Portrait of Hieronymus Bosch
The subjective, individualistic art of Hieronymus Bosch is one of the most
enigmatic in the history of art. His art has been discussed by myriad
scholars. He has been seen as a surrealist, as a member of a heretical
sect that celebrated sexual libertinism, both erroneous assumptions. Such
diverse sources as folklore, proverbs, astrology, astronomy and alchemy
have been used to interpret his paintings. Yet the intricacies of his subject
matter have resisted any cogent, unified explanation. Most critics agree,
however, that Bosch was a moralist, a pessimist who viewed with a
sardonic eye man's inevitable descent into sin and damnation.
In the furtherance of his moral narrative he paid little attention to the
stylistic achievements of his Flemish predecessors and developed a flat
style in which he essentially disregarded natural lighting, chiaroscuro, and
plasticity of form. Apparently its mastery came rapidly, and it led to an alla
prima, or direct-painting, manner.
Such a style was well suited to its purpose, the transformation into
paint of moral sermons that constantly reiterate man‟s folly and its
inevitable consequence of punishment in Hell. This moral was either
stated or implied in almost all his work from beginning to end. Basically
pessimistic, Bosch repeated almost ad infinitum that man‟s salvation can
be achieved through the instrumentality of Christ‟s sacrifice and the heroic
acts of the saints whose example we must emulate. He stood to one side
to comment with sardonic wit that the moral lesson is unread by humans
Probably born in 1453, he died in 1516. His painter grandfather
went from Aachen as early as 1399 to the town of „sHertogenbosch, a
prosperous, provincial center in northern Brabant. He was probably taught
by his father, who was also a painter. Very little documentation exists
about Bosch‟s life and career. He was a member of the Confraternity of
Notre Dame from 1486 until his death, he was paid in 1504 for a Last
Judgment commissioned by Philip the Handsome, and he designed a
crucifix and stained-glass window for his confraternity, in addition to
making paintings. His work for his confraternity from 1480-81 and for
princely patrons indicates that, despite keeping his shop in
„sHertogenbosch, he was well know beyond its walls. Many of his ideas
were apparently engraved by a fellow townsman and many of his
paintings were copied by his contemporaries and his numerous followers.
Seven Deadly Sins
The painted tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins is considered his earliest
work. It was a favorite painting of Philip II of Spain, who also owned its lost
companion piece of the Seven Sacraments. Five circles stand on a black
background. The four smallest ones, in the four corners, show the final
stages of life: Death, Judgment, Hell and Glory. Two scrolls with Latin
verses from the Book of Deuteronomy warn of the consequences of sin.
The first (32: 28-29) reads “For they are a nation void of counsel, neither is
there any understanding in them,” and the second (32: 20): “O that they
were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter
end.” The central circle is larger than the others and looks like an eye. In
its pupil appears Christ, Man of Sorrow and the phrase “Take care, take
care, God is watching.” The Sins are illustrated by genre sins in the
compartments about the center, and the corner scenes show their
outcome in the form of the “four last things:”
Death (shown by the death of a man in bed);
the Last Judgment;
the entry of the saved into Paradise;
and in the lower left-hand corner, the punishment of the Seven Deadly
Sins in Hell.
Envy and Sloth
All the Sins are strongly physical rather than allegorical in conception.
Pride, in an interior, shows a woman in a headdress primping before a
mirror held by a devil.
Luxury shows two self-indulgent couples and a fool beaten by a
shepherd‟s spoon at the right.
Avarice shows a corrupt judge accepting bribes from rich and poor alike.
Death and the Miser
In this slender panel, probably a wing from a larger altarpiece, a dying
man seems torn between salvation and his own avarice. The panel
presents in no uncertain terms the stupidity and folly of a dying man who,
at the moment of death, reaches for the bag of money offered to him by a
demon appearing from under the bed hangings and does not heed the
angel who points out the salvation he could achieve by turning to Christ on
the crucifix shown before the high window. A lantern containing the fire of
Hell, carried by the demon atop the bed canopy, balances the cross,
which emits a single ray of divine light Originally Bosch had gone even
further, for X-rays shown that the vessel of the last sacrament was once
held in the miser‟s left hand. The meaning is clear: at the moment of death
he would even sell the sacraments to the devil.
