Monsters Are Real: Hieronymus Bosch and the Medieval Mind

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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.

Death and the Maiden: Macabre Desire in Renaissance Art

After the Black Death killed an estimated sixty percent of the European population in the fourteenth century, Death himself haunted art across the continent. Always a popular theme in the middle ages, it nevertheless adapted from primarily religious art into paintings of plague and the always unsettling Danse Macabre, depictions of the dead dancing, often with the living. By the early sixteenth century, however, the Danse Macabre theme had progressed into something far creepier.

Death was no longer so much dancing with the woman as embracing her. The courtly dance of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had taken an erotic turn, and now Death was kissing, fondling, and all but making love to women in art across Europe. The progression can be seen in two works of art from the Swiss artist Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, Dance of Death and Death and the Maiden:

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Dance of Death. Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, 1517.

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Death and the Maiden. Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, 1517.

That escalated quickly.

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The Rape of Proserpina (detail). Bernini, 1621. Photo by Int3gr4te.

The theme of Death and the Maiden was nothing new. The Greeks and Romans had their own version in the story of Persephone, kidnapped by and eventually married to Hades, the god of the underworld. While Hades has been presented at turns as a handsome goth, an old man with a beard, or bafflingly, a purple cartoon character, he is often used to represent death, a man being ever so slightly more appealing than the skeletons in Deutsch’s work.

It’s interesting to note that although there are many artistic renderings on the theme of the Rape of Persephone, it isn’t clear in Ovid’s Metamorphoses whether this rape was literal or just referring to her abduction. Nevertheless, Persephone married Hades and ruled over the Underworld by his side, and many traditions depict them as happily married and, atypically for the gods of Olympus, monogamous.

So why did Death fancy young women rather than knights or minstrels? There are a couple of different theories. Death may serve as a reminder not only of mortality, but of the inevitable passage of time. As we see skeletons embracing young women, we understand that youth and beauty cannot last forever. Alternatively, the sexualization of Death can be read as a warning, given how many women died in childbirth during the middle ages. (Art or the most intense abstinence-only program ever? You decide.)

It could also be the artists wanted to paint pretty girls in various states of undress. You know, because art.

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Death and Life. Edvard Munch, 1894.

As for the maidens in these paintings, they really vary. While some of them submit to Death’s grasp with all the enthusiasm of an awkward hug from a bad blind date, many of them embrace him with passion. Is it fate, a metaphor, or a macabre exaggeration of the kind of man a young woman ought to avoid?

While we may not be able to ask Deutsch and Grien what is was about 1517 that had them painting erotic pictures of skeletons fondling women, the theme proved to be a persistent one and enjoyed a resurgence in the romantic period of the late nineteenth century. Edvard Munch imagined a relationship dominated by the maiden in Death and Life, the sexual aggression of the Renaissance balanced with a rather sweet-looking kiss.

Jessica Cale

Sources

LeClaire, Lance David. 10 Grim Themes of Death in Western Art. 

Ovid. Metamorphoses.

Pollefeyes, Patrick. Jeune Fille et la Mort, La Mort Dans l’Art.

Bohemian Rhapsody: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre

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“A woman’s body, a beautiful woman’s body, is not made for love, you see… it’s too beautiful, isn’t it?”

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Toulouse-Lautrec, dressed as a clown

Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa was born on November 24th, 1864 at the Hȏtel du Bosc at Albi to Count Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa and Countess Adèle Tapié de Céleyran. The counts of Toulouse could trace their lineage back to Charlemagne, and by the late nineteenth century, they lived in genteel comfort in estates across the south of France. They had maintained their fortune largely through the intermarriage within the family, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s parents were first cousins.

He suffered from pycnodysostosis, a hereditary disease that rendered his bone structure sensitive and weak. After he broke both of his legs as a child, they stopped growing altogether, leaving him permanently stunted at 5’1”. It was during his convalescence that he first began to develop his skill as an artist. Even after he could walk again, his condition kept him from many of the leisure pursuits enjoyed by his family, particularly hunting and riding, so he spent his time drawing and painting. When he decided to pursue a career as a painter, his family was supportive.

Toulouse-Lautrec moved to Montmartre in 1884 at the age of nineteen. As he wrote to his family:

“Of course Papa would think me an outsider… It has cost me an effort, and you know as well as I do that leading a Bohemian life goes against the grain and taxes my will sorely in the attempt to get used to it, since I still bear with me a load of sentimental considerations that I shall have to throw overboard if I am to get anywhere…”

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A rare profile of van Gogh, 1887

Throw them overboard he did. In his quest to develop his art and understand his subjects, he threw himself into the thriving bohemian culture of Montmartre. It was a hard-partying world of absinthe, revolutionary politics, brothels, and nightclubs open at all hours and filled with notable figures like Oscar Wilde and Renoir. Edgar Degas’ studio was in the same house as Toulouse-Lautrec’s first apartment, and they painted some of the same people. Vincent van Gogh was also an outsider in Paris and the two became friends.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s art is characterized by a love of life and empathy for his subjects. In confident strokes and bold colors, he captured movement and mood like no other, recording the vibrancy and ugliness of the Montmartre nightlife with unflinching honesty and near spiritual devotion. His sketches, paintings, and lithographs portray the intangible — innocence in immorality, truth in the theatrical — with playfulness and startling simplicity.

