Bosch, Hieronymus 1453–1516

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Bosch, Hieronymus

Jheronymus [Hieronymus] van Aken was born in Dutch Brabant in the small town of Hertogenbosch, whose name he adopted, becoming known as Bosch. From an artists' family, he was familiar with the workshop mode of painting, and some of his works were completed in a workshop environment. His comparatively small oeuvre was enormous in its impact on immediate contemporaries and followers for more than a century, creating a "Bosch style" exemplified by numerous imitators (Koldeweij, Vandenbroek, and Vermet, 2001, pp. 11-28). Many of his sources and models were identified in the 1930s by Charles de Tolnay (1937).

The themes in Bosch's work are mostly religious: Temptation of Saint Anthony, The Adoration of the Magi, The Last Judgment, Saint Jerome at Prayer, Saint John at Patmos, The Seven Deadly Sins, The Garden of [Earthly] Delights, and works such as the allegorical Haywain. He favored the triptych as a medium providing the structural support for complex compositions that organized time and space in a symbolic and relational diachrony.


In Bosch's depictions of hell and demonic assemblies hybrid creatures that combine human or animal features with objects or reassembled body parts engage in a pandemonium of taunting, violence, torture, and sexual assaults on apparently helpless, and usually naked, human bodies. The intense visionary quality of his work, and the often disturbing brutality of these scenes, the symbolic surcharge of allegorical figurations, elicited more commentary than for other early modern artists, as art historians have sought the interpretation that would finally shed light on the hidden meaning of this oeuvre.

Bosch has been claimed as an anti-orthodox opponent of Church doctrine, and ascribed connections to heretical sects such as the Brothers of the Common Life and the Brothers of the Free Spirit (Fraenger 1952). He has also been read as expressing the orthodox, perhaps mystical, religious piety of an outraged observer of sin (Gombrich 1967). He has been interpreted according to the symbols of alchemy—one of the more convincingly documented readings (Dixon 1981)—and according to alchemical/Gnostic readings (Mettra 1977). It also has been claimed that he merely transmitted the fantastic art of the "grylls" of antiquity and revisited classical models, especially through glyptic art (Baltrusaitis 1981). In spite of the many approaches and the wealth of erudition displayed, the case has not been closed, and no single one is so compelling as to effectively silence the others.

Bosch's vision is rife with intriguing representations of women and gender: In The Haywain armed female figures appear to be as violent as the men. In scenes with sinners there is a current of sexual (in)difference in the way some of the naked bodies are represented as markedly androgynous. The mermaids in armor and closed helmets floating on the pools of the Garden of Delights also code androgyny.


The Garden of Delights stands out in his oeuvre, a consummate achievement both as a work of art and as an enigmatic composition with multiple elements of sexual and religious symbolism.

The Garden was not apparently meant for display in a religious building; as art historians are confident that it was the painting displayed a year after the artist's death in the palace of Henry III of Nassau. It was described by an Italian visitor, Antonio de Beatis, and this contemporary view assigned no particular meaning to the work, taking note of the mixed landscapes of land and sea, the black and white men and women, "de diversi acti e modi" (in diverse actions and guises, or comportments; diversi also can mean "strange"), birds and animals depicted with great realism ("naturalitá"), a work both "piacevole" and "fantastiche" (Gombrich 1967, pp. 403-404). An often-quoted commentary on Bosch's whole oeuvre close to his time is that of Siguenza in 1605, who also saw nothing untoward or heretical in his work. Trying to decipher a hidden and overarching meaning in it has been a conceit of the twentieth century.

The outside panels of the Garden triptych show a transparent ball of glass or a bubble encasing the world, an apparently peaceful landscape surrounded by waters and dominated high up by a minute figure of God the creator done in grisaille. It illustrates the verse of the psalm "Sicut in utrem aquas maris" (God gathered the waters of the seas in a flask) (Dempsey 2004). The left panel depicts Paradise, in which Christ shows a newly formed Eve to a seated Adam, who stares fixedly at her; the Fall is implied with details of violence in the animal realm: Peace among them is fissured, as the cat walks off with a mouse in its mouth.

On the right panel, there is a vision of hell, filled with the familiar violent, hybrid figures. However, this section focuses on the discordant noise of the place, and it is the human sense of hearing that is assaulted. It shows the mutilation and martyrdom of ears, bodies strung across giant musical instruments as in a crucifixion, and naked sinners singing in a chorus with a monstrous kapellmeister, reading music from the posterior of a human figure. Merely identifying the panel as "Hell" does not do justice to its symbolic complexity.

