Jereon van Aken, more commonly known as Hieronymus Bosch (1460-1516), was a Northern European painter who is known for his fantastically creative paintings. Thought by early historians to be a heretic due to his unconventional themes and imagery, he was in fact an orthodox citizen of the community in his home town of s-Hertogenbosch in what is now the Southern Netherlands.
By comparing two of his paintings The Haywain (1516) and The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503-1515) with each other and alongside other religious paintings of the era, one can see not only why they thought this, but how they were disproved. We’ll also see how his unique style and technique earned its own adjective and why he is considered one of the most significant painters of the late 15th and early 16th Centuries.
While he invariably continued the early Netherlandish painting traditions of celebrated artists like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, he also broke with those predecessors in terms of style, iconography, and technique, with his imaginative imagery and innovative use of common conventions.
Both The Garden of Earthly Delights and The Haywain are triptychs that differ both stylistically and thematically from other religious paintings of the same time. Bosch employs the standard religious format of the day – the three-part folding triptych – but in new, diverse ways.
Most religious triptychs were made for an altarpiece, but The Garden of Earthly Delights is first mentioned as being seen in the Brussels palace of Henry III of Nassau, indicating that it was commissioned for private use by a nobleman. He did indeed have important aristocratic patrons, but was not attached to any courts. Some scholars have concluded it to be a commission coinciding with a marriage or wedding due to what they perceive to be themes of marriage and sex. However, it appears Bosch’s intentions are far more complex than that.
A dominant theme in his works is the sinfulness of humanity, and many include allusions to the “immense seductiveness of evil.” Sin, penitence, and salvation were widespread concerns of the time, and both paintings speak to that idea. Ideally, a person would go to a priest and confess, and would perform certain acts of penance in order to be absolved. Bosch focussed on sin over penitence, with an emphasis on earthly beings rather than heavenly figures, intending to trigger the viewers self-reflection. His religious oeuvre can be seen to be influenced by Devotio Morderna, which encouraged individual devotion rather than communal: “look at yourself and your kind, look at how you live here on the earth, and seek to improve.”
Where other religious painters often make their images concise, coherent, and obviously narrative, Bosch’s paintings are complex and busy, filled with numerous figures, which compels the audiences’ engagement and requires them to look closely and reflect on each detail. Both The Garden of Earthly Delights and The Haywain show a virtually complete account of Christian history, reading chronologically left to right with the Garden of Eden landscape on the left panel and the sharp contrast of Hell on the right. Where most other paintings might have a Judgement scene in the middle, however, these two have unconventional themes not often found in religious paintings – or in the case of The Garden of Earthly Delights, entirely imaginary.
The center interior panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights shows a “colourful humanity living in sensual innocence.” The name of the triptych gives a clue as to its meaning: not a garden of Eden, but a garden of earthly delights. Some believe it to be pre-flood earth, where humanity has been given their chance to live a righteous life, but have squandered it by giving in to temptation. This is seen by the nude figures seemingly naïve shamelessness in their activities.
The composition is split into three tiers, splitting the action and creating a deep space for his landscape to evolve. The foreground shows numerous young, nude figures enjoying the bountiful earth, eating and caressing giant fruits and engaging with large birds. The midground shows a group of bathing women who display themselves to a group of men being carried by various animals in a wild circle around the pond. This can be seen as humans failing to live up to the blessing that God has given as He created them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish in the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28). The humans have certainly multiplied, but they are not in command. They are indulgent and dependent on the fruit, and the animals control them, dictating the men’s ride rather than being directed. This is a False Paradise and leads directly to hell – as does the triptychs left to right movement.
In contrast, The Haywain’s interior shows not an imagined place, but a quasi-contemporary scene: a hay wagon that is being drawn by demonic figures and followed by people of all classes and status, who jostle and grab at the hay. This remains in the theme of sin and indulgence, and answering the age-old question of ‘how ought we behave’: Bosch infers, not like this.
While this work also uses the triptych format in a non-traditional way, he is among his contemporary peers with his allusions to many of the issues that lead to the 16th Century Reformation; the selling of indulgences in order to attain salvation, and clerical waste and their abuse of power; which kicked off the year following Bosch’s death. Hence the inclusion of many royal and clerical figures, while Christ looks on in exasperation from a heavenly opening above. The presence of Christ marks Bosch’s distinct religious message, but he is so far removed from the action that the thematic focus shifts to the world of men, symbolising that even those in power in the church have succumbed to greed. The scroungers do not even notice that the cart is pulled by devilish creatures, a sure sign that they are partaking in sinful activity because they are so caught up with snatching their portions of hay. It is possible he was influenced by the Flemish proverb, “The world is a haystack; everyone takes what he can grab thereof”.
With both paintings, there is a continuous horizon throughout all three panels, something not usually found in traditional religious triptychs. This gives a panoramic view of a vast landscape, although they are indeed separate: each paintings’ outer wings depict Heaven on the left and Hell on the right.
The Haywain’s Garden of Eden is more narrative than The Garden of Earthly Delights, with three scenes involving Adam and Eve separated in space and in time by hilly planes, beginning with the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib, then the Original Sin, and finally at the bottom, their expulsion from the Garden.
This leads into the center panel in the theme of free will, and evil being present from the earliest days of creation: humans must choose their fate. In the background is the casting down of the rebel angels, which then turn into demons: likely heading to pull the hay wagon!
By contrast, in The Garden of Earthly Delights’ Eden panel, the fall is yet to occur: a Christ like figure is only just introducing Eve to Adam. However, Bosch includes a hint towards evil already being present in the world, through the various animals depicted around the trio. A cat hunts a mouse, sinister lizards crawl from the lake, and an owl rests in the fountain. Owls were a common theme in Bosch’s work so symbolise evil, and dark power.
In sharp juxtaposition to these brightly coloured Eden scenes are the Hell panels on the right. The Garden of Earthly Delights’ Hell is perhaps his most recognisable work, with its precisely painted and horrifyingly specific depictions of torture. No other artist was so imaginative in their Hell landscapes: Hans Memlings’ Last Judgement Triptych (1467-73), for example, includes demons dragging people to hell in the right pane, but that is all they do – there is no implicit torture shown, only implied by the devilish figures as people fall into the fiery pit.
In The Garden of Earthly Delights, each person is tortured by the sin they indulged in most, with special attention towards musicians: there is a lot of instrumental imagery, with people being splayed on harp strings, sodomy via flute, and even a pair of giant ears wielding knives. Both The Garden of Earthly Delights and The Haywain Hell scenes have a horizon engulfed in flames, with dark buildings and machinery brooding ominously in the nocturnal light.
The forward kinetic movement of the three panels together shows humanity’s progression straight to Hell: there is no glimmer of hope or absolution, no Heaven. This is a melancholic view, but forces the viewer to understand that their salvation is in their own hands, and that their choices dictate their fate, so they had best choose the path to virtue.
The Haywain has been dendochronogically dated to have been completed in the final years of his life, once his style and name had been firmly established. Its exterior is wildly different from any other paintings of the time, with a full colour narrative image on its exterior that ignores the join of the two panels completely.
This subverts the usual hierarchy found in the triptych format, where the exterior is considered less significant than the interior. It shows an image that Bosch clearly felt was a significant theme as he uses it in several other paintings; a figure known by many names; the wayfarer, the pedlar, the vagabond, the everyman; a lone traveller on a path through life.
This shows Bosch’s view of sin and salvation; that every man must independently choose the thin but righteous path to virtue and reject the temptation of sin; shown by the man carrying his possessions on his back, avoiding all the debauchery around him, and continuing on the path. It is not clear how far into his journey he is, how far to go, or what lies ahead: as in life.
The Garden of Earthly Delights exterior is similarly composed, but it does utilises the traditional triptych style of an exterior painted in grisaille. It is also traditional in the sense of portraying the earliest scene of a narrative: it depicts what is generally agreed to be the third day of creation. God sits in the upper left corner above an earth in trees and foliage, before any living creatures have taken possession (free of sin – though not for long, once it is opened up). Though it is in black and grey tones, it still breaks the conventional mould when compared to other triptychs, such as Hugo Van Der Goes’ Portinari Altarpiece (1475), which in typical religious fashion has the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel placed inside arched niches, and painted completely in grisaille.
Visual realism was usually conventional and idealised. Bosch breaks this mould with his highly naturalistic, yet phantasmagorical iconography. Not only his iconography and format of the triptychs, but his technique of using underdrawing and thin, quick brushstrokes, sets him apart from other painters of his time. Due to these characteristics and his creativity, he induced a lot of painters to adopt his style, which has led to much controversy over attributing works. Regardless, it is clear that he made a sizeable effect on his peers, and continues to impress today.