Sunday, June 6, 2021

My Art History: Hieronymus Bosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights
Hieronymus Bosch, 1510-1515
220 x 389 cm, oil on oak panel
Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

On my journey as an artist, I've come across many painters, both past and present, whose work I like.  Some, like Claude Monet, are household names; others, like Gustave Caillebotte, don't enjoy the honor of having their work on posters in the home d├ęcor center at Target.  Still, whether a bright star or a lesser light, each of these painters has influenced me in some way.  I would like to share them with you in a series of blog posts that I'm calling “My Art History.”  (But I'll still be posting tips, tricks and techniques, so don't despair!)

Let's start with the Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516).

I don't know when I first came across his work, but I do know that his nightmarish landscapes with weird creatures fascinated me from an early age.  At the time, I was probably reading a lot of fantasy, and Bosch was a timely discovery.  Because he left no letters or diaries, we know very little about him, but we do know he was a popular painter in his day and received commissions from abroad.  But without any commentary from him, we know very little about what his paintings actually mean.  Some seem to be religious allegories; others, moral tales; and still others, a hodge-podge of who knows what from his imagination or from exposure to ergot fungus.

You've probably seen his most famous work, “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” (Image at top of post.)  Even so, I recommend you download the 175- megabyte, high resolution image from so you can really get into the detail.  Composed of three sections of oil on oak panel, the left panel depicts the Garden of Eden; the right panel, the Last Judgment; and the center, occupying the between-times of Eden and the Last Judgment, the Garden of Earthly Delights itself.  

As I look through the painting, I find an abundance of puzzles.  What, for example, is the meaning of this?

Or this?

Or even this?

There's much disagreement over meaning and intent.  But for me as a painter, the painting signifies the imaginative riches possible in an otherwise realistic landscape.  As I walk through the world, looking for subject matter, I sometimes think of Bosch's work, and I look for the unusual.

Here's a 50-minute video explaining the painting (can't see the video below?

1 comment:

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

From the mailbag: As usual, this old PC is not very co-operative with large graphics, so I will have another look with the new laptop and its graphics card.
This work is obviously full of symbolism and allegory, with visual references to Old Testament verses plus some period related imagery. There are a number of very remarkable features even upon cursory examination. All of the forms are three dimensional, showing proper depth and perspective features. Relative sizes are quite well done also.
The second close up you selected literally blew me away! The artist was indeed very well educated. The anatomic and physiologic features shown clearly demonstrate the internal female reproductive system, albeit in a somewhat symbolic fashion. It is priceless!

The circular "bubble" with man and woman inside, is an egg with potential to produce either sex. In those days the X,Y chromosomes had yet to be discovered. The egg is about to enter the fimbriated end of the fallopian tube and thence down to the sac-like uterus. The face of a "fetus" is peering out of the cervical os (opening) and through the vagina (tube) to the outside world. The mouse adds a tongue in cheek comment that might be interpreted in different ways, some much more graphic than others. We can leave it as being "of mice and men".

This panel is full of symbolic references to the animals arising first from the water, three-headed creatures (trinity), and so on. It is small wonder that this work is highly respected. Thanks so much for featuring Bosch - I will be taking more time to examine this piece on the other computer. Absolutely love it!!!