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




Life and Milieu


Hieronymus Bosch lived and worked in 's-Hertogenbosch, the place from which he takes his name, an attractive but fairly quiet Dutch city not far from the present-day Belgian border. In Bosch's day, 's-Hertogenbosch was one of the four largest cities of the duchy of Brabant, which formed part of the extensive territories of the ambitious dukes of Burgundy. The other chief Brabantine cities, Brussels, Antwerp and Louvain, lie to the south, in what is now Belgium; 's-Hertogenbosch is in the north, geographically close to the provinces of Holland and Utrecht and the Rhine and Maas rivers. In the late Middle Ages, 's-Hertogenbosch was a thriving commercial town, the centre of an agricultural area, with extensive trade connections with both Northern Europe and Italy. Although its cloth industry was important, the city was especially famous for its organ builders and bell founders.
The predominantly middle-class commercial population must have determined much of the city's character, for 's-Hertogenbosch lacked the active court life of Brussels or Malines; unlike Louvain, it possessed no university, nor was it the seat of a bishopric, as were the other major cities of Brabant. Yet a vigorous cultural life was by no means absent. 's-Hertogenbosch had a famous Latin school and, by the end of the fifteenth century, could boast of five »rederijker kamers« or chambers of rhetoric, literary associations which presented poetic and dramatic performances on various public occasions.
Religious life seems to have been particularly flourishing; a great number of convents and monasteries were situated in and around the city. Of special interest are the two houses established by the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life. A modified religious order without vows, this brotherhood originated in Holland in the late fourteenth century in an attempt to return to a simpler and more personal form of religion, which was called the »Devotio Moderna«. Its character is well exemplified in the famous devotional treatise, the limitation of Christ«, generally attributed to Thomas a Kempis, which, as we shall see, must have been well known to Bosch and his patrons. The »Devotio Moderna« played an important role in the religious revival of the fifteenth century and probably contributed to the extraordinary increase in the number of religious foundations in 's-Hertogenbosch. Indeed, by 1526, just ten years after Bosch's death, one out of every nineteen persons in 's-Hertogenbosch belonged to a religious order, a much higher proportion than can be found in other Netherlandish cities at that time. The presence of so many cloisters and their economic competition seem to have attracted considerable hostility from the townspeople, an attitude which we shall also see reflected in Bosch's art.
Despite frequent criticism of the religious order, however, the moral authority of the medieval Church had not, as yet, been seriously shaken. Religion still permeated all aspects of everyday life. Each guild had its own patron saint, and every citizen participated in the great feasts of the Church and in the annual religious processions. The two impulses of life in 's-Her-togenbosch, the sacred and the secular, found their finest expression in the great church of St John, at once the symbol of the still-intact medieval faith and a testimony to the civic pride and commercial prosperity of the city. Begun in the late fourteenth century on the site of an older structure and only completed in the sixteenth, it is a fine example of Brabantine Gothic, noteworthy for its wealth of carved decoration. Of particular interest are the rows of curious figures, monsters and workmen, sitting astride the buttresses supporting the roof, some of which bring to mind the fantastic creatures of Bosch.
The church of St John was in the early phases of construction when Bosch's ancestors settled in 's-Hertogenbosch in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century. Their family name, Van Aken, suggests that they originally came from the German town of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle). In 1430 - 31 appears the first certain reference to Bosch's grandfather, Jan van Aken, who died in 1454. Jan had five sons, at least four of whom were painters; one of these, Anthonius van Aken (died c. 1478), was the father of Hieronymus Bosch.
Unlike Albrecht Durer, Bosch left no diaries or letters. What we know of his life and artistic activity must be gleaned chiefly from the brief references to him in the municipal records of 's-Hertogenbosch and especially in the account books of the Brotherhood of Our Lady. These records tell us nothing about the man himself, not even the date of his birth. A portrait of the artist, perhaps a self-portrait, known only through later copies, shows Bosch at a fairly advanced age. On the assumption that the original portrait was done shortly before his death in 1516, it has been supposed that he was born around 1450. Bosch first appears in a municipal record of 1474, where he ist named along with his two brothers and a sister; one brother, Goossen, was also a painter. Some time between 1479 and 1481, Bosch married Aleyt Goyaerts van den Meervenne, evidently some years his senior. She came from a good family, however, and had considerable wealth of her own; in 1481 there occurred a lawsuit between Bosch and Aleyt's brother over family property. It is assumed that Bosch and his wife lived in 't Root Cruys (the Red Cross).




