Progression of Art
Cutting the Stone
This work shows the extraction of a so-called "stone of madness" from a man's brain. "Trepanation" was an arcane 15th-century medical procedure that involved drilling into the skull of the sufferer and here it is being presided over by a man and a woman (residents, presumably, of the city in the distance). The patient is a peasant while the doctor is identified through his own "foolish" funnel-shaped hat. Rather than extract a stone, however, the doctor/surgeon removes a waterlily. The scene is framed with a Gothic inscription: "Master, quickly cut away the stone, my name is Lubbert Das"; Lubbert being a nickname given to a man who was fat and lazy, while Das referred to a "foolish" character in Dutch literature. A second interpretation of the name, Lubbert Das, was that of a "castrated badger" which alludes here to the idea that the surgery was in fact an act of castration in that it may free the patient from unwanted sexual desires.
Art historian Pilar Silva said of this piece: "Bosch achieves something new in this work in his transformation of a popular saying into a visual image. In addition, by adding a calligraphic text and interlaced visual elements (sometimes referred to as love knots) around it, he turns it into a visual and verbal game. This play of words and images which complement each other becomes more complex when we appreciate that what is being extracted from the patient's head is a flower and thus an allusion to lust. The innovative conception of this work, involving a play of words and images, and the way in which Bosch represented it using formal elements inspired by miniature painting and ceremonial coats-of-arms [...] means that it was undoubtedly devised by the artist". The Surrealist Leonora Carrington, who was profoundly inspired by Bosch's works, reworked this piece in her 1960 painting, Adieu Ammenotep.
Oil on board - Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
The Adoration of theMagi
Bosch's triptych gives an early indication of the artist's dazzlingly original and morally complex vision as represented through the story of the adoration of the Christ child by the Three Kings (or Magi). The naked Christ child sits atop the Virgin's lap as the Magi approach with all the regal dignity befitting such a humbling occasion. Art historian Pilar Silva observes here how the image of Mary with Jesus on her lap is painted "in a manner that recalls the works of Jan van Eyck" while Bosch "demonstrates his painting skills in the opulence of the Magi's robes and offerings - in the sumptuous of the materials and his masterly application of highlights in brushstrokes so fine that they appear to be drawn". Although they are common spectators in fifteenth century Epiphany narratives, Bosch's peasants/shepherds (who typically represent the Israelites) who attend here are unusually irreverent; inquisitive and excitable onlookers hiding behind the damaged stable wall and even from the stable rooftop.
Perhaps the most "Boschian" feature of the painting is the bearded figure standing just inside the stable behind the Magi. Silva writes, "The Antichrist at the entrance to the stable - which resembles a Brabantian hut - wears a cloak that barely covers his body and beneath it a transparent veil [...] His evil appearance is emphasized by the people beside him inside the hut, among them a woman reminiscent of Leonardo's caricatures in a headdress like those of some of the demons Bosch painted, whose deformed features take on a hideous expression".
In his landscape, too, Silva identifies "a house whose flag with a swan and the dovecote above identify it as a brothel" while a man "pulling a tethered horse ridden by a monkey, an allusion to lust, is heading in its direction". The sense of menace in the painting is confirmed in the middle distance where two armies on horseback are charging. "On the basis of their oriental headdresses", writes Silva, "they have been identified as Herod's soldiers seeking out Jesus to kill him". The city on the horizon is Bethlehem and here Bosch gets further "carried away by his imagination" as his buildings have an oriental appearance while a windmill sits just outside the city walls.
Oil on oak panel - Museo del Prado, Madrid
The Last Judgment
For the medieval church, the idea of the Last Judgement was its abiding concern and it instilled in the faithful the belief that if God himself could not keep you from sin, then the fear of damnation among the fires of Hell surely would. It was a narrative that played out in countless sermons and books but in Bosch's inimitable vision the scenario was always apocalyptic. The encyclopaedia World History of Art notes for instance that "At the base the creation of Eve is treated somewhat similarly in design to Michelangelo's composition in the Sistine Chapel, which was painted at about the same time, although the feeling in each work is very different. Bosch, in the waning of the Middle Ages in northern Europe, had a strong sense of the actuality of hell fire, while Michelangelo, in the High Italian Renaissance, placed strong emphasis on the human values in the story".
The work (incidentally, Bosch's largest) provides a fine example of the artist's raised impasto brushwork which challenged the dominant technique of the Flemish painters who preferred transparency and a silky application of paint. The fetid aspect of his imagination is on full show here, with his penchant for the theme of metamorphosis seen in angels transformed into insects; a woman with lizard's legs; a mouse transforming into a porcupine (or vice-versa), not to mention a monstrous hag who cooks humans on a spit. Unlike most of his other works, however, the triptych depicts only Heaven and (mostly) Hell, without giving recognition to a middle place - purgatory - where souls have the opportunity to reflect upon their actions before their salvation or damnation is sealed.
