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Tabula Rasa

Hieronymous Bosch

The Unearthly Gardener

by Kyla Ward

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#2, 1994

What are we to make of a picture such as The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted in the late fifteenth century but seeming to have appropriated the freedom of expression and the freedom from the literal and hieratic that is surely modern? Ideas of morality and censorship, like so many others, run in a more or less straight, ascending line from some dark past, where beauty and love were straight-jacketed, inquiry stifled and imagination burned at the stake. Rather like the image of the Soviet Union up to the dissolution, or Nazi Germany. In the case of the works of Hieronymous Bosch, or more accurately, Hieronymous of Hertogenbosch, two corrections to these truisms must be made immediately.

Firstly, the pressures exerted on artists to conform to some norm have always existed and still of course do, and in the same ways. Contemporary taste for the fantastic and original is also far from universal. Secondly, the art of Bosch does in fact conform to, or rather utilise, all the standard techniques and features of his contemporary milieu. What is left unexplained is the genius.

Bosch was born into a Guild family of artists -- the actual family name was Van Aken. Three previous generations appear in the town records as artists. Hertogenbosch was and is a Flemish town, then located in the territory of the Duc de Burgundy, these days near the Belgium boarder. It was a stronghold of the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, one of the lay religious groups which this end of the Middle Ages saw spring up and subdivide faster than the Inquisition could classify them. Their main trait was an insistence on religion being a part of everyday life, for everyone, and the Brothers and Sisters are remembered for their association with Thomas à Kempis, the author of The Imitation of Christ.

It was one of these religious groups that formed Bosch's social and presumably philosophical milieu, and certainly provided him with occasional employment. This was the Brotherhood of Our Lady, an association of devotees of the Virgin especially as incarnated in a supposedly miraculous statue in the local cathedral. The group was wealthy and large, and helped with cathedral maintenance. Bosch was a member, and married in their bounds in 1479. Few exact dates are available, and one is of his death in 1516. Speculations on his age are based on the period of these dates, and on sketched copies of what was apparently a self-portrait, now lost. Nothing of his personality survives, except in his paintings.

The records state that Bosch was frequently commissioned by noble clients, some from far afield. He produced paintings for altarpieces, panels for private chambers, and designs for stained glass, articles of jewellery and furniture, and a number of receipts specify for carnival masks. One hopes this may imply that Hieronymous Bosch, our careful cultivator of demons, was appreciated for it. This title, however, would almost certainly not have been appreciated by him. He was, as stated, an active member of a religious order, and his paintings are religious paintings.

There was debate throughout the Middle Ages on the advisability of grotesque and beautiful images being used in the service of God. On one hand was the argument that such images taught the laity, and were aids to meditation and communion with the divine. Then there was the protest that they in fact distracted the worshipper from pious aim by their fascination of form.

What is the point of this deformed beauty, this elegant deformity? Those loutish apes? The savage lions? The monstrous centaurs? The half men? The spotted tigers? The soldiers fighting? The hunters sounding their horns? You can see a head with many bodies, or a body with many heads. Here we espy an animal with a serpent's tail, there a fish with an animal's head. There we have a beast which is a horse in front and a she-goat behind; and here a horned animal follows with hindquarters like a horse.
This is the Apologia ad Guillelmum of Saint Bernard, writing in the twelfth century. By Bosch's time, nothing had changed, the debate was still continuing on the same line; but we may note the popularity of a contemporary work De Quator Hominum Novissimis by Denis the Carthusian, a truly rampant conservatist. This contained detailed descriptions of the sufferings of the damned.
Let us imagine a white-hot oven, and in this oven a naked man, never to be released from such torment. Does not the mere sight of it appear insupportable? How miserable this man would seem to us! Let us think how he would sprawl in the oven, how he would yell and roar: in short how he would live, and what would be his agony and his sorrow when he understood that this unbearable punishment was never to end.
Suffice to say that in many quarters, Bosch's fancies were well accepted as expressions of devotion. Well after his death, in the sixteenth century, questions of heresy were raised in Spain by the Inquisition, where many of Bosch's paintings had gravitated to the collection of King Phillip II -- including The Garden of Earthly Delights. But the charges were refuted, and much of the collection remains in Madrid to this day.

Further evidence of Bosch's medievalism is the symbolism he uses, and the amount of it. A well-established language of direct allegory existed, that allows interpretation of pictures such as the Garden, and his intricate Hells, in the triptych of which the Garden is the centrepiece and other works such as The Last Judgement, and a similar panel in the Haywain triptych. A dead give-away is the owl. An amazing number of Bosch pictures, when you look for them, contain the tiny shapes of owls peeping from nooks and crannies. They are evil lurking, symbols of witchcraft and demonology, and the Garden is full of them being cuddled and nursed. It may be disappointing to anyone who appreciates the Garden as a scene of pleasure and freedom, but the owls are reinforced by the fruit, situated so frequently around the figure's genitalia, and even by the modern-appreciated inclusion of negro figures. I also, though the point is contentious, find it difficult not to interpret the shapes of the glass 'towers' in the Garden and in parts of Hell by their similarity to the vials in the contemporary alchemical work, the Splendor Solis, which concerned the search for the Philosophers Stone. Bosch also made use, elsewhere, of Medieval images such as the Ship of Fools, in paintings of the same title and the Ars Moriendi or Art of Dying, the deathbed struggle for the human soul between the angel and the demon as depicted in Death of the Miser and Death of the Reprobate.

Bosch is sometimes confused with that other Flemish painter of the grotesque, Pieter Bruegel. In fact they are only separated by about fifty years -- exact dates are again unavailable. The styles are quite different but difficult to describe -- both had a gift for incredible intricacy such as in Bruegel's well known Children's Games. Perhaps it is that Bruegel confines his allegories to the real world, whereas Bosch works in Allegory's own realm.

To say that Bosch used the materials and forms available to him in the fifteenth century is in no way to dilute the power of his images or his vision. The fact is they do still hold meaning, and impact, for us today. Maybe our attitudes differ towards what he represents, but we still respond to the representation at some level that ensures that these emotions, even without the support of religion, never go out of style.


* Hieronymous Bosch, text by Walter Bosing, ed. Ingo F. Walther. Taschen, 1987.

[100] The Waning of the Middle Ages, Johan Huizinga.

[132] Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, Umberto Eco, tran. Hugh Bredin, Yale University, 1988 (1959).


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