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Hieronymus Bosch - Artist

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Think of mixing Fellini with David Lynch, sprinkling in a little James Joyce, and having it all put on canvas by Salvador Dali.
Carl Linfert, Hieronymus Bosch, 1989

However one regards 15th Century Artist Hieronymus Bosch - as subversive heretic or squeaky-clean Catholic, scientific diarist or smack-high loon - the enduring substance of his work reveals a creative, inventive, fantastical talent created during very turbulent and perplexing times.

As enigmatic as he was on canvas, so he was in life. Perhaps it was the custom of his time or his circumstance, but either way, he has left behind flimsy evidence with which to recreate the substance of his existence.

The Dry Biography

Born circa 1450 in the provincial but flourishingly-prosperous southern-Flemish commercial town of 's-Hertogenbosch, and named for a family fondness for the patron Saint Hieronymous (St Jerome), Jheronimus Anthonis-zoon van Aken1 took on the family tradition of painting, a profession also undertaken by his grandfather (Jan Van Aken, died circa 1454), his father (Anthonius Van Aken, died circa 1478), his brother (Goossen Van Aken), and three of his four uncles. Jheronimous probably trained in the family workshop before establishing a workshop of his own, perhaps with 25 Guilders loaned to him in 1474 by his Father (as is reportedly recorded in the town registry).

Almost undoubtedly, as was vogue among his contemporaries in Italy, he changed his name - to Heronimous Bosch - both to reflect and to draw attention to his home, ie 's-Hertogenbosch (the Duke's - Hertog - woods - bosch), but perhaps also to distinguish himself from the Van Aken name. In the late 1470s/early 1480s, Bosch married one (apparently wealthy) Aleit van den Meervenne, and in 1486, he is thought to have joined (as a lay member) The Brotherhood of Our Lady, a large and wealthy association of devotees to the worship of the Virgin Mary.

Hieronymus Bosch died in 1516, evidently childless, and was buried in 's-Hertogenbosch on 9 August of the same year.

Bosch the Artist

While his work is now categorised as Late Gothic (as opposed to the Early Rennaisance work being produced south of the Alps, especially in Italy), technically he painted in a style known as alla prima, a painting technique in which pigments are laid on in one application with little or no underpaintng.

It is certain that Bosch was much-admired in Spain, where he was known as El Bosco. Indeed, Philip II of Spain (reigned 1556-1598), is said to have collected his works for display in the Escorial Palace near Madrid, although whether Bosch himself ever travelled to Spain is not known - there is no factual evidence to suggest that he ever left 's-Hertogenbosch at all2.

Now, there are, it seems, less than 40 of Hieronymus Bosch's works left in today's art world. None of them are dated, so an accurate chronology is impossible to establish. Indeed only a small number (nine) are signed.

Bosch - Catholic or Cathar?

As a result of both his persistence with turbulent demonic imagery and his preoccupation with human propensity for sin in defiance of God, Bosch is regularly accused of having been a follower of one of the many heretic Protestant sects that were flourishing in the Netherlands in the 15th Century, quite possibly secretly subscribing to a cell of the medieval heretic Cathars, the only dualist heresy that survived into the 15th Century. Indeed, it is suggested that Ship of Fools depicting two nuns and a monk partying with a bunch of peasants in a boat implies mocking condemnation of those in religious orders, as such challenging the orthodoxy of the Roman Church. Perhaps Bosch's work was meant as a record for posterity of the Cathar's beliefs, which were under threat of extinction from inquisition, persecution and death?

However, this does not seem consistent with what can be pieced together about his life; ie, that he followed the predictable and staid life of a prominent Roman Catholic artist. His wife was a good girl from a good family; he joined the lay organization of the 's-Hertogenbosch Brotherhood of Our Lady, and was responsible for designing stained-glass windows, among other things, for the town church. He died, an internationally celebrated, albeit eccentric painter of religious visions Perhaps then, it is fair to assert that religiously Bosch was indeed the staunch papal moralist he seemed to be, and whose tediously pedantic pictures really were intended to sermonise the eyes.

