modern greats such as Salvador Dali. Dali knew the works of Bosch (who was furthermore highly popular in Spain) and felt compelled to deny the influence: “I myself am the anti-Hieronymus Bosch.” But Pieter Brueghel the Elder was influenced by Bosch’s work and produced several paintings in a similar style, for instance the 1562 work The Triumph of Death. The Fall of the Rebel Angels was even wrongfully credited to Bosch – until Brueghel’s signature was discovered beneath the frame. Though it is often said that we know little of Bosch’s personal life, in truth, we do. Jeroen was the descendent of a family of Dutch and German painters; Jeroen spent most of his life in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
We know his funeral occurred on August 9, 1516 and that he was approximately 65 years old. We know that he belonged to the well-to-do class, one of a family of painters. The first mention of his name is in 1480-1, when he is referred to as “Jeroen die maelre”, Jeroen the painter. The mention was for his commission to finish two wings of an altar piece that his father Anthony had left unfinished at this death, in about 1478-9. He had two uncles, Johannes and Thomas, who were also painters; so was his grandfather, who died in 1456.
We know that he was looked upon as a diverse artist, as in 1493-4, Bosch supplied the master glassworkers Henrichen Bueken and Willem Lombart with designs for several stained glass windows for a chapel in the local cathedral.
We know that he married about 1478, to Aleid van de Meervenne, herself born in 1453, from a well-off family. After his marriage, he moved to the country village of Oirschot, where his wife had a house and lands. In Seven Deadly Sins, some features of the village are recognisable. That is what we know; but nothing in that information reveals where Bosch got the inspiration for his paintings from. One clue, however, is that Bosch was a member of a religious brotherhood, to which he and his grandfather had belonged. Indeed, his own wife had become a member at the age of 16. Bosch himself joined the highly respected Brotherhood of Our Lady (Illustre Lieve Vrouwe Broederschap te ‘s-Hertogenbosch), also known as the Swan Brothers, in 1488. The organisation is often described as a sect, or an arch-conservative religious group, but this does little honour to the past and importance of the organisation. The Miracle Statue of the brotherhood The brotherhood was founded in 1318, by one Gerardus van Uden, though it is possible that it existed before and that its existence was only formalised in 1318. Originally, membership was reserved for priests and monks, but it soon opened its doors and allowed women and laymen.
The sacred home of the brotherhood was its side chapel on the north side of the St John’s Cathedral and Bosch had various commissions for this chapel. It was also the location of the so-called “Mirakelbeeld”, the Miracle Statue, a statue of the Virgin Mary that was found in 1380, allegedly in a corner of the cathedral. Art historians believe the figure was carved between 1280 and 1320, roughly contemporary with the foundation of the order that would embrace and promote the statue’s worship. Some have argued the statue was not found, but “made public” by the order, so that what was once private worship, would attract interest from the general public. If so, they succeeded. When Bosch was buried in August 1516, the ceremony was carried out with the usual regards due to members of the order. What made him become a member of the order? Some might argue it was his marriage, but his grandfather, Jan Van Aken, had also entered the order in 1430. He is not only listed as a member, but it also employed him as a restorer and painter.
Jeroen’s first entry on the membership list is in 1486, as a “buitenlid”, an “outer member”, to become a sworn brother in 1488. Shortly afterwards, he was the guest of honour on the so-called swan meal, in which a swan was offered – and apparently eaten. Custom required members to be tonsured, which Bosch did, and he took to wearing the curious homespun garments, a derivative of the costume worn by ecclesiastics. The brotherhood was also known to perform mystery plays and other theatrical productions and it is known that Bosch played an active role in stage performances and religious ceremonies. Hence, the grotesque faces that are so prominent in some of his paintings, are sometimes said to be inspired by the masks the actors used in these stage productions.
Though Bosch was hence an acknowledged member of the town – only ca. forty people were allowed membership in the brotherhood –he may never have had the respect of the order that his grandfather had received, perhaps because he was known to be a social critic, or perhaps because he was out of their league. Bosch was often in the employ of kings and royalty and may not have had the time to work for the rather bespoke brotherhood. Amongst Bosch’s greatest fans was the Spanish King Philips II, who had the Escorial in Madrid decorated with his works. In 1504, Bosch also got a commission from Philips the Beautiful (the Duke of Brabant and Burgundy) to paint a triptych, the Last Judgment, one of his last, if not final, work.
If we had to define Bosch’s art, it would be that he opted to depicted biblical themes, but placed them in surreal settings, and apparently injected contemporary social messages into them, revealing the social ills of his brothers, friends if not superiors. This is, at least, how most have interpreted Bosch.