The figure in the middle ground, perhaps representing the miser
earlier in his life, is shown as hypocritical; with one hand he puts coins into
the strongbox where they are collected by a rat-faced demon, and with the
other he fingers a rosary, attempting to serve God and Mammon at the
same time. A demon emerging from underneath the chest holds up a
paper sealed with red wax -- perhaps a letter of indulgence or a document
that refers to the miser's mercenary activities. Thus Bosch comments
ironically and pessimistically on human nature and its avarice even at the
last moment of life.
Avarice was one of the seven deadly sins and among the final
temptations described in the Ars moriendi (Art of Dying), a religious
treatise probably written about 1400 and later popularized in printed
books. Bosch's painting is similar to illustrations in these books, but his
introduction of ambiguity and suspense is unique. This panel is thinly
painted. In several areas it is possible to see in the underdrawing where
Bosch changed his mind about the composition.
A ragged man is pursued by a dog on the exterior of the Haywain triptych. The
shabby, emaciated man walks alone, carrying a walking stick in his hand and a
basket on his back. He turns his head to look at the dog that snarls behind him.
Numerous attempts have been made to identify this figure. He has been called,
among other things, the Prodigal Son, the Wayfarer, a fool, a peddler, Saturn, a
personification of melancholy, a man endangered by the sin of sloth, a drunkard,
and Everyman, the Christian pilgrim. Bosch's ragged man is in fact a
personification of poverty, a personification that follows conventions established
in works of art and literature of the late Middle Ages.
The landscape on the exterior of the Haywain is filled with motifs that are
strongly suggestive of evil. Bones are scattered in the foreground; one magpie is
already perched on them and a second magpie is flying in to join it. Across the
path, to the left, three thieves are robbing a man and tying him to a tree. To the
right, a peasant man and woman dance to bagpipe music that is being played by
a third figure seated beneath a tree. In the distance, on top of a hill, an execution
is taking place with a crowd gathered around to watch. Bones, magpies, thievery,
dancing, and executions - common symbols for evil - are not at all unusual in
Bosch's paintings. This landscape is clearly a microcosmic image of a sinful
world, a hostile environment for the unfortunate man who travels through it.
It is not surprising that Bosch would put a representation of poverty
on the exterior of the Haywain triptych. Christ-like poverty was the virtue
that could most successfully oppose the deadly sin of avarice; only by
submitting to voluntary poverty could one be sure to avoid temptations of
the flesh like those depicted in the central panel of the Haywain.
Most scholars agree that the sin of avarice is the main theme of the
interior of the Haywain. Research on Flemish proverbs and linguistic
studies on the Dutch word for hay suggest that the haywagon itself
symbolizes earthly riches. A common Flemish proverb was: "The world is
a haystack and each man plucks from it what he can."
All the characters associated with the wagon have fallen prey to the sinful
desire to amass or enjoy worldly, material goods. The amorous couples on
top of the haywagon clearly represent lust, worldly love that is misdirected
toward human flesh rather than human souls. The crowd that grabs and
fights for hay demonstrates the blind folly involved in the pursuit of worldly
possessions. The princely figures following the wagon represent worldly
power, dominion over the material earth. The foreground vignettes seem
to portray secondary vices that are associated with the accumulation of
"hay," though the precise meanings of some of these scenes are still
unclear. The fat abbot with nuns gathering bags of hay for him while he
drinks certainly appears to be gluttonous. The nun and the bagpipe player
seem to be lustful. The quack doctor has filled his pocket with hay. The
scenes to the left involving children and adults are not conclusively
The side panels of the triptych show the origin and the final result of sin.
The left illustrates the Original Sin. Above, a swarm of Falling Angels fills
the sky. In the background God creates Eve from Adam's rib, while in the
middle ground Adam is about to accept the fateful apple from the serpent
coiled around the Tree of Knowledge. Finally, in the foreground, the
Archangel Michael drives Adam and Eve from Paradise. The illustration of
Hell on the right panel shows sinners being punished for their earthly
vices. The haywagon is clearly being dragged toward this destination.
Hawain exterior with Rotterdam Tondo
Although the main figure in the Rotterdam tondo is essentially the same as that
on the Haywain exterior, the background is completely different. There are also a
number of details related to the Rotterdam poor man that are not present in the
Haywain version. These variations in the minor imagery are extremely important.
They indicate that the Rotterdam tondo represents a second and very different
way in which poverty was conceived by the medieval mind: involuntary poverty,
the affliction meted out to those who waste their substance in sinful indulgence.
