The Mysterious Drawings of Hieronymus Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch is most famous for his ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’, but his lesser-known drawings provide insight into the mysterious man.

Nov 6, 2022By Susanna Andrews, BA Interdisciplinary Arts

hieronymus bosch mysterious drawings


Jheronimus Anthonissen van Aken, or Hieronymus Bosch as many know him to be named, revolutionized art during the Northern Renaissance. The Dutch painter gained fame during his life in the 15th-16th century and has continued to have a massive impact since. Born to an artistic family, it’s believed his father or uncle taught him to paint. His vivid and ghastly portrayal of biblical narratives gave him the name creator of devils. His monsters were inspired by religious manuscripts dating back to the late medieval era and Renaissance. Here is an outline of this highly influential artist and the drawings that served as sketches for his paintings as well as those that stood on their own as finished works.


Hieronymus Bosch: Religion and Influence

portrait hieronymus bosch
Hieronymus Bosch, via Biography


Although some people think that Bosch was a member of a religious extremist group or that he even took hallucinogenic drugs for inspiration, there’s no evidence of this. The majority of the artists at the time were portraying Christian parables, and although he was expressing similar subjects, he was uniquely interpreting them. Considering the known information about him, it’s most likely that he was simply a conservative orthodox Catholic and a highly regarded wealthy member of society. His first commissioned paintings were commissioned by the Brotherhood of Our Lady, to which he belonged.


Bosch’s legacy carried on after his death. Many surrealist artists including Max Ernst and Rene Magritte were influenced by him, with Salvador Dali making the bold statement that Bosch should be labeled the first modern artist. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung named him the original discoverer of the unconscious. Bosch truly embodies a renaissance man. Through his art, he explored various topics such as ecology, sociology, theology, and morality.


The Drawings of Hieronymus Bosch

hieronymus bosch two monsters
Two Monsters by Hieronymus Bosch, c.1500, via Wikimedia


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Bosch was most widely recognized for his painted triptychs, Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510) being the most famous one. He also created a lesser well-known collection of drawings that served as drafts for his paintings. He was the first Netherlandish artist to draw sketches as a draughtsman with the purpose of these being final pieces rather than just initial versions of projects. He drew many fantastical portraits of human-like figures and beasts using pen and ink primarily. The drawings that can be matched with his paintings reveal that the creatures and beings he developed were planned out and invented with intention.


It’s impossible to prove that he drew all of these drawings alone. The assistants at his studio were involved in his creative process at times. Around fifty drawings are thought to be produced by him, with only eight originals still in existence. One reason for this small percentage is the destruction of work claimed to be immoral in the 16th century by the Protestant Reformation. Organizing the remaining pieces can be challenging, since dating some of them is out of the question without any indications. It is believed that he created his drawings for himself and not for the public eye. Because of this, there is an attempt to interpret certain elements that differ from his paintings.


Sketches for The Garden of Earthly Delights

garden of early delights and man tree by hieronymus bosch
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, 1490-1510 via Sotheby’s; next to Man Tree by Hieronymus Bosch, 1470s, via Art prints on demand


Let’s use The Garden of Earthly Delights as an example. Examining his drawings leads to the identification of early versions of images found in the painting. One of his drawings of a tree man can be matched to the more recognized hellish rendition. The complexity of Man Tree illustrates that this piece may have been intended to be more than a study sketch. The character of the Tree Man is a combination of human and tree, who carries odd objects and other beings. The strange figure is supported by two boats even though it stands on solid ground. It’s hypothesized that the face is a self-portrait of Bosch himself. Some of the background elements of the landscape also share similarities with the triptych The Last Judgement created around 1482. This drawing was not destroyed and is exhibited in Vienna.


Death and the Miser by Hieronymus Bosch

hieronymus bosch death and the miser sketche and painting
Death and the Miser by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500, via National Gallery of Art, Washington; next to Death and the Miser by an unknown artist, c. 1500, via Wikimedia


In Death and the Miser Bosch might have been wrongfully credited for a drawing that his follower may have done. One detail that indicates this is the under-drawing of the painting showing death’s arrow being shorter than the sketch. The original illustrator also added details to the drawing such as the orthodox cross. Even if Bosch didn’t draw this piece on his own, it was still used as the outline for the painting he did in fact make. The scene shows a miser in bed as death approaches while an angel guides the targeted one to look at the crucifix in the window. Bosch constantly explored themes of good versus evil in his artworks. Paradoxical images of demons and rosaries are present. Some of the inspiration for the piece came from Ars moriendi, written works related to Christian ideology about how to live and die.


