Saving Hieronymus Bosch from the devil

The powerful, disturbing work of the Dutch painter, who died 500 years ago, tells us a great deal about the anxieties of his time

Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights

Anaemic-looking nudes frolicking; orifices with foreign objects inserted; strange fantasy buildings; terrible tortures perpetrated amid the fires of hell; unusual fish, birds and other motley creatures; St Anthony and his pet pig; the grim persecutors of Christ; and a beautiful black magus. All these images, and many similar absurdities, will be popping up on your Twitter feed as the year progresses.

This is because 2016 is the 500th anniversary of the death of the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, who is famous for, among other much-debated works, The Garden of Earthly Delights. His preferred format was the triptych, the concept album of his day. A lot could be packed into such paintings, with their three wooden panels, the left and right sides closing over as little doors.

The hometown of this Renaissance master of weirdness, ’s-Hertogenbosch, is taking the opportunity to celebrate him with a series of wacky events, including Bosch- inspired parades, theatrical productions and art installations. It begins this month with the Noordbrabants Museum exhibiting an unusually large collection of his paintings in one place.

The place of his birth and the date of his death are two of the few facts we know about him. Other than that, we know he got married; that he was a member of the Brethren of Our Lady, a local religious confraternity; and that he was the third generation of a family of painters who originated in Aachen in Germany. They had come to join the burgher elite of what in the late Middle Ages was a fast-growing town in the centre of the Netherlands, until the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries turned it into contested territory.


By 1500 Bosch's work had gained an international reputation and he was receiving commissions from royalty. His sheer originality meant that for the 60 years after his death he was widely forged, copied and reproduced in print, with a only few of his imitators, most notably Pieter Bruegel the Elder, being original in their own right.

By then his paintings were being collected by Spain's Philip II for his monastery and palace of the Escorial, although Bosch himself was fast fading into incomprehension and suspicion in the newly confrontational world of the Counter-Reformation. José de Sigüenza, the Escorial's religious head, felt the need to defend the "devil's painter", claiming that he was a genius, not a heretic: "Bosch's paintings aren't absurdities but like books of great wisdom and art, and if there are absurdities they are ours, not his; in short, it is a painted satire of the sins and inconstancy of men."

A surreal revival

Bosch continued to influence Dutch and Flemish painters for another century before disappearing from view for another three. The surrealists revived him from obscurity in the 1920s and 1930s. Salvador Dalí thought Bosch was all about sex. After 1939 his paintings gained more attention when The Garden of Earthly Delights and others were moved from the Escorial to the Prado. By the 1960s they were widely available in art books, and the Earthly Delights was embraced by the flower-power generation as an example of free love.

I was lucky enough to encounter them first up close and personal in the Prado in 1973. It was a revelation, and they were hung in close proximity to the Bruegels, so the influences were plain to see. Bosch’s paintings plainly represented – just prior to Luther’s Reformation – a lot of the late medieval fears about the end of the world and hellfire and damnation. At that time, some of the scholarly interpretations were quite outlandish: that Bosch must have been on drugs or was a Neo-Adamite, a member of a sect of Christian nudists.

Since then, however, we have managed to develop a better understanding of his work by deploying a broad range of research techniques. As a result we have a picture of an artist not only reflecting the spiritual fears of his time and the concerns of his class but also someone who was deeply learned in the scientific lore of his age.

With so few facts to go on, putting Bosch's work in its Renaissance context solves many of the supposed mysteries. His imagery turns out not to be as unique as it appears. Yes, it has been confected by his imagination, but many prototypes can be found in books and manuscripts of the time. Some instances he depicts – Sigüenza's "absurdities" – come from the interest in proverbs that was pervasive in the early days of printing. Both these aspects, with a bit of astrology thrown in, are to the fore in his Ship of Fools.

The philanthropic concerns of his confraternity emerge in his representations of the poor and homeless: there is the profligate one, often used since as an image of the prodigal son, in The Wayfarer, and the virtuous, pilgrim-like poor man on the outside of The Haywain. Opened out, this magnificent triptych reveals Bosch's wider concerns with the period's economic and political problems: the greed and corruption in which church and state and almost everyone else was caught up. His Seven Deadly Sins, also owned by Philip II, represents the traditional constraints of the Middle Ages before its replacement with the more egocentric Ten Commandments as the moral system of Christianity.

Medical ideas

Bosch has contemporary medical ideas on display in The Stone Operation, Ship of Fools and Death of a Miser. Another theory was that beauty and ugliness were mirrors of the soul, hence the contrasting depictions of Christ and his tormentors in The Flagellation of Christ, The Crowning with Thorns and Christ Carrying the Cross. Extensive pharmaceutical knowledge of the medieval variety is in his triptych of The Temptation of St Anthony, the intercessory of the unfortunates suffering the agonies of the disease of ergotism (the effect of long-term ergot poisoning), known as St Anthony's fire. Most important in the interpretation of Bosch was his interest in alchemy. Although one Dr Faust might have given it a bad name soon after, there was nothing at all unorthodox in this pursuit.

Adoration of the Magi is an altarpiece before which the priest would have raised the host – its liturgical function in the miracle of the Mass is neatly epitomised in its central panel by juxtaposing the ideas of transmutation of elements and the transubstantiation of bread and wine. There is even more alchemical lore on display in The Garden of Earthly Delights: flasks, pipes, tubes, crucibles and furnaces. It is now interpreted as representing the creation of life, the marrying of different elements (all the gleeful copulation going on its central panel) and then the destruction of nature in the apocalyptic third panel.

We are now on more solid ground about Bosch's art, but regrettably it is beginning to diminish in quantity. His name appears on only a few of the paintings generally attributed to him. Testing of the wood panels has led to the delisting of the gruesome Ghent version of Christ Carrying the Cross: the dendrochronology has dated it to 1510-1535, and it is now generally assumed to be by a follower. There are likewise questions over The Seven Deadly Sins.

Also described as "School of Bosch" is the Irish-inspired Vision of Tondal. Indicative of the popularity of Bosch-esque imagery at the time of his death, there are six versions of this painting.

On the gain side, the Noordbrabants Museum has recently announced that it will be including a newly identified St Anthony, making that three by Bosch out of the 11 surviving examples. One of the most common is Christ in Limbo: there are at least 17 versions, two in Ireland, with one in the National Gallery. None is by the man himself.

We are lucky that Bosch is not a modern artist writing one of today's exhibition catalogues – God knows what art theory gobbledegook he could have come up with. Needless to say, the interpretations of Bosch continue apace. Leonardo DiCaprio recently presented Pope Francis with a large Taschen edition of The Garden of Earthly Delights, declaring that it was a thesis on climate change and environmental disaster. Perhaps he should have given one of The Haywain as well. Neoliberalism?

  • Hiram Morgan's latest book, Ireland 1518: Archduke Ferdinand's Visit and the Dürer Connection, is published by the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. For a programme of anniversary celebrations in Bosch's home town, see