Progression of Art
The Garden of Earthly Delights
The Garden of Earthly Delights is considered Bosch’s seminal masterpiece and the most successful and outstanding of his creations. Little is known about the origins of the work, despite the fact that its patron was Engelbert II of Nassau, of Brussels. The large-scale work is an altarpiece triptych, composed of three internal parts and an outer protective case.
In the outer case, Bosch portrayed the origin of the world in grisaille (monochromatic), representing the third day of Creation when the earthly paradise was formed. It 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”.
The interior panels reveal three specific scenes from the Bible that correspond to the origin of mankind. The left (first) panel represents the Garden of Eden where God, who has a central position and is portrayed with a young and youthful appearance, is presenting Eve to Adam for marriage, portraying the divine message to “go forth and multiply.” Their glorious surroundings are populated by animals, mythical creatures, trees, water, and an organic hut-like structure which floats on the lake. In the center panel, Bosch illustrates the development of the Garden of Eden and the growth of humanity with various human beings interacting in a blissful manner. Again, they are surrounded by an abundance of fantastic creatures, animals, fruits, and organic pods that seem to serve as habitats. The nudity of the figures indicates that the scene is prior to the expulsion of man from paradise. However, most of the actions being carried out by the figures are associated with personal pleasure and self-absorbed joy, a teaser in anticipation of the judgment, which might follow. The last and right hand panel portrays this Last Judgment, also synonymous with mankind’s life after its fall from grace. It features a landscape immersed in darkness and chaos, where nothing seems to blossom or grow and where man is stuck in a tortured and troubled state. The countless musical instruments in the scene are said to be representative of various forms of glut; for instance, the bagpipes purport the symbol of lust and fleshly pleasure. In the center of the scene is a ‘tree man,’ immersed in the chaos of the disturbing imagery yet somehow shielded with difference, a proposed reference to Bosch himself as merely an observer of the world around him and a fine example of his turning man and nature into hybrid characters. Art historian Walter Gibson summarizes Bosch’s artistic language, of which this painting is the most iconic example, as “a world of dreams and nightmares in which forms seem to flicker and change before our eyes.”
As with most of Bosch’s work, there are multiple interpretations, the first of which was conducted in 1605 by José de Siguenza. He described the painting as “a satirical comment on the shame and sinfulness of mankind,” which is perhaps its most popular translation. The strawberry that appears various times in the central panel is believed to represent the ephemeral aspect of personal enjoyment and personal pleasures, because it is a fruit whose sweet taste is both temporary and fleeting. In this sense, the work emphasizes the “transient nature of earthly vanity” as explained by the contemporary art critic Pilar Silva Marato. One other interpretation is found from the panel on the right, in the scene of God with Adam and Eve. Art historian Wilhelm Fraenger points out the fact that God is touching Eve and that Adam’s feet touch God’s cloak, creating an indivisible link between the three where “a current of divine power flows down, so that this group of three actually forms a closed circuit, a complex of magical energy.” In this perspective, the scene is a visualization of the Divine union between man and God.
Oil on oak panels - Museo del Prado, Madrid
The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things
The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things is also considered a significant work of Bosch’s. In it we see the sins depicted around a central circle via scenes of people from different social classes and backgrounds encompassed in various activities in their lives. Anger and wrath, for example, are depicted in the form of a drunken argument in a tavern, whereas gluttony is shown as a family gorging on a feast. In the middle, the attentive Christ watches humanity’s downfall; beneath him reads the Latin expression “Cave cave d[omin]us videt,” which means, “Beware, beware, the Lord is watching.”
Above and below this main circle are two banderoles that contain Latin texts from Deuteronomy warning against sin. The lower banderole’s translation is, “I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end shall be,” greatly emphasizing the underlying meaning of the work. At the four corners of the work are four smaller circles that depict the Death, the Last Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
This painting represents a customary motif of Bosch’s—the idea of the ever-present and all knowing “eye of God’ as a challenge to humankind to consider their moment to moment actions and to engage with him in the reflection of man’s constant juggling between good and evil while in earthly residence. One main interpretation derived from its Biblical subject is that Hell is reserved for all those who do not follow God’s path. By depicting the obsessions and sins of man the painting acts as a societal self-portrait, appealing to the faithful, trying to lead them away from sin and back into better ways. In this way, it is possible to understand that it also echoes the same subjects and underlying significance of The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Although the date is highly uncertain, the work is perceived to be one of Bosch’s later works, as it incorporates a wide brush technique found in his other late works such as The Haywain. The actual history of the painting is a mystery, and although it is signed, contemporary research conducted by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project claims that the painting was “probably produced in the studio of the artist, but not painted by Bosch himself.” Despite this uncertainty, the work is a fundamental example of Bosch’s creations, being representative of his techniques, themes, subject matter, and underlying religious significance.
