This year is shaping up to be downright Boschian. We are speaking here of Hieronymus Bosch, the painter. 2016 happens to mark the five-hundred-year anniversary of Bosch’s death. So, Bosch’s home and eponymous town, Den Bosch (or, more correctly but much harder to say, ‘s-Hertogenbosch), has assembled the largest retrospective of Bosch’s work ever to be exhibited. The exhibit (Jheronimus Bosch – Visions of a Genius) is at the Noordbrabants Museum through May 8th. Such is public demand to see the show that this normally sedate regional museum has extended its opening hours until past midnight. And Bosch mania will not end there. The Prado in Madrid, for example, is hosting its own blockbuster Bosch exhibit beginning at the end of May and running into September. The crowds at the Noordbrabants Museum and the activity in the global press suggests that Bosch is more relevant, more interesting to the public mind than ever. Bosch mania is set to peak at the same time as the heat of the Northern summer, with festival events scheduled throughout the summer.
This extraordinary level of interest is generated by the simple fact that whosoever sees the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch does not soon, it is safe to say, forget them. That’s because they are fantastic works of art. There’s so much going on in a typical Bosch painting (more on that later) that the eye cannot but dart around, taking in the strange imagery. For that reason, Bosch’s work was popular from the very beginning—that beginning being the 15th century, when Bosch was alive and painting away in the lands of Northern Europe we now call The Netherlands. Throughout the ensuing years, Bosch’s star waxed and waned, but his work never passed out of public consciousness completely. Then, in the early part of the 20th century, he was “rediscovered” in full force. The 20th century public loved the outrageous scenarios to be found in Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings, artists especially. Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Leonora Carrington explicitly referenced Bosch in their own work, just to name a few.
A Hard Nut to Crack
But Bosch’s work has always caused trouble for interpreters and critics. Bosch painted weird things. Weird things are hard to interpret and understand. Critics and scholars like to understand. Ergo, Bosch is a problem. Most critics these days tend to agree that Bosch’s paintings were created primarily out of the religiously pious desire to illustrate biblical truths. Some interpreters reject even this basic assumption, as, for example, Ellen Handler Spitz did in her recent article for The New Republic, titled, tellingly, “The Impious Delights of Hieronymus Bosch.” For those (the majority) who do think of Bosch as more or less a religious painter, the specific imagery and symbolism in the paintings is still nearly impossible to pin down. Bosch’s piety was not like other men’s piety. It took on a unique expression.
Let’s take Bosch’s most famous painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights. (The painting can be viewed in wonderful high-res detail here). The work was painted in oil on oak panels that were meant to be part of a church altar display (as were nearly all paintings painted at the time). The central panel is a flurry of activity, color, shape, form. A couple of pink structures (castles?) buttress a lake or river, in the center of which is a building composed of a sphere emerging from the water and a multi-pronged tower emanating from the sphere. This could be the landscape in a Dr. Seuss book.
The goings-on amongst the humans and animals thronging the areas beneath the castles are challenging to describe, let alone understand. One man is upside down in the water. His legs are sticking up and spread out. Between his legs can be found the stem and fruit of a huge, unidentifiable plant. The spindly branches of another, smaller plant sprout from the fruit of the larger plant. Out of that sprouting emerges a tropical bird. Perhaps it is an egret. What is the purpose of this water gymnastics with unusual fruit? Very hard to say. Much of the imagery and symbolism seems to be Bosch’s own. Why, for instance, is there a man carrying a huge mussel shell on his back, out of which poke the legs of a couple we can assume to be engaged in some sort of amorous pursuit? Probably, that specific image will never be definitively decoded. Perhaps it came to Bosch in a dream.
So queerly idiosyncratic are the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch that art critics and historians have been known to stretch long and hard for an explanation. For a period during the middle of the 20th century, it was en vogue to imply that Bosch was heavy into drugs. Other interpreters suggested that he was essentially mad, or at least caught up with the wild ideas of one late-medieval cult or another. This last idea was helped along by an intriguing historical fact: There are 15th century documents proving that Bosch was a member of a kind of medieval club known as the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady. Members of this brotherhood made it their special point to worship a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary located at a church in Bosch’s hometown. From this basic fact, people began to speculate. They asserted that Bosch was also a member of one or more heretical groups that could be found in The Netherlands and elsewhere around Northern Europe during Bosch’s lifetime.
