A slow upbow of the second violin fills the hall with pent-up power, and then the ensemble feeds the ferocity of Shostakovich’s rage: A percussive attack of monolithic chords underpins a frenzied melodic line.
Daddy, your memories drowned when you did, but look how mine have a hold on me: Over ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ I glide my magnifying glass, delighting in the little creatures, making the monsters the heroes of the stories we’d invent.
From Walter S. Gibson, Hieronymus Bosch (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973)
Hieronymus Bosch, Death and the Miser, c.1494
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Hieronymus Bosch, Gluttony and Lust, 1490-1500
Yale University Art Gallery
Bosch’s early works constitute a relatively homogeneous group, reflecting the style of the fifteenth-century Dutch illuminators and panel-painters. Yet even in these works innovations can be found which anticipate his later paintings. A transition to his middle period (c.1485–1500) is provided by three stylistically related panels, the Ship of Fools, the Yale Gluttony and Lust and the Death of the Miser. Although these subjects were new to panel-painting of the period, the rather prosaic devils in the Death of the Miser are not much advanced over those in the Hell scene of the Prado Tabletop, whose original design must reflect Bosch’s earliest style. The Brussels Christ on the Cross should perhaps also be assigned to this transitional group.
At the heart of the middle period undoubtedly lie the Vienna Last Judgment and the Haywain triptych. Bosch’s inventive genius first blossomed in the Last Judgment. Its apocalyptic character is distinctly original, while the proliferation of devils and torments is without precedent in earlier Netherlandish painting. Yet it would seem that this new richness of iconography overwhelmed the artist’s sense of order: infernal giants and structures are piled one upon the other somewhat incoherently in the right wing with little regard for spatial recession, and myriad forms are scattered rather aimlessly across the central panel. Much more carefully composed is the Hell panel of the Haywain triptych, whose details are subordinated to the tower under construction. In the Eden wing we see, probably for the first time, those exotic vegetable and mineral forms which were to dominate the landscape of the Garden of Earthly Delights.
The third phase, which probably began after 1500, marks the climax of Bosch’s art. This is the period distinguished by the Garden of Earthly Delights, the Lisbon St Anthony and the Prado Epiphany, in which even more brilliant innovations are accompanied by a greater clarity of composition.
The Garden of Earthly Delights contains Bosch’s most bizarre Hell scene; but the nightmare-like fluctuations of the demon world are even more successfully evoked in the central panel of the Lisbon St Anthony, which displays the same mastery of composition. The demons attacking St Anthony are organized around the ruined chapel and its landing stage, while the diagonals of the gallery and wall flanking the chapel are echoed in the side panels: in the bridge and path on the left and in the rock on which Anthony sits on the right.
Artists before Bosch seldom succeeded in translating the images of the medieval writers into vivid concrete form; their scenes of Hell, for example, never quite convey the horror experienced by Tundale and Lazarus. If Bosch was able to realize his vision of the afterlife with such frightening intensity, it was because, paradoxically, he brought to them a style of painting which had been developed for the scrupulous depiction of the life here and now. His monsters are as convincingly real, as circumstantially detailed, as the brass ewers of Campin and Van der Weyden and the vase of flowers which appears in the Portinari altarpiece of Hugo van der Goes.
As his better-preserved works show, the brushwork is loose and fluid, the paint often applied so thinly upon the surface that the black chalk underdrawing is visible beneath. In some instances we can observe changes which Bosch made in his composition. In the Death of the Miser, for example, the arrow held by Death was shortened in the final version. In the Mocking of Christ in London, the hands of Christ were altered in position, which explains the somewhat awkward gesture of the man at lower left.
Bosch’s richly variegated colours are further enlivened by his highlights. Little flecks of light glitter on the rigging of the boat and on the skirt of the fool in the Ship of Fools, sparkle like dewdrops on the fruits of evil that spring up among the desert saints, and gleam on the headdresses and ornaments of the Magi in the Prado Epiphany.
