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




Artistic Origins and Early Biblical Scenes



Ecce Homo
Oil on panel, 52 x 54 cm
Museum of Art, Philadelphia




If we know little about Bosch's life, we know even less about his artistic background. It is generally assumed that he was trained by his father or one of his uncles, but all their paintings have been lost, including those commissioned by the Brotherhood of Our Lady. Some light can be cast on the stylistic origins of Bosch's earliest works, however, by considering them within the context of fifteenth-century Netherlandish painting in general. By the time his name began to appear in the records of 's-Hertogenbosch, the first great masters of the Flemish school, Jan van Eyckand Robert Campin, had been dead some thirty years. Roger van der Weyden had also died, but his cool and restrained art was continued, somewhat ineptly, by his followers in Brussels; it had also profoundly influenced Dirk Bouts, now at the end of his career in Louvain, and Hans Memling in Bruges. A more independent style was emerging in the powerful compositions of Hugo van der Goes in Ghent.
During Bosch's lifetime, the northern provinces of the Netherlands were neither as wealthy nor as politically powerful as Brabant and Flanders, and they had neither the extensive patronage nor the large workshops of the cities to the south. Many early Dutch paintings, moreover, were destroyed in the iconoclastic riots of the Reformation and so relatively few have survived. Nevertheless, it is evident that a fairly significant school of painting existed at Haarlem under Geertgen tot Sint Jans and his followers, while the anonymous Master of the Virgo inter Virgines worked in Delft during the last two decades of the century. Although only a few panel paintings can be connected with Utrecht, this ancient city, seat of a bishopric, seems to have been an important centre of manuscript illumination whose originality and significance have yet to be fully recognized. The stylistic unity of Flemish painting, dominated as it was by the genius of Roger van der Weyden, is absent in the northern Netherlands, where local and individual styles were more predominant. The Dutch artists, nevertheless, have many qualities in common, including deeply felt, expressive interpretations of biblical narrative and, especially in the case of Geertgen tot Sint Jans and the illuminators, a vision of man and the world based more on direct experience than on artistic convention.
Because 's-Hertogenbosch was a part of Brabant and the church of St John represents the high point of Brabantine Gothic, many writers have sought the origins of Bosch's art in the traditions established by Robert Campin, Roger van der Weyden and other artists who worked in the southern Netherlands. Bosch's later works, it is true, show many connections with Brabant and the south, but his earliest paintings display more affinities with Dutch art, particularly with the manuscript illuminations.
Among the works generally ascribed to Bosch's first period of activity (c. 1470-85) may be included several small biblical scenes: the »Epiphany (Adoration of the Magi)« in Philadelphia, the »Ecce Homo« in Frankfurt (with a related version in Boston, Museum of Fine Arts) and an altar wing in Vienna, the »Christ Carrying the Cross«. Their early date is suggested by their relatively simple compositions and their adherence to traditional compositional types.
This early style is especially well exemplified in the charming »Epiphany« in Philadelphia.



Oil on panel, 74 x 54 cm
Museum of Art, Philadelphia




The dignified comportment of the Kings is set off by the impulsive gesture of the Christ Child, while the aged Joseph stands discreetly to one side, removing his hood as if abashed by the presence of the splendidly dressed strangers. From behind the shed two shepherds look on with shy curiosity. At this early date, Bosch's grasp of perspective was apparently none too firm; particularly ambiguous is the spatial relationship of the stable to the figures in the foreground, although the crumbling walls and thatched roof have been painted with a loving attention to detail. In the distance at the upper right can be seen a pasture filled with grazing cattle and the shimmering towers of a city.
The intimate, almost cosy atmosphere of the Philadelphia »Epiphany« is replaced in the Frankfurt »Ecce Homo« by the brutality of his Passion.

Ecce Homo
Tempera and oil on oak panel, 71 x 61 cm
Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt




Crowned with thorns and his flesh beaten raw by the scourge, he now stands with Pilate and his companions before the angry mob. The dialogue between Pilate and the crowd is indicated by the Gothic inscriptions which function not unlinke the balloons in a modern comic strip. From the mouth of Pilate issue the words »Ecce Homo« (Behold the Man). There is no need to decipher the inscription »Crufige Eum« (Crucify Him), the cry which rises from the people below; their animosity is unmistakably conveyed by their facial expressions and threatening gestures. The third inscription »Salve nos Christe redemptor« (Save us, Christ Redeemer) once emerged from two donors at lower left, but their figures have been painted over. As with the Magi in the Philadelphia »Epiphany«, the heathen character of the men surrounding Christ is suggested by their strange dress and headgear, including pseudo-oriental turbans. The scene's essential wickedness is further indicated by such traditional emblems of evil as the owl in the niche above Pilate and the giant toad sprawled on the back of a shield carried by one of the soldiers. In the background appears a city square, the Turkish crescent fluttering from one of its towers. The enemies of Christ have been identified with the power of Islam which in Bosch's day, and long afterwards, controlled the most holy places of Christendom. The buildings, however, are late Gothic; only the oddly bulging tower in the distance evokes a feeling of far-off places.
The Dutch character of these two early works is unmistakable. The Philadelphia »Epiphany« represents a reworking of a composition which had long been used by the Dutch manuscript illuminators. Likewise, the homely faces and animated gestures of Christ's tormentors in the »Ecce Homo« recall Passion scenes in Dutch manuscripts of the second and third quarters of the fifteenth century, where we encounter similar physical types, slight in proportion, flatly modelled and often unsubstantial beneath their heavy robes.
The same style appears in the Vienna »Christ Carrying the Cross«, where the head of Christ is silhouetted against a dense mass of grimacing soldiers and ill-wishers, one of them bearing the familiar toad on his shield. Christ's physical agony is heightened by the spike-studded wooden blocks which dangle fore and aft from his waist, lacerating his feet and ankles with every step. This cruel device was frequently represented by Dutch artists well into the sixteenth century. The high horizon is old-fashioned, as is the lack of spatial recession in the middle distance. In the foreground, soldiers torment the bad thief while the good thief kneels before a priest. The almost frantic intensity of his confession, well-expressed by the open-mouthed profile, contrasts vividly with the passive response of the priest who seems to suppress a yawn. The very presence of the priest is, of course, an anachronism, probably inspired by what Bosch had witnessed at contemporary executions; the same motif appears in the great multi-figure »Christ Carrying the Cross« which Pieter Bruegel the Elder was to paint almost a century later.


Christ Carrying the Cross
Oil on panel, 57 c 32 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna




This urge to embellish the biblical text with details drawn from everyday life is characteristic for the later Middle Ages, it appears in the mystery plays and in such devotional books as the »Meditations on the Life of Christ« attributed to St Bonaventure. The Dutch illuminators, above all, frequently interpreted the sacred stories in common everyday terms in order to make them more immediate to the spectator.
This very human quality is no less apparent in another work which, although not a biblical subject, belongs to Bosch's early paintings. This is the »Conjuror«, now lost but known through a faithful copy at Saint-Ger-main-en-Laye (right). A mountebank has set up his table before a crumbling stone wall. His audience watches spellbound as he seems to bring forth a frog from the mouth of an old man in their midst; only one of the crowd, the young man with his hand on the shoulder of his female companion, appears to notice that the old man's purse is being stolen by the conjuror's confederate. The myopic gaze of the thief and the stupid amazement of the frog-spitting victim are superbly played off against the amused reactions of the bystanders, while the slyness of the mountebank is well conveyed in his sharp-nosed physiognomy. As in the »Christ Carrying the Cross«, Bosch exploits the human face in profile for expressive purposes. Although the »Conjuror« may possess a moralizing significance, as we shall see, it must have been inspired by a real-life situation closely observed. The perceptive, spontaneous humour of this little picture would be difficult to match in contemporary Flemish painting, but parallels can again be found among Dutch manuscript illuminators, such as the Master of Evert van Soudenbalch, active in Utrecht during the 1450s and 1460s.
Other biblical scenes may be ascribed to Bosch's early years: the »Marriage Feast at Cana« (Rotterdam) and the badly damaged Crucifixion of St Julia« (Venice, Palace of the Doges), of which only the central panel is from Bosch's hand (p. 84). In addition, there are several compositions which have survived only in copies of indifferent quality, including the »Christ among the Doctors» and »Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery« both of which recall the »Conjuror« in style. Among the early drawings are a sheet of animated male figures looking towards the right (New York, Morgan Library), perhaps a study for an »Ecce Homo« scene, and a monumental, relief-like »Entombment« (London, British Museum).


Group of Male Figures
Pen, 124 x 126 mm
Pierpont Morgan Library, New York




The Entombment
Ink and grey wash, 250 x 350 mm
British Museum, London




Only a few of the early paintings depart significantly from traditional iconography, but these exceptions anticipate the innovations of his later work. The treatment of the two thieves in the »Christ Carrying the Cross« is apparently without precedent, but still more unusual is the reverse of this panel, depicting a naked child pushing a walking-frame. This is the Christ Child, whose first halting steps clearly parallel Christ struggling with his Cross on the obverse, while the toy windmill or whirligig clutched in his hand probably alludes to the Cross itself. Thus Bosch gives us a touching picture of Christ in all his human frailty as he begins the road to his Passion.


