Bosch Paintings: 5 Masterpieces of the most Mysterious Artist

Hieronymous Bosch is the most mysterious artist of all time. His paintings are still trying to decipher.

But we will not come close to their full solution, because Bosch spoke several languages. In the language of religious symbolism. In the language of the alchemists. And also in the language of Dutch proverbs. And even astrology.

It’s hard not to get confused. But thanks to this, interest in Bosch will never run dry. Here are just a few of his masterpieces that captivate with their mystery.

1. The Garden of Earthly Delights. 1505-1510.

Bosch garden of earthly pleasures
Hieronymous Bosch. The Garden of Earthly Delights. 1505-1510. Prado Museum, Madrid.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is Bosch’s most famous work. You want to look at it for hours. But to understand something is difficult. Why all these naked people? Giant berries? Outlandish monsters?

In a nutshell. Paradise is depicted on the left wing. God just created Adam and Eve. But Bosch’s paradise is not so heavenly. Here we see Evil. A cat drags a mouse in its teeth. And nearby the bird pecks a frog.

Why? Animals can do evil. This is their way of survival. But for man it is a sin.

Bosch. Garden of Earthy Delights (fragment)
Hieronymous Bosch. The Garden of Earthly Delights. Fragment of the left wing of the triptych. 1505-1510. Prado Museum, Madrid.

On the middle part of the triptych, many naked people idly spend time. Only earthly pleasures excite them, the symbols of which are giant berries and birds.

People indulge in the sin of voluptuousness. But conditionally. We understand this through symbols. You will not find outright erotica. Only one pair does not look very decent. Try to find her.

If not found, then a fragment with this pair can be viewed here.

Also note that Bosch characters are flat and bloodless. Like blanks of people. And why portray real people if their life is empty and aimless?

On the right wing we see Hell. Here are those who were fond of idle music or gluttony. Gamblers and drunkards. The proud and the mean-spirited.

You will not envy them. After all, the glutton was swallowed by a terrible monster with a bird’s head. The musician was crucified on a harp. A gambler was nailed to the playing board.

The Garden of Earthly Delights (fragments)
Bosch. The Garden of Earthly Delights (fragments)

2. The Ship of Fools. 1495-1500.

Bosch ship of fools
Hieronymous Bosch. The Ship of Fools. 1495-1500. Louvre Museum, Paris.

The Ship of Fools. Why exactly the ship? This is a common metaphor in the time of Bosch. That’s what they said about the Church. It “carries” parishioners through worldly vanity to spiritual purity.

But something is wrong with Bosch’s ship. Its passengers indulge in empty fun. They bawl, drink. Both monks and laity. They don’t even notice that their ship is not sailing anywhere. And so long ago that a tree sprouted through the bottom.

Please pay attention to the jester. A fool by profession behaves more seriously than others. He turned away from his cheerful comrades and drinks his compote. There are enough fools on this ship without his participation.

The Ship of Fools is the top of the right wing of the triptych. The lower one is stored in another country. It depicts the shore. Bathers threw off their clothes and surrounded a barrel of wine.

Two of them sailed to the ship of fools. Look, one of them has the same bowl as the bather near the barrel.

Bosch allegory of gluttony
Hieronymous Bosch. The Allegory of gluttony and covetousness. 1500. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, USA.

3. The Temptation of St. Anthony. 1505-1506.

Bosch The Temptation of St. Anthony
Hieronymous Bosch. The Temptation of St. Anthony. 1500. National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, Portugal.

The Temptation of St. Anthony. Another fantastic Bosch triptych. Among the heap of monsters are four plots from the life of a hermit.

First, demons tormented the saint in the sky. They were sent by Satan. He did not like that St. Anthony struggles with earthly temptations.

The tormented saint demons threw to the ground. We see him, exhausted, being led by the arms.

In the central part, the saint is already kneeling among mysterious characters. It is the alchemists who are trying to seduce him with the elixir of eternal life. As we know, their insidious plan failed.

Bosch alchemists
Hieronymous Bosch. The Temptation of St. Anthony. A fragment of the central part of the triptych. 1500. National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, Portugal.

