At Large  December 8, 2022  Megan D Robinson

The Surreal Life of Hieronymus Bosch

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, between 1490 and 1500, oil on canvas

One of the greatest artists of the medieval Northern Renaissance, iconoclastic Netherlander Hieronymus Bosch created highly detailed surrealistic works centered around religious themes. His fantastical paintings mixed the mundane and the sublime, the beautiful and the grotesque, brimming with bizarre imaginative elements as he explored religious symbolism, themes and allegories. His surreal grotesqueries, haunting apocalyptic revels and striking religious depictions have led to the coining of the term Boschian―meaning “chaotic, hellish, and surreal.” While his work is widely acclaimed, very little is known about his early life and career.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Portrait de Jérôme Bosch (anonyme, 1585)

Born into a family of painters, between 1450 and 1456, Bosch was the fourth of five children. Bosch lived in or around the Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch all of his life. His grandfather Johannes Thomaszoon van Aken was one of the preeminent area painters, and built a painterly family dynasty. Bosch probably learned his craft from his father, Antonius van Aken. While little historical information about Bosch’s father has survived, Bosch is referenced as a member of Antonius’s workshop in 1475. 


On June 13, 1463, a catastrophic fire destroyed much of Bosch’s hometown, including his childhood home. Some historians believe witnessing this disaster influenced Bosch’s later works. Known as Jheronimus in his early years, Bosch married Aleid van der Mervenne, a wealthy merchant’s daughter, between 1480 and 1481. The land, money and status Bosch gained with this marriage allowed him to establish his own workshop.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Hieronymus Bosch, The Owl's Nest, Pen and bistre on paper. 140 × 196 mm. Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

In 1486/7, Bosch joined the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Lady, a devotional confraternity based in 's-Hertogenbosch, which was both an important devotional organization and a social network, with members throughout Europe. Much of what we know about Bosch is from historical records kept by the Brotherhood. 

Bosch painted with oil, generally on oak panels, using an impasto technique, where paint is applied thickly to the work surface, making brush strokes visible. This more textural approach distinguished him from other painters of the time, who followed the Flemish tradition of using multiple glazes to create an extremely smooth surface. 

A popular artist, Bosch was commissioned by religious organizations, churches and nobility. His early work centered around the lives of saints. He created paintings for the Brotherhood, designed a stained glass window for the chapel of the Cathedral of Saint John in 's-Hertogenbosch, and was commissioned in 1504 by Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy, to paint a large altarpiece of the Last Judgment. This painting, along with much of his other work, no longer exists. Approximately 20 paintings have been reliably attributed to Bosch. As his style was highly influential and widely imitated, and his work was frequently copied, there has been much scholarly debate over what surviving artwork he actually produced. Over the course of his career, Bosch created at least sixteen triptychs; eight have survived intact, five more survived in fragments. While Bosch didn’t date his work, he did sign several pieces, which was very unusual for time.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the crucified Martyr, circa 1497-1505, oil on panel

His most famous work, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1500) was commissioned as a wedding painting for Count Henry II of Nassau-Breda. A masterpiece exploring the facets of love, lust, and spiritual consequences through the lens of biblical storytelling, the massive triptych depicts Adam and Eve receiving instruction from God in the Garden of Eden on the left; a crowded, riotous, sybaritic paradise at the center; and the surreal inferno of hell in store for rampant hedonists on the right. 

The only humans in the first panel, Adam and Eve are depicted in naked innocence, while God is a berobed grandfather. Their quiet, solitary paradise of rolling hills is populated with various animals, with an ornate fountain and decorative blue mountains in the distance. The second panel is filled with people, birds and animals, all engaged in riotous activity. There are acrobatic contortions; gigantic berries being gorged on; manic horse races; and salacious assignations, with intricate, uncanny castle-like structures in the background. The final panel depicts a glowering hellscape, with the former partiers attacked by monstrous, knife-wielding ears, being eaten by fish-headed demons, and tortured using giant musical instruments. Bosch brilliantly combined wonder and enchantment with the absurd, the macabre, the unexpected, and the horrific, creating a wry, insightful, beautiful and disturbing commentary on human desires and fears.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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