Oil on poplar panel - Museo del Prado, Madrid
The Last Judgment
The Last Judgment, a piece depicting the fall of humanity, is composed, like many of Bosch’s triptychs, by a more grim grisaille painting in its exterior shutters and a more lively and colorful panel in its interior section. The left panel portays God, sitting in the clouds, with angels being cast down to earth as insects, amidst a paradise in its infancy. Meanwhile Eve becomes manifest through the donation of Adam’s rib. In the central panel, Jesus sits in heaven surrounded by angels observing the earthly events occuring below, already rife with destruction and sin. This devastation extends to the third panel on the right, offering a representation of Hell. Unlike most of his other works, this piece depicts only heaven and hell, without giving recognition to the idea of a middle place, or limbo, where souls have the opportunity to reflect upon their actions prior to their fate’s determination.
As usual, this piece has garnered various interpretations. Some argue that Bosch's art was influenced by heretical points of view, but others maintain that it was based on the pure entertainment factor in showcasing our greatest moral tales from a more absurd or ridiculous perspective. Another possible interpretation is that his art simply reflects the orthodox religious belief systems of his age marked by a medieval morality.
Whereas art by the old Classical Masters who painted in the same time period as Bosch had been solely based on reality, especially portraiture, his work was completely derived from a combination of his own imagination and the Biblical stories that inspired him. This way of making work was revolutionary at the time and Bosch was the first artist attributed with creating scenes, which were all together new, mined in part from the unconscious. This allowed for a signature visual voice that placed him apart from the norm full of fantastical, profoundly intricate, and complex imagery, concepts, and contexts superimposed onto a single plane. It is this combination of various individual parts and narratives that most captures Bosch’s innovations and visionary approach. This work, painted in oil on wood, is also a good example of Bosch’s impasto technique that leaves the brushwork visible, (opposing the techniques of the Flemish painters that used transparent layers in a smooth and silky way), and of his usual color palette that was an intense and vibrant utilization of the pigments available at the time.
This painting can also be seen as a main example of Bosch's influence on Surrealism. The use of symbolic imagery and the juxtaposition of scenes and times creates a complex tableau alluding to the complexities of the subconscious. Surrealist Salvador Dalí studied Bosch’s and considered him a predecessor. Writer Boyd Tonkin claims that Dalí’s work “blurs the boundaries between life and non-life, animate and inanimate existence, organic softness and mineral hardness, in Bosch-like ways,” adding that the link is so clear that Dalí had to protest that he was “anti-Hieronymus Bosch.”
Oil on wood triptych - Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna
The Adoration of Maggi
Like other pieces, this which is also known as The Epiphany consists of a connected triptych that when closed inward reveals another image in grisaille. The grisaille depicts the Mass of Saint Gregory, a historical narrative of Pope Gregory, also known as Gregory the Great. Saint Gregory is presiding over mass when Christ appears before him on the altar responding to his prayers for a sign of Divine Presence. Christ is surrounded by an arch of flying angels, and a larger arch that depicts the seven Passion scenes of his life. The Pope kneels in front of him in devotion. Surrounding the cross that rises above the scene is an angel and a devil. The triptych reveals one single scene, The Adoration of the Magi, the name commonly given to the portrayal of the nativity scene in the Bible. The left panel portrays Saint Peter with a donor, and Saint Joseph at the far end, observing the from a distance. The central panel depicts Mary with Jesus in her arms, standing outside of a hut, and the three kings holding their gifts. Balthazar kneels at her feet, his crown placed on the ground, as a symbol of powerlessness in the midst of the Divine. Melchior stands at the back, and the white clothed Gaspar stands behind them accompanied by a servant. The kings are portrayed with sumptuous materials and cloaks, which greatly emphasize Bosch’s artistic skills. In conjunction with this traditional narrative stands an unknown naked man at the entrance of the hut, who looks out onto Mary. One possible interpretation is that he represents the Anti-Christ, emphasized by the hidden owl that hides above his head. In the background Bosch paints his own version of Bethlehem, inspired both by the architecture of his hometown and by oriental influences. Surrounding the scene are armies, shepherds that represent the Jewish people, and various organic settlements.
The underlying theme of work determined by its Biblical narrative, is one of salvation and redemption through the birth of Jesus. Another theme is hinted at through an important detail: on top of the circular pot being presented as a gift by Gaspar, is a small phoenix with wings spread in flight. This can be seen as a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ.
Bosch’s technique in this work is typical of the paintings in oil of his time in which an under drawing is executed with a brush and a liquid medium, and then painted over with colored oils. However, recent studies show that Bosch would frequently change his mind during the painting process and re-create some scenes from his imagination. Recent x-rays show this was done in this piece. It also showcases the shroud of enigma that envelops our knowledge of Bosch as an artist in regards to his participation in the mysterious process of choosing between the use of real or the fictional when it came to his art.