And on the right wing, Satan made another attempt to lead the saint off his righteous path. He came to him in the form of a beautiful queen in order to seduce him. But the saint resisted this temptation as well.

The triptych of Temptation of St. Anthony is interesting for its monsters. Eyes run up from such a variety of unknown creatures!

There are monsters with the head of a sheep and the body of a plucked goose. And half-humans, half-trees with fish tails. Bosch’s most famous monster also lives here. An absurd creature with a funnel and a bird’s beak.

Bosch monster with a funnel
Hieronymous Bosch. Fragment of the left wing of the triptych “Temptation of St. Anthony”. 1500. National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, Portugal.

Bosch loved to portray St. Anthony. In 2016, one painting with this saint recognized Bosch’s authorship. Yes, little monsters are like Bosch monsters. They are not scary at all. But very metaphorical: a funnel on the legs, a nose in the form of a scoop, walking fish …

Bosch The Temptation of St. Anthony Nelson Atkins Museum
Hieronymous Bosch. The Temptation of St. Anthony. 1500-1510. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, USA.

4. The Prodigal Son. 1500.

Bosch the Prodigal Son
Hieronymous Bosch. The Prodigal Son. 1500. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (Rotterdam, The Netherlands).

In the Prodigal Son instead of a huge number of characters – one main character. Traveler.

He is very battered by life. But he has hope. Leaving the world of debauchery and sin, he wants to return home to his father. Into the world of righteous life and spiritual grace.

He looks back at the house, which is an allegory of a dissolute lifestyle. This is a tavern or inn – a temporary shelter full of primitive amusements.

The roof leaked. The shutter is skewed. The visitor is relieving himself right around the corner. And two are hugging in the doorway. All this symbolizes spiritual degradation.

Bosch the Prodigal Son
Hieronymous Bosch. The Prodigal Son. Fragment. 1500. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

But our traveler has already woken up. He realized that he had better leave.

A woman is looking at him from the window. She does not understand his act. Or is she jealous. She does not have the strength and ability to leave this “leaky”, miserable world.

The Prodigal Son is similar to another traveler, who is depicted on the closed wings of the Haywain triptych.

Bosch wanderer
Hieronymous Bosch. Wanderer. Closed cusps of the Haywain triptych. 1516. Prado Museum, Madrid.

The meaning here is similar. We are travelers. There is something to rejoice on our way. But there are also many dangers. Where are we going? And will we come somewhere? Or will we wander like that until death catches us on the road?

5. Christ Carrying the Cross. 1515-1516.

Bosch. Christ Carrying the Cross. Ghent
Hieronymous Bosch. Christ Carrying the Cross. 1515-1516. Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, Belgium.

This is a completely different Bosch. Instead of distant horizons and many characters – a very strong approximation. Only the foreground. The faces are so close to us that you can even feel an attack of claustrophobia.

There are already no monsters. The people themselves are ugly. All their vices are read on their faces. Gloat. Condemnation of another. Deafness. Aggression. Please note that only three characters have normal traits. Repentant robber in the upper right corner. Christ Himself. And St. Veronica in the lower left.

Bosch. Christ Carrying the Cross. Ghent
Hieronymous Bosch. Christ Carrying the Cross. Fragment. 1515-1516. Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, Belgium.

They closed their eyes, turning away from this world, which is filled with a screaming and evil crowd. Only the robber and Christ go to the right, towards death. And Veronica – to the left, towards life.

On the scarf of Veronica appeared the image of Christ. He looks at us with sad and calm eyes. What does he want to tell us? Did we see ourselves in this crowd? Are we ready to become people, freed from aggression and condemnation.

***

Bosch was an artist of the Renaissance. Yes, he was a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Therefore, its main character is a man. He examined it from all points of view. And from afar. Like in The Garden of Earthly Delights. And very close. Like in Christ Carrying the Cross.

His verdict is disappointing. People are mired in vices. But there is hope. The hope that each of us will find a way to salvation. The main thing is to look at yourself from the outside in time.

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