Search for a word in English that simultaneously means chaotic, hellish, and surreal, and you’ll likely come up short. It’s a shame: Difficult morning commutes, unpleasant crowds, and the contemporary political landscape could all use such an easy descriptor. In order to convey that very particular form of pandemonium, many writers over the past few years have ended up invoking the name of Hieronymus Bosch, the Netherlandish painter responsible for The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1500).
Journalists and critics are using the term “Bosch-like” or “Boschian” to describe printed menswear; Darren Aronofsky’s film Mother!; the Trump presidency; a fictional milieu; a Chinese animated film; an album cover; and Jacolby Satterwhite’s current exhibition at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise.
In a New York Times book review of Caitlin Macy’s novel Mrs., Alex Kuczynski writes: “No less horrifying are the rites surrounding entry into some of New York’s most exclusive private schools, a Boschian dreamscape of social posturing in which mothers judge one another by their coiffures, their chauffeured Escalades and their husbands’ net worth.” Here, the overextended adjective becomes approximately synonymous with “nightmarish.”
And “Boschian” transcends supposed divisions between high and low culture—it can be used to refer to both Manhattan’s feuding elites and to heavy metal music. A 2016 overview of Slayer’s 1986 record Reign of Blood describes the album as “bleak, relentless and inhuman, a Hieronymus Bosch painting brought to life for 28 writhing, screaming minutes. It sounded like nothing that had come before.” Here the writer highlights both the visceral anguish evident in Bosch’s work (which might have a sword slicing a man’s head off here, animals eating from another’s bloody stomach there) and its radical ingenuity.
James Jean, mother!, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
Slayer, Reign In Blood, 1968. Courtesy of HERFitz PR.
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.
Jacolby Satterwhite, Blessed Avenue, 2018. ©Jacolby Satterwhite, 2018. Photo by Lance Brewer. Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome.
Joseph Koerner, author of Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life, echoes the sentiment. Bosch “seems to be expert at representing demons and various diabolical and questionable beings, creatures, phantoms,” he tells Artsy. Koerner suggests that Bosch’s style derived in part from illuminated manuscripts, though its origins remain mysterious.
The artist inspired generations of imitators who latched onto his hybrid figures, depictions of evil, and dream landscapes. Pieter Bruegel the Elder was the most revered of the group, pushing the aesthetic toward funnier, more worldly representations. “Instead of having, say, a Hell scene occupied by devils,” says Koerner, “you have a similar kind of composition—except it’s a scene of a village with children playing games. The weirdness of Bosch becomes the weirdness of human experience.”
After Bruegel and his followers, history temporarily forgot about Bosch as attention turned to new artists and methods (though Koerner suggests that Spanish Romantic painter Francisco de Goya may have been familiar with Bosch’s work, using it to inform his own haunting scenes).
According to Büttner, proselytizers promoted Bosch as an anti-sex advocate in the decades following his 1516 death. King Philip II of Spain was a fan of the artist, despite the era’s widespread suspicion of painting’s immorality. Spanish theologian José de Sigüenza justified the ruler’s interest by highlighting Bosch’s depiction of a madroño, which is similar to a strawberry, but more bitter. Sigüenza advocated a specific symbolism for the fruit, one that turned the Garden’s message into a morality tale. In a 2014 article, Büttner describes how the madroño (which appears in the central panel) “tastes shallow and does not live up to the promise made by its luscious exterior.” The figures in the central panel are lascivious and indulgent; the third panel shows the bitter price they’d pay for that behavior. Bosch’s work, in that case, was meant to ward against lust in addition to vanity, avarice, and all sin. For years, the painting was called “El Madroño,” along with other nicknames: “The Variety of the World” or “The Vanity of the World,” according to Koerner. No one knows its original title.
In the 19th century, the developing field of art history started to investigate northern European art anew. “This taste for northern things means scholarship about the northern artists grows,” explains Koerner, “and when Bosch’s work gets shown, he’s this outlandish master within the Netherlandish tradition.” During this period, scholars gave the work its final title: The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Koerner believes that Sigüenza used the painting to criticize pleasure more broadly. “I see it as a trap,” he says. Viewers became confused, wondering whether the behaviors in the central panel were supposed to be good or bad. He describes it as both “an allegory of human nature” and a kind of “practical joke” that the work’s original owners, the Burgundian aristocracy, played on guests. They used Bosch’s painting to make their visitors uncomfortable and expose the visitors’ perversity (a very non-Emily-Post-approved hosting tactic).
This wasn’t uncharacteristically sadistic behavior for the time. Koerner compares the brutal humor of the early Renaissance period (beating the blind, throwing drunk people in a bed together) to the YouTube video in which Donald Trump shaves wrestling promoter Vince McMahon’s head. “That’s the kind of cruel entertainment which we still have in us,” he says. “But now most of us are pretty careful about keeping humor and cruelty separate.”
During the 20th century, Bosch’s legacy was rewritten once again, when writer André Breton dubbed him an early forerunner of Surrealism. But Breton neglected the 16th-century painting’s religious and didactic significance; for the figures in this 20th-century movement, the work’s strangeness was its primary allure. According to the BBC, Salvador Dalí was a particular fan, modeling a face-like rock formation in The Great Masturbator (1929) after a shape in The Garden of Earthly Delights. If Sigüenza had cast Bosch as a moralizing buzzkill, the Surrealists made him cool again.
We’ll likely never have a definitive grasp of Bosch’s own influences and intentions, but contemporary scholars have offered some psychedelic explanations. Some have even suggested that a substance similar to LSD could have catalyzed the Boschian vision. In a 1984 essay, Laurinda Dixon suggested that Bosch suffered from hallucinations caused by St. Anthony’s Fire, a disease caused by consuming the parasitic ergot fungus sometimes found on rye (in the 1930s, scientists would use the fungus to synthesize LSD for the first time). Victims commonly prayed to Saint Anthony, who was reputed to suffer his own wild visions, a symptom of his long struggle with the Devil. Bosch’s Temptation of St. Anthony triptych (1500–10) features a raging fire in the background of the second panel, which scholars believe references St. Anthony’s Fire. In the middle panel, a severed leg extends from a wheel, and one man looks as though he’s lost his own leg. Amputations were a common attempt to cure the disease.
We may never know whether Bosch was a religious moralist, a provocateur, or the sufferer of organic hallucinations. Yet writers are taking increasing liberties with his name, using it to critique such diverse cultural productions as animations at a Father John Misty concert or an opera about a 17th-century German Jesuit scholar.Widespread usage obscures the precise meaning of “Boschian” beyond simply “nightmarish.” The horrors in Bosch’s paintings have become so well-known that you can even buy figurines of his characters on Amazon. The artist’s visual language has inextricably entered pop culture and the contemporary lexicon, even if those who reference it don’t always know the full story. In our increasingly busy and bizarre contemporary world, “Boschian” may be just the word we need; pretty soon, it'll require its own Merriam-Webster entry.