Owl’s Nest by Hieronymus Bosch

owls nest
Owl’s Nest by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1505-1515, via Wikipedia


Owls, specifically Eurasian pygmy owls, are a common symbol found in many of Bosch’s artwork. They are often hard to point out at first, representing the hidden wisdom they illustrate. Known to accompany travelers on the road, they brought a sense of comfort to his paintings and drawings. Owls are signs of peace and wisdom, so their presence added some light to the primarily dark imagery he was drawn to. Their ability to see in the dark symbolizes the knowledge they hold that many others are blind to. About half of his works included owls, making them one of his most significant motifs.


One example can be seen in the drawing called Owl’s Nest. This one stands out because of the realistic style differing from Bosch’s typical fantastical manner. Shading and texture are apparent, giving it an accuracy that is rare in his work. There are no mythical creatures or strange phenomena existing in the scene, just a picture of the natural world. Some believe it served solely as a preparatory sketch. However, there are no paintings that reflect the same visuals of the owl landing on the tree. Also, it’s a fully finished piece that appears to have been created to stand on its own.


The myth of The Owl’s Nest which was well-known at the time of production is an allegory of birds that live in the light striking the nocturnal owl. Some people think that the owl is actually a self-portrait. The Dutch last name Bosch is translated to wood and was chosen by Hieronymus as a tribute to his hometown. If it was truly meant to be a self-portrait of the artist, then it provides a look into how he viewed himself.


Hearing Forest and Seeing Field

the hearing forest and the seeing field
Hearing Forest and the Seeing Field by Hieronymus Bosch, c.1500, via First Art Gallery


Another example of the owl being the main motif in Bosch’s artwork is seen in the drawing Hearing Forest and Seeing Field. Bosch used a goose quill with bistre, a water-soluble pigment. The use of the quill didn’t exist in the Netherlands before him. This piece is one of his recto-verso drawings, meaning there’s another drawing on the other side of the paper too. On the flip side there are sketches of faces, unrelated to the main drawing. It has been confirmed that this one is a creation of his alone. Besides the owl, what stands out are the ears and eyes seen in the background. Again, the owl is sitting in a tree, which some see as a representation of the artist himself.


Two quotes are significant when observing this piece. At the top, it reads For poor is the mind that always uses the ideas of others and invents none of its own…, which was taken from a religious text from the 13th century. The title itself comes from an old Dutch proverb Fields have eyes, and forest have ears, and I will hear if I remain silent and listen. Bosch was constantly trying to search for the truth. He always sought to be in tune with the divine word, seeking the meaning of existence as a follower of God. This is portrayed in the introspective drawing full of wisdom.


Infernal Landscape by Hieronymus Bosch

infernal landscape
Infernal Landscape by Hieronymus Bosch, c.1500, via Wikipedia


This drawing was attributed to Bosch in 2016, after much debate. The artist often reworked his pieces, revealing overpainting and underdrawings, which would be impossible for someone trying to replicate his style to mimic. Before an anonymous owner sold this drawing in 2003, it was inaccessible and unknown to the public.


A chaotic scene of hell is illustrated, with many forms of torture occurring for the eternally damned. The victims of Satan are seen trapped in a ringing bell, hung from a fishing net, stuck in a hell beast with a water wheel in its mouth, devoured by demons, and straddled to a knife held by a giant. In addition to the ghastly creatures he created, Bosch would include monsters from mythology, like the dragon spitting out humans into a cauldron. Out of the examined drawings, Infernal Landscape is most resemblant to The Garden of Earthly Delights. Hieronymus Bosch’s hellish world and monstrous beasts were unlike any other religiously charged work. Interpretations can be made about his artworks, but they will always remain a bit of a mystery.

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By Susanna AndrewsBA Interdisciplinary ArtsSusanna is an artist passionate about generating concepts for creative writing pieces and short films. During this process, she loves to research topics related to art history and philosophy to inform her ideas. She graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in Interdisciplinary Arts and lives in Southern California.