Loading
The ultimate vision of hell
Share on Linkedin
(Credit: Hieronymus Bosch/The Last Judgment/Photo Rik Klein Gotink and image processing Robert G Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project)
A new exhibition celebrates the work of Hieronymus Bosch, the painter known for his terrifying images of demons and monsters – but has he been misunderstood? Alastair Sooke looks back.
T

To celebrate the 500th anniversary of the death of the painter Hieronymus Bosch, the Noordbrabants Museum in his native city of Den Bosch in the Netherlands has organised an extensive exhibition of his work.

It is a spectacular show, featuring 17 of his 24 surviving paintings, as well as six more pictures produced within his workshop. In addition, the exhibition, which has taken nine years to come to fruition, contains 19 of Bosch’s 20 extant drawings.

“That’s quite an amount,” says Charles de Mooij, the museum’s director, with understandable pride. “To bring together so many works by an artist who lived 500 years ago is extremely rare.”

The Garden of Earthly Delights is Bosch’s most ambitious work – it features a frenetic hell wing full of monsters (Credit: Hieronymus Bosch/Wikipedia)

The Garden of Earthly Delights is Bosch’s most ambitious work – it features a frenetic hell wing full of monsters (Credit: Hieronymus Bosch/Wikipedia)

Although the exhibition does not boast Bosch’s most ambitious artwork, the oil-on-oak triptych in the Prado known as The Garden of Earthly Delights, it does offer many other masterpieces similarly animated by his eye-catching originality.

Born Jeroen van Aken around 1450, to a family of painters in 's-Hertogenbosch (‘the Duke’s Forest’), as Den Bosch used to be called, Bosch has a reputation, above all, as the preeminent image-maker of hell. The frenetic hell wing of The Garden of Earthly Delights has been called ‘probably the most famous scene of the underworld in all Western art’.

The Garden of Earthly Delights has been called ‘probably the most famous scene of the underworld in all Western art’

Many of his moralising compositions teem with terrifying demons and monsters, goading and tormenting the frail sinners of humankind. Each of his amphibious abominations and bat-winged freaks is an unnatural yet convincing combination of disparate elements, which only the powerful furnace of the artist’s imagination could have fused together.

Counter-intuitively, Bosch constructed his supernatural beings and diabolical contraptions out of readily recognisable animal parts and everyday objects such as barrels, jugs, spoons, and funnels. Here’s the surprising thing, according to de Mooij: “Bosch painted as a realist.”

In The Temptation of St Anthony, Bosch’s pocket-sized demons are sweet and amusing rather than scary (Credit: Hieronymus Bosch/The Temptation of St Anthony/Wikipedia)

In The Temptation of St Anthony, Bosch’s pocket-sized demons are sweet and amusing rather than scary (Credit: Hieronymus Bosch/The Temptation of St Anthony/Wikipedia)

To take just one example, consider The Temptation of Saint Anthony, from Kansas City, which was recently reattributed to the artist as a result of the Bosch Research and Conservation Project. This rigorous scholarly programme has been re-examining Bosch’s entire oeuvre in the run-up to the exhibition.

It seems he found jubilation in his peculiar creations, as well as fire and brimstone

In the foreground we see several demons, including a hooded, spoon-billed creature sitting politely at a table covered with a white cloth, and a frantic, diminutive swordsman, wearing an upturned funnel. They look like domesticated sprites and imps, running amok inside a kitchen.

In this particular case, then, Bosch’s pocket-sized demons are sweet and amusing, rather than scary. But, with Bosch, this is often the way. It seems he found jubilation in his peculiar creations, as well as fire and brimstone.

‘A man of humour’

“People ask whether Bosch was a pessimist, because he depicted hell so often,” says de Mooij. “But I believe he must have been a man of humour. Look how he enjoyed painting the strangeness of life.”

One thing the brilliant Noordbrabants Museum exhibition does not examine, however, is Bosch’s influence upon subsequent Western art and culture.

