The life of Hieronymous Bosch is as enigmatic and shrouded in mystery as the paintings that he created. Very little is known of his early life; even his date of birth, tentatively suggested as October 2, 1453, is a subject of debate amongst scholars. We do know that he was born Jhieronmous van Aken, and adopted the surname that he is remembered by in honor of his native town: ‘s Hertogenbosch, which lay in a woodland province between modern Belgium and the Netherlands. Most of his family – including his grandfather, father, and many uncles and brothers – had also worked as painters. Hieronymous Bosch probably received his tutelage from them in the branches of artistic work that were common in his time: ornamental decoration, wall paintings, illustration of handwritten books, easel paintings (which were done on panel or oak, not canvas), and designs for liturgical objects – i.e., stained glass windows and other decorations for church use.
Today, Hieronymous Bosch is best known for the uncanny, even grotesque images that dominate so many of his paintings. His juxtaposition of demonic figures and bizarre deformities over stark realism wielded a strong influence on the 20th-century Surrealists. The psychologist Carl Jung, who’s renowned for his pioneering work in exploring the dark recesses of the human psyche, referred to Bosch as “this master of the monstrous, this discoverer of the Unconscious.”
One might assume, given all the ghastly aberrations that inhabit his paintings, that Bosch was viewed as a madman or pariah during the time in which he lived. But he was, in fact, an orthodox and pious Roman Catholic who was respected in his community. His name appeared in the rolls of the Catholic fraternity the Brotherhood of Our Lady.
Indeed, the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch are probably interpreted in a much different light today than they were in the era when they were created. The artist’s jarring imagery was an outgrowth of his religious devotion, and intended to evoke in the viewer an abhorrence of sin in all its perverse forms. This is an overriding theme in such masterpieces as The Seven Deadly Sins, The Hay Wain, The Temptations of Saint Anthony, The Last Judgment, and the painting that is often considered Bosch’s crowning achievement: The Garden of Earthly delights.
Such paintings – though they are lurid fantasies that host scores of images that had never been seen or dreamt of before that time – carry fairly conventional and orthodox warnings for mankind. They are sermons, in a sense. Part of the genius of Hieronymous Bosch lay in his ability to take biblical stories and parables and imbue them with greater impact through the use of jarring pictures that didn’t rely upon descriptions from the Bible and other related literature. His depiction of cataclysms, of monstrous hybrids of insect, reptile, machine and man, laid bare the state and peril of the human soul. Other, more “realistic” paintings display the folly, excess and sinfulness of mankind in more accessible images.
The internal conflict of the soul, which Bosch captured so distinctly in his paintings, was a major preoccupation in the minds of people at that time. The Catholic Church was experiencing the upheaval of the Protestant revolution. Witches and demons, and visions of possible damnation, were very real fears for the populace. What today looks to us like pictures conceived in drug-induced delirium, and a forerunner of Surrealism, were in fact a fairly straightforward reflection of the anxieties and hopes of many Europeans in the 15th century.