While these examples suggest an agreed-upon understanding of the artist and his oeuvre, perceptions of Bosch and his work’s meaning have dramatically shifted over the past five centuries.
Hieronymus Bosch was born in the Netherlands around 1450 to a family of painters. Integrated into both religious and society life, he was a member of the Brotherhood of our Ladyship (a Catholic confraternity) and gained favor with court patrons. The Bosch Research and Conservation Project
has attributed dozens of paintings and drawings to him, but The Garden of Earthly Delights
triptych is his best-known masterpiece. Running from left to right, the panels depict Heaven, Earth, and Hell. In Heaven, God stands between Adam and Eve, while animals roam in their bucolic, idyllic setting. Earth resembles a proto-“Where’s Waldo,” crowded with humans dancing, swimming, riding animals both real and mythic, and suggestively cavorting (all the people throughout the painting are nude). Giant fish swim in the sky and lie on the grass while characters do handstands on the ground and atop giant, colorful orbs.
It’s really the Hell panel, however, that made Bosch’s reputation. Here, a massive knife blade protrudes from between two massive ears. A pig in a nun’s habit attempts to kiss a man’s cheek, while another man’s hollow body cavity merges with a tree. A bird-like creature appears to swallow a human whole, while crowds of naked bodies disappear into an ominous, red pool. The vision is dark, absurd, and violent.
Dr. Nils Büttner, author of Hieronymus Bosch: Visions and Nightmares, tells Artsy that the artist created the “prototype of everything we understand as Hell.” According to Büttner, “Other people came up with images of Hell, but nothing so fantastic.” Bosch’s Hell is so scary, he explains, because it’s filled with things we know, horrors to which we can relate: a burning house, a knife, insects.