The common theme to all these wildly divergent speculations is the feeling that the images in Bosch’s paintings were so unprecedented that they must come from the mind of someone who stood apart, a radical of sorts, an outsider for sure. This feeling is heightened by a glance at the work of Bosch’s contemporaries. It can be startling to realize that Hieronymus Bosch lived during almost exactly the same period as Leonardo da Vinci (1452- 1519). We’re smack in the midst of the High Renaissance here. And da Vinci, for all his unusual qualities, never painted anything like The Garden of Earthly Delights. Indeed, most of da Vinci’s paintings, for all their innovations in form and technique, take up orthodox and well-worn subject matter in orthodox and well-worn ways. The Last Supper, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne—even The Mona Lisa is a more or less straightforward portrait, due respect paid to her mysterious smile.
Not so with Bosch. Even when Bosch did paint more traditional scenes, like a crucifixion, he rarely played it straight. He painted one crucifixion scene that doesn’t even portray Christ. It shows a woman on the cross, probably Saint Julia of Corsica. The right and left panels of the triptych teem with typical Boschian imagery. There are howling demons, sunken ships, blighted hellscapes, odd creatures, ladders to nowhere, fantastical buildings.
One Renaissance, or Two?
Before we delve deeper into his pictures, let’s put Bosch in his historical context. If we regard Bosch as a Renaissance painter, we might then be forced to talk about two different Renaissances. One, the Italian, Southern Renaissance, which featured greats like da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, and was concerned, primarily, with beauty, order, balance, and reason; the other, a Northern Renaissance, which was dark, mysterious, and irrational, generating the gothic fantasies of men like Hieronymus Bosch, Martin Schongauer, and Matthias Grünewald.
This perceived difference between North and South is all the more marked if one is used, as most of us are, to associating the Renaissance in general with the Southern, Italian Renaissance. We tend to think of the Renaissance as the highly influential 19th scholar Jacob Burckhardt once described it in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860).
Thus what the word Renaissance really means is new birth to liberty—the spirit of mankind recovering consciousness and the power of self-determination, recognizing the beauty of the outer world and of the body through art, liberating the reason in science and the conscience in religion, restoring culture to the intelligence, and establishing the principle of political freedom.
If that’s how you define Renaissance, it is hard to see how Hieronymus Bosch fits in. But any attempt to mark a firm boundary between the Northern and Southern Renaissance flounders when it hits a few firm, historical facts. Bosch’s predecessors in the North, painters like Van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, were of great influence to the Southern Renaissance and vice versa. Bosch himself was influenced by Italian art. Da Vinci could never have achieved his famous sfumato (soft and hazy images) without the techniques in oil and varnish perfected up North. Ideas about what to paint and techniques in how to paint it had been flying back and forth between north and south in Bosch’s era and before. There was no hard separation. We have to understand Bosch and da Vinci, then, for all their differences in style, as coming more or less from the same world.
Even the idea that there was a profound difference in sensibility (darker up north, lighter down south) doesn’t hold up terribly well when examining the works of even the most iconic artists of the Italian Renaissance. Take Michelangelo. Is there a more haunting Pietà than his Rondanini Pietà? Or look at his Prisoners or Slaves, the (probably) unfinished sculptures Michelangelo started making for the tomb of Pope Julius II. These wretched figures struggle, twisting and writhing, to be born from the stone that encumbers them. They are figures of which any of the darker artists up North would surely have approved.
Da Vinci, too, is a darker, more brooding artist than is often recognized. During the last decade of Leonardo’s life, he was oft-preoccupied with destruction, more often than not, with universal destruction. For da Vinci, destruction came in the form of The Deluge. The Deluge was to be the return of the biblical Flood. In de Vinci’s time, it was a popularly held idea that at the final, apocalyptic end of the world, God would once again unleash the powers of water upon the land, wiping away all of creation. Da Vinci made a series of drawings in his notebooks, carefully illustrating the various ways that the coming waters would obliterate city, man, forest, everything. The drawings, with their swirling forms and chaos, are ominous, beautiful, cataclysmic. They mark a limit to what Burckhardt called man’s “power of self-determination.” The Flood cares little for what human beings may or may not achieve with their powers of reason and self-determination. The Flood trumps all.
One Flood, One Renaissance:
Here, then, is a theme that draws the Northern and Southern Renaissance together. Plenty of Italians depicted the Flood in art. The watery deluge is featured in no less iconic a work of Italian Renaissance art than Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.
The Flood also plays a role in Bosch’s most famous painting. This fact was pointed out by the great art historian E. H. Gombrich, who once wrote an enlightening little paper on Bosch (“Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’: A Progress Report,” in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 32, if you’re curious to give it a gander). Gombrich noted that The Garden of Earthly Delights is a terrible title for Bosch’s famous painting (the title was added much later). Indeed, we have a description of the painting from the time of its purchase by the Archduke Ernest of Brussels in 1595 that says the painting is “a history with naked people, sicut erat in diebus Noe.” The Latin means, “as things were in the days of Noah.”
