April 20, 2006

The Master of the Monstrous

At the tail-end of the Late Middle Ages, in a provincial town in a corner of a conflicted region of the Holy Roman Empire, a boy was born to a family of painters. Establishing himself as an artist in his own right at around the age of thirty, he stood at the very threshold of the Early Renaissance period. But, although his art clearly influences and is influenced by the painters of his day, Jeroen van Aken went his own way when it came to the subjects of his paintings. A deeply religious man, he produced wild and fantastical visions of situations and creatures which have never existed anywhere but in his imagination. His work, with its bizarre figures, allegorical messages, and moralistic underpinnings, appealed to admirers among the nobility located as far away as Spain. He became quite famous for his distinct style by the time he died, but not under the name Jeroen van Aken. He was well-known, and still is today, under the name that he eventually took for himself, the name he attached to the few paintings he actually signed: Hieronymus Bosch.

Bosch was born in 1450 in the town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in what is now the Netherlands, about fifty miles from Amsterdam to the northwest, and the same distance from Antwerp to the southwest. At the time, ‘s-Hertogenbosch was within the Burgundian union (governed by the Duke of Burgundy), a territory which included the majority of Belgium and the Netherlands (History). Bosch would spend most (possibly all) of his illustrious career in the town of his birth.
Bosch was part of a long line of painters, beginning with his great-grandfather Thomas, who had migrated from the town of Aachen, from which the family’s name, van Aken, was derived.

Little, however, is known about his early life. In 1463, when Bosch was thirteen, an enormous fire destroyed thousands of houses in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, an event which may have helped to shape his apocalyptic perspective later in life. Aside from this major event, which may or may not have impacted Bosch significantly, the first significant documentation of his existence as an artist does not appear until he is thirty years old.

In 1481, Bosch married the wealthy daughter of a small-time aristocrat, ensuring that he would be able to paint whatever he wished rather than having to take every possible commission. Also around this time, Bosch became a member of the Brotherhood of our Lady, a religious organization only open to prominent members of society. Most of the members of the organization were prominent for reasons connected to either religious or social position. At only 38 years-old, Bosch was the only sworn member who was a craftsman.

Although a great deal of Bosch’s original artwork is lost, much is known about it from copies, tracings, and the records of those who purchased his paintings. Bosch painted five altarpieces for the Brotherhood, receiving some of his first commissions from its membership. Bosch painted a number of traditional religious pieces for the local upper middle-class, but his most famous paintings were commissioned by the nobility. Beginning in the late 1490s, Bosch received requests for various paintings from Flemish, Dutch, Burgundian, and Spanish aristocrats, among others.

Bosch’s paintings are notoriously difficult to categorize. They cannot be found to follow any particular chronological development, particularly since so many have been lost, and those that remain can rarely be dated. Even attempting to divide Bosch’s works into themes is an imperfect solution because first, those themes often overlap, and second, many of his paintings are packed with smaller scenes which often do not seem to pertain immediately to the picture’s central theme or themes. In the broadest of terms, Bosch’s paintings can be said to depict a religious scene (either from the Bible or Catholic tradition), a religious scene with a specific moral message, or a secular scene with a moral message. A fourth possible grouping would include paintings with eschatological themes and concerns.

Bosch’s strictly religious scenes were virtually all drawn from one of two sources. One source, as previously noted, is biblical narratives. Examples of these are found in his paintings of the stories of Noah, Job, and Jonah, as well as his numerous paintings of the life of Christ, largely from Christ’s childhood and the Passion. The second source consists of scenes from the hagiographies of saints. These include paintings from the lives of St. Jerome, St. Anthony, St. Dominic, St. Martin, and St. Giles.

Bosch’s religious art is much more conventional than his other work. One example of this type of work is his painting Christ Carrying the Cross. Bosch actually painted more than one work with this title, but this particular painting was produced in 1490. The painting shows an extreme close-up of the scene. Only Christ’s face and a single beam of the cross are visible among the crowd that presses in around him. As was common with such paintings, all of the people in the crowd are dressed in the clothing of Bosch’s time rather than Christ’s. Christ’s face in the painting is extremely tranquil. He might almost be sound asleep. The crowd around him, however, is full of grotesque, distorted faces, full of rage, wicked glee, and even blank apathy. This painting is typical in that it reveals Bosch’s preoccupation with the omnipresent evil of the world, but it contains none of the weird, impossible figures that the artist is most famous for.

Bosch’s depictions of saints are somewhat different from his paintings of biblical stories as he almost exclusively adapted his scenes of saints to the purpose of teaching a moral message. Many of the saints he painted were hermits, and he never painted some of the more common subjects of his day, such as the Virgin Mary, and St. Anne. His paintings of hermits were not, for the most part, drawn from the story of their lives in any way, but rather the way of life they stood for was used to represent whatever message Bosch wanted to convey.