Bosch’s best known work is probably The Garden of Earthly Delights. Currently on display in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, it was registered in the inventory of the Spanish Crown as “the picture with the strawberry-tree fruits”. The picture seems to have been a favourite of Philips II, who is said to have needed it, no matter what, and sent the Duke of Alva to recover it. It was listed in the king’s possession on July 8, 1593 and it appears that this and four other works were acquired when Philips in 1591 put in an offer for the estate of Don Fernando de Toledo, the prior of Castille of the Order of St John of Malta – the illegal son of the Duke of Alva. Before, it is believed to have been in the possession of William of Orange, and in the possession of Hendrik III of Nassau, where it was just one year after the painter’s death. It reveals how Bosch was cherished by the royals. The Last Judgement, Central Panel The Garden of Earthly Delights tells the story of the creation of the world, the creation of Man, followed by earthly sin, culminating in damnation. The left interior panel of Eden depicts animals living together with humans without interaction. Curiously, in Eden, death exists, exemplified by a cat carrying a mouse and a lion eating a deer or antelope. Artistically, the centre panel is a rather natural landscape, in which Bosch has placed his “usual untypical” objects. Only in his depictions of Hell, do we see Bosch in his most typical, and totally otherworldly best.
Indeed, Bosch seems to have excelled in being able to portray, imaginatively, almost surreally, what everyone was unable to imagine: what live in the Garden of Eden or Hell would be like. Hence, in the depiction of Hell, he has even had time to incorporate the seven deadly sins, where e.g. a woman near the bottom, under the bird’s chair, in the clutches of a monster, staring into a mirror (which is also the rear end of some creature), is guilty of the deadly sin of vanity.
The same imaginative quality is on display in The Last Judgment, in which about the only unimaginative aspect is the return from Christ from the sky. Below is a scene of utter chaos, with people drinking from barrels as if it is the final party of the world – which it is – others being subjected to various otherworldly torture, if only because the beings executing torture and killing have arrived from a dimension that is totally alien to any Christian iconography, but seems to be intimately known to Bosch’s mind. Bosch is seen as a social critic, and this is perhaps most straightforwardly on display in The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, also known as The Cure of Folly. This early painting depicts the extraction of a “stone” from the patient’s head – a common operation that was said to alleviate the sufferer from madness. Of course, such an operation aided little, and Bosch apparently critiqued the practice. First, he has exchanged the traditional stone with the bulb of a flower. A “tulip head” was a Dutch expression for a madman. Second, the inscription reads, “Meester snyt die Keye ras – myne name is lubbert das” (Master, cut away the stone – my name is Lubbert Das). Lubbert Das was a comical character in Dutch literature, underlining Bosch’s intention that he was critiquing the “fool” who thought he would be cured from madness in this way. Third, the doctor’s funnel hat is Bosch saying the fool in this painting is not only the patient, but also the doctor, as he is obviously mad – a fool – to assume that any of the no doubt dozens if not hundred of operations he had performed, would relieve anyone’s suffering. But he also depicts a monk encouraging the guileless victim and a nun who watches with bland unconcern. The role of the church is portrayed as that of a non-agent, and Bosch does not seem happy with their let-it-be attitude.
His social criticism is also on display in Ship of Fools, which shows humans wasting their lives by playing cards, drinking, flirting, eating, etc. instead of spending it in more “useful” ways. The Cure of Folly The question with Bosch is whether he was a devout Christian, using his surrealism as a method to masquerade his social criticism… or whether his social criticism, and surrealism themselves encrypted an even deeper message.
Take, for example, The Marriage Feast at Kana, which some see as evidence of Bosch’s esoteric leanings. There is a pagan altar at the back of the room; there are no signs of the disciples, but more interestingly is the food served at this wedding, which contains as swan – a specific reference to the order? No doubt, but there is more to it.
The person officiating in front of this pagan altar is definitely a magician, who points a wand towards the dishes that two servants are bringing to the feast. Immediately, the swan on the dish in front spits fire and the boar’s head emits a jet of venom. What is he trying to say? Critics have argued that it showed Bosch was familiar with contemporary literature of the feats magicians were said to accomplish, but why incorporate the swan in this painting, and why thus allude to the swan meal the brotherhood held twice annually?
