Between Magic and Reality
Biography of Hieronymus Bosch
Hieronymus Bosch was born in 1450 in Hertogenbosch, a provincial but
prosperous town located in the modern Netherlands close to the Belgian
border. He is one of the most famous of the Netherlandish artists, known
for his enigmatic panels illustrating complex religious subjects with
fantastic, often demonic imagery.
Too little information is safes about his life. His father and
grandfather were both painters in the same town before him and apparently
Bosch lived all his life there. From his childhood he lived in artist’s
family. He married a reach and highborn woman, Aleid van Mervey. Hieronymus
Bosch joined the lay of the Confraternity of Notre Dame. It was founded in
1318. The symbol of the organization was white swan. This sodality
consists of friars and secular people. This organization kept away from the
Catholic Church, it confessed ideas of humanism and mysticism. The sodality
organized a number of printing houses and schools. Bosch was responsible
for designing a stained-glass window, among several other works, for the
In 1480 he was for the first time mentioned as a painter. The last
time he was mentioned in the books of sodality – the 9 of August 1516. It
was the day of his funeral.
Mystery of Bosch’s paintings
Bosch is one of the most mysterious painters in the world. The
attitude toward him has changed through years. His contemporaries thought
that he was a strange man, who paint fantastic pictures, frightful and
funny at the same time. His paintings became very popular in Spain and in
Portugal. In Portugal there are the most good collections of paintings of
Bosch. There are thousands of books about Bosch and his works. References
to astrology, folklore, witchcraft, and alchemy, in addition to the theme
of the Antichrist and episodes from the lives of exemplary saints, are all
woven together by Bosch into a labyrinth of late medieval Christian
iconography. Some scientists think that Bosch was a forerunner of the
surrealism. Some think he was a real catholic, some that he was an atheist.
From his paintings we can understand that he was a very well educated
person, he knew Bible and lots of other books of past and present, he also
new lots of folk legends. He was good at science, medicine, astrology and
even alchemy. We can say that he also knew music because we can find lots
of musical instruments on his pictures. Scholars differ in their
interpretation of Bosch's art, but most agree that his pictures show a
preoccupation with the human propensity for sin in defiance of God, as well
as with God's eternal damnation of lost souls in hell as a fateful
consequence of human folly. The main theme of his paintings was the
opposition of Good and Evil, of God and Devil, of life and death.
Among the dozens of Boschian paintings, the autograph works generally
accepted as his include the following: The Marriage at Cana (Museum Boymans-
van Beuningen, Rotterdam), The Seven Deadly Sins (Prado, Madrid),
Crucifixion (Museus Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels), The Hay Wain (Prado),
The Death of the Miser (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), The
Temptation of Saint Anthony (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon), The
Garden of Earthly Delights (Prado), The Adoration of the Magi (Prado), and
Christ Carrying the Cross (Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent).
Periods of paintings
Dated works by Bosch do not exist so we cant only imagine the
chronology of his paintings. Researchers divide his work into 3 periods –
the earliest, mature and oldest period.
The paintings which belong to the earliest period (1470 – 1500) mostly
devoted to religious themes. Most of them are illustrations to the Bible.
In the manner of this time we can see an incertitude. Some of the paintings
are miniatures. Among the paintings of the first period there are such
works as “The Adoration of the magi”, “Christ Shown to the People”, “
Crucifixion”, “ The Seven Deadly Sins”.
We can refer such pictures as “Garden of Delights”, “The last
Judgement”, ‘Monsters”, “ The Hay Wain” etc. to the middle period of
Bosch’s work. His paintings in that period were full of little figures of
people and other creatures, sometimes unreal and strange. But to the end of
the middle period and in the last period of his work Bosch’s paintings
become simply and light. Most of them devoted to the life of saint people,
like “ Temptation of St Anthony”, “St John the Evangelist on Patmos” and
others. The evil became more realistic, it connected with real people, not
The technics of paintings
The technics of Bosch’s painting is different from other painter’s
technics of his time. The colors are more bright and rich and this make his
paintings more lively and dinamic. Often he draw on the piece of wood. On
the wood colors became more bright and at the same time crystal. He also
used varnish atop the colour.