Among the most notable of these paintings is Temptation of St. Anthony, a triptych (three-panel painting) depicting, on the left, physical torment, in the center, a horrific Black Mass, and on the right, the double allure of lust and gluttony. The “outer wings” (which fold over the front of the painting) depict Christ’s arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane on the left side, and Christ carrying the cross on the right. The figures drawn by Bosch, particularly in the terrifying central portion, are fantastical and surreal in the extreme: plant-like humanoids, fish with human heads and hands, and weird creatures impossible to describe. And yet, the figures are invested with a strange realism and sense of life, as if it would not be impossible to conceive of their existence in the real world.

Bosch’s secular paintings draw their subjects from well-known folktales, scenes of everyday life, and the like. Bosch’s fixation on the evil of mankind plays a fundamental role in this art as well. The paintings depict his condemnation of excess in anger, consumption of food and alcohol, and especially sexuality. Other prevalent themes include the evils of avarice, idleness, and waste. Tying all of these various vices together is the role that folly plays in leading men astray. Paintings like Ship of Fools serve as allegorical representations of this concept. The painting depicts a group of men and women sailing in the ship of humanity across the sea of time, eating, flirting, and generally wasting their lives away. A number of figures in the painting have additional symbolic meanings. An owl and Muslim crescent represent heresies, a lute and bowl of cherries represent lust, and additional symbols refer to gluttony and madness.

Ultimately, though, the paintings which are the most central to Bosch’s vision of the world, and those for which he is most famous, are his eschatological works. Scenes of judgment and apocalypse were nothing new in the 15th and 16th centuries, but somehow Bosch’s visions of them capture the human imagination in a unique way. His Tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things and the triptychs Last Judgment and Haywain all reveal a union between Bosch’s pre-eminent fascinations: man’s fallen state, the overarching plan of God for human history, and the terrors of judgment and hell for the wicked.

Grouped among paintings of this type, Bosch’s best known work is Garden of Earthly Delights. Painted near the end of his life, the work is a triptych containing the progression of human history and sin in three panels on the inside and the creation of the world on the outside. The leftmost panel shows Adam and Eve in paradise with Christ, in a state of innocence and bliss. They are surrounded by all sorts of animals, both real and imagined, including various birds, small mammals, lizards, elephants, giraffes, and unicorns. The landscape is dotted with fanciful structures which are strangely reminiscent of works of modern sculpture.

The right panel contains a depiction of hell. As in Bosch’s other paintings of diabolical torment, this portion of the work is full of surreal shapes and figures, some terrifying, many indescribable. Some believe that the large head appearing near the center of the painting is self-portrait of the artist himself. If true, this would be an interesting commentary on his view of the state of humanity, and of his own spiritual walk with God. Another hallmark of this type of scene is the striking resemblance it bears to more modern works. The style is very similar to something that an artist like Salvador Dali would produce in the twentieth century, and it is difficult to picture such a work existing over five centuries prior to this.

The central portion of Garden of Earthly Delights, however, is of even greater interest. This is the main scene of the painting, holding the two outer halves together. At first glance the center appears to illustrate the same thing as the left panel on a grander scale. The entire scene is full of very bright colors, nude (but happy) people, and animals. The same whimsical structures appear here and there, and everyone seems to be having a good time. Closer inspection, however, reveals that all is not as well as it might appear. All of the people are busily engaged in the most fantastic excess, including a variety of sexually deviant behaviors that reveal a startlingly active imagination. On the edges of the picture, shapes that are vaguely similar to those we see in the “Hell” portion of the work are beginning to appear. This “Garden of Earthly Delights” is nothing less than a glimpse of humanity fully in the grip of sinful behavior. Nothing good can come of it, however happy they may be now.

After Bosch’s death in 1516, he remained quite popular among the nobles of Europe for at least another century. His paintings influenced the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, whose work appeared during the mid-1500s. During the 17th and 18th centuries he lost his appeal for most of the world, but remained extremely popular in Spain (Garden of Earthly Delights still resides in Madrid). Finally, at the end of the 19th century, he began to regain popularity for different reasons.

Bosch continues to be both popular and controversial in the art world today, inspiring a great deal of scholarship regarding the true meanings of his paintings and what inspired his art. Theories involving strange psychological causes and secret heretical sympathies abound, but mainstream scholarship tends to agree with the traditional view that Bosch was an orthodox Catholic whose paintings were inspired by a combination of unique vision and conventional medieval themes.

Either way, his work remains not only a fascinating sample of the art that bridges the medieval and renaissance periods, but also an eerie foreshadowing of thematic work that would not seriously enter the art world until centuries after he first dabbled in it.

Final Personal Note: I ordered a print of Garden of Earthly Delights a few days ago. Rachel said I could hang it in the bathroom. I am pleased.

Posted by Jared at April 20, 2006 03:52 AM | TrackBack