Hieronymus Bosch is one of my favorite artists. His paintings are endlessly detailed and full of bizarre creatures coexisting with humans who enact stories within stories. What I love about Bosch is how imaginative he is in with his creature designs and storytelling. Taking a closer look at his art is always rewarding, and that’s what I want to do here.
Much of his work depict religious and moral allegories, but there is so much going on in the paintings that they almost feel like a freeform exploration of the subconscious. Bosch left behind no diaries, letters, or writings to provide insight into the thought process, making his work even more mysterious.
Hieronymus Bosch emerged during the Northern Renaissance, but his work almost has more in common with medieval illuminated manuscripts. Like seeing the horrors of the dark ages caught in the revealing light of the renaissance. Let’s start by looking at one of his most famous paintings:
The Garden of Earthly Delights
The Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych, meaning a painting divided into three sections. The two smaller side-panels are hinged to the middle one, and can be closed to reveal an exterior painting called The Creation of The World:
The text at the top of the Creation of the World reads “Ipse dixit, et facta sunt; ipse mandavit, et creata sunt”, meaning “For he spoke and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast”. This is a quote from Psalm 33 of the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament. The Creation of the World, seemingly showing the world before humans and animals, opens up to expose a world teeming with life:
The left panel is thought to depict the Garden of Eden, and the right panel displays the Last Judgement or the torments of Hell. Exactly what the center panel is supposed to depict is less obvious.
The Haywain Triptych
The Haywain Triptych is another one of Bosch’s famous triptych paintings. The exterior painting, The Wayfarer, shows a man travelling through a world full of distractions:
Haywain is an older spelling of hay wagon. And, in the center panel there is a large hay wagon dragged by demons, and surrounded by people fighting for the hay. This scene is a reference to the Flemish proverb “The world is like a haystack and each man takes what he can“.
Like in The Garden of Earthly Delights, the left panel seems to depict the Garden of Eden, and the right panel som form of Hell.
Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child
Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child is on of Bosch’s many paintings of saints.
Paintings of saints were a very popular commission during the Renaissance, and thus a staple of artist’s workshops like the one run by Hieronymus Bosch. Bosch never seemed to make a simple painting of a saint, though. I wonder what the clients thought about all the additional little stories playing out behind the requested saints.
According to legend, Reprobus was a giant who helped travelers cross a river. One day a small child asked for help crossing the river. The child became increasingly heavy, and Reprobus barely managed to carry it to the other side. Then the child revealed himself as Christ, and told Reprobus that he had carried both the whole world and Him who made it on this shoulders. And that’s how Reprobus became known as Christopher, which is derived from the Greek Χριστόφορος (Christóforos) and means “Christ-bearer“. Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travelers.
The Crucifixion of Saint Wilgefortis
The Crucifixion of Saint Wilgefortis was formerly known as The Crucifixion of Saint Julia. Then a 2013-2015 restoration revealed that the crucified woman used to have a beard, making Saint Wilgefortis a more probable candidate.
The Crucifixion of Saint Wilgefortis may originally have had an exterior shutter painting, like the other triptychs in this post. But the back of the side panels are damaged, and any trace of a painting there is lost.
Death and the Miser
Death and the Miser was inspired by the Ars moriendi (“The Art of Dying“) texts, which were popular in Bosch’s time. The texts describe how the dying should turn away from temptations and choose Christ.
This painting was probably part of a dismantled triptych or diptych. What the center panel may have been is unknown, but the other side panel most likely consisted of Ship of Fools and Allegory of Intemperance.
Note: These images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons and I scaled most of them down for this blog post. There are some really high resolution photographs of Bosch paintings uploaded to Wikimedia Commons. So be sure to check out these high resolution versions of his paintings if you want to investigate more of the details in the paintings for yourself.