Toulouse-Lautrec had the advantage of being born wealthy. He was not dependent upon his art to survive, so everything he did, he did for love — love of life, love of his art, and love of his subjects. While many others were obliged to take commissions, Toulouse-Lautrec haunted bars, brothels, and dance halls in his relentless pursuit of life itself. He was fascinated by physical prowess due in no small part to his own limitations, and as such, he painted dancers, acrobats, and even jockeys.

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La Toilette, 1896

He was particularly fond of prostitutes, and the feeling was mutual. They adored him and allowed him to stay with them. He felt most at home in brothels, and even lived in one for some time. Prostitutes were his favorite models. He explains: “Professional models always seem to have been stuffed, whereas these girls are alive… They loll and stretch on the divans like animals… They are utterly without affectation.” His Elles album captured the details of their daily lives — washing, dressing, waiting, talking — with affection and empathy, bringing out the nuanced beauty in the mundane.

His love of life unfortunately contributed to his tragically early death at the age of thirty-five from complications related to alcoholism and syphilis. Although his life was short, his contribution to modern art cannot be overemphasized. While he may not have the name recognition of van Gogh, his work was no less influential. His at times unnerving realism and choice of subjects has influenced generations of artists, and his posters made a mark on pop art and advertising that can still be felt today.

Toulouse-Lautrec saw himself as an observer, and most of his subjects were real people. Although many of them were notable at the time, they achieved a degree of immortality through his work. Let’s take a look at some of the figures of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre:

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(Left) La Goulue Arriving at the Moulin Rouge, 1892. (Right) La Goulue

La Goulue: Dancer Louise Weber was known by her stage name La Goulue (“the glutton”) for her habit of finishing off customers’ drinks as she danced past their tables. The “Queen of Montmartre” embroidered hearts on her knickers and kicked men’s hats off with her toes.

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Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891

Valentin-le-Désosseé (Valentin the Snakeman, or Valentin the Boneless) was the stage name of wine merchant Jacques Renaudin. He is the distinctive-looking man in the foreground of this lithograph, and he danced at the Moulin Rouge in his spare time.

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(Left) Ambassadeurs – Aristide Bruant, 1892. (Right) Aristide Bruant

Aristide Bruant was a popular singer fond of abusing the audience at Le Mirliton, his cabaret club in Montmartre. Standing on top of the tables, he would sing songs about life in the working-class suburbs wearing dramatic costumes of his own design and punctuating his works with a cane he didn’t need. Toulouse-Lautrec was a big fan, and was known to sing his songs in his studio. You can find many of his recordings on YouTube today.

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(Left) Yvette Guilbert Taking a Curtain Call, 1894. (Right) Yvette Guilbert

Yvette Guilbert was also a singer of chanson réaliste, a predecessor of Edith Piaf, and she sometimes sang Bruant’s songs. She was a tall, slender woman and her trademark long black gloves appear in the background of some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings. She despaired of the way he portrayed her, but saw value in its honesty whereas other artists had been kinder. She was actually rather lovely. Many of her recordings still exist, and you can listen to them here.

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(Left) Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, 1893. (Right) Jane Avril by Paul Sescau, 1890.

Jane Avril was a famous cancan dancer and a friend of Toulouse-Lautrec. While he made many promotional images of her, this painting shows a more intimate side to her, lost in thought as she is walking home through Montmartre.

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The Clownesse Cha-U-Kao at the Moulin Rouge (1895)

Cha-U-Kao: Cha-U-Kao was a female clown at the Moulin Rouge and an open lesbian. Toulouse-Lautrec opened his Elles series with her image. Many of the prostitutes he met were involved in lesbian relationships, and he found this to be quite moving: “When you see the way they love…(it is) the technique of tenderness.”

Jessica Cale

Further reading
Arnold, Matthias. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Taschen, 2000.

John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X

“I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty.” -John Singer Sargent

Portrait of Madame X is an oil portrait painted by John Singer Sargent for the Paris Salon of 1884. The model was Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau, an American socialite and “professional beauty” who epitomized the ideal of sophisticated feminine beauty prevalent at the time.
“…the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau.”


Gautreau was a difficult model, and it took Sargent the better part of a year to complete the portrait. Nevertheless, it was received badly. In the original painting, Gautreau’s right strap hung off of her shoulder, and this was taken to indicate that the rumors of her infidelities were true. Furthermore, her pose was considered too suggestive for polite society. People were scandalized. Gautreau was humiliated, and her mother demanded it be withdrawn from the exhibition.

Disheartened by the poor reception of his work, Sargent moved to London permanently. He later repainted the offending shoulder strap to sit on her shoulder, and displayed it in other exhibitions. When he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916, he said it had been his best work. 

Gautreau recovered from her embarrassment and was later painted by Gustave Courtois and Antonio de La Gandara, and these portraits were received well. She preferred both.

If you’d like to read more on the subject, Gioia Diliberto’s I Am Madame X is a masterful novel drawing on what is known about Virginie Gautreau to create a fictionalized account of her life and the creation and fallout of this famous portrait. I’ve read it, and it was totally engrossing. Certain details have stuck with me now for years, particularly how Gautreau maintained her unusual lilac-tinged complexion. You’ll have trouble finding a better way to visit Belle Epoque Paris for the day. You can check it out here