Bosch originally solved the problem of space. In his earliest works
he try to follow the rules of the traditional perspective, but then, in his
next works he invent his own technics. It is the fantastic space full of
little figures, composed several chains. In his last works his technics
changed again. All figures moved to the first plan. There is no perspective
on this paintings.
Stylistically, Bosch worked in a manner called alla prima, a method
of applying paint freely on a preliminary ground of brownish paint. He was
familiar with Dutch manuscript paintings and with foreign prints, and many
of his images can be traced to these sources.
The paintings of Hieronymus Bosch are full of symbols. The symbols
are so different that it is very hard to find one general key to all of
them. One symbol can denote lots of different things and objects. The
symbols in Bosch’s paintings came from different sources: alchemy, magic
tractates, folklore, religious books and others.
The symbols, which came from alchemy, are the most enigmatic in his
paintings. It is often symbols of evil, Devil and demons, and also symbols
of lust. There are lots of crystal spheres in his paintings and it’s come
from alchemy. We can see different stages of substance, water, gas and
We can see different fruits and berries that symbolized lust. There
are lots of symbols of male and female in his paintings. Always sharp
objects like arrows, knifes, horns are the symbols of man. Symbols of
woman are circles, shells, jugs, etc.
Bosch took lots of symbols of animals from bible: we can find camels,
rabbits, pigs, horses and other “impure” animals, which symbolized sin and
evil. Often we can see an owl on his paintings. It is a symbol of wisdom
and at the same time of heresy. Also there are lots of skeletons of animals
and stale trees on his paintings.
Other symbols that we can often find in his works are steps, which
symbolized cognition in alchemy and also sexual intercourse. Also the
symbol of cognition is the key. One of the most fearful symbols is the clip
leg – the symbol of pain, torture and magic.
The works of Hieronymus Bosch (aspecially the paintings of the second
period) are full of different images of Satan. We can see a traditional
demons with horns, wings and tale, but also there are bugs, half-human half-
animal creatures, anthropomorphic machines and other grotesque figures.
Often Bosch painted demons as a music instruments, mostly wind-instruments.
Finally one of the most prevalent symbol of his paintings is a mirror – the
symbol of temptation.
The first period of Bosch’s work: Seven Deadly Sins
We don’t know exactly when Hieronymus Bosch created “Seven Deadly
Sins”. It was somewhere between 1475 – 1480. It’s painted with oil on the
piece of wood, and it was a surface of the table. The size of this painting
is 120 x 150 sm. According to Mr. Feldman this painting concerned with the
style of emotion, like the most paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. It can be
also a style of fantasy but this painting is more sarcastic than fantastic.
Primarily it belonged to Spanish king Philip the Second. Now it is situated
in Madrid, in Prado museum. It is signed by Hieronymus Bosch.
The central, circular composition symbolized the eye, eye of Universe,
eye of God. In the apple of the eye there is a figure of Jesus Christ and a
sentence under him: Cave,cave d[omi]n[u]s videt (Beware because God look at
you). The light rays radiate from the figure of Christ. Some researchers
said that it is a symbol of mirror that fends off all human sins. Around
him there are 7 miniatures represented 7 sins and each sin is named. There
are: Ira (ire, rage, anger), Superbia (vanity), Luscuria (desire), Accidia
(laziness), Guia (guzzle), Avaritia (avarice) and Invidia (envy). At the
corners of the painting there are four other miniatures represented Death,
The Last Judgement, Hell and Heaven. There are two sentences from Bible at
the top and bottom of the painting. There are no allegories on this
painting, everything is concrete, taken from life. Bosch depicted people of
different sections of population, but all of them are sinners. The main
idea of this painting that our blood and our money is nothing for God.
Every person will be on the last Judgement and if he is sinner he will be
send to Hell.
