HIERONYMUS BOSCH: The Elusive Master from ’s-Hertogenbosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480-1505 - photo by Wikipedia

Hieronymus Bosch was born Jheronimus van Aken in the Netherlands, in about 1450. His exact birthdate cannot be identified, but this date has been determined as plausible from a drawing made in 1516; it is possibly a self-portrait in which he is depicted as an elderly man who may be in his sixties. The name van Aken means ‘from Aachen’, while Bosch comes from den Bosch (the forest), shortened from his birthplace.  

Portrait of Hieronymus Bosch – photo by WikiArt.org

There is negligible information available on Bosch’s early life; except he was born in his grandfather’s house in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, in the Duchy of Brabant. His name is mentioned in municipal records of 5 April 1474 together with two brothers and a sister. His grandfather Jan van Aken, a painter, had five sons, three of whom were also artists. Bosch’s father Anthonius was an artistic adviser to the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady (Illustre Lieve Vrouwe Broederschap). The association was founded in 1318 and based on a wooden image of the Virgin Mary in the town’s cathedral.  It is assumed that Anthonius or one of his brothers taught Hieronymus to paint.  

Bosch was of the Early Netherlandish school of painting, along with other notables including Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Dieric Bouts, Petrus Christus, Hans Memling and Hugo van der Goes. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) was an avid follower of Bosch’s work. As Bosch only signed some seven of his works and generally did not date his art, only twenty-four paintings and twenty-one drawings have been definitely attributed to him. These can be found in 26 museums and private collections around the world, including many European countrise, Canada and the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, Austria and the United Kingdom.  

The Last Judgment, 1482-1516 – photo by artlistr

A devastating fire that swept through Brabant in 1463, destroying approximately 4000 homes, possibly influenced Bosch’s bizarre art. In 1488, he joined the same Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady of which his father had been a member – the elder Bosch died around 1478. Between 1479-1481, Bosch and the wealthy Aleyt Goyaerts van den Meerven married, but there is no record of any children. The lady, who was some years older than Bosch, inherited a house and land and the couple moved to Oirschot, in North Brabant. 

Bosch’s work can be divided into three distinct periods; early (1470-1485), middle (1485-1500) and late, until his death in 1516. His early period comprised his drawings and teachings in his workshop, but no examples have endured. His most famous work, The Garden of Earthly Delights, was completed c. 1495-1505 during his middle period. It is now housed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, where it still attracts thousands of visitors. Six other works were completed in his middle period, and thirteen in his late period. Eight intact triptychs attributed to Bosch have survived, while only fragments of another five remain. 

Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi, 1494 – photo by Museo del Prado

In chronological order, known triptychs include the Adoration of the Magi (c. 1491-1498), oil on wood (138 x 144cm). The outer panels depict Saint Gregory’s Mass as a single grisaille image. The work is housed in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. 

The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1495-1505), oil on wood, an enormous 220 x 389 cm, depicts The Creation of the World as a single grisaille image on the outer panels. 

Hermit Saints Triptych (c. 1495-1505), oil on wood, 86 x 100cm, is held in the Galleries dell’Accademia, Venice. 

The Last Judgement (c. 1495-1505), oil on wood, 99.5 x 117.5 cm, is attributed either to Bosch or his workshop. It is held in the Groeningemuseum, Bruges, Belgium. The outer panels depict Christ Crowned with Thorns as a single image.  

Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony, 1500-1510 – photo by Arthive

The Martyrdom of St. Julia (c. 1495-1505), oil on wood, 104 x 119cm is housed in the Palazzo Ducale, Venice. 

The Temptation of St. Anthony (c. 1500-1510), oil on wood, 131.5 x 225cm is housed in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, Portugal. The reverse side comprises two paintings in grisaille, The Arrest of Christ and Christ Bearing the Cross. 

A later version of The Last Judgement (c. 1500-1505), oil on wood comprises the central panel, 163.7 x 127cm and the two outer panels, each 167.7 x 60cm. These outer panels depict grisaille images of Saint James the Greater and Saint Bavo. The work is held at the Academie für Bildenden Künste, Vienna, Austria. 

The Haywain Triptych, 1512-1515 – photo by Museo del Prado

There are two versions of The Haywain; however, it is surmised that neither is an original Bosch. One version, painted c. 1510-1516, oil on wood 147 x 232cm, is held in El Escorial, Spain, while the other, also oil on wood, 135 x 190cm is held in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. The outer panels comprise a single image known as The Path of Life, aka The Pedlar 

The Passion Triptych was commissioned by Mencía de Mendoza y Fonseca, a Dutch patron of the arts for the Chapel of the Epiphany in the convent of Santo Doming, Valencia. Oil on panel, 163 x 382cm, it is housed in the Museu de Belles Arts de València, Valencia, Spain. This may also not be a Bosch original, but painted by one of his followers. 