Portrait of Hieronymus Bosch
Pencil and sanguine
Bibliotheque Municipale d'Arras, Arras


In 1486-87, Bosch's name appears for the first time in the membership lists of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, with which he was to be closely associated for the rest of his life. This brotherhood was one of the many groups devoted to the veneration of the Virgin which flourished in the late Middle Ages. Founded sometime before 1318, the Brotherhood at's-Herto-genbosch comprised both lay and religious men and women. Their devotions were centred on a famous miracleworking image of the Virgin, the »Zoete Lieve Vrouw«, enshrined in the church of St John where the Brotherhood maintained a chapel. Attracting members from all over the northern Netherlands and Westphalia, this large and wealthy organization must have contributed significantly to the religious and cultural life of 's-Hertogenbosch. Its members engaged singers, organists and composers
to supply music for their daily masses and solemn feasts. They also commissioned works of art to embellish the chapel of Our Lady, and in 1478 they decided to construct a new and more splendid chapel attached to the north side of the unfinished choir of St John. The project was entrusted to the church architect, Alart du Hamel, who later engraved some Boschian designs.
Most of Bosch's family belonged to the Brotherhood, and were employed by them in various tasks, frequently to gild and polychrome the wooden statues carried in the annual processions. Bosch's father, Antho-nius van Aken, seems also to have acted as a sort of artistic adviser to the Brotherhood. In 1475-76, for example, heand his son were present when the Deans of the Brotherhood discussed the commission of a large wooden altarpiece, completed in 1477 for their chapel.
Hieronymus Bosch may have been one of Anthonius's sons present at these negotiations. However, his first recorded transactions with the Brotherhood occur in 1480-81, and thereafter he received a number of commissions from them. These included several designs, one in 1493-94 for a stained-glass window in the new chapel, another in 1511-12 fora crucifix, and a third in 1512-13 for a chandelier. The small fee he received for executing the last-named project suggests that he did it mainly as a benevolent gesture.
There is no documentary evidence that Bosch ever left his home town. However, a sojourn in Utrecht is suggested by certain aspects of his early work, while the influence of Flemish art on his mature style indicates that he may also have travelled in the southern Netherlands. It has been proposed that Bosch painted his »Crucifixion of St Julia« during a trip to northern Italy, where the cult of this saint was especially popular, but it is more likely that this work was commissioned by Italian merchants or diplomats residing in the Netherlands, as was, for example, the Portinari triptych of Hugo van der Goes.
One final entry in the accounts of the Brotherhood of Our Lady records Bosch's death in 1516; on 9 August of that year, his friends in the Brotherhood attended a funeral mass in his memory in the church of St John.
There are only a few other references to Bosch's works. From several seventeenth-century sources we learn that other paintings by him were to be seen in St John's church. In 1504, finally, Philip the Handsome, duke of Burgundy, commissioned an altarpiece from »Jeronimus van Aeken called Bosch«, the first time, incidentally, that the painter was referred to by his place of origin. The altarpiece was to depict the Last Judgment flanked by Heaven and Hell; its huge dimensions (nine feet high by eleven feet wide) would have approached those of Roger van der Weyden's »Last Judgment in the Hospital at Beaune. This work is lost, but some scholars believe that a fragment of it survives in a small panel now in Munich, while others identify the »LastJudgment« triptych in Vienna as a reduced replica by Bosch of Philip's altarpiece. Neither suggestion is entirely convincing. Of Bosch's paintings in the church of St John there remains no certain trace today. They probably disappeared when 's-Hertogenbosch was taken from the Spanish in 1629 by Prince Frederick Henry and his Dutch troops, and Catholic splendour was replaced by Calvinist austerity.
Numerous paintings bearing Bosch's name can be found in museums and private collections in Europe and the United States. Many of these are only copies or pastiches of his original compositions, but over thirty pictures and a small group of drawings can be attributed to him with reasonable certainty. Except for his early works, however, the chronology of these paintings is difficult to determine with any precision. None are dated, and some have been so heavily damaged and overpainted that it would be hazardous to base a chronology on subtle nuances of style and technique. It is more rewarding to study Bosch's paintings according to their subject-matter; only after a thorough examination of his imagery may some insight be gained into the nature of Bosch's artistic development.




Two Male Heads
Oil on panel, 14,5 x 12 cm
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam



Two Caricatured Heads
Pen and bistre, 133 x 100 mm
Lehmann Collection, New York


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