Some have argued that Bosch's art was influenced by heretical ideas; others, that he was merely channeling the major anxiety of the age; while others maintain that he was essentially a "populist"; an entertainer who visualized one of the Bible's greatest moral tales from a more absurdist perspective (a view certainly favored by the Surrealists). However one reads it, the World History of Art points out that "The familiar story is clear. Every one of [Bosch's] contemporaries, poor, trusting, illiterate peasants as well as educated burghers, would have grasped the significance of almost all the details and believed the basic message implicitly". Having said that, some of Bosch's images still "must have been frighteningly new and distressing, if not actually inducing despair".
Oil on wood - Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna
The Garden of Earthly Delights
Bosch's most famous work was painted to commemorate the wedding of the daughter of Count Henry II of Nassau, Brussels. The triptych was intended to illustrate the "benefits and hazards" of marriage by means of a biblical parable: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden on the left, a hedonistic "paradise" occupies the center panel, while a blazing Hell awaits the sinners and the unrepentant on the right. On the outer case, Bosch portrays the origin of the world, specifically the third day of creation when the earthly paradise was formed, in grisaille (gray tones). The image features a small figure of God holding an open book in the upper left corner, with the inscription in Latin, "For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded and it stood firm".
In the Garden of Eden a youthful God is presiding over the marriage of Adam and Eve. Their heavenly surroundings are populated by animals, mythical creatures, trees, water, and a fantastical structure which floats on the lake. Art historian Wilhelm Fraenger points out that God is touching Eve and that Adam's feet touch God's cloak, creating an indivisible link between the three, through which "a current of divine power flows down, so that this group of three actually forms a closed circuit, a complex of magical energy". Seen from this perspective, the scene is a visualization of the divine union between man and God. In the center panel, Bosch illustrates the development of the Garden of Eden and the advancement of humanity through festivities and pleasurable activities. Again, they are surrounded by fantastical Boschian creatures, plants, structures, and organic pods.
The nudity of the figures indicates that the scene takes place prior to the expulsion of man from paradise. However, the figures' apparent focus on instant self-gratification and giving into temptation (reinforced by the repeated symbol of the strawberry) can be seen to anticipate the final judgement and the descent into the bowels of Hell. Bosch gives us a dark and chaotic landscape, devoid of flora and fauna. The many musical instruments in the scene likely refer to various forms of sin, such as the bagpipes representing lust and pleasures of the flesh. In the center of the scene stands his iconic "tree man" (possibly a self-portrait), a mere observer of the world, much like the artist himself.
The Garden of Earthly Delights has invited a seemingly inexhaustible range of interpretations; from seventeenth Spanish historian José de Siguenza who described the painting as "a satirical comment on the shame and sinfulness of mankind", to the twenty-first century when art historian Pilar Silva described the painting as a meditation on the "transient nature of earthly vanity". But the piece was finely summarized by art historian Claire Selvin who wrote: "Bosch's penchant for humor and absurdity shines through his masterpiece. Nude figures twist their spindly bodies around one another and perform acrobatic poses, birds and animals look on or join in the erotic revelry, and some participants congregate in snug shells and enclosures of various shapes and colors. Levity can even be found in the macabre scenes of destruction on the triptych's right side, where a pair of giant ears wields a massive knife and monumental musical instruments are used as torture devices. More than 500 years after its creation, The Garden of Earthly Delights, which puts Bosch's boundless imagination on full view, remains a source of intense fascination and entertainment for art historians and art lovers alike".
Oil on oak panels - Museo del Prado, Madrid
The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things
Continuing Bosch's preoccupation with the theme of the Last Judgement, the Seven Deadly Sins - Wrath, Envy, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth, Lust, Pride - are depicted individually around a central circle featuring an image of Christ emerging from a tomb. The Four Last Things - (top left, clockwise) Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell - occupy the corners of the frame. Underneath Christ is text that translates as "Beware, beware, the Lord sees". The banderol on the top quotes from Deuteronomy 32:28 and translates as "They are foolish. They don't understand. If they were wise, they would understand; they would know what would happen to them"; the banderol at the bottom, containing text from Deuteronomy 32:20, translates as "I will turn away from them, then let's see what happens!". If one "steps back" from the painting one can fully appreciate its symbolism. With large central circle (Jesus) surrounded by a smaller circle (the Seven Deadly Sins) the image represents the all-seeing eye of God.
The Last Things, thought to be the stages the soul passes through upon death, features, for instances, "Death": a dying man, attended by family members, receives his last rites while a skeleton (who will deliver the final death blow with an arrow) and a devil and an angel, who will fight over the soul of the man, wait in anticipation of the man's passing, and "Heaven": at Heaven's gates, an angel prevents a devil from snatching a woman while Jesus and his angels wait to greet the pious newcomers. In the circle of the Deadly Sins we see for instance, "Wrath": two feuding peasants who attack one another with weapons; "Envy": a married woman is tempted into seduction by a rich man as her poor parents look on enviously; and "Pride": a vain and wealthy woman admires herself in a mirror being held up by the devil.
