One Helluva Fella: The Horrifically Contemporary World of Hieronymus Bosch

By Ulrike Knöfel
 
Hieronymus Bosch, "The Garden of the Earthly Delights"
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid/ Depósito de Patrimonio Nacional
Hieronymus Bosch, "The Garden of the Earthly Delights"
 
 
Impaled heads and burning bodies: Hieronymus Bosch, the great Dutch painter whose images depicted the horrors and terror of the past, present and future, died 500 years ago. In the era of Abu Ghraib and Islamic State, his work feels as contemporary as ever.
The artist Hieronymus Bosch probably had the most prodigious imagination of his day. He was the great surrealist of the waning Middle Ages. His paintings were both a promise and a threat, intended to convey an idea of what would happen in paradise and, even more so, in hell. He created labyrinths of atrocities and a vocabulary of the bestial. He depicted devils and monsters, but also people being tortured, naked people whose throats were being slit, almost as if they were part of a scene in the latest propaganda video from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). And then there are images and motifs that seem comedic in their sheer absurdity.
 
Bosch, this mysterious painter whose motives were unclear, died 500 years ago, in August 1516. One thing is certain: The Dutchman from the Duchy of Brabant did not spare his audience. He painted what no one had painted before him. And he must have had his own dark humor. In one painting, he depicts a dwarflike being with an upper body that resembles an egg, while the lower body is reminiscent of a lizard. But the gaunt face is that of a human being, with glasses perched on his nose. It is often speculated that this may have been the face of Bosch himself.
 
He painted this curious being in the corner of a plate, next to Saint Mark the Evangelist foreseeing the End of Time. Did Bosch also perceive himself as a visionary? As someone who wanted to make mankind squirm as it learned of its future? Are his paintings a painted version of gallows humor?
 
A Unique Universe
 
This visionary is being celebrated in 2016, eulogistically, of course, with exhibitions, books and films. Almost all museums in his native Brabant are honoring him this year, including the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, which is billing him as a role model for modern artists, and the Brabant Museum of Nature in Tilburg, which is devoting an exhibition to the animals and astonishing mythical creatures in Bosch's art. His paintings can be seen at the Prado in Madrid, and he is also the main event at the Bucerius Art Forum in Hamburg. Franco-German public broadcaster ARTE will broadcast a documentary on August 21, and a longer version titled "Hieronymus Bosch, Touched by the Devil" will open in cinemas in September. The filmmakers spent years accompanying a Dutch team of experts that had set out to painstakingly study the life and works of Bosch, and it became a witness to the tension in the international community of near-obsessive Bosch specialists.
 
There are only 25 oil paintings, some in multiple parts, that art historians more or less agree came from Bosch himself. These works hang in European and American museums. There are also a similar number of drawings. Institutions that own one of these rare pieces possess an invaluable treasure. The Prado in Madrid long believed it had six originals, until art historians from the Netherlands attributed three of them to Bosch's employees or successors. In the film, the experts barely manage to maintain a polite tone when interacting with one another.
 
In fact, it is not easy to determine what Bosch painted himself. Because business was good, he had employees who tried to paint in his style as best they could. Many others simply copied him, both during his lifetime and long afterward. Panels were even treated with smoke in chimneys to make them seem older and more original.
 
But the few works that are clearly attributable to Bosch form a unique, exciting universe. He created science fiction that was inspired by the afterlife, and to this day, no one can explain how he came up with his ideas. Of course, people in the Middle Ages had notions of what demons could look like. They appeared (as a deterrent) as decorations in church architecture, but they lacked the imaginative, abstruse and narrative qualities of Bosch's works.
 
Take, for instance, the bird-like figure in the painting "The Garden of Earthly Delights" that has pitchers for feet instead of claws, eats people while sitting on a toilet chair, then excretes them out in undigested form into a blue, balloon-like bubble, which opens into a hole in the earth filled with brownish water into which the damned souls are deposited as two others vomit and defecate into it.
 