The central panel is a vividly erotic but coded rendition of the Garden. However, this garden is not the "hortus conclusus," or "closed-off garden," which in medieval symbolism often was an iconographical attribute of the Virgin Mary, whose untouched womb, without breach or rupture, was likened to it. Instead, it contains many enclosures. Its space is defined by concentric pools of water. In the farthest region of the canvas a small pool contains black and white female figures bathing together. Around the largest pool a cavalcade of naked men and women gallop astride giant animals, including camels, stags, boars, cats, and birds. On the pools float various ephemeral conveyances containing amorous couples, including a black man with a pale white woman, and other couples swim together or peer out of nooks and crannies of fruit. Behind it loom the ambiguous horned structures found in much of Bosch's oeuvre, built of spikes and protuberances, architectural marvels made of matter that appears vegetal or carnal—because of its pink hue—rather than made of stone: Some embracing couples are walking toward them. Fruit is of paramount importance, mostly in the form of the gigantic strawberry or split pomegranate: Figures hold them or embrace them or hide in them; one holds the fruit between outstretched legs. In the busy forefront another well-known sexual symbol of that time is the mussel, here containing a couple with intertwined legs. In the far right corner a group of naked figures, one black, stands and watches. Prominent among them is a wild woman, hands on hips, in the observer position.

The overwhelming proliferation of images and the strong sexual content of the work have been noted by critics, often with distaste for unnamed practices—probably a reaction to the few instances of sodomitical representations: a male figure extracting roses from the anus of a leaning and sexually undefined figure and a bird's beak at work on the anus of one of the riders, an image familiar in Medieval manuscript marginalia. The easiest way to interpret the conundrum presented by the Garden has been to see it sequentially: From the left, with the ominous presence of Eve, the eye moves to acts not condoned by religion or law and then, to the right, to punishment. Thus, the central panel can be seen as a florid description of the temptations of sin. The nakedness of the figures has been adduced as proof of that interpretation (Glum 1976), yet Laurinda Dixon has countered that the structure of the triptych is identical to "the basic alchemical allegory" (Dixon 1981, p. 99).

One cannot indeed overlook that male and female figures are depicted in the Garden with sustained attention to the beauty of the body and the harmony of its proportions. While the stain of luxury and wantonness may be present, the expression of soft physical beauty underscored by the predominance of curves (bodies, pools of water, bubbles, fruit) exudes an exuberant expression of the erotic that may transcend sin, or at the very least, sequentially add to and expand on it. Indeed, in Bosch's work, demons are hybrid forms, as in the models identified by Baltrusaitis (1981), mostly grotesque, sporting slimy scales and the tails of rodents—symbols of evil (Glum 1976)—and engaged in terrifying acts. There is no such suggestion in the central panel of The Garden of Delights, and it seems that the search for interpretative clues must continue. Particularly suggestive are readings that take into account Bosch's multiple layerings between the religious and the profane (Kessler 1997), perhaps a reflection of his painting technique, which used transparent layers of color, visible groundsel, and visible drawing lines to create a sort of palimpsest in his work (Koldeweij, Vandenbroek, and Vermet, 2001, pp. 11-13).

see also Erotic Art.


Baltrusaitis, Jurgis.1981. Le Moyen Age fantastique: Antiquités et exotismes dans l'art gothique [The fantastic in the Middle Ages: Antiquities and exoticism in Gothic art]. Paris: Flammarion.

Dempsey, Charles. 2004. "Sicut in utrem aquas maris: Jerome Bosch's Prolegomenon to the Garden of Earthly Delights." MLN 119(1): S247-S270.

Dixon, Laurinda S. 1981. "Bosch's Garden of Delights: Remnants of a 'Fossil' Science." Art Bulletin 63(1): 96-113.

Fraenger, Wilhem. 1952. The Millenium of Hieronymus Bosch: Outlines of a New Interpretation, trans. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser. London: Faber and Faber.

Glum, Peter. 1976. "Divine Judgment in Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights." Art Bulletin. 58(1): 45-54.

Gombrich, E. H. 1967. "The Earliest Description of Bosch's Garden of Delight." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 30: 403-406.

Kessler, Erwin. 1997. "Le Jardin des Délices et les fruits du mal" [The Garden of Earthly Delights and the fruits of evil]. In Flore et jardins: Usages, savoirs et représentations du monde végétal au Moyen Age: Etudes reuniés et publiées par Pierre-Gilles Girault [Flora and gardens: Uses, knowledge and representations of the vegetal world in the Middle Ages], ed. Pierre-Gilles Girault. Paris: Leopard d'Or.

Koldeweij, Jos, Paul Vandenbroek, and Bernard Vermet, eds. 2001. Hieronymus Bosch: The Complete Paintings and Drawings. Amsterdam: Ludion Ghent; Rotterdam: NAi; New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Mettra, Claude. 1977. Jérôme Bosch. Paris: Henri Scrépel.

Tolnay, Charles de. 1937. Hieronymus Bosch. Basel and Leipzig: Editions Holbein.

                                Francesca Canadé Sautman

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Bosch, Hieronymus 1453–1516

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