Like many of Bosch's works, the painting is on display at Museo del Prado in Madrid. The Prado displays it as an original Bosch while acknowledging that there is some debate as to whether that claim is fully valid, even if it is generally agreed that it was created in his workshop. The painting contains Bosch's name (just below the banderol in the bottom center) but there is documentation that suggests that a pupil of Bosch worked on the painting and might have added Bosch's name out of respect for the master and/or to increase the painting's market value. However, given the rather uneven quality of the painted figures - and although the date of this work is unknown, it is believed to represent Bosch's later work because it features a wide brush technique found in other mature works such as The Haywain Triptych - the most likely explanation, suggests the Museo del Prado, is that Bosch painted some scenes with others being produced by the unnamed apprentice.
Oil on poplar panel - Museo del Prado, Madrid
The Haywain Triptych
The outer doors of the triptych features a peddler on the "Pilgrimage of Life" and is painted in full color rather than in the grisaille style that was typical of Bosch's earlier outer panels. Art critic Ingrid D. Rowland says of the exterior panels that "Most scholars interpret the wayfarer as an everyman, making his way through life amid threats to his physical and spiritual safety. Only constant faith and vigilance will keep him on this treacherous road". Indeed, the theme of pilgrimage, and the potential perils and pitfalls of life's journey, act as a presage for the story of the consequences of sin that will unfold across the three inside panels.
The first inner panel deals with the expulsion of dissident angels (they have disobeyed God) from the Garden of Eden. Recalling the first panel of The Last Judgment, and as punishment for their sins, the rebel angels metamorphose into insect figures. The center panel deals with humanity's descent into a world of sin under the judgmental gaze of Christ (the Redeemer). Behind the honest and humble workers and parents who occupy the bottom of the frame, others, having been possessed by greed, snatch furiously at the hay all the while oblivious to the fact that the Haywain (hay wagon) is being driving by the devil's chauffeurs straight into Hell. In the final panel, Bosch, undoubtedly one of the first artists to tackle abstract concepts in his work, once more gives us his peerless vision of Hell, though here his Hades is still under construction. The Devil's builders are busy completing the circular tower labors, their backs turned away from the devilish wagon drivers who are delivering the sinners to their new home.
Art historian Pilar Silva says of this piece, Bosch "shows how man, irrespective of his social class or place of origin, is so possessed by the desire to enjoy and acquire material possessions that he allows himself to be deceived or seduced by the Devil. Thus the artist proposes that we should renounce earthly goods and the delights of the senses in order to avoid eternal damnation. The painting offers an exemplum of a different type to the ones commonly used at the time, in the sense that it is not a question of doing good but rather of avoiding evil and of adhering to this rule throughout life". While most scholars interpret The Haywain Triptych along these religious and moralistic lines, art historian Wilhelm Fränger offered an alternative theory when he proffered the idea that his "sinner" triptychs were in fact altarpieces commissioned, not by the Catholic Church, but by a mystery cult.
Oil on wood - Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
The Temptation of St Anthony
The story of Anthony, the "Hermit Saint" who devoted his life to chastity, is famous within the Christian tradition. Anthony had been enticed to break his vow (of chastity) when visited by apparitions of beautiful women. In order to scare them away, Anthony bites off his own tongue and spits it at the spirits. In this interpretation, Bosch again tackles the theme of human temptation but in a rather less dystopian take on that abiding parable than those earlier works that result in the descent into Hell. Indeed, Anthony is presented by Bosch as a role model for all humankind with brushwork that is noticeably sharper and more precise. Despite these "innovations", Saint Anthony is surrounded by the sinister part human/machine/animal bodies for which Bosch is so famous. Still, doubts persisted over whether this version of The Temptation of St Anthony was an authentic Bosch. It was only after scientific testing at the Museo del Prado that it was proved beyond any doubt that the work, one of the seven signed by the artist, was indeed a genuine Bosch.
The Temptation of St Anthony depicts the Saint in the foreground sitting inside a hollow tree trunk, surrounded by a sunny landscape as he observes a small winding river. In this isolated and serene setting, Anthony wears a brown cloak adorned with the Greek letter "tau", a recognizable symbol for the cross, life, and resurrection. He holds a rosary, and a domesticated pig lays by his side (Anthony being the Patron Saint of pigs) seemingly unaware of the devil with the birds' head that is poised to attack the swine with a mallet. Saint Anthony hands are folded in prayer, his book closed and hanging from his belt, as he recedes into his meditative state. The landscape, although less intricate than those of Bosch's famous triptych's, features various elements that bring the narrative alive. These include a monastery, a humble hut-like home, and various tall trees, all of which were drawn from the Holy books that told of Anthony's life. The peaceful atmosphere of the painting reflects Anthony's inner calm while also emphasizing the eternal triumph of piety over sin. Indeed, Anthony seems so at peace he is seemingly unperturbed by the menacing Boschian creatures that are encroaching on his space.
Oil on panel - Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain