The work of the Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch (1453-1516) is characterized by unusual stylistic originality and an intensely personalized symbolism, which makes interpretation of the meaning of his paintings extremely difficult.
Between 1480 and 1515, the period of major activity by Hieronymus Bosch, the character and appearance of Netherlandish painting were profoundly altered by several factors. Most significant was the introduction of many of the artistic ideals of the Italian Renaissance in such important northern centers of painting as Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp. Responsive to these new currents of Italian influence, such painters as Gerard David and Quentin Massys had begun to invest their panels with the stable forms and spatial clarity of Renaissance painting. Bosch, on the other hand, appeared totally indifferent to these progressive trends, retaining in his work the nervous linearism and decorative exuberance of the late Gothic. It is basically the intense subjectivism of his art, unfettered by orthodoxy and tradition, that makes Bosch a representative of the new age.
Hieronymus Bosch, whose real name was Jeroen Anthoniszoon, was born in the North Brabant town of 's Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc). Both his grandfather and father had been painters in this relatively minor provincial center, and it is generally assumed that Bosch's early training was obtained locally. From 1486 until his death Bosch was mentioned regularly in the records of the local chapter of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, of which he was an active member. According to these accounts, he was commissioned to paint several altarpieces for the Cathedral of 's Hertogenbosch and to execute designs for its stained glass windows, all of which have disappeared. In 1504 Philip the Handsome, Archduke of Austria, commissioned him to paint a Last Judgment, which also has not survived. Further knowledge of the painter's career is unobtainable, save in the form of the few available insights that can be gleaned from the forty-odd authenticated paintings from the master's own hand. Several of these panels bear signatures, but none is dated, thus creating a major problem in their relative chronology.
Unlike most Netherlandish painters of the period, Bosch does not appear to have traveled widely. The formative influences on his style are still disputed, though such early works as the tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins show a marked reliance upon manuscript illuminations rather than contemporary practices of northern panel painting. The nearly contemporaneous tondo Cure of Folly (ca. 1475-1485) reveals a penchant for social satire akin to that found in several of the works of the Antwerp painter Quentin Massys.
The Marriage at Cana represents a decisive change in Bosch's style. The draftsmanship is at once firmer and bolder, and there occurs for the first time the technique of painting directly on the panel in a flat, evenly lighted manner. Bosch used this spontaneous and buoyant style of painting throughout his career, and it distinguishes his work from that of his major contemporaries.
The artist's appearance is known from a presumed portrait in the Arras Sketchbook which shows Bosch in middle age, spry and alert, with a cynical outlook on the world. The early period of his art is closed by the panel entitled The Conjuror, in which a strange visionary quality begins to supplant the immediacy and direct observation of the earlier works.
The major paintings of this period (ca. 1490-1505) are the trio of great moralizing triptychs upon which the artist's reputation is mainly founded. Of the three, the earliest is probably the Haywain, which can be interpreted as an allegory of the evils of the world. In this instance Bosch's symbolism has been shown to be derived from Flemish proverbs and other forms of popular, didactic literature. The fantastic Temptation of St. Anthony in Lisbon (ca. 1500) is considered by most authorities to be Bosch's masterpiece. It is a fully resolved work in which the painter achieved pictorial richness in combination with iconographic complexity and expressive intensity. The most pessimistic of Bosch's visual sermons, the painting shows a world dominated by evil and the omnipresence of the devil and his fiendish agents. A cosmic, imaginary landscape provides the fiery scenario for one of the artist's most original and sensational displays of demonic inventiveness.
The most enigmatic of Bosch's paintings is the triptych of the Garden of Earthly Delights. This work, by virtue of its fantastic and recondite symbolism, stands at the summit of the painter's career. In 1605 the Spanish monk Sigüenza concluded that the painting was an allegory on the origin, diffusion, and punishment of sin revealed in terms of a psychological as well as a physical drama. Since that time there has been little substantial improvement upon this thesis despite numerous efforts by scholars to discover the key to the meaning of the work. In this connection, one is still obliged to concur with the art historian Erwin Panofsky that the "real secret of his magnificent nightmares and daydreams has still to be disclosed."
Bosch's late style is characterized by an increased spiritual and pictorial asceticism. The Epiphany triptych initiates this phase with a new reliance upon broad forms and a simplified color scheme. A similar reduction of form and color to basic design elements is also observable in the small Madrid version of the painter's favorite theme, Temptation of St. Anthony. Solitary and contemplative, the simple figure of the hermit saint has been rendered physically and spiritually immune to a hostile world and its demonic occupants. One of Bosch's last works is the highly compacted and emotive Christ Carrying the Cross. Composed entirely of heads situated against a dark background, this panel provides a fitting climax to the artist's career. The arcane symbolism of the earlier works has here given way to an intense emotional and psychological drama into which the spectator is inexorably drawn, achieving for Bosch's final statement the quality of grandeur and universal human appeal.
When Bosch died in 1516, he left no followers in the usual sense. Such painters as Jan Mandyn and Pieter Huys were imitators at best, who were capable of copying Bosch's external forms without any understanding of their profound underlying significance.
Further Reading on Hieronymus Bosch
The best book on Bosch is Charles de Tolnay, Hieronymus Bosch (1937; trans. 1966). It contains a sensitive analysis of the artist's stylistic development as well as the most authoritative chronology of the paintings. Ludwig von Baldass's excellent Hieronymus Bosch (1943; trans. 1960) makes important contributions to knowledge of the meaning of Bosch's symbolism. An interesting thesis concerning the alchemical significance of many of Bosch's panels is in Jacques Combe, Jerome Bosch (1946; trans. 1957).