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Hieronymus Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch

The work of the Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch (1453-1516) is characterized by unusual stylistic originality and an intensely personalized symbolism, which makes interpretation of the meaning of his paintings extremely difficult.

Between 1480 and 1515, the period of major activity by Hieronymus Bosch, the character and appearance of Netherlandish painting were profoundly altered by several factors. Most significant was the introduction of many of the artistic ideals of the Italian Renaissance in such important northern centers of painting as Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp. Responsive to these new currents of Italian influence, such painters as Gerard David and Quentin Massys had begun to invest their panels with the stable forms and spatial clarity of Renaissance painting. Bosch, on the other hand, appeared totally indifferent to these progressive trends, retaining in his work the nervous linearism and decorative exuberance of the late Gothic. It is basically the intense subjectivism of his art, unfettered by orthodoxy and tradition, that makes Bosch a representative of the new age.

Hieronymus Bosch, whose real name was Jeroen Anthoniszoon, was born in the North Brabant town of 's Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc). Both his grandfather and father had been painters in this relatively minor provincial center, and it is generally assumed that Bosch's early training was obtained locally. From 1486 until his death Bosch was mentioned regularly in the records of the local chapter of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, of which he was an active member. According to these accounts, he was commissioned to paint several altarpieces for the Cathedral of 's Hertogenbosch and to execute designs for its stained glass windows, all of which have disappeared. In 1504 Philip the Handsome, Archduke of Austria, commissioned him to paint a Last Judgment, which also has not survived. Further knowledge of the painter's career is unobtainable, save in the form of the few available insights that can be gleaned from the forty-odd authenticated paintings from the master's own hand. Several of these panels bear signatures, but none is dated, thus creating a major problem in their relative chronology.

Early Style

Unlike most Netherlandish painters of the period, Bosch does not appear to have traveled widely. The formative influences on his style are still disputed, though such early works as the tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins show a marked reliance upon manuscript illuminations rather than contemporary practices of northern panel painting. The nearly contemporaneous tondo Cure of Folly (ca. 1475-1485) reveals a penchant for social satire akin to that found in several of the works of the Antwerp painter Quentin Massys.

The Marriage at Cana represents a decisive change in Bosch's style. The draftsmanship is at once firmer and bolder, and there occurs for the first time the technique of painting directly on the panel in a flat, evenly lighted manner. Bosch used this spontaneous and buoyant style of painting throughout his career, and it distinguishes his work from that of his major contemporaries.

The artist's appearance is known from a presumed portrait in the Arras Sketchbook which shows Bosch in middle age, spry and alert, with a cynical outlook on the world. The early period of his art is closed by the panel entitled The Conjuror, in which a strange visionary quality begins to supplant the immediacy and direct observation of the earlier works.

Middle Period

The major paintings of this period (ca. 1490-1505) are the trio of great moralizing triptychs upon which the artist's reputation is mainly founded. Of the three, the earliest is probably the Haywain, which can be interpreted as an allegory of the evils of the world. In this instance Bosch's symbolism has been shown to be derived from Flemish proverbs and other forms of popular, didactic literature. The fantastic Temptation of St. Anthony in Lisbon (ca. 1500) is considered by most authorities to be Bosch's masterpiece. It is a fully resolved work in which the painter achieved pictorial richness in combination with iconographic complexity and expressive intensity. The most pessimistic of Bosch's visual sermons, the painting shows a world dominated by evil and the omnipresence of the devil and his fiendish agents. A cosmic, imaginary landscape provides the fiery scenario for one of the artist's most original and sensational displays of demonic inventiveness.

The most enigmatic of Bosch's paintings is the triptych of the Garden of Earthly Delights. This work, by virtue of its fantastic and recondite symbolism, stands at the summit of the painter's career. In 1605 the Spanish monk Sigüenza concluded that the painting was an allegory on the origin, diffusion, and punishment of sin revealed in terms of a psychological as well as a physical drama. Since that time there has been little substantial improvement upon this thesis despite numerous efforts by scholars to discover the key to the meaning of the work. In this connection, one is still obliged to concur with the art historian Erwin Panofsky that the "real secret of his magnificent nightmares and daydreams has still to be disclosed."

Late Period

Bosch's late style is characterized by an increased spiritual and pictorial asceticism. The Epiphany triptych initiates this phase with a new reliance upon broad forms and a simplified color scheme. A similar reduction of form and color to basic design elements is also observable in the small Madrid version of the painter's favorite theme, Temptation of St. Anthony. Solitary and contemplative, the simple figure of the hermit saint has been rendered physically and spiritually immune to a hostile world and its demonic occupants. One of Bosch's last works is the highly compacted and emotive Christ Carrying the Cross. Composed entirely of heads situated against a dark background, this panel provides a fitting climax to the artist's career. The arcane symbolism of the earlier works has here given way to an intense emotional and psychological drama into which the spectator is inexorably drawn, achieving for Bosch's final statement the quality of grandeur and universal human appeal.

When Bosch died in 1516, he left no followers in the usual sense. Such painters as Jan Mandyn and Pieter Huys were imitators at best, who were capable of copying Bosch's external forms without any understanding of their profound underlying significance.