The more he painted, the more the expressions on his figures’ faces became grotesque. In Christ before Pilate, Christ is the only one with a normal human face. In The Bearing of the Cross, only Christ and Veronica have normal faces. This painting truly is located in an alternative reality. None of those around them are – can be – real people. The Penitent Thief is so grey he looks – can only be – dead. None of them look towards Christ, whose eyes are closed. If Bosch was a devout Christian, as some have claimed, he definitely did not think the Church was without sin. And he also had a sense of humour. On the back of Christ Carrying the Cross, Bosch painted Christ Child With a Walking Frame. In both instances, it shows a wooden construction, one aiding a child learning to walk, whereas the Cross, shortly before Christ’s death, is burdening his final walk. But what to make of the fact that the cross Christ carries is a Tau cross – the type of cross favoured by the penitential movements, of which the Swan Brotherhood could well have been one? Indeed, to all intents and purposes, if were to classify the brotherhood, it has to be that of a lay brotherhood in the penitential tradition. Its history (a lay brotherhood) and customs (the tonsure, the special woven garment) identify it as such. They were also known for their mystery plays, but either in public or behind closed doors, everyone knew that its members often flagellated themselves; starved themselves. Why? Because they felt this world was wicked – evil – created by Satan.
Hence, Bosch might not merely have been a social critic, but a critic of the world and Mankind as a whole. We were all demons – and that is definitely how he painted us. Penitential movements subjected their bodies – which were seen as carnal prisons constructed by Satan – to absolute torture, in efforts to condition the mind not to enjoy the flesh – the seven deadly sins that are another prominent feature of his paintings. Many of these practices resulted in out-of-body experiences, in which the mind indeed dissociated from the body.
And here, we might find Bosch’s real inspiration. Indeed, when art historians argue there are no clues as to the possible influence of better known contemporary artists in Bosch’s paintings, they have argued that even though the town had seen the publication of Tondale’s Vision, printed by Gerardus Leempt in 1484, and though aspects of that book, as well as the Golden Legend, inspired him, they themselves concede that these influences do not answer “the Bosch enigma”. Neither does his association with the Flemish theologian Dionysius van Rijckel, founder of the Carthusian monastery at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, who sought to excite the fear of God’s wrath by detailed and vivid accounts of the punishments in store for sinners.
They do not explain the fish that swim in the air, nor the strawberries and raspberries as large as melons, or the people with fruits instead of heads. Delevoy thus merely concludes it was “a terra incognita explored by him alone”, while others have argued the landscape seem to Bosch is either that of a madman, or someone under the influence of drugs. The third possibility, and perhaps the likeliest, is that this was the landscape of a man who had literally whipped himself into another reality, where he found the inspiration to portray the evil not of his society, but of this world, this dimension. The Marriage Feast At Cana In 1947, Wilhelm Fraenger, concluded that Bosch had been a member of the Brethren of the Free Spirits, also known as the Adamites, a secret, heretical sect that practiced nudity and sexual promiscuity in an attempt to re-create the innocence of the Garden of Eden. The central panel of Garden of Earthly Delights, according to Fraenger, did not condemn free love but glorified it. He insisted that the triptych served as an altarpiece in secret Adamite worship.
Today, Fraenger’s theory is rejected because there is no historical evidence that ties Bosch to this order. But perhaps the missing link is that we have an improper understanding of the brotherhood to which we know Bosch did belong, and that this brotherhood was part of a tradition whose imagery was different, yet similar, to the Adamites. Bosch’s penitential allegiances come to the forefront in several of his paintings, and have been noted, but improperly understood, by the scholars. For example, the presence of a magician at The Marriage Feast at Kana seems odd, and difficult to explain. But what, indeed, this was not the marriage feast at Kana, but a swan meal of the brotherhood – noting that penitents were often linked with Chaldean magic?
The scholars note that in The Haywain, a wagon of hay moves slowly while peasants, nuns and monks batter and murder one another for a chance to clutch at the hay. A pope and an emperor with their entourage follow the wagon, which – no one seems to notice – is pulled by demons toward retribution in the towers of Hell. Bosch is mocking the sin of avarice, which he also satirises in Death of the Miser. Even as Death enters the bedroom, the miser cannot concentrate on a crucifix toward which an angel guides his gaze. Instead, he reaches for a bag of gold proffered by a demon who helped him hoard it earlier. For a penitent, the temptations of the flesh, the seven deadly sins, were all-important, all-consuming; in Bosch’s paintings they take up an importance that extends far beyond a social criticism. They betray his true beliefs; they explain his art. Bosch hardly travelled, but his paintings would posthumously end up travelling for him, ending up all over the world. Several of his paintings reveal a pilgrim, walking on a path of life. But whereas Bosch might not have travelled in this world, he definitely walked into the world of the mind – and not necessarily the imagination – if not in an altogether different reality. Only elsewhere, could he find the inspiration for his surreal creatures and landscapes.