Throughout medieval literature there are references to poverty as one of the
wages of sin.
In the background of the Rotterdam tondo there is a dilapidated building
that is clearly a tavern and brothel. A jug is propped on a stick at the peak of the
roof, a sign hanging to the side has a swan on it, and there is a magpie in a cage
next to the door.44 Within the doorway a man embraces a woman and a man
urinates at the side of the building. Next to the main figure there is a tree with an
owl and a magpie perched in it. A gate, with yet another magpie on it, blocks the
path in front of the man. The poor man in this painting has a bandaged sore on
his left leg, and he has apparently lost one of his shoes and replaced it with a
slipper. He has several new possessions, including a small hoof tucked into his
vest, a purse hang- ing conspicuously at his side, a catskin on his basket, and a
hat stuck with an awl holding a loop of thread, which he carries in his
outstretched hand. These alterations in Bosch's second representation of the
poor man create an image that is antithetical to the concept of Christian virtue.
To begin with, when figures in Northern European art are shown in front of
taverns, they are usually associated with the kind of activities that take place
within them. One's suspicion that the Rotterdam poor man was a frequenter of
taverns and brothels is increased by the other changes that Bosch made in the
painting. The precise symbolic meaning of some of these details may be
irretrievably lost in forgotten folk proverbs and jokes, but some observations can
nonetheless be made about them, with varying degrees of certainty.
The connection between carnality and leprosy was unanimously accepted
in religious, medical, and popular theories: "for what is the impurity of leprosy,
unless it is the sin of lust?" Leprosy was believed to be a venereal disease that
one was most likely to contract in brothels. This belief was so ubiquitous that
Bosch's apparent association of leprous sores with taverns and brothels seems
quite unexceptional. The appearance of a sore on the leg of the man in the
Rotterdam tondo reinforces our suspicion that he has been frequenting the house
that is shown behind him. The fact that the Rotterdam poor man has lost a shoe
leads to the same conclusion. Drunkenness and consorting with prostitutes were
condemned for being extravagant as well as sinful pastimes in the Middle Ages.
They were denounced by moralists who formulated bleak descriptions of the
consequences of such unseemly, immoderate activities. The loss of one's
clothing and particularly one's shoes as a result of gambling and other forms of
prodigality in the taverns was a familiar topos in such literature throughout the
Other new objects associated with the Rotterdam poor man include the little
hoof, the catskin, the hat with the awl stuck in it, and the purse that hangs at his
side. The hoof appears to be associated with gluttony and lust - sins that were
known to prosper in public houses.
The meaning of the catskin hanging on the poor man's basket is more
enigmatic. However, some there is popular association between dead cats and
The hat that the poor man carries in the Rotterdam tondo is another detail
that is difficult to explain. Since the Dutch word hoede means both “hat” and
“care or guard,” the expression "buten hoede" has a double meaning: "without
hat" or "hat off" and "without care" or "off guard." The man in the Rotterdam
tondo is thus shown "off guard" - subject to the beguilement of sin - because he
is hatless.The awl that is stuck into the hat of the poor man in the Rotterdam
tondo and the purse that he carries reinforce the idea that this man has brought
about his own downfall through dissipation. The purse that the Rotterdam poor
man carries indicates that he has not voluntarily accepted Christian poverty; such
a virtuous individual would have no need of a purse since he would not carry
The figures on the Haywain exterior and the Rotterdam tondo thus
illustrate quite aptly the two contrasting attitudes that existed toward
poverty in the Middle Ages. Voluntary poverty, promoted by the
Franciscans and the Devotio Moderna, was the most admirable of virtues,
the symbol of Christian perfection. Bosch represented voluntary poverty
on the outside of the Haywain triptych as the Christian alternative to, and
protection against, avarice. For the Rotterdam tondo, Bosch used
essentially the same figure to represent the same idea - poverty. However,
the changes that he made in the secondary imagery of the Rotterdam
tondo changed the interpretation of poverty from that of the most Christ-
like virtue to one of the wages of sin.
Temptation of St. Anthony
The temptation of St. Anthony epitomizes Bosch‟s unique expression and
relation to his age. He lived in a time of pestilence and turbulence, of
economic, social and religious unrest, an age that believed in the
Antichrist, Apocalyptic visions, alchemy and witchcraft. Yet it was also an
age of rational investigation and humanistic approach. The situation was
not alleviated by a famous astrologer‟s prognostication in 1499 that the
world would come to an end with a second deluge on February 25, 1524.