This helps us to understand a little bit more about the imagery depicted in the central panel of Bosch’s painting. The painting shows us what the world was like just before Noah got into his boat and the Flood kicked off. This would explain, if nothing else, the giant strawberries and other fruits all over the middle panel of the painting. Earlier medieval biblical commentators explained that the main difference between Earth before and after the Flood was a difference in general fecundity. Before the Flood, everything grew big—strawberries the size of a grown man, and so forth. After the Flood, a chastened humanity faced a much scrappier existence on a less productive planet.
Bosch and The Flood
The central panel of Bosch’s painting, then, depicts a world of freedom and abundance that is, in important respects, in danger. Many of the people in the painting seem to be having a good time, but they are doing so in ignorance. They are satisfying their immediate urges and nothing else. It is a free-for-all. That much, at least, we can garner just from taking in the scene. But the free-for-all is a big problem. That’s what Bosch’s painting is trying to tell us. The free-for-all is the result of foolishness and a failure to listen to what God keeps telling man, through the prophets and the psalms and the sermons. What God keeps saying to man is: Don’t look only toward the immediate satisfaction of your physical needs. Look deeper.
So, in a way, The Garden of Earthly Delights is not such a bad title for the painting after all. It’s just that the title must be properly interpreted. A proper interpretation of the painting tells us that Earth is, indeed, full of delights. Those delights can, and should, be delighted in. But the delights are also a trap. A person can get lost in the delights. The earthly delights that once seemed so good turn out to be a prison, a kind of hell. The mostly innocent activities in the central panel turn into vehicles of outright torture and punishment in the final panel on the right. The satisfaction of immediate needs in the central panel, the joys of music and food and drink and sex, have become poisonous. Musical instruments have become the tools by which demons torture people. Eating food transforms into the ghoulish spectacle of being eaten as food. Drunken revelry has become literal imprisonment inside a freakish tavern where men sit upon giant frogs and waste away into nothingness. Every delight can be perverted.
Even water. So good, so necessary to life. But in too-great abundance, let loose, unleashed, it is the greatest enemy of life. This seems to be a kind of universal principle. Locked within every good is its possible transformation into the opposite. Every pleasure is at the same time a possible punishment. Everything beautiful contains a seed of ugliness. Everything measured can be pushed into excess.
The British art historian Kenneth Clark was studying da Vinci’s notebooks in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. He noticed that some of da Vinci’s “studies of swirling water are amongst the most direct expressions of his sense of form, springing from the same mysterious source as his love of knots and tendrils. A sheet at Windsor shows water taking the form of both hair and flowers, racing along in twisted strands, and pouring from a sluice so that it makes dozens of little whirlpools, like a cluster of ferns with long curling tendrils.” Clark saw that da Vinci was fascinated with these twisting, twirling forms. He kept playing with them, drawing them over and over again, sometimes with an increasing obsessiveness. Was da Vinci trying to release some potential locked within those forms? “As he gazed half hypnotized at the ruthless continuum of watery movement,” Clark continued, “Leonardo began to transpose his observations into the realm of the imagination, and to associate them with an idea of cataclysmic destruction which had always haunted him.” Meditation on the gentle curl of a little girl’s hair had turned, for da Vinci, into terrible drawings of the destruction of all things by a deluge of unstoppable water.
Leonardo da Vinci’s water drawings may look nothing like Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings of humans and animals and demons cavorting about, but deep thematic resonances draw them together nonetheless. If da Vinci was a lover of beauty and natural order and human self-determination, as Burckhardt argues, he also contemplated, frequently, and increasingly as he aged, the fragility of those same qualities. He surprised himself with how quickly he could transform a couple of curvy lines into a chaos of form that harkened to cataclysm. He wondered at the madness that seemed the necessary flipside to reason.
If you follow the story that Hieronymus Bosch lays out in the three panels of The Garden of Earthly Delights, you go through a progression similar to what da Vinci achieved in his drawings. In the left panel, a scene of calm and security. Adam and Eve sit on a hill, happily integrated within the harmonious whole that includes plants, animals, geography. Then, in the middle panel, things begin to get a little wild. Humans and animals are taking their pleasure, but a madness is being unleashed. By the third panel on the right, the logic of madness and delight has reached an inevitable conclusion. What began in health has descended into chaos, into a sickness that takes the previous delights as its very inspiration.
It doesn’t take much to connect this Renaissance obsession with earthly desires turning order into chaos (an obsession that unites Bosch in the North with da Vinci in the South) to the obsessions of our own time. The waters threaten to rise in different ways for different eras. But worries about rising waters, in whatever form, have always been with us. A biblical truth for Bosch. A natural truth for da Vinci. An ecological truth for us.