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 Last Judgement




While sin and folly occupy a prominent place in Bosch's art, their significance can be fully appreciated only within the context of a larger medieval theme, the Last Judgment. The Day of Judgment marks the final act of the long, turbulent history of mankind which began with the Fall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Eden. It is the day when the dead shall rise from their graves and Christ shall come a second time to judge all men, rewarding each according to his merits. As Christ himself foretold (Matthew 25:34, 41), the elect will enjoy the eternal bliss prepared for them »from the foundation of the world«, while the damned will be condemned to the »everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and hisangels«. Time will cease and eternity begin.
The preparation for this Final Day was one of the chief concerns of the medieval Church. It taught the faithful what conduct would enable them to be numbered among the blessed; it warned backsliders and evildoers of the awful punishment which awaited them if they failed to reform. The majority opinion is represented by Thomas a Kempis who told the readers of the »lmitation of Christ«, »it is good that, if the love of God does not restrain you from sin, the fear of Hell at least should restrain you«. Thus, the unending torments of the damned were described, in lurid details, in countless books and sermons, while meditations on the Last Judgment and Hell played an important part in various spiritual exercises, including those of the »Devotio Modema«.
The terrors of the Final Reckoning were intensified by a general sense of its imminence. There had always been prophets who insisted that the world was nearing its end, but the feeling of impending doom grew particularly acute in the late fifteenth century. For Sebastian Brant, the sins of mankind had multiplied to such an extent that the Last Judgment must surely be close at hand. Other writers represented the world on the threshold of the final age, in which the prophecies described in the Revelation of St John would soon come to pass. Plagues, floods and other natural disasters were regarded as manifestations of the wrath of God and current political events were searched anxiously for signs of the Last Emperor and of Antichrist.
In 1499, a German astrologer confidently asserted that the world would be destroyed by a second Deluge on 25 February 1524. In 1515, Albrecht Durer made a watercolour recording his famous dream in which he saw the final catastrophe brought about by huge columns of water crashing to the earth; somewhat earlier, Leonardo da Vinci made drawings of whole cities swept away by raging floods whose dynamic structure was observed with scientific detachment.
Nowhere, however, was this chronic anxiety of the age given more vivid expression than in Bosch's imposing »Last Judgment« triptych in Vienna, executed probably during his middle period. The largest of his surviving works, the »Last Judgment« is prefaced on the outer wings by the figures of St James the Greater and St Bavo, painted in grisaille (left and right). Despite the gloomy and threatening landscape through which St James moves, neither this panel nor its companion prepares us for the apocalyptic scenes which unfold within. Here, across the three inner panels, appear the First and Last Things, beginning with the Fall of Man on the left wing.

Triptych of Last Judgement
Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna



This, the largest of Bosch's paintings (163.7 x 127 cm/ 66 x 50 in), is also one of the most revealing and accomplished. The familiar story is clear. Every one of his contemporaries, poor, trusting, illiterate peasants as well as educated burghers, would have grasped the significance of almost all the details and believed the basic message implicitly. But some of the images must have been frighteningly new and distressing, if not actually inducing despair. Other painters had treated the same subject powerfully, but no one, before or since, has had the creative intensity and ability to actualize the dreaded unknown in such fantastic images. This is particularly true in the devils, demons, evil spirits and unnerving monsters that Bosch created to inhabit the nether world. His contemporaries, if they thought he saw (and they would have believed it possible) and accurately represented the monsters and denizens, and the hellish regions they inhabited, must have been convinced that hell was a place to avoid at all costs. The deadly sins are all depicted a number of times and erotic symbolism abounds.



Triptych of Last Judgement.
St James the Greater
(left outer wing)
Grisaille on panel, 167 x 60 cm
Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna

Triptych of Last Judgement.
St Bavo
(right outer wing)
Grisaille on panel, 167 x 60 cm
Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Vienna


Depicted as a pilgrim on the Road of Life, St James the Greater is carrying the symbols associated with him: the staff, the large-brimmed hat and, on it, the scallop shell, his special identification. St James, brother of St John. was the first of the Apostles to be martyred (AD 44). According to legend, after his martyrdom his body was brought from Jerusalem to Spain, where a shrine set up at Santiago de Compostella became one of the great attractions for Christian pilgrims in the later Middle Ages. The landscape in the background carries details of significant reference: on the top left reminding the faithful of death as punishment in life; in the middle left , the long and difficult journey of the blind, hall and lame; and on the right the warning of robbers and murderers on the path through life. This panel, and that of St Bavo (opposite), are painted in grisaille, a method of using grey monochrome that often gives the impression of sculpture. The closed triptych would merge with the surrounding sculpture, giving no indication of the colourful and frightening images inside.

Bavo was born in Brabant, probably in the late 6th century, and died in 653. He was a rich landowner, made a good marriage, fathered a daughter but led a disorderly life until the early death of his wife induced a dramatic change. He gave away all his possessions to the poor, put himself under the direction of Bishop (and Saint) Amand of Maastricht and devoted the rest of his life to good works, becoming known as the Protector of Flanders. He became a greatly revered saint in the northern Netherlands and a number of churches, including the Groote Kik - the most impressive church in Haarlem — are dedicated to him. In Bosch's grisaille panel Bavo is depicted in elegant dress carrying a hawk on one hand and a purse in the other, representing pleasure and good works respectively, as he gives to the poor, young and old. The significance of the mummified foot and the bowl balanced on the child's head has not been determined.



Triptych of Last Judgement. Paradise (left wing - detail)
Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna



Bosch has set the scene of the Fall in a rich landscape and shows the progress of the action from the lower to the upper levels. At the base the creation of Eve is treated somewhat similarly in design to Michelangelo's composition in the Sistine Chapel, which was painted at about the same time, although the feeling in each work is very different. Bosch, in the waning of the Middle Ages in northern Europe, had a strong sense of the actuality of hell fire, while Michelangelo, in the High Italian Renaissance, placed strong emphasis on the human values in the story. On the second level we see the Temptation: Eve holds out the apple from the Tree of Knowledge to Adam, while a singularly unserpent-like creature, female it may be noted, holds out another. Note too, the ubiquitous owl of evil on a branch to the left. The third level shows the couple driven from the Garden of Eden by a sword-wielding angel. Above the landscape is empty. The fourth level, the sky, shows God driving the rebel angels out of Paradise, in the process of which they are transformed from humans to insect monsters.



Triptych of Last Judgement. Last Judgement (central panel - detail)
Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna




Triptych of Last Judgement. Last Judgement.
Frying Bodies
(central panel - detail)
Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna



In this panel of the painting Bosch has created some of his most powerful images. There appears to be no limit to his visual imagination nor any restraint in depicting it. The metamorphosis of one thing into another is a constant device, as can be seen in this and the following illustrations taken from this panel. In the centre of this detail an old woman with lizard-like feet is frying human remains, while two eggs (symbols of sexual creativity) are waiting to go in the frying pan. Behind, another monstrous hag is turning a body on a spit and another body can be seen already prepared. On the right a beetle-like creature is dismembering another figure for the frying pan. This is truly hell's kitchen. Another figure in the foreground, repenting too late, has his hands clasped in prayer while a monster is spitting him for the knife. There also seems to be a mouse metamorphosing into a porcupine — or vice versa.


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