This was widely believed, for astrology was taught in the universities and
its predictions were listened to at court.
It was an age of extreme pessimism, the natural outcome of a belief
in demons fostered by the Church itself: Thomas Aquinas had said that all
that happens visibly in this world can be done by demons. Belief in the
coming of the Antichrist was equally widespread.
Pessimism has been seen in Bosch in the reiteration of human folly. He
continually repeated the theme of the salvation of a foolish, evil world
through Christ‟s sacrifice. It appears on the exterior grisailles of the
Temptation of St. Anthony, the scenes of the Taking of Christ and the
Carrying of the Cross, which Bosch equated with the interior scenes of
Anthony‟s temptations. From the account of St. Anthony‟s life current in
Bosch‟s time, it is clear that Anthony represented a type, the heroic and
most elevated soul, tempted more strongly than ordinary mortals yet
resistant to the fiercest attack upon his belief.
Anthony‟s temptations were of two kinds: tentatio in its meaning of a trial,
that is, the temptation of the flesh in the form of worldly goods and sexual
inducements—always rejected; and tentatio in its meaning of an attack.
Bosch was a significant innovator; he combined the two meanings into a
single representation spread over 3 panels, organized compositionally
along diagonals. He also elevated the saint to a position comparable to
that of Christ.
Just below center on the interior left wing Anthony is being returned along
the bridge to his cell. His elevation and beating by demons is seen in the
sky above. One demon dives under his cloak. A fox-headed demon beats
the saint with a branch. A twin-tailed, armored merman riding an open-
mouthed fish attacks, using another fish as a lance.
In the middle ground a habitation is created from the back view of a
kneeling man with grass growing over his back. He is rooted in earth,
which to Bosch meant being rooted in sin. This meaning is emphasized by
the rear view and by the woman at the window embrasure at the left, a
prostitute waiting for customers.
A fantastic fish form with a church tower on its back approaches down the
path while apparently swallowing another fish. This might seem to
illustrate the Flemish proverb that the big fish eat the little fish, but the
greedy eyeing of an apparently edible ball, suspended before it as a
steering device, suggests greed and envy, combined with an allusion to
the rapacity of the Church. The whole figure, however, seems to be
Bosch‟s transformation of an armored elephant with a howdah on its back,
a motif found in battle scenes in early 15th-century manuscripts, and the
tail in the creature‟s mouth resembles an elephant‟s trunk. The elephant
with a tower was a medieval symbol for the Virgin, for according to lore, it
was notoriously sluggish in sexual matters and thus was associated with
chastity. It was said that the female elephant cannot conceive unless she
first lucks the mandrake from outside the gate of Paradise and then eats
and offers it to her mate to awaken his sexual desires. The moral presents
the elephant as the ideal Christian spouse, who will mate without sexual
appetite solely for the sake of offspring. Bosch‟s unvirtuous character,
however, symbolizes the very opposite of such chaste behavior as it
advances down the path toward the house of prostitution. It is clear that in
this sinful world Christian virtues are transformed into their opposites.
On the right a curious trio appears. The stag, in a red cloak, was a
common symbol of lechery in the moralizing tales of the period. The miter-
crowned man holds a staff topped by a crescent, a clear reference to the
terrifying, infidel Turks, who were then a strong threat to Europe. The
decoration of his miter is abnormal, and flames emerge from it. These
details are significant, however, for a heretic handed over to the Inquisition
had a miter placed on his head just before burning. Heresy was
considered a branch of the sin of pride.
Bird on skates
The evil trio under the bridge is approached by a funnel-crowned, sleepy-
eyed bird on skates. There is a missive spiked on its beak, with an
inscription that may be read as “oisuif” with an reversed f or “oisuy,”
variants of modern French oisif, an idler, that is, Sloth. In truth this is a
lazy bird who prefers skating on thin ice to walking. He slides into sin and
sinful company. Bosch points out how people slide into sin by refusing to
exercise freedom of will to resist the Devil.
Bird on egg
At lower left, perched on a gigantic egg, a large-beaked, featherless bird
eats one of its own offspring as they hatch from the egg. Placed in a
position of equal importance with the sleepy, slothful skater, this must be a
unique presentation of Saturn, who devours his own child. Late medieval
thought allied the planets and the Deadly Sins, and Saturn, being the
slowest of the planets to orbit the earth, was allied, as here, with Sloth.
