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Story

Bosch. A story in pictures

Interactive resource (scrollytelling) about the life and work of Jheronimus Bosch.

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Jheronimus Bosch was born around 1450 in the town of ’s-Hertogenbosch. He took the surname of Bosch from the last syllable of the city’s name. His real name was Jheronimus van Aken.

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The statue of Mars that appears in the landscape of The Adoration of the Magi indicates that Christ was born into a world ruled over by the Romans, who worshipped idols.

The Adoration of the Magi Triptych (detail of the central panel).

’s-Hertogenbosch belonged to the duchy of Brabant. At that time part of the Low Countries, in the present day these regions are divided between Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and France.

During Bosch’s lifetime, this duchy was one of the wealthiest and most brilliant courts in Europe. Its prosperity was based on productive agriculture and the flourishing manufacture of textiles, which were traded through the port of Antwerp.

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For most of his life Bosch seems to have lived in his native city without travelling elsewhere. Nonetheless, the knowledge of various painters of his time that is evident in his works suggests that he may have travelled around the Netherlands.

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Bosch depicted the architecture of his native city in many of his works.

The Adoration of the Magi Triptych (detail of the right panel).

The period of Bosch’s childhood and youth, during the reign of Philip the Good, was a cheerful, optimistic one. In his later life, under the rule of Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgundy, this social context deteriorated, resulting in a period of crisis, conflicts and instability.

The Christ Child playing (detail). Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie.

Mary of Burgundy married the Emperor Maximilian I, uniting her domains to those of the Habsburgs. The marriage of their son Philip the Fair to the Catholic Kings’ daughter Juana of Castile, known as “The Mad”, aimed to unite the duchy of Brabant, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire under a single rule.

As Bosch’s works reflect, the artist lived through a complex spiritual climate that was still almost medieval with the result that, at the end of the 15th century, it underwent a profound crisis of change and growth.

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The world is a haywain, from which every man takes what he can”. Bosch illustrates this Flemish proverb in this triptych.

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A couple enjoy listening to music at the top of the haywain, oblivious to the events below.

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Everyone follows the haywain to try to take some hay: the Pope, the Emperor, a king, a member of the nobility and various clerics…

The Haywain (detail).

Bosch was born into a prosperous family that owned land and property and was traditionally associated with painting. His grandfather, father, two of his maternal uncles and his two brothers were also painters. He very probably first learned the basics of his art in his father’s studio.

At the age of around 30, Bosch married Aleid van de Meervenne, a young woman from a wealthy family who brought him a sizeable dowry. They had no children. Aleid survived her husband by ten years.

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Bosch located Saint Joseph in the left-hand panel, distanced from the principal scene and busy drying the Christ Child’s nappies.

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The almost naked man wearing chains and looking round the door has been successively identified as Adam, the Anti-Christ or Herod, but none of these suggestions are entirely convincing.

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The phoenix picking up a grain in its beak on top of the circular pot is a reference to the Resurrection of Christ.

Bosch worked as a painter in his native city where he acquired enormous renown. He was a member of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, which had its chapel in the church of Saint John in the city. Its archives contain the few documentary references to the artist that exist.

During his long life Bosch produced a large body of drawings and paintings. Sadly, many of his works were subsequently destroyed in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, which considered them immoral.

The Saint Anthony Triptych (detalle). Lisbon, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga.

We know the year of Bosch’s death from documentation in the archive of the Brotherhood of Our Lady. This states that on 9 August 1516 the funerary service was held for the deceased member “Jheronimus van Aken painter”, who must have died a few days before.

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Death stalks a dying man while an angel and a devil wait to carry off his soul. He holds a candle while he is shown a crucifix and receives extreme unction.

In his paintings, Bosch represented the obsessions and anxieties of men and women of his own time in a masterly manner.

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The false doctor wears a funnel – symbol of wisdom – upside-down on his head, which transforms it into a symbol of madness.

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It is a flower rather than a stone that is being extracted from the patient’s head. The scene thus acquires sexual connotations. The man is not being cured of his madness but castrated.

The Brotherhood of our Lady, which was extremely important for both Bosch and the city of ’s-Hertogenbosch, was a pious, philanthropic religious association. Its activities included organising festivals, processions and theatrical performances in honour of the Virgin Mary.

It is likely that Bosch was also associated with the Brotherhood of the Common Life, another of the many religious associations of the day that promoted an exemplary life, charity and purity of spirit in the face of the widespread corruption and hypocrisy of religious life.

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Real and imaginary animals form a great cavalcade of the vices.

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The lovers inside the glass sphere probably refer to the Flemish proverb that runs: “Happiness is like glass, it soon breaks.".

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In 1605, Friar José de Sigüenza, the librarian at El Escorial, referred to this painting as a "panel of the vain glory and short-lived taste of the strawberry…", a fruit which appears numerous times in the painting.

The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail of Paradise).

Bosch must have been an educated man with a good knowledge of the literature of his day, given that many of his works are based on literary sources. He also reflected popular wisdom by illustrating proverbs and traditions.

Saint John the Evangelist on Patmos (detail). Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie.

The theatre had a notable influence on Bosch’s work. Many of his paintings are organised in the manner of stage sets. The influence of the theatre is also evident in the adornments to the clothes worn by the figures and in the importance given to masks in many of his compositions.

Bosch enjoyed enormous success in his lifetime and his works were regularly copied and faked. In his prints the architect and engraver Alart du Hameel included motifs directly taken from Bosch’s compositions, which notably contributed to knowledge of his works and to the growth in the number of his admirers.

The key subjects in Bosch’s work are essentially religious and allegorical themes. While his religious works are always easy to identify and in general to interpret, his allegorical compositions require a profound knowledge of the society of his day and the vices and virtues of his contemporaries, which the artist often mocked, showing viewers their habits, customs and moral weaknesses.

Bosch was undoubtedly a man of his time and one also gifted with a powerful imagination and rich inventive abilities.

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’s-Hertogenbosch had a flourishing knife-making industry. Emerging from between two ears, it represents those deaf to the message of salvation.

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The Tree-Man is probably a self-portrait of Bosch, who points out our destiny to us.

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Bosch’s interest in fires seems to have originated with the one that swept through ’s-Hertogenbosch in 1463. Aged only 12 or 13, he was never able to forget this terrible sight.

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Bagpipes are a symbol of lust and the pleasures of the flesh.

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