This sensitivity to the optical qualities of form enabled Bosch to create some of the most original landscapes of the period. These still function traditionally as backdrops to his figures, but they assume greater prominence and often reflect the mood and meaning of the subject. Unlike the professional landscape painters of the sixteenth century, Bosch never developed a formula: his landscapes show a wide range of types. Some are as alien as the surface of another planet, others as familiar as a painting by Jan van Goyen. Indeed, Bosch seems to have responded to the flat, monotonous terrain of his homeland as freshly as did the Dutch landscapists of the seventeenth century. The great expanse of land and water that recedes from Patmos in the Berlin St John, for example, may bring to mind the panoramas of Jacob van Ruisdael, and in the monochromatic veil which he drew across the background of the Rotterdam Wayfarer, Bosch hit upon a way to render the damp Dutch atmosphere which remarkably anticipates Jan van Goyen. In this, Bosch was inspired, perhaps, by his own landscapes in grisaille, such as the one in the Vienna Last Judgment. But unlike his successors, Bosch never discovered the expressive qualities inherent in balancing a low horizon with a great extent of cloudy sky, although in the Crucifixion scene on the back of the Berlin St John he came very close to doing so. In other paintings, however, as in the Rotterdam St Christopher, the Prado Epiphany, and the Haywain triptych, he tilted up the ground plane in an old-fashioned manner, displaying a succession of hills, valleys and lakes which merge imperceptibly into the distant horizon.
The rapid diffusion of Bosch’s fame and art throughout Europe can be measured by a succession of dates. In 1504, Philip the Handsome commissioned a Last Judgment from him. Philip’s mother-in-law, Queen Isabella of Spain, owned three of Bosch’s paintings at her death in 1505; they were probably gifts from the Burgundian court. By 1516, another picture belonged to Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands after Philip’s death. In 1521, four years after Antonio de Beatis saw the Garden of Earthly Delights in Brussels, several more of Bosch’s works were in Cardinal Grimani’s palace in Venice; among them may have been the Paradise and Hell panels now in the Palace of the Doges. In 1524, a picture which may have been the Stone Operation now in Madrid was recorded among the possessions of the Bishop of Utrecht. Some time between 1523 and 1544, Damiâo de Goes, a Portuguese agent in Flanders, acquired the St Anthony triptych now in Lisbon. An inventory of the furnishings of Francis I of France, made in 1542, lists a set of tapestries after Bosch’s composition, including the Haywain and the Garden of Earthly Delights.
Bosch’s spacious panoramas probably influenced the landscape style of Joachim Patinir, the earliest professional landscape painter in Western art. Bosch’s moralizing scenes, utilizing figures and scenes from everyday life, contributed significantly to the development of Flemish genre painting. However, it was his diabolic imagery which exerted the greatest impact on sixteenth-century Flemish art. Three Bosch-like compositions swarming with devils were engraved by the architect Alart Du Hameel before his death in 1509, and Bosch-like motifs can be found in scores of Flemish paintings, often of poor quality.
In the hands of this horde of imitators and followers, the deeply religious and didactic content of Bosch’s imagery quickly evaporated, leaving only whimsical forms capable at most of arousing a pleasant shudder in the spectator. Hell becomes an infernal amusement park, a Disneyland of the afterlife, where devils seem to display themselves more for the titillation of the damned than for their torment.
Only Pieter Bruegel was able to restore something of the original meaning to Bosch’s grotesques, especially in his drawings of the Seven Deadly Sins; but even his infernal landscapes are somewhat prosaic, and, except in the Fall of the Rebel Angels, his monsters are too obviously pieced together from the facts of everyday life to be completely convincing. In fact, Bruegel most closely approaches Bosch in spirit where he differs from him most in detail, namely in the Triumph of Death in Madrid. The brilliant diversity of Bosch’s devils has been replaced by the monotony of an army of human skeletons, but their relentless march across the earth, devastating everything in their path, presents an image of universal destruction no less compelling than Bosch’s apocalyptic scenes.
John Everett Millais
Tamara de Lempicka
Nicolas de Staël
Hans Holbein, Younger
Vincent Van Gogh
Caspar David Friedrich
Leda and the Swan