Further Reading

The best book on Bosch is Charles de Tolnay, Hieronymus Bosch (1937; trans. 1966). It contains a sensitive analysis of the artist's stylistic development as well as the most authoritative chronology of the paintings. Ludwig von Baldass's excellent Hieronymus Bosch (1943; trans. 1960) makes important contributions to knowledge of the meaning of Bosch's symbolism. An interesting thesis concerning the alchemical significance of many of Bosch's panels is in Jacques Combe, Jerome Bosch (1946; trans. 1957). □

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Bosch, Hieronymus (1450–1516)

Bosch, Hieronymus (14501516)

A Dutch painter known for his densely crowded canvases and striking imagery that reflects an intensely religious outlook and a fascination with sin, weakness, and corruption. Born as Jeroen van Aeken, the son of Anthonius van Aeken, he took the surname Bosch from the town of 's-Hertogenbosch, the place of his birth. The son and brother of skilled painters, he lived his entire life in this town, which then belonged to the Duchy of Burgundy. His first commission, undertaken with his father and two brothers, was an altarpiece, offered by the Brotherhood of Our Lady to the local cathedral.

The Flemish school of painting to which Bosch belonged was known for realistic depictions of everyday life; it included such masters as Pieter Brueghel, who was a devoted student of Bosch paintings. Few details are known about the private life of Bosch, other than that he was a member of the strictly orthodox Brotherhood of Our Lady, a group that venerated the Virgin Mary. He lived at a time of change, when the familiar religious mores and artistic styles of the Middle Ages were being transformed into the humanism and experimentation of the Renaissance. His work can be seen as a morbidly pessimistic view of this changing world and a prediction that the new, irreligious age was condemning Christian believers to hell.

Bosch's fame earned him many commissions from nobility and royalty. His successful workshop produced paintings, altarpieces, triptychs (three-paneled pictures), and smaller works undertaken for local art patrons. For the Cathedral of St. Johns, in his hometown, he was awarded many commissions to design altarpieces, garments, and stained glass, none of which have survived to modern times. His paintings are Christian allegories, many on the theme of temptation and damnation, with the most famous example being The Garden of Earthly Delights. This vivid ensemble of strange forms, monsters, devils, mythological figures, and grotesques includes more than one thousand figures. Its three panels are the Garden of Eden on the left, Hell on the right, and in the center The Garden of Earthly Delights, which shows an allegorical scene of man's temptation and downfall. The Garden of Earthly Delights and other paintings by Bosch hold up an unpleasant mirror to the vices and foolishness of humanity. Their intent is to shock with the wickedness revealed in human and animal forms, and inspire repentance on the part of the viewer. The Temptation of St. Anthony is one of his most famous works. The Vision of Tondalys is a painting of dreamlike images, in which the legs of a man sprout roots and people fly through the air. The Ship of Fools shows a group of people voyaging on a small boat, wasting their lives in insignificant and futile pursuits as the ship drifts far from their harbor. Death and the Miser depicts the last moments of a greedy man who has hoarded his wealth and who now must face death, personified as an eerie phantom that is coming through his door. Modern art historians see Bosch as an important precursor to the surrealist imagery popular in the early twentieth century. His paintings were popular among wealthy and noble patrons in the Netherlands, Austria, and Spain, and he has had many imitators up to the present day.

See Also: Brueghel family

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Bosch, Hieronymus

Hieronymus Bosch, or Jerom Bos (hērôn´Ĭməs, yā´rôm bôs), c.1450–1516, Flemish painter. His surname was originally van Aeken; Bosch refers to 's Hertogenbosch, where he was born and worked. Little is known of his life and training, although it is clear that he belonged to a family of painters. His paintings, executed in brilliant colors and with an uncanny mastery of detail, are filled with strangely animated objects, bizarre plants and animals, and monstrous, amusing, or diabolical figures believed to have been suggested by folk legends, allegorical poems, moralizing religious literature, and aspects of late Gothic art. Such works as the Garden of Earthly Delights (Prado) appear to be intricate allegories; their symbolism, however, is obscure and has consistently defied unified interpretation. Bosch clearly had an interest in the grotesque, the diabolical, the exuberant, and the macabre. He also may have been the first European painter to depict scenes of everyday life, although often with a strong element of the bizarre.

King Philip II of Spain collected some of his finest creations. The Temptation of St. Anthony (Lisbon) and The Last Judgment were recurring themes. Other examples of his art may be seen in the Escorial and in Brussels. Examples of the Adoration of the Magi are in the Metropolitan Museum and in the Philadelphia Museum, which also has the Mocking of Christ. Bosch, who deeply influenced the work of Peter Bruegel the Elder, was hailed in the 20th cent. as a forerunner of the surrealists, and his work continues to influence many contemporary artists. Bosch, who had many imitators, signed only seven of his paintings. Over the years, scholars have attributed to Bosch fewer and fewer of the works originally thought to be his, and by the beginning of the 21st cent. only 25 to 30 were definitively ascribed to him.

See his paintings, ed. by G. Martin (1966, repr. 1971); biographies by W. Fraenger (1983) and W. S. Gibson (1985); study by J. Snyder, ed. (1973).

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Bosch, Hieronymus

Bosch, Hieronymus (1450–1516) Flemish painter, b. Jerome van Aken in 's Hertogenbosch. His paintings of grotesque and fantastic visions based on religious themes led to accusations of heresy, but greatly influenced 20th-century surrealism. The majority of his pictures explore the distressing consequences of human sin: innocent figures are besieged by horrifying physical torments. About 40 examples of his work survive, but his most famous works are The Temptation of St Anthony, The Garden of Earthly Delights (often considered his masterpiece), and the Adoration of the Magi.

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Bosch, Hieronymus

Bosch, Hieronymus (c.1450–1516), Dutch painter. Bosch's highly detailed works are typically crowded with half-human, half-animal creatures and grotesque demons in settings symbolic of sin and folly. His individual style prefigures that of the surrealists.

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