The Mystery of the Works of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516?)
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The Mystery of the Works of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516?)Artist Spotlight
by Giovanna Adams
There is very little known about the life and artistic background of Hieronymus Bosch. Unlike many artists of his century, he left behind no letters or diaries and most of what has been revealed has comes from the municiple records of the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and from the Order of the Brotherhood of Our Lady accounts, an arch-conservative religious group of some 40 influential citizens of 's-Hertogenbosch, and some 7,000 'outer-members' from around Europe. Even his date of birth is not certain. It is estimated that he was born in 1450 on the basis of a hand drawn portrait (which may be a self-portrait) made shortly before his death in 1516. The drawing shows the artist possibly in his late sixties(1).
What is known is that Bosch was born and lived all his life in and near ‘s-Hertogenbosch, a small Dutch city close to the present-day Belgian border. His grandfather was a painter and he had five sons, four of whom were also painters. Bosch’s father, Anthonius van Aken, acted as artistic adviser to the Brotherhood of Our Lady(2). It is suspected that either Bosch’s father or one of his uncles taught the artist to paint, however none of their works seem to have survived through history(3). Some time between 1479 and 1481, Hieronymus married Aleyt Goyaerts van den Meerveen, who was a few years older than the artist. The couple moved to the nearby town of Oirschot, where his wife had inherited a house and land from her wealthy family(4). Oirschot would be where the couple would live out their life, leaving no descendants(5).
Hieronymus Bosch most famous work is The Garden of Earthly Delight, which was created during 1504. This triptych depicts paradise with Adam and Eve on the left panel, earthly pleasures with nude figures, fruit and birds on the middle panel, and hell with depictions of fantasy punishments of sinners on the right panel. This particular piece was rich in detail with many small-centralized figures and had what we now would consider high fantasy concepts. Towards the end of his life, Bosch's style changed and he created paintings with a small number of large figures that appear to almost leave the painting and stand close to the observer. An example is The Crowning with Thorns.
Hieronymus Bosch confronted his viewer with, in the words of the art historian Walter Gibson, "a world of dreams [and] nightmares in which forms seem to flicker and change before our eyes." In 1560 Felipe de Guevara wrote that Bosch was regarded merely as "the inventor of monsters and chimeras". In the early seventeenth century, art historian Karel van Mander described Bosch’s work as comprising "wondrous and strange fantasies"; however, he concluded that the paintings are "often less pleasant than gruesome to look at” (6). According to Dirk Bax, “Bosch’s paintings often represent visual translations of verbal metaphors and puns drawn from both biblical and folkloric sources” (7). However, some art historians see Bosch as a medieval surrealist, and comparisans are made with the artist Salvador Dali. Others historians attempt to interpret his images with Freudian psychology. However, such ideas are often rejected; according to Gibson, "what we choose to call the libido was denounced by the medieval church as original sin; what we see as the expression of the subconscious mind was for the Middle Ages the promptings of God or the Devil” (8). There have been many more attempts to interpret Bosch’s art and Bosch the man throughout the years. However, the prevailing image that emerges is of a god-fearing man with a pessimistic view of humanity. However, many questions will forever remain with regards to his work and intention. But isn't that all part of the intriguing attraction?
The exact number of Bosch's surviving works has been a subject of debate. He signed only seven of his paintings, and it is uncertain whether all the paintings once credited to him were from his hand. It is known that from the early sixteenth century onwards numerous copies and variations of his paintings began to circulate. In addition, his style was highly inspirational to many other artists and was imitated by his numerous followers (9). Over the years, his credited work has dwindled with many of the works once thought to be his found to be unsubstanciated. Today only 25 are definitively ascribed to him.
1. Gibson, pp.15-16
Bax, Dirk. (1949), “Ontciifering van Jeron Bosch”. Den Haag.
1. The Garden of Earthly Delights
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