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What The F**k Was Hieronymus Bosch Thinking?

Why do paintings by a dead white European guy who was probably a religious fanatic still fascinate us after more than 500 years? Okay, that’s kind of a loaded question, but maybe that’s the point. Just look at any one of Hieronymus Bosch’s works.


Like most everyone in the Netherlands circa 1500, Bosch had a firm understanding of Christianity’s central message: sin and go to hell, be good and go to Heaven.  And this was pretty important in Bosch’s day, because the people who were willing to finance art were all good Christians – or at least they wanted everyone to think they were. Yet unlike most of his contemporaries, even other genius labeled painters and technically skilled artists, Bosch had a unique visual imagination. He didn’t just bring this message to life in the standard narrative depictions, using it to teach an object lesson through allegory or simply flattering his patrons through the Renaissance equivalent of a selfie with Jesus. Instead, Bosch’s paintings swarm with stories, religious symbols, and bizarre creations that combine ordinary human shortcomings with astute observations of the natural world and his own personal vision.

Sin and go to Hell, be good and go to Heaven.

Think about this last point, because it’s kind of important. Artists and scholars have studied Bosch’s works for nearly 500 years, and we still don’t really understand what these paintings mean. And this reaction translates to his fans and everyday viewers as well.

For instance, a devout Catholic might look at Bosch’s paintings and see a chilling scene of hell on earth. On the other hand, a stand-up comedian might look at the same paintings and laugh. And someone like Terry Gilliam, the legendary Monty Python animator and film director, might have both reactions. So who’s right? Well, we mentioned that Bosch was most likely a religious zealot who viewed the state of mankind in his day with horror. But there are also theories he might have been a humanist who viewed our imperfection and mortality with an absurd sense of humor, perhaps even mocking the corrupt religious authorities and hypocritical patrons. And this is why Bosch stands out even among the greatest of painters. Although he read the same books, believed the same superstitions, and drew on the same proverbs as almost everyone else in his walk of life, he created paintings that look like nothing else before or since.

So in 500 years from now, we’ll either have the same questions about works like The Garden of Earthly Delights, or be asking completely new ones.

Yet even this still sells Bosch a little short. For instance, take another very famous painting whose meaning has been debated for centuries: Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The question here is pretty straightforward, right: what’s behind her expression? Now look again at Bosch’s works. Try asking just one question. It’s impossible. His paintings tell too many stories to have one single interpretation, with even the smallest background detail presenting enough visual information for an entire painting.

If other artists were trying to present truisms,
Bosch was after the truth.

He even seems to have been aware that simply painting a more realistic portrait wouldn’t convey the level of truth he desired. As most of his colleagues and successors sought a greater degree of naturalism in their works, Bosch skewed the other direction, combining elements of reality with artistic fantasy, organic forms, and hybrid creatures. In fact, he may have even felt painting itself was too limiting as a medium. Take a detail from one panel of the Temptation of St. Anthony. A bird-like demon on ice skates delivers a message that’s impaled on its beak. Yet just inches away from the bird in the same panel, the three men read that very same message.  How many other painters have tried to show the passage of time in a single work?

We’re taught from a pretty young age that the best way to do anything is the simplest approach that offers the least resistance. In painting, storytelling, or any media endeavor, this often boils down to following a standard formula or set of rules. Bosch may have been a pretty devout Christian man in a place where this was basically the highest social order of the day. But when it came to his chosen art form, he forged his own aesthetic ideals.

-The Gardener

One comment

  1. abentobox ( User Karma: 1 ) says:

    I don’t know where else to post this but I’m really enjoying this garden section. So much to look at, and for free? didnt realize this was something i wanted till now

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