In his own day, Bosch, who married into wealth, was a successful and popular artist who moved within the upper echelons of society. He counted noblemen such as Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy, among his patrons, and inspired countless imitators during the 16th Century.

Surprisingly, though, given his fame today, his idiosyncratic imagery fell out of favour in the decades following his death. Gradually Bosch’s art started to look old-fashioned.

In 1593, King Philip II moved The Garden to the palace he had founded at San Lorenzo de El Escorial (Credit: Hieronymus Bosch/The Garden Of Earthly Delights/Wikipedia)

In 1593, King Philip II moved The Garden to the palace he had founded at San Lorenzo de El Escorial (Credit: Hieronymus Bosch/The Garden Of Earthly Delights/Wikipedia)

The only European country where he was not forgotten was Spain. In 1593, King Philip II transferred The Garden of Earthly Delights to the monastery, mausoleum and palace he had founded at San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

Elsewhere, though, it wasn’t until the revival of interest in medieval art during the second half of the 19th Century that Bosch returned to prominence. At first, he was associated with the so-called ‘Flemish Primitives’, the Early Netherlandish painters active during the 15th and 16th Centuries.

“After Romanticism, there was a large interest in the Middle Ages,” explains de Mooij, “and people saw Bosch as one of the Flemish Primitives – though not the best of them.”

‘Strangeness of life’

With the advent of modern art during the 20th Century, though, people started to look at Bosch afresh. In particular, the Surrealists rehabilitated his reputation, because they admired his relish for depicting the “strangeness of life”.

“The Surrealists believed that Bosch was the first ‘modern’ artist,” says de Mooij. “Salvador Dalí studied the works of Bosch, and recognised him as his predecessor.”

It has been suggested that the rock resembling a face in Dalí’s The Great Masturbator of 1929 was inspired by The Garden of Earthly Delights (Credit: Salvador Dali/Wikipedia)

It has been suggested that the rock resembling a face in Dalí’s The Great Masturbator of 1929 was inspired by The Garden of Earthly Delights (Credit: Salvador Dali/Wikipedia)

It has even been suggested that the unusual rock formation resembling a face in Dalí’s famous painting The Great Masturbator of 1929 was inspired by a similar shape visible in the landscape in the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights.

“Like Bosch, Dalí was a very realistic painter, whose creativity transformed things,” continues de Mooij, who also points to the influence of Bosch upon other Surrealists such as Rene Magritte and Max Ernst. “The Surrealists were changing normal into abnormal things, just as Bosch did. Ultimately, though, they only took one part of Bosch: they didn’t take his [religious] message, but admired him for the strange, original forms that he created.”

Bosch was seen as a kind of proto-hippy – a prophet of the counterculture

Later, during the 1960s, Bosch’s work became fashionable again, when free love and psychedelia were all the rage. At this moment, the frenzied, orgiastic coupling of lusty sinners in his paintings proved especially alluring. Bosch was seen as a kind of proto-hippy – a prophet of the counterculture. He was also viewed (wrongly) as a heretic.

The 20th Century, of course, was also the great era of cinema. A number of film-makers were stimulated by Bosch’s work, among them Terry Gilliam, who considers himself a ‘huge’ fan of the artist, and Guillermo del Toro. George Lucas has even cited Bosch as the inspiration for the aliens in the Star Wars franchise. Bosch has also become a touchstone for designers of fantasy computer games.

It is easy to understand why Bosch continues to fascinate us today: the apocalyptic tone of his work resonates during our era of global conflict and international terrorism.

Yet de Mooij believes that there is also another reason for Bosch’s enduring popularity. “The chaos of our own time is part of the story,” he admits. “But I think his enormous creativity is inspiring younger people too. In all sorts of areas of culture, but especially in art, people are trying to find new forms. Every time an artist succeeds in making new things, we are astonished. Bosch succeeded in making new forms in a realistic manner – and that’s why hundreds, if not thousands, of young artists are inspired by him now.”

Alastair Sooke is Art Critic of The Daily Telegraph

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

Around the BBC