Ira – on this miniature we can see the scrimmage of two drunk
peasants. Ira is the result of the alcoholism. A woman try to stop them,
but without any result. Bosch depicted the sin with the help of such
symbols as kicked off wooden shoes, a chair on the head of one man and
others, but most of all with the help of grotesque. The figures of peasants
are awful and ugly, they are very fat with crooked legs. The beautiful
nature is also served to show their unpleasantness.
Superbia – we can see a woman in her room, staying in front of the
mirror (the symbol of temptation), which is kept by the devil. The woman
trying on a new hat. The room is painted in the style of Bosch’s time and
it is look like many others rooms in the Holland houses. This picture is
pointed against the interest off many women in the fashion.
Luscuria – on this part of painting there are man and woman in the
tabernacle. We can see musical instruments on the ground – they symbolize
Accidia – the lazy priest is sleeping, instead of prey. A cat on the
floor is sleeping too.
Guia – the picture show us the scene of diner. I think it is the most
terrible picture because the food is given by nun. All characters are awful
and ugly. They look like animals, not people. One man is very fat while the
other is thin. They are very dirty.
Avaritia – in this picture we can see how the bribed judge is going
to accuse of the innocent man. The book on the wooden box is like a dig
under the justice.
Invidia – on this picture Bosch show us quarrel between the neighbors.
And their dogs like their masters bark at each other.
Other four pictures show to us what will happened to us. First it is a
fragment of death. It is the death of a reach man. The priest gives him
absolution. There is a skeleton behind the dying man. And above his head
the angel and the demon are fighting for his soul.
The next picture represent Doomsday. It is painted in the traditional
way. The Christ is seating on the throne with many angels around him. And
reveal people are below him, on the Earth. The Heaven is painted in a
traditional manner too. St Peter and other angels meet saintly people near
the gates of Heaven.
On this painting Bosch depicted Hell for the first time. This picture
is the key to other Bosch’s paintings of Hell because Bosch wrote an
explanation under every torture. For the sin of ire people are crucified.
Avid people siting in the fleshpot with a molten golden coins. Voluptuous
people are enchained to the bed and a terrible monster bite them. Drank
people are drinking dishwater. Bosch took some of the elements of tortures
from the book “Visions of Tundhall” about his vision of Hell. It was very
popular book in Bosch’s times.
Bosch use very bright, full colors in this painting. They became dark
and gloomy only in 2 parts of painting, devoted to Death and Hell. There is
a normal perspective in this picture. Most lines are geometrical and
straight. The painter doesn’t use lot’s of shades. The point of attention
is at the center of the picture on the Christ’s figure. We can see balance
and also harmony in this painting.
The main idea of the paintings “Seven deadly sins” is that all people
are the same in God’s eyes. And He knew all our deeds and our sins. Every
person, reach or poor will die and then come to the Last Judgement. No one
will help you besides God. The painting is circular to show us that the
sins are the same in every next generation. It is a symbol of the circle of
sins, symbol of our Earth, of our University.
I think it is a very meditative painting, that make us thinking. May
be because of that Philip the Second hung it in his tabernacle.
The second period of Bosch’s work: Garden of Delights
Bosch painted “the Garden of Delights” in 1500 – 1510. It is also oil
painting. The size of the central part the painting is 220 x 195, the size
of each fold is 200 x 97. Now it is situated in Madrid, in Prado.
The painting is full of little figures and it is very colorful. Its
look like a wonderful carpet. The figures of people are dancing in a
colorful roundelay. All colors are light, spring and soft. The bright light
is overflow the scene.
The painting is very harmonic. It has a normal perspective. Most
lines are curved and natural. It’s very hard to find the point of attention
because of the lots of objects on the painting but I think it is at the one
of fantastic building at the center of the painting.
At the outer part of the folds there is the third day of the
Creation. There are 2 sentences at the top of the painting – “Jpse dixit et
facta su[n]t” (He said and it’s appeared) and “Jpse mandavit et create
su[n]t” (He said and create). In the center in the crystal sphere appears
the first mineral and vegetal life.