Christ Child with a Walking Frame
Oil on panel, diameter 28 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna




Even less traditional is the »Marriage Feast at Cana«, painted towards the end of Bosch's early period. The picture is not in good condition; the upper corners have been cut off, many heads have been repainted, and a pair of dogs at the lower left may have been added as late as the eighteenth century.
In the large Dutch bible previously mentioned, an assistant of the Soudenbalch Master had presented the first miracle of Christ, the transformation of water into wine, as a rustic wedding feast; with characteristic humour, he showed one guest thirstily emptying a pot of wine, as if to explain just why Christ's miracle was so urgently required. Bosch's interpretation, on the other hand, is more serious in mood and much more complex in meaning. The marriage banquet has been placed in a richly furnished interior, most probably a tavern, the setting for the Cana story in at least one Dutch Easter play of the period. The miracle of the wine jars takes place at lower right; the guests are seated around an L-shaped table dominated at one end by the figure of Christ, behind whom hangs the brocaded cloth of honour usually reserved for the bride; he is flanked by two male donors in contemporary dress. Next to the Virgin at the centre of the table appear the solemn, austerely clad bridal couple; the bridegroom must be John the Evangelist, for his face closely resembles the type which Bosch employed elsewhere for this saint. Although the bridegroom remains nameless in the New Testament account, he was frequently identified as Christ's most beloved disciple. It was believed that at the conclusion of the feast, Christ called to him, saying: »Leave this wife of yours and follow me. I shall lead you to a higher wedding.« According to some writers, moreover, the abandoned bride was none other than Mary Magdalene. Thus the feast at Cana embodied the medieval ideal of chastity as more perfect in the sight of God than carnal union.
This medieval dualism between the flesh and the spirit receives further elaboration in the Rotterdam panel. Christ and his friends are pensively absorbed in some inner vision, unaware of the evil enchantment which seems to have fallen upon the banquet hall. The other wedding guests drink or gossip, watched by the bagpiper who leers drunkenly from a platform at the upper left. On the columns flanking the rear portal, two sculptured demons have mysteriously come to life; one aims an arrow at the other who escapes by disappearing through a hole in the wall. From the left, two servants carry in a boar's head and a swan spitting fire from their mouths; an ancient emblem of Venus, the swan symbolized unchastity. This unholy revelry seems to be directed by the innkeeper or steward who stands with his baton in the rear chamber. On the sideboard next to him are displayed curiously formed vessels, some of which, like the pelican, are symbolic of Christ, while others possess less respectable connotations, such as the three naked dancers on the second shelf.
The precise meaning of all these details remains unclear, as does that of the richly gowned child, his back turned to the viewer, who seems to toast the bridal couple with a chalice. However this may be, Bosch has undoubtedly employed the tavern setting as an image of evil, a comparison popular in medieval sermons, thereby contrasting the chaste marriage feast at Cana with the debauchery of the world.
In its transformation of a biblical story, the »Marriage Feast of Cana« introduces us for the first time to the complexity of Bosch's thought. It presents, on the one hand, a moral allegory of man's pursuit of the flesh at the expense of his spiritual welfare, and on the other, the monastic ideal of a life secure from the world in contemplation of God. These two themes were to dominate almost all Bosch's later art.

Marriage Feast at Cana
Oil on panel, 93 x 72 cm
Museum Boumans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam


Painted by Bosch towards the end of his early period, this is not a traditional treatment of the subject. The marriage at Cana is the story of Christ's first miracle - turning water into wine. The bride and bridegroom are central while the figure of Christ is placed on the right in front of the brocaded cloth of honour, customarily the bride's place. Christ's hand is raised in blessing. Although not mentioned in the Bible, the groom has been identified by Bosch as St John. It has also been contended that the bride is Mary Magdalene. There was a tradition that at the end of the feast Christ called to the groom to leave his bride and follow him. The fact that St John is known as Christ's best loved disciple lays a special emphasis on the interpretation. The symbolism is of a spiritual chastity more elevated and pure than the carnal union of marriage. The incidentals also attract great interest: the water jug filling wine jars; the drunken bagpiper suggesting a tavern, a licentious setting; a swan (an emblem of Venus) spitting fire, suggesting the opposite of chastity. Each part of the painting carries such messages, often hidden to us but recognizable to Bosch's contemporaries.


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