Bosch, Hieronymus

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Hieronymus Bosch


Born Jeroen Anthonizoon van Aken, c. 1450, in 's Hertogenbosch, Netherlands; died August 9, 1516, in 's Hertogenbosch, Netherlands; son of Anthonis van Aken (a painter); married Aleyt Goyaerts van der Meervenne, c. 1481. Education: Trained as a painter with family members.


Painter. Major works include The Magician, 1475-80, Cure of Folly, c. 1476-80, Seven Deadly Sins, c. 1480-85, St. John on Patmos, 1485, Christ Carrying the Cross, c. 1490, Death and the Miser, c. 1490, The Ship of Fools, c. 1490-1500, Temptation of St. Anthony, c. 1500, The Path of Life, c. 1502, The Haywain, c. 1502, Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1504, The Flood, 1504, Last Judgment, 1505, and Paradise and Hell, c. 1510. Exhibitions: Works included in permanent collections at Museo Prado, Madrid, Spain; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna, Austria; Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam, Netherlands; Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, Portugal; Musée Groeninge, Bruges, Belgium; and Louvre, Paris, France, among others.


Brotherhood of Our Lady.


Dubbed the "discoverer of the unconscious" by no less an expert than psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, painter Hieronymus Bosch remains one of the most enigmatic figures in the history of art. Little is known of his life; his birthdate must be guessed at and no true chronology exists for his paintings. Even his name is a fiction, taken from the Dutch town, 's Hertogenbosch, where he was born, lived, and ultimately died in 1516. His documented paintings, oil on wood, number only twenty-five, but Bosch's influence has been substantial. His paintings are visual exhortations to live a good life, for they teem with writhing and screaming sinners, who are being tortured by the minions of the devil himself. Strange creatures abound, bird-headed monsters and other inventions that seem to prefigure the bizarre world of twentieth-century surrealism.

Indeed, it is the very oddity of Bosch's imagery that has ensured his longevity: careers have been built decoding his iconography and symbolism. Art tourists make pilgrimages to the far-flung museums containing his few masterpieces. Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights, a triptych, or three-part altar piece

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now at the Prado Museum in Madrid, is one of the most reproduced pieces of artwork in the world, its nightmarish version of hell filled with miniscule detail of the horrors awaiting those who sin. The triptych was Bosch's usual mode, and typically these traced human development from innocence to sinfulness and repentance/punishment.

During his lifetime, Bosch's works adorned the homes of noble and devout families throughout Europe. After his death, the pious Philip II of Spain made it his personal mission to gather the paintings of this Dutch master; thus the core of the Bosch collection now resides in Madrid's museums. Interestingly, for several centuries Bosch's fame was eclipsed; he was thought of as an unsavory heretic if thought of at all. However, in the late nineteenth century he began to make a comeback and his permanent place in the art pantheon was assured by twentieth-century interest in his work, which seemed so modern yet unflinchingly medieval in its outlook.

A Child of the Times

On the strength of a seeming self-portrait done shortly before his death, Bosch's birthdate has been reckoned as about 1450. He was born Jeroen or Jerome van Aken in the town of 's Hertogenbosch, then in the duchy of Brabant, now part of the Netherlands. At the time of Bosch's birth the city had about 14,000 inhabitants and was well known for its cloth industry, as well as for organ builders, printers, and bell-foundries. Though not as large or well known as other Brabant cites such as Brussels or Antwerp, it was the center for religious life in Bosch's lifetime, with fifteen monastic orders and forty churches and chapels. So religious and pious was the town that it was referred to as "little Rome."

Bosch was born into turbulent times. As Stanley Meisler noted in the Smithsonian, "the age was marked by violence and a new and pervasive pessimism." The royalty of the day waged aggressive wars, while idle soldiers passed the time by roaming the countryside, stealing and killing. The plague and other pestilences cast fear in the hearts of peasants and nobles alike; torture was typically used to gain confessions from supposed criminals. "Man's ultimate future seemed ominous with visions of demons, darkness and hell," Meisler wrote. "People saw pious virtue overwhelmed by terrible sin. Preachers and poets cried out against the enormous greed around them."

Bosch, in his worldview, was a child of his times. Deeply religious, he became a member of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, a lay religious fraternity in 's Hertogenbosch. He also grew up in an artistic family. His father, grandfather, several uncles, and a brother were all painters. It is assumed he gained his training at home; he may also have spent some time in Utrecht as a young man.

