Heironymus Bosch

25 May

Detail of "Hell" from The Garden of Earthly Delights

So we didn’t experience the Rapture last Saturday.  Want to know what we missed out on?  Take a look, then, at Heironymus Bosch, who created some of the most well-known depictions of mankind being punished for its sins.

He was from the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in what is now the Netherlands, but outside of that we know very little about Bosch.  None of his writings survive, and we can only judge his influence and popularity during his own time based on the number of paintings that survive that copy his style.  We don’t know anything about his religious or philosophical beliefs, either, which is especially unfortunate.  Knowing anything about his thought process and mental state would really help to clarify why Bosch painted the way he did.

Normally depictions of hell or the Last Judgement are somewhat lacking in creativity – put a few monsters up, maybe a snake or two, and you’re done.  Heironymus Bosch took things a step further.  In his paintings humans are shown suffering truly gruesome and horrific tortures at the hands of frightening demons.  Bosch’s best known painting, given the title The Garden of Earthly Delights after the original title was lost, is often interpreted as a moral guide to show people the result of their sins.  Some of the punishments are frighteningly appropriate to the crimes, such as the gambler who has been impaled onto his own table.  The whole scene takes place in a dark and fiery landscape.

You must say this for Heironymus Bosch – whether he devoutly painted in hopes of warning errant sinners or meant the whole thing as a satire on the church, he certainly had an imagination.  And it’s not just scenes of hell.  The Garden of Eden or the actual Garden of Earthly Delights depicted in the central panel of the triptych of the same name depict fantastic creatures and architecture not seen on earth until the 20th century.  Even fruits and flowers are painted in a fanciful manner.

It’s no wonder that Bosch has become so popular in recent decades.  Now that society has reached a point when horror movies can sell out theaters and acid trips become something to joke about, it’s fascinating to see such sights in a centuries-old painting.  It gives his works an air of mystery, as if he was working on some level totally apart from his contemporaries.  If one is of a philosophical bent, the resurgence of Bosch can also say all sorts of things about morality in contemporary society.  If that’s a topic you’d like to explore further, I recommend watching Martin McDonagh’s film In Bruges, which uses Bosch’s imagery to allude to questions of heaven and hell.

Unfortunately to truly appreciate Heironymus Bosch you really have to travel to Madrid and go to the Prado, which has not only The Garden of Earthly Delights but also two of his other famous triptychs, The Adoration of the Magi and The Hay Wain.  Interestingly enough, The Garden of Earthly Delights was brought to Spain by the illegitimate son of a Duke.  Somewhat ironic, don’t you think?

One of my personal goals in life is to go to the Prado first thing on a Tuesday morning in January or some other similarly non-crowded day and spend a full hour in front of The Garden of Earthly Delights taking it all in.  Although at times disturbing, the details are never less than fascinating, much like the artist himself.


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