Hieronymus Bosch: In Pursuit Of The Extraordinary (10 Facts)

Hieronymus Bosch introduced a completely new way of thinking about and creating art. This article unpacks everything you need to know about this revolutionary painter, his life, and his masterpieces.

Apr 22, 2020By Mia Forbes, BA in Classics
Paintings by Hieronymus Bosch
Paintings by Hieronymus Bosch

Born in the middle of the 15th century, Hieronymus Bosch transformed the world of art. His novel approach to painting shocked and polarized his Dutch contemporaries, and his work soon made its way across Europe, where it continued to divide its audience’s opinions. Read on to find out why Bosch’s masterpieces had such a profound effect.


10. Hieronymus Bosch Was A Painter Unlike Any The World Had Ever Seen

The Last Judgement, Hieronymus Bosch, c1482-1505, via Gallerix

During the late 1400s and early 1500s, with the High Renaissance playing out in Italy, most artists were striving to replicate nature in their paintings and sculptures. Using accurate perspective and proportion, lifelike colors and natural light, these artists were attempting to capture reality. 

By contrast, Hieronymus Bosch dived headfirst into the fantastical and the abstract. Many of his paintings present apocalyptic scenes of chaos and confusion, packed with symbolic imagery. Humans and animals are shown side-by-side with fictional creatures and freakish monsters; recognizable plants and flowers are distorted in size or color; the laws of physics are utterly defied. 

While his contemporaries across Europe anchored their paintings in the familiar, Hieronymus Bosch deliberately pursued the extraordinary, forcing his audience to expand their concept of art.


9. There Are Some Difficulties In Trying To Understand Hieronymus Bosch

An engraving of Hieronymus Bosch (right) by Esme de Boulonois, ca 1650; illustration (left) in The Authorship of the Recueil d’Arras by Lorne Campbell in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes Vol. 40, (1977), pp. 301-313, via Alchemy

Civic records from Bosch’s native Brabant are sorely lacking, and fail even to provide a definitive date of birth for its most important artist. Nor did Bosch himself leave any writings, either published or personal, which could have helped us understand the thought process behind his bizarre and haunting creations.

Moreover, little of Bosch’s work has survived the five centuries that have elapsed since his death. Although he is thought to have had a prolific career, only 25 paintings remain, and many of them in fragments. Along with these, there are around 20 drawings that help to provide more insight into the artist’s style and methods. 

The minimal information available about Bosch’s life means that we must look more deeply into his artwork to try and fathom what inspired these intriguing ideas and incredible images.


8. His Most Famous Masterpiece Is Also His Most Confusing

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch, ca. 1495-1505, Museo del Prado | View in Full Screen

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The best-known of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings is undoubtedly The Garden of Earthly Delights. Produced from 1495 to 1505, The Garden is actually a triptych made up of distinct but complementary panels. The inner view shows the entire timeline of humanity in three stages: the Garden of Eden, earthly life, and the Last Judgement. These topics were not new as the subject-matter of paintings, but they had never been portrayed like this.

The three scenes contain the typical exotic animals and plants of the Garden of Eden, buildings and agriculture in the earthly realm, and terrifying punishment on the day of judgement. However, Bosch’s style gives these all features a nightmarish quality. The buildings are an undefinable amalgam of the natural and the artificial, and the creatures are combinations of recognizable animals with the form and size of monsters. What is more, the human figures are all naked and warped in a number of confusing positions and poses. 

The effect of these bizarre features is almost hallucinogenic. They create an uncanny and surreal atmosphere in which everything can be identified, but nothing can be understood. 


7. It Is Packed With Layers Of Symbolism

A detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights, via Museo del Prado


Although many of its symbols and motifs defy explanation, some of the imagery that appears in The Garden can help to explain the meaning behind Bosch’s masterpiece.

Of the animals that populate the earthly realm, rabbits are thought to represent fertility and fecundity, while snakes and mice were commonly used as phallic symbols. The idea of lust is also represented by the pile of strawberries, as well as the musical instruments, particularly the flute sticking out of a man’s behind! 

The various exotic birds and beasts that populate the landscape, including giraffes, elephants and lions, were then held as hallmarks of the exotic. Bosch may have based his depiction on contemporary travel writing, intending these animals to evoke ideas of the wild, far-away lands of Asia and Africa. Additionally, it has been suggested that the pile of cherries, precariously balanced on the head of a woman, is a symbol of pride. 


A detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights

It is clear that these symbols all point towards the idea of indulgence, pleasure and sin. This has led scholars to conclude that The Garden of Earthly Delights, with its explicit and striking imagery, was never intended to be displayed in a church. Instead, it is thought that the triptych was a private commission, made to show off the owner’s wealth and worldliness. 


6. Bosch’s Work Plays With Our Innate Human Concerns

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, Hieronymus Bosch, c1500, via Useum | View in Full Screen

Hieronymus Bosch’s work goes straight to the heart and forces us to contemplate matters of life and death, right and wrong, good and evil. 

The Garden of Earthly Delights illustrates the pitfalls humanity comes up against in the material world, where morality and righteousness can easily be displaced by pleasure and indulgence. Read from left to right, the triptych tells the story of man’s fall from grace, overcome by the temptations of earthly delights.