The Heaven as usual is painted on the left fold. The first man and
all animals have been already created. The heaven is full of different and
sometimes fantastic animals: elephants and giraffes are pasture with
unicorns, birds with three heads and fishes with wings. The cactus behind
Adam is the symbol of Life Tree, the palm is the tree of the Evil and Good.
God begins to create Eve. With her creation the evil and sin came. Animals
begin to eat each others and in a fountain settled an owl – the symbol of
evil. This fountain that look like bright globe with a half-crystals half-
plants on it and a half-moon on the top is the symbol of heresy. The center
of it is the center off the all fold. It correspond with a figure of human-
tree-egg in the Hell. At the same manner the figure of God the Maker
correspond with the figure of Devil who eat the sinners. So the folds are
symbolized Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the End of the world.
The Hell on the right fold is painted in a dark colors. Some
researchers think that black, red and white colours are the symbols of
different stadies of boiling mercury. It is the world of iсe and fire.
Bosch took some episodes from the book “The visions of Tundhall“. Another
sources where Bosch could took his images are the book “Ars morendi” (1488)
and “The big calendar of cattlemen” (1493). The painting “Seven deadly
sins” can also help to understand this part of painting. The group near the
Satan’s throne are the vanity. The man who are crucified on the table is
the bowler. We also can see a man who conclude a treaty with devil.
The gigantic ear with an arrow in it is a symbol of the disaster. S. De
Tolnay said that Hell is Bosch’s nightmare. It is very interesting fact
that we can see a self-portrait of Bosch here, as a face of human-tree-egg.
V. Fenger thinks that Hell is the place where rebirth of our world begen.
It happened with the help of two musical instruments – harp, lute and
pipes. But other researchers think that this instruments are the symbols of
evil. V. Frenger interpret them as a memory of Heaven. He also said that
the village, fire, mill and flood are the symbols of four elements.
The central part of the painting is our world that is full of sins and
evil. At the center of the painting there is a chain of people around the
spring of youth. G. Kombe interpret it as a alchemic motive of eternal
youth. In the spring there are women with a ravens on their heads and it
symbolized the heresy. The peacocks symbolized vanity, ibises – the past
joy, different animals in the cavalcade are the symbols of salacity and
other carnal sins. There are lots of symbols of male and female origins
such as half-moons, horns, cones, cylinders, spheres, etc. which are the
alchemic symbols at the same time. The fruits and berries are the symbols
of salacity and carnal love. The man who are carrying the shell with two
lovers are the deceived husband. Lots of spheres at different parts of the
painting is the symbols of the sins and vises and also the symbols of our
world, full of sins. Behind the bright colour and lots of light there are
sins and evil. And the colour also have it’s meaning. In alchemy red means
creation and blue was the colour of illusions.
It is the most mysterious and enigmatic Bosch’s work. The meaning of
the painting all in all and it’s symbols are the reason for numerous
debates. The first explanation of this painting was made in 1605 by a
priest, Jose de Siguensa. He wrote in a book of order of St. Hieronymus
that on the painting we can see the appearance of the sin in the Heaven,
the evolution of the sin in our world and the punishment in the Hell.
However V. Fenger think that the painting is more optimistic and it
symbolized the depuration by the fire and ice in the Hell, than in the
purgatory (the central part of triptych) and than came to felicity in
Heaven. Most of researchers refuse the theory of Fender.
People of all epochs invented lots of theories, sometimes fantastic
and impossible about the meaning of Bosch’s paintings and I think that
lot’s of theories will be created later but no one can prove it and nobody
can find out which theory is right and which is not. Bosch's pictures will
stay for us as a mystery forever.
1. “Мастера живописи. Босх” Доната Баттилотти, издательство “Белый город“,
Москва, 1998 г.
2. Н. Н. Никулин “Золотой век нидерландской живописи. 15 век “ издательство
“Изобразительное искусство“, Москва, 1981 г.
3. Internet: http://www.kultur-online.com/greatest