2016 © Dr. Eric De Bruyn
The paintings and drawings of Jheronimus Bosch stand out among those of his late-medieval contemporaries as extremely intriguing and bizarre and at the same time as particularly difficult to grasp. The huge amount of books and articles about him, still expanding today, is almost as fascinating as the works of Bosch themselves. Bosch has been called a heretic who favoured Catharism or nudism, an adept of alchemy and astrology, a Rosicrucian, a drugs addict, a schizophrenic and even a neurotic who was obsessed by anal eroticism. Nevertheless, the large majority of modern Bosch scholars view the painter as a religious moralist and satirist whose works bear witness to a traditional Christian point of view.
The available biographical and historical data signal that there is no cause for the hypothesis that Bosch was a heretic, as Wilhelm Fraenger and others have asserted. The master from ’s-Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc) belonged to the well-respected Christian Confraternity of Our Lady in his hometown and was appreciated by his patrons who were either well-to-do burghers or important noblemen from the Low Countries. Bosch’s iconographical programme can be summarized as follows: time and again the viewer is warned of man’s sins and folly and encouraged to the pious imitation of Christ and the saints, the final goal of all this being a blissful existence in the Hereafter.
In order to mould this message Bosch liked to make use of symbolism. Although this allegorical way of communicating was not unique at all in the Middle Ages, Bosch’s imagery often strikes as unusual and enigmatic but it should not be forgotten that a cultural gap of 500 years stands between us and his creations. Which is why a modern spectator who wants to get familiar with Bosch’s allegorical language will have to look at his paintings with the eyes and the general knowledge of a late-medieval man of woman, a skill he or she can only master by means of a meticulous and demanding study focusing on the cultural-historical context in which Bosch created his oeuvre.
This oeuvre comprises some 25 paintings and 16 drawings (depending on the author being quoted, the number may vary). Most of the paintings are triptychs or remnants of triptychs, the most famous being The Garden of Earthly Delights (Madrid, Prado), The Temptations of St Anthony (Lisbon, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga), The Haywain (two versions: Madrid, Prado/Escorial), The Last Judgment (Vienna, Akademie der bildenden Künste) and The Adoration of the Magi (Madrid, Prado). Their chronology is still a matter of controversy as is the question whether all these triptychs functioned as an altarpiece in a church or chapel. In a number of cases it is not easy to decide whether we are dealing with an original Bosch painting or with a workshop product or the work of an imitator. At the same time it has to be pointed out that the field of Bosch imitation, which is extensive especially in the sixteenth century, offers an interesting subject of research in its own right.