Bosch also painted diptychs and polyptychs; the diptych Hell and the Flood painted c.1515 – oil on oak, 35 x 69cm is now housed in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, Holland. The polyptych Visions of the Hereafter, comprising four panels but which was probably part of the altarpiece known as Cardinal Grimani’s Altarpiece and which may have consisted of another four panels, (now lost), was painted c. 1505-1515, oil on wood, each panel measuring 86.5 x 39.5cm. It is housed in the Palazzo Grimani in Venice. The four existing panels comprise Fall of the DamnedHellTerrestrial Paradise and Ascent of the Blessed 

The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1500-1525 – photo by Museo del Prado

Bosch’s most famous work is undoubtedly The Garden of Earthly Delights, but his triptych The Temptation of Saint Anthony is almost as well known. The original is housed in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, Portugal. A copy painted by a follower of Bosch c. 1550 has an interesting provenance; it was originally owned by Cardinal Maffeo Barberini (1568-1644) who was appointed Pope Urban VIII from 1623 until his death. It was passed on to his nephew, Don Taddeo Barberini and later to Don Taddeo’s second son Prince Maffeo Barberini and further to Cardinal Carlo Barberini, who held the work until at least 1704. In 1985, it was procured by a private Swiss collector who sold it under auction at Sotheby’s on 28 January 2016 to another private collector for $US 850 000. 

Saint Anthony the Great (Anthony Abbot), on whom the work is based, was a major influence in a group known as the ‘Desert Fathers’, consisting of a group of hermits and monks who lived in the Scetes desert in Egypt from around the 3rd century AD, and who were considered to be a major influence on the development of Christianity. Anthony was born into a wealthy family in Alexandria but adopted the desert way of life in AD 270 for some thirteen years, living alone for long periods. He also embraced an ascetic lifestyle, giving away his fortune and rejecting material assets. He spent his time in prayer ‘fighting the Devil’, who tempted him with earthly desires, including food and sex. The painting features St. Anthony’s punishment on the left panel, his refusing temptation in the centre, and the temptations on the right. The closed outer panels are rendered in grisaille and depict figures disrupting Christ’s journey to Mount Calvary. 

The Infernal Landscape – photo by Noordbrabants Museum | Smithsonian Magazine

Most of Bosch’s paintings were made with oil on oak panels. Since 2010, the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) has undertaken a comprehensive study and documentation of the artist’s work, including a dendrochronological study (defined as the scientific method of dating tree rings, aka growth rings, to the exact year they were formed) of his supports. 

When the drawing Infernal Landscape was re-discovered in 2003 when it was auctioned by its anonymous owner, it was first thought to be of Bosch’s workshop, but not made by the master himself. However, the BCRP undertook a study of the work, using ultra-high-resolution digital macro photography in infra-red and visible light, X-radiography and microscopy, and also examined the paper, inks and compared the handwriting to known Bosch works. It was pronounced to be an original Bosch piece, bearing striking similarities to figures in The Garden of Earthly Delights. It was sold to another anonymous buyer but was put up for display at the Jheronimus Bosch – Visions of Geniusexhibition at the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch in 2016. 

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, 1505-1510 – photo by Museo del Prado | Wikipedia

The BCRP study also revealed that two works previously attributed to Bosch – The Seven Deadly Sins held in the Museo del Prado and Christ Carrying the Cross held in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent actually emanated from his workshop, but not of his own hand, as had been previously thought. 

His work was mostly impasto, where the paint is laid down in thick layers, leaving visible, textured brush strokes. This differed from the conventional methods of his contemporaries, who in the Flemish style, would lay down several layers of glazes to hide their brushwork. 

Bosch used a limited palette, mostly comprising azurite and malachite (the two carbonate minerals), the potentially poisonous lead-tin-yellow, clay earth ochres and deep red or carmine lake.  

Christ Carrying the Cross, 1510-1535 – photo by Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent | Wikipedia

The Garden of Earthly Delights is a riot of tortured and apocryphal figures, a complete contrast to the outer panels that enclose the main work. The two outer panels comprise the depiction of the third day of Earth’s creation: “And God said: ‘Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas; and God saw that it was good. And God said: ‘Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth.’ And it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit, wherein is the seed thereof, after its kind; and God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.”  

The left inner panel depicts the Joining of Adam and Eve when Eve is presented to Adam by God. The main centre panel depicts the ‘garden’ of the painting’s name, in which tortuous humans, animals and plant life abound. Many of the figures are depicted with erotic and explicit sexual overtones, and the allusions of various fruits reinforce this message. The right panel is set at night, in contrast to the other two panels, where mankind has submitted to temptation, resulting in eternal damnation. 

Death and the Miser, 1485-1490 – photo by National Gallery of Art | Wikipedia

Research undertaken in the late 1960s has revealed the high probability that Engelbert II (Engelbrecht in Dutch) of Nassau (1451-1504), who was a noteworthy patron of the arts, particularly of Flemish illuminated manuscripts, commissioned The Garden of Earthly Delights for the Coudenberg Palace in Brussels. It was seen there on 30 July 1517 by Antonio de Beatis, secretary to Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona of Santa Maria in Aquiro, Rome on his well-catalogued ‘Grand Tour’ through Europe from 9 May 1517 to 16 March 1518. 

The piece has been referenced many times in popular culture, including being featured on the rock band Deep Purple’s third album cover (Deep Purple III), released in 1969. Fashion house Gucci based one of their collections on the piece and it has also featured in the animated television show The Simpsons 

A number of Bosch’s paintings incorporate owls. In medieval times, the bird was more representative of the Devil than the symbol of wisdom that it signifies today. Taken in the context of the grotesque and macabre figures which characterise his work, it is most likely that he included owls as symbols of evil. The creature is depicted in Ecce Homo c. 1475, The Wood Has Ears, The Field Has Eyes, c. 1500, The Haywain c. 1510-1516, The Owl’s Nest, 1505-16 as well as The Garden of Earthly Delights. 

Hieronymus Bosch died in 1516 of the plague. According to records of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, a mass was held to commemorate him in the church of St. John on 9 August and he was buried in his hometown of ’s-Hertogenbosch.