Oil on wood - Museo del Prado, Madrid
Cutting the stone
This work, also called The Extraction of the Stone of Madness or The Cure of Folly, depicts the extraction of the so called ‘stone of madness’ from a patient’s brain, an arcane 15th century medical intervention conducted by a process of ‘trepanation,’ which is the drilling of a hole into the skull. It was believed, that by this procedure, the patient would be cured of his madness. In the painting, the patient is depicted as a peasant and the doctor wears a funnel hat. Rather than extracting a stone, he extracts a single flower: a water lily. Another flower lies on the table. Watching this event stands a lady with a book on her head and a man. The background shows an open country landscape with two cities in the far distance. The framing around the scene is written with a Gothic inscription, which reads: ‘Master, quickly cut away the stone, my name is Lubbert Das.’
The name Lubbert Das refers to a ‘foolish’ character of Dutch literature, accentuating the intention of the work as a reflection of human folly, foolishness, or madness. Another interpretation is that the name Lubbert Das, translated as ‘castrated badger,’ alludes to this particular surgery as a form of castration that may free the patient from his sexual desires. In this sense, the flower being removed from the brain is an allusion to lust. Another perspective purports that the inverted doctor’s hat might allude to the fact that he is also, just like his patient, foolish—his hat perhaps a symbol of deception.
Leonora Carrington, who was profoundly affected by Bosch’s works, re-adapted this piece’s message and its significance in her Adieu Ammenotep, painted in 1960.
Oil on board - Museo del Prado
The Haywain Triptych
The Haywain Triptych is one of eight that is still intact (out of Bosch’s 16 total triptychs). The work follows a similar narrative to The Garden of Earthly Delight with its three-part portrayal: first, a man in paradise, second, his wrong conduct, and third, his life in hell. On the left panel, Paradise is portrayed with Adam and Eve discussing whether or not to accept the forbidden gift from the serpent, the devil, immediately followed by their expulsion from Paradise by an Angel on the lower corner. At the top, angels fall from the sky, transforming into animals that will inhabit the earth. The central panel depicts a large haywain (or hay wagon), around which people fight and struggle violently to get their hands on some of the hay. Sitting on top of the hay is an angel and a demon debating over who will go to heaven and hell and above them the image of Christ emerges through the clouds exposing his scars as a symbol of his suffering for mankind. The last panel, on the right, depicts Hell, giving form to chaos through violent explosions and a dark atmosphere portrayed in dark reds and black. When the left and right panels are closed inward to hide the central panel, a new painting is revealed of a wayfarer walking on a country road. It is painted in full color, unlike the typical grisaille that Bosch used when adjoining separate pieces alongside his triptychs.
Bosch’s typical presentation of the polarities of heaven and hell is accentuated by the symbolism of the hay, which represents the earthly possessions that man strives toward accruing in the physical realm. In the end, these accomplishments prove worthless. Curator Alejandro Vergara explains that it is a metaphor for the “accumulation of wealth, the vanity of wealth, the vanity of life.” He adds that Bosch’s message tells us “what is important is believing in God and living according to his law.” Another interpretation is found in the image of the closed triptych of the wayfarer. Art critic Ingrid D. Rowland claims “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.”
Although the general thesis is that Bosch aims to teach both moral and spiritual truths, art historian Wilhelm Fränger avers that this work, along with The Garden of Earthly Delights and The Temptation of Saint Anthony, were altarpieces commissioned by a mystery cult, emphasizing the non-devotional aspects of the works derived from its obscure complexity.
Oil on wood - Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
The Temptation of St Anthony
The Temptation of St Anthony depicts the Saint in the foreground sitting inside a tree trunk, surrounded by a sunny landscape as he observes a small winding river in meditation. In this setting of isolation and serenity, the Saint is portrayed much like in other of Bosch’s paintings, with a brown cloak adorned with the Greek letter ‘tau.’ He holds a rosary hung with a little bell and has a domesticated pig lying by his side. His hands are folded in prayer and his book is closed and placed behind his back, as he seems to be immersed in thought completely oblivious to his surroundings. The landscape, although less intricate and complicated than in other of Bosch’s works, features various elements that enhance the narrative. Monks close to a monastery, a traditional hut or home, and various tall trees compose a country setting rather than an urban one, deeply inspired by the stories narrated in Holy books of the Saint’s life.
The peaceful feeling of the painting reflects the Saint’s calm nature, emphasizing the triumph of the Saint over sin and the resulting inner harmony that results. He seems unthreatened by the devilish armed animals that surround him.
Despite being one of the seven paintings that features Bosch’s signature, and being generally accepted to be an example of his later works, the painting was firstly attributed to his workshop. However, after a scientific study conducted by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, it is now credited exclusively to Bosch.
This is yet another of Bosch’s works co-opted by Leonora Carrington in 1947 as inspiration for her own The Temptation of St. Anthony.
Oil on panel - Museo del Prado, Madrid