A Man of Means

About 1480 or 1481 Bosch married the wealthy daughter of a prosperous local patrician. Aleyt Goyaerts van den Meervenne appears to have been considerably older than Bosch; there were no children from the marriage. But his marriage made Bosch a well-off burgher with a house on the market square. By 1486 he is mentioned as a member of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, which granted the painter some of his first commissions. Others in Bosch's family also worked on commissions for the brotherhood by adorning the chapel of the Virgin in a local church. He designed a stained-glass window as well as some church fixtures, as well as numerous paintings, but all have been lost, probably destroyed during the years of the Protestant Reformation following Bosch's death.

The roughly two dozen paintings that remain can be divided into two main groups: religious paintings and moralizing or allegorical pictures. Of the former, clearly the most famous is The Garden of Earthly Delight, a triptych measuring seven feet in height by thirteen feet in width. Titled after the garden that forms the central panel, it depicts the history of the world, which is also, in Bosch's view, the history of sin. Thus Adam and Eve and their paradise are depicted in the left panel, the garden is the central panel, and hell forms the right panel. In the central panel, young lovers cavort, a scene almost pleasant to modern eyes, but for Bosch's age this was a depiction of the sin of believing that sex is an end in itself and not a matter of procreation. The torments of hell await such transgressors; the right panel depicts the various torments in a highly detailed manner. Strangely enough, many of the instruments of torture in this painting are musical instruments.

Hermits and saints also people many of Bosch's paintings, for they have resisted worldly temptations. His Temptation of St. Anthony is one such depiction, and also one of his most demonfilled works. The Seven Deadly Sins, painted as a table top, also closely details the punishment of those guilty of such sins as gluttony and avarice. Additionally, Bosch was fascinated by the crucifixion, and depicted the prelude to Christ's agony in Christ Carrying the Cross. Other later paintings in this style include Paradise and Hell and The Last Judgment.

Of his moralizing and allegorical paintings, perhaps the greatest is The Haywain, a triptych whose symbolism is taken from Flemish proverbs of the day. In it a hay wagon is depicted, with nuns, monks, and peasants battling one another for a chance to grab the hay. This allegory of the sin of avarice also features a pope and an emperor; no one could escape Bosch's critical eye. Other more secular paintings include Cure of Folly, depicting false doctors extracting a stone from a patient's head, Ship of Fools, in which misguided fools (under an Islamic flag) float about aimlessly in a boat as a metaphor of a directionless or misdirected life, Death and the Miser, and The Vagabond (also called The Peddler). Bosch, like other medieval burghers, held up the poor as examples of sin and folly, often portraying them as symbols of idleness and sloth.

If you enjoy the works of Hieronymus Bosch

If you enjoy the works of Hieronymus Bosch, you may also want to check out the following:

The art of other Flemish Northern Renaissance painters, including Albrecht Dürer, Jan van Eyck, and Pieter Breugel the Elder.

In fact, most of the content of Bosch's paintings can be attributed to the thought of the day, although more recent scholars have attached all sorts of meanings and interpretations to his work. There have been theories that he belonged to a heretical branch of Christianity, that he was a drug addict or even a sex deviant. However, these speculations are more fiction than fact. By twentieth- and twenty-first-century standards, his work appears to be surreally enigmatic. Yet in Bosch's day, topics from alchemy to astrology to witchcraft and the workings of the devil were common knowledge. Medieval people also believed that the end of the world was near and that the horrors of hell awaited sinners. Bosch also drew heavily upon folklore to depict folly among humans. Thus, as a contributor for the International Dictionary of Art and Artists noted, "Bosch was a man of his time, deeply involved with the religious and moral concerns of his fellow human beings. His works, however, are timeless, and seem to speak in a special way to the troubled 20th century." Similarly, Meisler wrote, "All of Bosch's paintings pulsate with a lavish symbolism that is obscure today but must have been widely understood five centuries ago."