Gluttony is the Deadly Sin castigated on the interior right wing, where
Anthony is tempted to indulge in riotous living by the naked woman
standing in water, an instrument of the devilish, lolling toad who grasps in
one clawed foot her filmy garment that covers but does not conceal. The
nude woman was probably inspired by the apocryphal story of the Devil
Queen. In the tale of the saint‟s encounter with the Devil Queen, Anthony
found her bathing nude in a river with her court. When properly dressed,
she discoursed with the saint and invited him to visit her city, where she
showed him its riches, demonstrated her miraculous power to heal the
sick, and finally invited him to become her husband. Anthony‟s,
overwhelmed by all this, declined, but she persisted and attempted to
remove his monk‟s habit. This act he recognized as truly devilish and
fought her off, whereupon devils flew in from every point and the battle
began. After several days of fighting, Anthony emerged victorious.
The figure with a foot in a pot, and the fantastic creature with both
feet in a single shoe reinforce the idea of gluttony. In the middle distance
there is a porcupine, a common medieval symbol for the temptations of
the flesh, and a simple-faced figure in a 15th-century baby walker, to the
rim of which is tied a jug; this figure is a castigation of drunkenness, which
makes people childish and foolish. Foolish indeed, for the drunkard turns
away from the saint whose model he should follow.
Central panel with detail
The theme of the central panel is that of a kneeling Anthony too weak from
demonic beatings to rise, yet able to taunt his demonic tormentors to do
their worst. But instead of taunting, Anthony turns to the spectator, his
right hand raised in blessing, while the figure of Christ, who has made his
victory possible, is almost lost in the shadows of a niche-like chapel.
Behind Anthony appears the temptress, the lizard-tail of her gown
revealing her true character. She offers a shallow cup of wine to two
fantastic figures. The proffered wine is seemingly the saint vinage made
annually at the seat of the Hospital Order of St. Anthony in the Dauphiné
(southwestern France) by pouring wine over the saint‟s relics. This
procedure was believed to give the wine miraculous curative powers, and
the potion was given to those suffering from St. Anthony‟s Fire (probably
ergotism from eating poisoned rye). Bosch alluded not only to the story of
the Devil Queen and her pseudomiraculous cures but pessimistically
showed also how demonic power to counterfeit all human acts could even
make mockery of the good works of the hospital order. The lolling toad
holding a cup, on the right wing, reinforces the idea.
To the left of Anthony and the temptress in the central panel is a
group dominated by Luna, the cold and moist planet of the night,
responsible for the nocturnal aspect, and a reminder that Anthony‟s foul
and troubling dreams came to him at night. Portrayed with yellow
garments and face, Luna herself stands behind the table at Anthony‟s
back, beside a young gambler, cup in hand, who is the gullible victim of
the gesturing owl-crowned conjuror opposite.
The source of this group lies in an Italian astrological engraving of Luna
from a planet series of about 1460, in which a swindler in fool‟s attire
cheats a gullible public before his table; a monkey, southern equivalent of
the northern dog on a leash, clings to his leg. Further borrowings from the
engraving are seen in the double-arched bridge at the right, which forms
the base of a prison; the “clock” on the wall is a transformation of the
sundial on the bridge in the engraving. He also borrowed the swimming
and diving figures from it.
The mother and child of Saturn engraving have been transformed into the
weird woman holding a swaddled baby as she rides a rat in the water at
center right. Her body ends in a fishy tail like that of a strange mermaid,
with its connotations of evil.
The Jupiter engraving in the planet series provided the motif of the thistle-
headed hunter riding a metamorphosed jug beside the rat, and mastiffs of
the same engraving have become the armored lap dogs preceding the
tree-crowned, armored man in red stockings at the far left, clearly
personifying Mars, the warlike planet.
Taking the group in front of the platform together as a whole, we find a
castigation of the vanity and folly of love tourneys, knights, and chivalrous
ideals. The figures suggest stupidity, pugnacity, stubbornness and folly; all
lead to Death and all are led by it. At the right of the platform, a pig-
snouted, demonic priest reads from Anthony‟s book.
On the ruined tower appear other scenes, in simulated relief. The figures
dancing about the Golden Calf and the worship of the ape show a
renunciation of that faith given to man through the Sacrament of Baptism.
