Jheronimus Bosch Art Center

The Triptychs of Hieronymus Bosch

Jacobs 2000
Jacobs, Lynn F.
Genre: Nonfiction, art history
Uitgever: Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. XXXI (2000), nr. 4, pp. 1009-1041
Uitgave datum: 2000

Jacobs 2000


“The Triptychs of Hieronymus Bosch” (Lynn F. Jacobs) 2000

[in: Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. XXXI (2000), nr. 4, pp. 1009-1041]


The way in which Bosch simultaneously draws on older traditions while developing radically new ones is particularly striking in connection with his handing of the triptych format. Between 1400 and 1500 the three key features of the Netherlandish triptych were the following. First, it was devoted to religious subject matter and thereby suitable for use as an altarpiece. Second, it was hierarchically structured, with the exterior having less significance than the interior. Third, the triptych was conceived additively, that is, as consisting of three units (center panel and two wings). Bosch innovated all three aspects of the triptych: he introduced more secular themes, broke down the standard hierarchy and challenged the additive nature of the triptych. In this essay Jacobs first considers the ways in which Bosch’s triptychs as a group violate the three key traditions of the Netherlandish triptych and then examines the impact of these innovations more specifically within three of Bosch’s most famous triptychs: the Prado Epiphany, the Temptations of St. Anthony and the Garden of Earthly Delights.


A good number of Bosch’s triptychs create a shift away from the triptych’s traditional religious iconography and emphasize moral, or more often immoral, behavior in the earthly realm instead of salvation in the afterlife. Thus, these triptychs – though they usually contain some religious content or biblical narratives – are secular in the most basic sense of the term, i.e.: ‘of or pertaining to the world, as opposed to the church’ (the secondary, derogatory meaning of the term, i.e. ‘completely nonreligious’ or ‘profane’, does not apply to any of Bosch’s triptychs). The central panel of the Hay Wain does not depict a standard religious theme, but rather the sinfulness of man. This triptych certainly has distinct religious content, since the acts of sin are set within a religious framework, but its primary goal is to launch a moral invective against man and his activities in the world rather than to portray holy figures and holy history. The central panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights also has significant secular content because it focuses on earthly pleasures. This triptych was not placed in the chapel of the Nassau palace in Brussels, because Dürer makes no mention of it in 1520 whereas he does mention a Van der Goes painting in the chapel. The introduction of more secular thems in Bosch’s triptychs thus appears to go hand in hand with the development of new, nonreligious functions of the triptych.


Another important innovation introduced by Bosch was a remarkable emphasis on the exteriors of triptychs. He did this first by avoiding the standard iconic depictions of the Annunciation or of saints, instead using the exterior field as a setting for more elaborate, often narrative scenes. Second, he enlivened the color schemes of his exteriors. This was not especially innovative, since there are a number of precedents for polychrome exteriors and some roughly contemporaneous examples. The sources of Bosch’s grisaille technique have been traced to manuscript illumination. A third way in which Bosch created greater emphasis on the outside of his triptychs was by developing a more powerful design format for many of his triptych exteriors. Bosch’s use of roundels in this context seems to be unique.


The use of the roundel introduces a strong design contrast between the circular composition on the exterior and the noncircular format on the interior, playing up the inherent divisions within the triptych structure. Another design format, the unified exterior, appears relatively frequently in the early sixteenth century, but Bosch’s unified exteriors break down the divisions between the panels to an extent never seen before (Hay Wain, Prado Epiphany, Temptations of St. Anthony, Flood, Garden of Earthly Delights). The most significant and innovative way in which Bosch both eliminated traditional hierarchies and created greater unity in the triptych was by forging complex interrelationships between the exteriors and interiors of his works. This is the case with the Vienna shutter, which has the Christ Child Walking on one side, and with the Hay Wain, but especially with the Prado Epiphany, with the Temptations of St. Anthony and with the Garden of Earthly Delights. These three paintings constitute key statements of Bosch’s new approach to the triptych.


In the Prado Epiphany Bosch did not treat the Mass of St. Gregory on the exterior in a traditional fashion, but introduced new features into the iconography. Most significantly, he surrounded the figure of Christ, who appears miraculously on the altar, with the unique motif of an arched structure containing narrative scenes of the Passion. The exterior of this triptych is very tightly interlinked with the interior, since both the exterior and the interior focus on the theme of the Eucharist. The exterior thereby places Christ as the Man of Sorrows within a frame of evil. Similarly, Christ is surrounded by evil in the interior of this altarpiece.


The Temptations of St. Anthony is similar to the Hay Wain in that it is focused on the theme of moral and immoral life in this world with very little reference to any world beyond this one. By pairing scenes of the Passion of Christ on the exterior with scenes from the life of Saint Anthony on the interior, Bosch established a direct parallel between the life of Anthony and that of Christ, equating Anthony’s temptations with Christ’s Passion and capturing the notion of the imitation of Christ. These parallels between Anthony and Christ elevate Anthony to a status virtually equal to that of Christ.


The Garden of Earthly Delights presents an unfolding of world history, beginning with the third day of cration on the exterior, through the beginnings of human history in the garden of Eden at the left, the sinning of man after the expulsion from the garden in the center, and the final punishment for these transgressions in hell at the right. While Bosch unites the orb on the exterior across the two panels, he also establishes a contrast between the two sides, showing the right in shadow, with no fruits growing, whereas the left side has trees glowing in light and fruits beginning to sprout. In this way Bosch delineates a sequence of unfolding time and a progression in the stages of creation. This division of light and dark on the exterior reflects the division of paradise and hell on the interior.


Bosch was able to turn a traditional format – one seemingly on the verge of being outmoded – into a structure that could interweave formal and iconographic elements to create an intricate web of meanings, each reverberating against the other in ways that could not be achieved within the single panel format.


In this essay Jacobs offers some keen and interesting observations on Bosch’s triptychs.


[explicit 1st August 2006]

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