Hieronymus BOSCH




Renaissance Art Map
Hieronymus Bosch  Between Heaven And Hell
    Life and Milieu
    Artistic Origins and Early Biblical Scenes
    The Mirror of Man
    The Last Judgement
    The Triumph of Sin
    The Pilgrimage of Life
    The Imitation of Christ
    The Triumph of the Saint    





Between Heaven And Hell


The Triumph of the Saint


In his pictures of the saints, Bosch seldom depicted those miraculous exploits and spectacular martyrdoms which so fascinated the later Middle Ages. Except for the early »Crucifixion of St Julia«, he showed the more passive virtues of the contemplative life: no soldier saints, no tender virgins frantically defending their chastity, but hermits meditating quietly in a landscape.
Three variations of this theme appear in the sadly damaged triptych ofthe» HermitSaints« in Venice, painted towards the middle of his career. In the centre St Jerome fastens his gaze on a crucifix, secure against the evil world symbolized by the remains of a pagan temple scattered around him on the ground and by two monstrous animals engaged in a death struggle below. On the left, St Anthony the Hermit resists the amorous advances of the Devil-Queen, an episode to which we shall return. Snugly ensconced in a cave chapel on the right wing, St Giles prays before an altar, the arrow piercing his breast commemorating the time when he was shot accidentally by a passing hunter.
All three saints reflect the monastic ideal as set forth, for example, in the limitation of Christ«: a life spent in mortification of the flesh and in continuous prayer and meditation. »How strict and self-denying was the life of the holy Fathers in the desert!« exclaims Thomas a Kempis, »How long and grievous the temptations they endured! How often they were assaulted by the Devil! How frequent and fervent their prayers to God! ... How great their zeal and ardour for spiritual progress! How valiant the battles they fought to overcome their vices!«
In the »St Jerome at Prayer«, Bosch gave an even more telling image of this ideal. Jerome has cast himself down, a crucifix cradled in his arms; his splendid red cardinal's robe lies abandoned on the ground. Absent are the dramatic gestures-the breast-beating and the eyes raised adoringly to the Cross - with which other artists represented the penitent saint, but in this still, intent figure, Bosch has nonetheless poignantly expressed Jerome's spiritual anguish. The peaceful background panorama contains no hint of evil, but the swampy grotto in which the saint lies is rank with corruption and decay. In his autobiography, Jerome describes how his meditations in the wilderness were interrupted by visions of beautiful courtesans. These lustful thoughts are undoubtedly symbolized by the large decomposing fruits near the saint's cave, reminiscent of the flora in the «Garden of Earthly Delights«. Only by surrendering completely to the will of God could Jerome subdue his rebellious flesh.
In another picture (Madrid, Museo Lazaro-Galdiano), Bosch shows St John the Baptist seated in a humid summer landscape. The composition may well have been influenced by a painting done some years earlier by Geertgen tot Sint Jans. Geertgen represented the thoughtful prophet staring abstractedly into space, rubbing one foot against the other, but Bosch shows him pointing purposefully towards the Lamb of God crouching at lower right. This gesture traditionally identifies John as the forerunner of Christ, the »precursor Christi«. In this instance however, it also indicates a spiritual alternative to the life of the flesh symbolized in the great pulpy fruits hanging near him on gracefully curving stems, and in the equally ominous forms rising in the background.



Triptych of the Crucifixion of St Julia
Oil on panel, 104 x 119 cm
Palazzo Ducale, Venice


Hermit Saints Triptych
St Anthony, St Jerome, St Giles

c. 1505
Oil on panel, 86 x 60 cm
Palazzo Ducale, Venice


Hermit Saints Triptych. St Jerome (central panel)
c. 1505
Oil on panel, 86 x 60 cm
Palazzo Ducale, Venice


Temptation of St Anthony
Pen and bistre, 257 x 175 mm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin


Studies for the "Tempation of St Anthony"
Pen and bistre, 205 x 263 mm
Musee du Louvre, Paris


St Jerome in Prayer
c. 1505
Oil on panel, 80,1 x 60,6 cm
Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent


Jerome was born about AD 342 and died in Bethlehem in AD 420. He studied philosophy at Rome and became one of the most learned of the Latin Fathers of the Church, a great biblical scholar who revised the Latin version of the New Testament and worked over or translated the whole Bible, known since the 13th century as the Vulgate. He was ordained a priest but did not exercise his priestly office. In 374 he retired to the desert near Antioch and spent some years among the hermits. While there he was visited by temptations and lustful visions of the flesh. Most representations of St Jerome show him in a state of penitence in the desert. Bosch's painting depicts Jerome as a reclining praying figure, having cast aside his cardinal's robe and hat. which are often shown as indications of both his service to the Church and his rejection of the priestly office. Around him are familiar symbols of the bodily temptations: broken fruit, an evil smelling swamp, indicating decay and corruption, and a lurking owl. There is also a small dog-like creature at the bottom left, which probably represents a lion, Jerome's symbol.


St John the Baptist in the Wilderness (Meditation)
Oil on panel, 48 x 40 cm
Museo Lazaro Galdiano, Madrid


St John the Baptist was the son of Elizabeth, cousin of Mary, the mother of Christ. Known as precursor Christi, he prophesied the coming of Christ and is often associated pictorially in his youth with Christ. It was he who later baptized Christ. Also traditionally associated with the Lamb of God, the symbol of the Redeemer, in Bosch's painting St John is depicted in the wilderness lying in meditation and pointing to the Lamb, quietly seated in the bottom right. Again the traditional, endemic temptations of the flesh are indicated by the exotic luscious fruit, symbols of carnal pleasure, growing close to the Saint. The presence of monsters in Bosch's paintings is not always explicit, often seen only in that form of metamorphosis characteristic of modern Surrealism. One example is the elongated rock on which St John is leaning, which transforms at its left into a rat-like head, the rat being another symbol for sex as well as for general filth and lies against the Church.


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