In giving artistic prominence, and therefore greatest attention, to Anthony,
Bosch seemed to be elevating him above Christ; that Bosch was reputed
in the 17th century to be a heretic may be due to this.
In the sky above, devils are in full control. Some burn a village at the left
and others topple the church tower, possibly a warning of the coming of
the Antichrist. High in the sky tot eh left a strange cavalcade is led by a
gaunt demon mounted on a flying fish, with a bow over his shoulder.
The cosmic character of this conception of the temptation of St.
Anthony is overwhelming; air, earth, fire, water, wet and dry, heat and
cold—everything in the heavens and on earth was Bosch‟s concern in this
grand pictorial summa of all the beliefs and fears of medieval people, to
which astrology and the theme of the Seven Deadly Sins, allied with the
theme of Antichrist contributed the chief elements. The synthesis was
carried further: the planets were related to specific sins, Saturn with Sloth,
Luna with Envy, Mars with Wrath, Mercury with Avarice, Venus with Lust,
Jupiter with Gluttony, and Sol with Pride.
Garden of Earthly Delights, interior
Bosch‟s extraordinary ability to organize disparate metamorphosed forms
into a unified whole achieved its peak in the triptych called Garden of
Earthly Delights. It shows Paradise and Hell scenes flanking the central
At first sight, the central panel confronts us with an idyll unique in Bosch‟s
work: an extensive park-like landscape teeming with nude men and
women who nibble on giant fruits, consort with birds and animals, frolic in
the water and, above all, indulge in a variety of amorous sports overtly and
without shame. A circle of male riders revolves like a great carousel
around a pool of maidens in the center and several figures soar about in
the sky on delicate wings. The carefree mood of the central panel is
heightened by the clear and even lighting, the absence of shadows and
the bright, high-keyed colors. The pale bodies of the inhabitants, accented
by an occasional black-skinned figure, gleam like rare flowers against the
grass and foliage. Behind the gaily colored fountains and pavilions of the
background lake, a soft line of hill melts into the distance. The diminutive
figures and the large, fanciful vegetable forms seem harmless, and when
we stand before this picture, it is difficult not to agree with one art
historian‟s insistence that the nude lovers “are peacefully frolicking about
the tranquil garden in vegetative innocence, at one with animals and
plants, and the sexuality that inspires them appears to be pure joy, pure
bliss.” Indeed, we might be in the presence of the childhood of the world,
the Golden Age, when men and beasts dwelt in peace together and the
earth yielded her fruit abundantly and without effort.
But was this crowd of naked lovers intended as an apotheosis of
innocent sexuality? The sexual act was often seen by the Middle Ages as
proof of man‟s fall from the state of angels, at best a necessary evil, at
worst a deadly sin. The Bosch and his patrons shared fully in tis view we
know from the contexts in which lovers appear in is other works and is
further confirmed by the fact that his garden is situated between Eden and
Hell, the origin of sin and its punishment. The Garden of Earthly Deligths
depicts the sensual life, more specifically the deadly sin of lust.
Various aspects of this sin are acted out in a forthright fashion.
Many of the objects in the panel are erotic symbols inspired by popular
songs, sayings and slang expressions of Bosch‟s time. Many of the fruits
nibbled and held by the lovers serve as metaphors of the sexual organs;
the fish which appear twice in the foreground occur as phallic symbols in
Old Netherlandish proverbs. What Bosch shows us is a false paradise
whose transient beauty leads men to ruin and damnation.
The Creation of the world unfolds on the outer wings in subdued tonalities
of gray and gray-green. The Creator appears in a rift in the clouds in the
upper left-hand corner.
In the approximately contemporary frescoes of the Sistine Chapel,
Michelangelo represented God as a sort of superhuman sculptor imposing
form on the primordial chaos with his own hands. Bosch, on the other
hand, shows God creating through his Word; he is passively enthroned
and holds a book, while the divine fiat is recorded in an inscription near
the upper edge from Psalms 33:9: “For he spake and it was done; he
commanded, and it stood fast.” Light has been separated from darkness in
the center of the wing and within the sphere of light, the waters have been
divided above and below the firmament. Dark rain clouds gather over the
dry land emerging slowly from the misty waters beneath. Already trees are
sprouting from its humid surface, as well as curious growths, half
vegetable, half-mineral, which anticipate the exotic flora of the inner
panels. This is the earth as it stood on the third day of creation.
