Monsters Are Real: Hieronymus Bosch and the Medieval Mind

1280px-The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_by_Bosch_High_Resolution

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch. Undated triptych.

Hieronymus Bosch, born Jeroen Anthonizoon van Aken, was born around 1450 in the market town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in Brabant in the Netherlands. Very little is known about the man himself outside of the work he left behind. Part Flemish tradition, part surreal fever dream, his unflinching depictions of the follies of man and nightmarish vision of hell offer the modern viewer an unparalleled look into the medieval psyche. His work is a window into the religious fervor of the middle ages through which we can see questions of morality, harsh lessons on the nature of sin, and the pervasive fear of eternal damnation.

He is, without a doubt, the most metal painter of the Renaissance.

Bosch was one of the first artists known to paint primarily from his imagination. When travelers and traders brought stories of the middle east and Iceland to ‘s-Hertogenbosch, he incorporated their descriptions into his work, giving his landscapes a distinctly foreign flavor. Animals appeared in paintings that he had never seen in person, notably a little silver giraffe in the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights (above. In case you don’t see it right away, it’s between the bear and the striped porcupine, beside the two-legged dog).

As a teenager, Bosch witnessed a massive fire that destroyed more than 4,000 houses in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and killed countless people and livestock. Fire is a recurring theme in his work and particularly vivid are his flaming skies.

Unlike many artists, Bosch enjoyed success during his lifetime due in no small part to the Church’s patronage. His art may have been a calling, but it was also his profession, and he worked mainly on assignment. We may be able to glean a little about his worldview from his paintings, however. Many of his humans are grotesque and inherently sinful, and his judgement of them is clear. His work suggests a deeply pious man with a sharp intellect, a visionary imagination, and a rather dark sense of humor.

The detail demands your full concentration. In order to take in all the monsters and nightmarish punishments, you can easily lose an hour staring into hell. This is no vague impression of hellfire or in the older tradition, ice, but a painstakingly detailed depiction of the imagined horrors of damnation that is both oddly comic and deeply disturbing. It draws your attention in a way that is not coincidental; as most of his work was commissioned by the Church, it was intended to encourage meditation and to inspire the kind of fear of divine punishment that would keep the churches full come Sunday. Given the intent was to scare people straight, it’s no wonder that his depictions of hell are particularly detailed and imaginative.

Bosch’s surrealist vision was so ahead of his time, it looks like something that would fit more easily alongside Dali than in the Northern Renaissance. It’s difficult to look at it without immediately thinking of hallucinogenic drugs that could not have existed in the Netherlands in the 16th century.

LSD might have been a long way away, but there are over more than a dozen species of poisonous mushrooms in the Netherlands, including the Death Cap and the iconic red and white Fly Agaric that was thought to have inspired Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Most of these would have been found in the dense forest surrounding ‘s-Hertogenbosch. By the sixteenth century, the the Fly Agaric had been used in Northern Europe for spiritual as well as culinary purposes for some time, while the Death Cap can easily be mistaken for other edible varieties of mushrooms.

We’ll never know for certain whether Bosch used mushrooms, but as Grunenberg points out, “in The Haywain, there is evidence suggestive of Bosch’s knowledge of the Amanita muscaria mushroom and the apocalyptic hallucinations it can induce.”

Bosch’s monsters have been attributed to mushrooms, rancid rye bread, alchemy, Freudian theory, and even a mystical sex cult, but the truth was probably more mundane.

It was the middle ages. Monsters were everywhere.

St. John’s Cathedral in ‘s-Hertogenbosch was under construction over the course of Bosch’s entire life. The cathedral is decorated with intricate monsters and angels, so not only was Bosch not the only one seeing them, he wasn’t even the first. While we might not think of most supernatural beings as part of the Christian tradition today, in the middle ages, many still believed in magic and mythical creatures were thought to haunt everything from forests and ponds to the very air they breathed. He used arcane symbolism to communicate his meaning, so many of the aspects that confuse us today would have made more sense at the time.

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The Last Judgment, Hieronymus Bosch. Undated triptych.

Death was a constant threat and people turned to the Church for salvation. It was not in the Church’s best interest to comfort them. It was fear that brought them in, and fear that drove them to purchase indulgences as insurance for the afterlife. Interestingly enough, Bosch himself was a member of the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, a deeply religious organization that was sustained through the sale of indulgences. The Brotherhood claimed indulgences purchased for the dead could pull souls directly out of hell, and after getting a good look at what that might have been like, it’s no wonder people would have wanted to save their loved ones from it.

After his death, all of Bosch’s paintings were snapped up by collectors across Europe until at one point, every single piece was in a private collection. Philip II of Spain – husband of “Bloody” Mary and patron of the Inquisition — was a huge fan, and bought up most of Bosch’s work. As a result, Spain still has the best collection of it today. According to the monk Fray José de Siguenza, Philip had a now unknown companion piece to Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins in his bedroom and was said to meditate on it every day.

Bosch has become more popular again over the last few years, and now you can find his paintings on everything from leggings to coloring books. You know, in case you want to take your meditative coloring to the next level of religious contemplation.

To end on a high note, in The Garden of Earthly Delights, there is music painted onto the butt of one of the souls in hell. Jim Spalink has actually recorded this and you can listen to it on YouTube. The result is haunting, distinctly Renaissance, and beautiful in a deeply, deeply creepy way. I’m listening to it now and it’s actually freaking out my cat, so Lord knows what kind of Boschian creatures are lurking between the bars. Maybe don’t play it by yourself in the dark and in the middle of the night, like I am.

Or do. 

In the meantime, I’ll be trying to calm down my cat.

Jessica Cale

Sources

The Atlantic. Hieronymus Bosch, the Trendiest Apocalyptic Medieval painter of 2014.

Byrne, David. 11 Things I learned from the Hieronymus Bosch Show.

Cooper, Paul M. M. Hell in a Handcart: The Secrets Behind Hieronymus Bosch’s The Haywain.

Grunenberg, Christoph and Harris, Jonathan. Summer of Love: Psychadelic Art, Social Crisis and Counterculture in the 1960s.

Hickson, Dr. Sally. Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Khan Academy.

Schuster, Clayton. The Last Judgment, Hieronymus Bosch. Sartle.

Zeidler, Anja. Heironymus Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins Table Painting.

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