Bosch the Scientific Diarist

Bosch is belching out the Middle Ages.
- Henri Focillon

It is certain that Bosch's Temptation of Saint Anthony is more than just a visual cogitation on temptation while journeying through Saint Anthony's life. While many observers see this travesty of Holy Communion as trademark Bosch dislike for the Church, the scientific observer may sense a pattern emerge from the usual signature madness of Bosch's work, ie, the amputated foot, the strange-looking vegetables, and the smoke and the flame.

To begin, the hospital Order of Saint Anthony are believed to have been experts in amputation, whilst meanwhile the disease called Saint Anthony's Fire is known to have been rampant during Bosch's lifetime. The disease, now known to have been caused by a form of cereal fungus, caused limbs to go gangrenous and require amputation. Moreover, it is also known that the fungus, when baked in bread dough, would have produced the hallucinogenic LSD - say no more. The strange-looking vegetable is doubtless mandrake, another narcotic, but this time a pain-reliever.

Clearly, here, Bosch's efforts are not directed at the folly of human existence (as in Ship of Fools) or crossing the rubicon between Eden and Hell (as in The Garden of Earthly Delights), but instead Bosch is filling the role of a contemporary technical recorder, reporting both the technology and medical practices of his day in visual metaphor. Certainly, this is consistent with the fact that Philip II is said to have collected Bosch's works more for education than for entertainment.

Bosch the Time Traveller

Perhaps 450 years ahead of his time, Bosch is regarded as the godfather to the early 20th Century surrealist school of painters that spawned Salvador Dali's flaccid clocks. Could it be that Bosch was a wayward time-astronaut trapped in the wrong era?

Certainly, Bosch was a contemporary of the similarly anachronistic Leonardo da Vinci, insofar as the two were born and died a few years apart. More interestingly though, Bosch is commonly believed never to have left 's-Hertogenbosch, but Giorgione's Three Philosophers, painted in 1508, almost certainly depicts Giorgione, Bosch and da Vinci together.

The Legacy of Hieronymus Bosch

Bosch's works and his Diablerie-style were oft-imitated during the early years after his death and many of the copies survive today to confound and confuse those who would seek to give provenance to Bosch's work. Bosch's first true and recognised heir came in the form of Joachim Patinir (c.1485-1524), whose Landscape With St Jerome Removing The Thorn From The Lion's Paw (circa 1520) reflects Bosch in both its ambivalence to its subject and of course the subject itself (St Jerome).

But it was not until the mid-16th Century and the emergence of the allegorically-inclined Pieter Breughel the Elder (circa 1525/30-1569) that the world witnessed any extension of Bosch's vision beyond mere pastiche. Breughel, who lived most of his life in Antwerp and Brussels, but was probably born near Bosch's home town of 's-Hertogenbosch, was, like Bosch, inspired by both a complex philosophical approach to the folklore of his day. Like Bosch he recreated scenes of incredible intricacy such as his Children's Games.

Through time then, comparison with Bosch has been inevitable in anything that smacks of the perceived malevolence and apocalyptic intensity of Bosch's own work. Jacques Callot's (1592-1635) Hangman's Tree, (1633) for example and Belgian symbolist James Ensor's Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889, (1888) both invite such evocation.

Thence, perhaps the most common and instant comparisons are with Salvador Dali and the surrealist school which emerged in the early 20th Century, with Bosch himself labelled as a 15th Century surrealist. However, on the evidence available, it is almost certain that Hieronymus Bosch was much, much more than that.

1Van Aken, ie from Aachen (not far from 's-Hertogenbosch, across the border in modern Germany)2Perhaps it is worth noting here that during Bosch's lifetime, the King of Spain also held mantel as the Duc de Burgundy, which included jurisdiction over 's-Hertogenbosch.

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