Left panel detail
On the reverse of the left wing, the grayness gives way to brilliant color
and the last 3 days of Creation are accomplished. The earth and water
have brought forth their swarms of living creatures, including a giraffe, an
elephant, and some wholly fabulous creatures, like the unicorn. In the
center rises the Fountain of Life, a tall, slender roseate structure
resembling a delicately carved Gothic tabernacle. The precious gems
glittering in the mid at its base and some of the more fanciful animals
probably reflect the medieval descriptions of India, whose marvels had
fascinated the West since the days of Alexander the Great and where
popular belief situated the lost Paradise of Eden.
Union of Adam and Eve
In the foreground of this antediluvian landscape, we see not the Temptation and
Expulsion of Adam and Eve, but their union by God. Taking Eve by the hand, he
presents her to the newly awakened Adam who gazes at his creation from his rib
with a mixture, it seems, of surprise and anticipation. God is himself much more
youthful that his white-bearded counterpart on the outer wings, and represents
the Deity in the guise of Christ, the second person of the Trinity and the Word of
God made incarnate. The marriage of Adam and Eve illustrates the moment
when he blessed them, saying “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth
and subdue it.” God‟s injunction to „be fruitful and multiply‟ could perhaps be
construed as a mandate to indulge in the sort of activity taking place in the
middle panel; but the Middle Ages thought otherwise. Instead it assumed that
previous to the Fall, Adam and Eve would have copulated without lust, solely for
the purpose of producing children. After the Fall, however, all this was changed;
many people believed that the first sin committed after eating of the forbidden
fruit had been carnal lust.
In this respect, it is significant that no children can be found in the garden of the
central panel, and that the inhabitants, far from subduing the earth, are in fact
overshadowed by the giant birds and fruit.
The garden thus shows not the fulfillment of God‟s injunction to Adam and Eve,
but its perversion. Man has abandoned the true paradise for the false; he has
turned from the Fountain of Life to drink from the fountain of the flesh which
intoxicates and brings death.
Right panel with detail of burning buildings
The erotic dream of the garden of delights gives way to the nightmare
reality of the right wing. It is Bosch‟s most violent vision of Hell. Buildings
do not simply burn, they explode into the murky background, their fiery
reflections turning the water below into blood. In the foreground a rabbit
carries his bleeding victim on a pole. The hunted-become-hunter well
expresses the chaos of Hell, where the normal relationships of the world
are turned upside down.
This is even more dramatically conveyed in the innocuous everyday
objects which have swollen to monstrous proportions and serve as
instruments of torture; they are comparable to the oversized fruits and
birds of the central panel. One nude figure is attached by devils to the
neck of a lute; another is helplessly entangled in the strings of a harp,
while a third soul has been stuffed down the neck of a great horn.
On the frozen lake in the middle ground, a man balances
uncertainly on an oversized skate, and heads straight for the hole in the
ice before him, where a companion already struggles in the freezing
water. This episode echoes old Dutch expressions similar to our “to skate
on thin ice,” illustrating a precarious situation indeed. Somewhat above, a
group of victims have been thrust into a burning lantern, which will
consume them like moths, while on the opposite side, another soul
dangles through the handle of a door key. Behind, a huge pair of ears
advances like some infernal army tank, immolating its victims by means of
a great knife. The letter M engraved on the knife, which also appears on
other knives in Bosch‟s paintings, has been thought represent the
hallmark of some cutler whom the artist particularly disliked, but it more
likely refers to Mundus (World), or possibly Antichrist, whose name,
according to some medieval prophecies, would begin with this letter.
The focal point of Hell, occupying a position analogous to that of the
Fountain of Life in the Eden wing, is the so-called Tree-Man, whose egg-
shaped torso rests on a pair of rotting tree trunks that end of boats for
shoes. His hind quarters have fallen away, revealing a hellish tavern
scene within, while his head supports a large disc on which devils and
their victims promenade around a large bagpipe. The face looks over one
shoulder to regard, half wistfully, the dissolution of his own body.
Much more solid, in contrast, is the bird-headed monster at lower right,
who gobbles up the damned souls only to defecate them into a
transparent chamber pot from which they plunge into a pit below. Other
sins can be identified in the area around the pit. The slothful man is visited
in his bed by demons, and the glutton is forced to disgorge his food, while
the proud lady is compelled to admire her charms reflected in the backside
of a demon.