Close-up view of the Four Last Things


Similarly, The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, which he painted during the same period, deals with human shortcomings and asks what the consequences of our earthly actions will be. 


5. Bosch’s Paintings Also Reveal Something About His Religious Convictions

A detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights, via Museo del Prado

The artist grew up in the city of Den Bosch, which was the monastic center of the Duchy of Brabant; it has been estimated that, during Bosch’s lifetime, 5% of the population was made up of monks or nuns. Bosch himself is recorded as a member of the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Dear Lady, a religious order dedicated to worshipping the Virgin Mary.

We can see in Bosch’s work a warning against the excesses and indulgences condemned by Christianity. His paintings aim to demonstrate the temporary and destructive nature of worldly pleasures, showing how they lead to eternal punishment.

More specifically, art historians have notes that Bosch’s paintings seem to emphasize the culpability of women. It was a common idea at the time that women tempted men into a life of sin; this is demonstrated in the central panel, where women appear to be seducing, beguiling and even attacking men. Even the plants and flowers that decorate The Garden have been said to represent femininity, suggesting that the lure of the feminine distracts from the path of righteousness. 


4. Bosch’s Paintings Might Also Reflect Real Life Experiences 

A detail from The Temptation of St Anthony, Hieronymus Bosch, c1500-25, via HieronymusBosch

One character that appears again and again in Bosch’s paintings is St Anthony, who he depicts as a hermit-like figure in a brown robe. St Anthony was tempted by demons, which gave Bosch the opportunity to paint yet more monstrous creatures, and gave his name to a condition then known as ‘St Anthony’s Fire’. Sufferers would experience fevers, seizures and hallucinations, which sometimes led to their admission to insane asylums. One such institution was located in Bosch’s hometown; it is possible that his surreal and supernatural paintings may have been inspired by the delusions of the inmates.

Bosch may also have been influenced by a huge fire that caused untold destruction in his hometown during his early years. Many of his paintings show buildings alight, which have been thought to symbolize apocalyptic annihilation, but perhaps simply recall the experiences of a young boy watching his neighborhood burn.  

Another inspiration may have come from his family. While in his early 30s, Bosch married a woman whose parents owned a pharmacy. In their shop, he would undoubtedly have come across many of the strange instruments and apparatus that would later appear in his paintings. The Garden of Earthly Delights, for example, features several glass vials and cylinders which imply experimentation and scientific curiosity. 


3. His Novel Style Immediately Attracted Interest

The Adoration of the Magi, Hieronymus Bosch, c.1475, via The Met (One of the paintings thought to have been acquired by Philip II of Spain)

The municipal records of Hieronymus Bosch’s death show that, by 1516, he had already become a ‘very famous painter.’ Indeed, his artwork immediately garnered attention from his contemporaries, attracting praise and condemnation in equal measure. Only a year after the artist’s death, The Garden of Earthly Delights was on display at a palace in Brussels. Here it was viewed by a number of important diplomatic figures. Some of them were enchanted by its whimsical and bizarre approach. However, others were affronted, considering the masterpiece an insult to art and religion alike. 

The Garden was also copied numerous times as both paintings and tapestries, which allowed Bosch’s work to circulate more widely. This may have been how it came to the attention of Philip II of Spain, who subsequently became a great collector of Bosch’s paintings. Many of them are still kept in Madrid at the Museo del Prado. 


2. Many Tried To Copy Bosch’s Astounding Style

The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel, c1562-3, via Wikiart

Although Bosch did not leave a large workshop or school, he nonetheless had a number of notable followers who attempted to emulate his remarkable style. Among these was Pieter Bruegel, who evoked the same idea of chaos and disorder in his own depictions of the human experience. 

Further afield, the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo was inspired by Bosch’s abstract and supernatural designs. Like Bosch, he twists nature, using plants and other organic matter to build intriguing and complicated images in his famous ‘vegetable portraits’. 

Both of these artists were inspired by the way in which Hieronymus Bosch combined the natural and the synthetic to create a disconcerting impression that borders between uncertainty and familiarity.  


1. Hieronymus Bosch Would Eventually Inspire A Whole New Artistic Movement

The Great Masterbator, Salvador Dali, 1929, via Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

Although he preceded them by many centuries, Hieronymus Bosch is widely credited as the first artist of the Surrealist movement. Rather than simply depicting everyday reality, Bosch brought together the physical and the metaphorical, the natural and the supernatural, the familiar and the alien. His paintings force us to look at each element in a number of different ways before deciding what it means and how it contributes to the overall effect. 

At the dawn of the 20th century, this phenomenon would be rediscovered by the likes of Joan Miro, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and Max Ernst, leading Surrealist artists whose work shows a fascination with fantasy, the unbridling of imagination and indulgence in the unreal. 

As a Spaniard, Dalí had seen Bosch’s work firsthand at the Museo del Prado, and many of his own paintings are indebted to Bosch’s in composition, form and color. The Great Masturbator, for instance, contains remarkable similarities to part of the left panel of The Garden. This demonstrates just how much the legacy of Hieronymus Bosch’s has continued to grow, develop and inspire across half a millennium.

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By Mia ForbesBA in ClassicsMia is a contributing writer from London, with a passion for literature and history. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Both at work and at home, Mia is surrounded by books, and enjoys writing about great works of fiction and poetry. Her first translation is due to be published next year.