Fine Artists: Hieronymus Bosch 1450-1615

Hieronymus Bosch painting "Garden of Earthly Delights Ecclessias Paradise"Hieronymus Bosch was one of the late great medieval Dutch painters, born in 1450 as the Renaissance in Italy was starting to flower. Very little is known of Hieronymus Bosch's life, religious beliefs, or philosophy, but he is most well known for his painting of fantastic images and for his concentration of medieval symbols. His most famous painting is the Garden of Earthly Delights (shown here). It involves swarms of nude figures cavorting in a bizarre, panoramic landscape.

Hieronymus Bosch mixed his version of medieval grotesques and Flemish proverbs into an intriguing allegory of man's base nature, which could run amok if not properly cared for. At the time of his death, Bosch was internationally celebrated as an eccentric painter of religious visions who dealt in particular with the torments of hell. During his lifetime Bosch's works were in the inventories of noble families of the Netherlands, Austria, and Spain, and they were imitated in a number of paintings and prints throughout the 16th century.

Many scholars have tried to interpret the images and symbols in Hieronymus Bosch paintings, but these interpretations often disagree with one another, resulting in speculations that are often contradictory. Thus, these images and symbols continue to fascinate and puzzle us today as the search for their meaning continues.

Hieronymus Bosch was born Hieronymus (or Jeroen) van Aken. He signed a number of his paintings as Bosch ,pronounced Boss in Dutch. The name derives from his birthplace, 's-Hertogenbosch, which is commonly called "Den Bosch". Joen or Jeroen (his more familiar names) was born as the fourth child of five into a family of painters in the Dutch tradition, and thus probably learned his technique from his father, Antonius van Aken, who was a professional painter.

Hieronymus Bosch was a member of the religious Brotherhood of Our Lady, for whom he painted several altarpieces for the Cathedral of Saint John's, Hertogenbosch, all of which are now lost. The artist probably never went far from home, although records exist of a commission in 1504 from Philip the Handsome (later king of Castile), for a lost Last Judgment altarpiece. None of Bosch's pictures are dated, although the artist signed many of them. Bosch married Aleid van de Meerenne, who came from a prosperous middle-class family, around July 15, 1481. They had no children, but it is likely that Hieronymus Bosch lived a comfortable life and may have enjoyed considerable artistic freedom.

Hieronymus Bosch created art that was replete with moral images and messages, containing symbols of warning and retribution for leading an immoral life. Hieronymus Bosch died in his home town in 1516. Such important aspects as the dating and order of his works are unknown. Even the authenticity of many works is disputed. He had many imitators and his influence was recognized.

Hieronymus Bosch painting "The Temptation of St. Anthony"Hieronymus Bosch produced several triptychs. Among his most famous is "The Garden of Earthly Delights". This painting depicts paradise with Adam and Eve and many wondrous animals on the left panel. In the center - the Fountain of Life, surrounded by living and fabulous animals (the latter drawn from bestiaries that go back to Alexandrian prototypes).

In the foreground, God introduces Eve to Adam, who has just awakened from sleep and inspects the companion created out of his rib with a goodly amount of astonishment. Earthly delights with numerous nude figures and tremendous fruit and birds are on the middle panel (shown above), and hell with depictions of fantastic punishments of the various types of sinners on the right panel. Its literary source is The Vision of Tundale, and from it the artist derived the concept of hell as the place of contrast between ice and fire. The 'tree man' in the middle, with egg-shaped torso and legs made of rotting tree trunks shoved into shoes of boats (replacing well-known Dutch wooden shoes) is caught in the middle of metamorphoses. This is a well-known medieval tradition for depicting deserved punishment of vices and depravities.

When the exterior panels are closed the viewer can see, painted in grisaille, God creating the Earth. The Creation of the world is enclosed in a crystal globe and seen as the third day of Genesis. These paintings have a rough surface from the application of paint; this contrasts with the traditional Flemish style of paintings, where the smooth surface attempts to hide the fact that the painting is man-made.

Hieronymus Bosch lived during a time of turbulence in western Europe. Just before the Protestant Reformation, there was widespread discontent with Roman Catholic clergy, who were believed to have become corrupt and immoral. The populace was increasingly losing respect for the moral tenets of these leaders, which, without strong moral leadership, led them to hedonistic and greedy behavior. Heretical sects were common. In reaction, in an effort to control the populace, Catholic Inquisitions condemned citizens as witches, wizards, and heretics. Hangings, beheadings, and burnings-at-the-stake became everyday public sights. Epidemics plagued the populace and killed thousands. Hieronymus Bosch himself may have succumbed to one of these epidemics.

More than the printed word, art communicated moral messages, because most people were illiterate. Images of the devil and monsters were used as warnings and premonitions of the coming Last Judgment, which was predicted for the year 1500. It is quite possible that Bosch's paintings were commissioned by discontented new leaders who had lost respect for established authorities of the Church, which would explain Hieronymus Bosch's acrid anti-clerical images.

Hieronymus Bosch's spiritual heroes were the saints who endured both physical and mental torment, yet remained steadfast. Among the saints, Bosch's favorite was Saint Anthony, the subject of his triptych "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" (inside center shown here), which features physical punishment on the left wing, a Black Mass in the center, and the blandishments of food and sex on the right wing. St. Anthony's triumph over such trials is mirrored by those of other hermit saints and by the Passion of Christ, whose arrest and carrying of the cross adorn the exterior of the Lisbon altarpiece.
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Hieronymus Bosch
medieval Dutch painter-  "The Temptation of St. Anthony"  "Garden of Earthly Delights Ecclessias Paradise"