His studio produced many other images as well. In one painting, an arrow penetrates two giant ears, which appear to be going somewhere. A man is impaled by the strings of a harp. Demons keep pouring wine into the mouth of a man who is already bloated. There is a female head without a body, but with shod feet. There are heads with feet, fish with feet, beings that are part animal and part human, monster-like humans, machine-like humans and tree-like humans with strange things happening in their open trunks. There are curious flying objects and flying fish. Some fantasy animals appear to be wearing diving bells instead of shells, and some buildings look like breathing, organic creatures.
 
Modern Parallels
 
There are also many details that hardly seem comic and feel horrifically contemporary. Images of people falling from burning ruins into an abyss are reminiscent of images of the attacks of Sept. 11. There are impaled bodies and severed heads hanging from sticks, with blood dripping from them, as if in anticipation of the images that IS terrorists would one day disseminate. And a figure seen beating Christ with a rope uses the same hand motion as the angry man in Istanbul who was photographed whipping arrested coup plotters with a belt.
 
The Hieronymus Bosch painting "Christ Carrying the Cross" from around 1500.
AKG-IMAGES
The Hieronymus Bosch painting "Christ Carrying the Cross" from around 1500.
A man uses his belt to hit Turkish soldiers involved in the July 16 coup attempt in Istanbul.
Getty Images
A man uses his belt to hit Turkish soldiers involved in the July 16 coup attempt in Istanbul.
 
 
There are bodies lying on red-hot stones and burning in open furnaces, and there are human beings drowning in cesspools, being hanged or impaled, their stomachs seeming to explode. The figures that are still alive appear to have given up hope. Amid images of raging fires, it seems as if the entire world had been split open.
 
A few years ago, there was a debate over whether it was appropriate to show images that documented US soldiers torturing inmates at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The scenes Bosch painted centuries ago are no less gruesome. But he wasn't painting the future. He had found images depicting an archaic sadism, and he could have only guessed that, half a millennium later, people would still be behaving as they had done thousands of years before his time. His painted oak panels show how far the present has fallen back into brutish patterns.
 
He repeatedly inserted ordinary elements into his scenes, such as familiar landscapes, churches, windmills, everyday faces and everyday clothing. But this harmlessness, this generic reality, which he treats like the Promised Land, can topple at any time. Hell is never far away. This was how he conveyed his sense of the uncertainty of life.
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        Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq: Bosch could only have guessed 500 years ago that, half a milleinnium later, eople would still be behaving as they had done thousands of years before his time.      REUTERS / The Washington Post
Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq: Bosch could only have guessed 500 years ago that, half a milleinnium later, eople would still be behaving as they had done thousands of years before his time.
 

But mankind remains ignorant. Bosch also illustrated this in his allegories. People, whether rich or poor, chase pleasure and, to an even greater extent, money (symbolized by a haywain in Bosch's works), and they continue to cling to their earthly possessions even after death, to the delight of the demons under their deathbeds. In one image, nuns and monks are celebrating on a ship, making fools of themselves like everyone else, but they too are unknowingly heading for the realm of the devil. The source of inspiration for this composition was likely the popular morally satirical book, "Ship of Fools," by the Basel-based legal scholar Sebastian Brant, who also believed that man was "only three finger-widths away from death."
 
Bosch translated this attitude, and he did so with great virtuosity, and with brisk, confident brush strokes. He knew how to create loud and quiet dramatic art. He placed the small shadows of people in front of the light of a blazing fire, and added a touch of red paint to the eyes of an exhausted Jesus, essentially painted in close-up.
 
Where did he learn to do this? Painting was the craft with which he had grown up and that his family had mastered. His great-grandfather and his grandfather were painters. So were his father, his uncle, his two older brothers and his nephews.
 
Demanding Innovation
 
He was born Jheronimus van Aken in 1450, but he was called Joen. His place of birth was the commercial city of 's-Hertogenbosch, or The Bosch. As a painter, he later took the name Hieronymus Bosch, in reference to the city, and that was how he signed his paintings -- in large, unmistakable letters. The little surviving information about his works includes written mentions of the fact that he had taken on the name, even though it was not his real name.
 