The Garden of Earthly Delights is the high point in Bosch‟s creation of
imaginative, autonomous, fantastic allegorical organisms. No other work
painted by him displays the same complexity of thought in such vivid
As in the St. Anthony panels the interior forms are arranged in three
zones; here they are lighter, more linear, more graceful and more like
fanciful arabesques but governed by a sublime conceptual logic in which
the reality of the allegorical images sweeps away all questions based on
Many of Bosch‟s works employ the standard religious format of the
day, the three-part folding triptych. Some modern observers have
assumed that this format implies that The Garden of Earthly Delights had
a primarily religious function, being hung over a Christian altar. However,
in the 1960s it was pointed out that the work was seen in the Brussels
palace of Henry III of Nassau, Regent of the Netherlands, in 1517, one
year after Bosch died.
Carrying of the Cross
Bosch makes use of the dramatic close-up to intensify the emotions of this
theme and the malice of Christ‟s enemies reaches an hysterical pitch in
this last Passion scene. The surface is filled with snarling, vicious heads of
an evil throng. Bitterness and hatred confront the viewer immediately in
startling proximity. Christ is accompanied by St. Veronica, an apocryphal
figure not mentioned in the Bible, who supposedly wiped the sweat from
face of Jesus as he struggled beneath the cross and thereby obtained a
miraculous image of his features on her veil. The two thieves appear at
the right. Around these 4 figures surge a howling mob, who scowl, leer
and roll their eyes at their victims, their twisted and deformed faces
glowing with an unearthly light against the dark ground. These are not
men but demons, perfect incarnations of all the lusts and passions that
ever stained the soul.
Bosch never rendered human physiognomies with a more intense
ugliness, and it has been thought that he was inspired here by Leonardo‟s
drawings of grotesque heads.
It is just as likely, however, that he turned to the German artists who for
generations had endowed the tormentors of Christ with monstrously
Bosch uses a double diagonal composition that intersects at Christ‟s head:
arm of cross to bad thief; St. Veronica to good thief. The harsh reds and
metallic blues heighten the emotional distress of the expression.
With Veronica detail
In the maelstrom of evil, the heads of Christ and Veronica appear oddly
calm and aloof. Eyes closed, they appear to respond to some inner vision
rather than to the tumult around them; Veronica‟s lips even curve in a
slight smile. Paradoxically, it is Christ‟s image on her veil that looks out at
us beseechingly. The contrast between Christ himself and the two thieves
could not be greater. The bad thief, at lower right, snarls back at his
taunting captors; the good thief above appears about to collapse in terror
at the words of his diabolic confessor. They are carnal men, still immersed
in the troubles of this world, but Christ has withdrawn to a higher sphere
where his persecutors cannot reach him. In the midst of his suffering he is
victorious. And to all who take up his cross and follow him, Christ
promises the same victory over the world and the flesh: this is the
message that Bosch‟s half-length passion scene presented to his
While contemporaries were fascinated by Bosch as an inventor of
monsters and chimeras, they were also impressed by the originality of his
technique. Karel van Mander, the first historian of Netherlandish painting,
wrote in 1604 that Bosch “had established a very rapid, characteristic way
of working, setting many of his things down at first, which nevertheless
remained very beautiful without alteration.”
Detail showing underdrawing
The techniques which Bosch used were both traditional and original. Most
of his works were executed on panel covered with a thin chalk ground and
an oil film laid over to reduce absorbency. However, an innovatory second
chalk ground was applied which added brilliance to the paint. The
underdrawing was done with a brush and thin black paint. Bosch was not
concerned with an objective description of detail, light or perspective, but
an expression of form. His style was rapid, sketchy, linear and often
limited to single broken lines that search out the main contours of shapes
in the painting.
In Carrying of the Cross, the paint was still applied in thin flat layers
in the traditional manner, but the visibility and expressive purpose of the
brushwork, the detached white highlights and the simplification of the
modeling were all innovative. Bosch‟s direct and simplified painting
technique was perfectly suited to his intention of impressing the viewer
with the immediacy of the emotional impact of the scene rather than
describing in detail a tangible expression of the objective world. With great
economy of means and a free, rapid handling of paint he achieves a
richness of expression and a variety of pictorial handwriting that is entirely
new in Northern art.