The Legacy

Bosch left no school of followers at his death in 1516; however, there were imitators of his style, some of whose work has been confused for Bosch's originals. His influence extended to the style of other Flemish and Dutch artists, including Pieter Breugel the Elder, born near's Hertogenbosch just a dozen years after Bosch's death. Bosch's paintings were collected by Margaret of Austria, Philip of Burgundy, and other royals. However, not long after his death, his fame began to wane as a result of the Protestant Reformation as well as changing styles. Much of Bosch's artwork was collected by the Spanish king Philip II, the instigator of the infamous Spanish Inquisition for whom Bosch's work provided a moral compass. By 1574 Philip was already donating Bosch paintings to the monastery of the Escorial outside of Madrid. However, even in Spain many found Bosch's seeming pessimism problematic; his view of humanity's inevitable journey from paradise to sin fell out of fashion, and his symbolism was forgotten by the seventeenth century. While for several centuries Bosch's work was relegated to a historical footnote, beginning in the late nineteenth century and extending for several decades, his work was rediscovered, foreshadowing Freudian psychology and the dreamscape canvases of surrealist painters such as Salvador Dali. A major exhibition in Rotterdam in 1936 renewed scholarly interest in Bosch, an interest that shows no signs of decreasing. Another major Rotterdam exhibition in 2001 attempted to put this medieval master in context. A reviewer of that exhibition for the Economist concluded, "Nothing can diminish the power of Bosch's vision."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Aymes, C. A. Wertheim, The Pictorial Language of Hieronymous Bosch, New Knowledge Books, 1988.

Baldass, Ludwig von, Hieronymus Bosch, Abrams (New York, NY), 1960.

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

Dixon, Linda, Bosch, Phaidon Press (London, England), 2003.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Fraenger, Wilhelm, Hieronymus Bosch, Putnam (New York, NY), 1983.

Gaunt, William, Painters of Fantasy: From Hieronymous Bosch to Salvador Dali, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1986.

Gibson, Walter S., Hieronymus Bosch, Thames and Hudson (London, England), 1985.

Harris, Lynda, The Secret Heresy of Hieronymus Bosch, Floris Books (London, England), 1996.

International Dictionary of Art and Artists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1990.

Koldeweij, Jos, and Bernard Vermet, editors, Hieronymus Bosch: New Insights into His Life and Work, NAI Publishers (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 2001.

Koldeweij, Jos, and Paul Vandenbroeck, Hieronymus Bosch: The Complete Paintings and Drawings, Abrams (New York, NY), 2001.

Lafond, Paul, The Prints of Hieronymus Bosch, edited and translated by Susan F. Gilchrist, Alan Wofsy Fine Arts (San Francisco, CA), 2002.

Linfert, Carl, Hieronymus Bosch, Abrams (New York, NY), 1989.

Tolnay, Charles de, Hieronymus Bosch, Reynal/William Morrow (New York, NY), 1966.


Antiques, September, 2001, Miriam Kramer, "Hieronymus Bosch," p. 268.

Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, January 4, 2003, "Philip II of Spain and the Imagery of Hieronymus Bosch."

Booklist, November 15, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of Hieronymus Bosch: The Complete Paintings and Drawings, p. 537.

Economist, October 13, 2001, "Trouble and Strife: HieronymusBosch."

History Today, April, 1997, Gordon Marsden, "Bosch's Christ Carrying the Cross," p. 15.

Library Journal, February 1, 2002, Kathryn Wekselman, review of Hieronymus Bosch: The Complete Drawings and Paintings, p. 93; May 15, 2002, Kathryn Wekselman, review of The Prints of Hieronymus Bosch, p. 93; December, 2002, Kathryn Wekselman, review of Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights, p. 115.

New York Review of Books, February 23, 1967, Ernst Gombrich, "Bosch of Hertogenbosch."

Qualitative Inquiry, June, 1997, Andrea Fontana, "Of Heaven and Hell: Narrating Hieronymus Bosch," p. 237.

Smithsonian, March, 1988, Stanley Meisler, "The World of Bosch," p. 40.

Spectator, September 8, 2001, Nicolas Powell, "Hieronymus Bosch," p. 46.

Time International, September 17, 2001, James Graff, "Hieronymus Bosch: Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam," p. 73.


ArtCyclopedia, (April 4, 2005), "Hieronymus Bosch."

Grove Art Online, http:/ (April 4, 2005), Paul Vandenbroeck, "Bosch, Hieronymus."

National Gallery of Art, (March 23, 2005), Death and the Miser.

Prado Museum, (March 23, 2005), Garden of Earthly Delights and Table of the Seven Deadly Sins.

WebMuseum, (April 4, 2005), "Hieronymus Bosch."

Hieronymus Bosch

views updated May 14 2018

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). □

Bosch, Hieronymus (1450–1516)

views updated May 18 2018

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

Bosch, Hieronymus

views updated May 17 2018

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.

Bosch, Hieronymus

views updated May 14 2018

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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