Bosch's parents purchased a house in 1462, on the eastern side of the market square, in an area where many other craftsmen lived (painting was a trade like any other). Bosch was still a boy when the family moved into the house. A fire destroyed large portions of the city a year later.

Such fires, life-threatening and yet breathtaking, later appeared in his paintings.
 
Around 1480, he married a well-situated merchant's daughter named Aleid van de Meervenne, a woman he may have known since childhood. They moved into a house that Aleid had inherited. It too was on the market square, but in a more upscale location. Apparently the couple had no children. He advanced in local society and became a "sworn" member of a religious brotherhood. Swans were served the three times he hosted the group's annual meeting.
 
His customers ranged from dignified to high-ranking. They included important church congregations, the upper class and even the high aristocracy, most notably the Hapsburgs. The son of Emperor Maximilian I ordered a "Last Judgment," and he gave his powerful father another work, a "Temptation of St. Anthony." The most famous Bosch work today, the "Garden of Earthly Delights," was apparently created for the Counts of Nassau, who were also influential people in the Habsburg realm.
 
Bosch must have been aware of his uniqueness. He wrote on one of his drawings: "Poor is the mind that always uses the inventions of others and invents nothing itself." The demand for innovation revealed an attitude that already reflected the thinking of the Renaissance. Perhaps he did view painting as more than simply a craft, but as a higher art.
 
A panel from the Hieronymus Bosch triptych "The Last Judgement," from around 1506
AKG-IMAGES
A panel from the Hieronymus Bosch triptych "The Last Judgement," from around 1506
        An image from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004
ullstein bild
An image from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004


The painter was about 65 when he died, or possibly somewhat younger. He died in an epidemic, not of the plague, but apparently of a similarly sinister disease. His funeral on August 9, 1516 was celebrated with singers.
 
Bosch remained an admired figure. A year after his death, the secretary of a Roman cardinal praised his paintings for being "enchanting and fantastic." Bosch's works also reached Spain and court of the Spanish king early on. In 1605, a book was published by a Spanish abbot, who described Bosch's paintings as the "most ingenious" and "artful" thing "one could imagine."
 
But this scholarly monk, José de Sigüenza, also had to protect the works from those who berated the painter as a heretic after his death. Without his paintings, Sigüenza said, man would be "so blind that he is not aware of the passions and vices that keep him transformed into a beast, or rather so many beasts." Sigüenza described the Bosch works he knew as a "satire in paint on the sins and ravings of mankind," saying that this painter had drew his absurdities from "the reality and actuality of the world."
 
We Can Only Speculate over Meaning
 
His allusions and his excessive symbolism were probably better understood at the time, but much of the knowledge of the day has been lost. Today we can only speculate over what Bosch meant, and how it was understood in his time. In the documentary film, an American art historian says that his profession is about predicting the past.
 
Bosch spent his first 40 years living in an era when there were no certainties, not in his immediate environment and not in the portion of the world that was known at the time. Wars and high taxes triggered unrest. The economy was in decline, and this only changed in his city in the late 15th century, when prosperity began to increase again. But the feeling of being at the intersection between two eras, of literally lurching between two periods and not knowing what was next must have been a formative influence on Bosch and many others around 1500.

Anything could happen at any time, violent escalations were a constant threat, and the all-important church was also faltering. The desire for a renewal of the faith existed before Martin Luther. The period would later be characterized as an emergence into the modern era, which sounds lighter and more optimistic than it actually was for the people of the day.
 
A movement called "Devotio moderna" gained momentum early on in the Netherlands. Human beings were viewed as individuals, not as part of a devout mass of people, and this included their relationship with God. Experts suspect that Bosch wanted to show his audience that man was a traveler "on the path through life." According to Bosch, this traveler, and not a higher power, was responsible for his own decisions. That too is a surprisingly modern concept.
 
 
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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