Hieronymus Bosch

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Gothic and Early Renaissance
Hieronymus Bosch

Netherlands painter. Documentary evidence connects him at various periods between 1480 and 1516 with his birthplace Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc), where he belonged to the Brotherhood of the Holy Virgin; he designed the stained-glass windows and a crucifix for the Chapel of the Brotherhood (1511-12) and was presumably a highly respected member of the community. He was referred to at his death as the 'famous artist', which is borne out by a commission in 1504 for a Last Judgment by Philip the Handsome of Burgundy. B. was a religious painter with a strong bent towards satire, pessimistic comment and great interest in everyday life. This has made his work, a unity in form and content, one of the last profound expressions of the medieval world view. Landscape plays an important part in his compositions, it sets the mood and it is seen with directness. Religious iconography is reinterpreted freely in the mood of popular prints, and the unbridled fantasy of the artist explores, not so much the world of the subconscious but every thematic variation, allusion and symbol available to his contemporaries. These were not puzzle pictures in their time, but picture books which could be read and understood. Only when the tradition and the understanding were lost did they increasingly require interpretation of some kind, until in our own time, with the advent of Surrealism, attempts have been made to 'explain' B. by means of dream analysis. He was also referred to as a heretic by later generations. It is impossible to date and arrange his work in chronological sequence as much of his original work is now lost, many copies were made in his lifetime and even his signature forged. The Haywain and The Garden of Delights are triptychs fully authenticated and so is the table panel of the Escorial, which once belonged to Philip II as one of his intimate possessions. Other important paintings by B. are: Christ Mocked, and a portrayal of the Ship of Fools, a common contemporary theme.

Bosch was a pessimistic and stern moralist who had neither illusions about the rationality of human nature nor confidence in the kindness of a world that had been corrupted by man's presence in it. His paintings are sermons, addressed often to initiates and consequently difficult to translate. Unable to unlock the mystery of the artist's works, critics at first believed that he must have been affiliated with secret sects. Although the themes of his work were religious, his choice of symbols to represent the temptation and eventual ensnarement of man in earthly evils caused many critics to view Bosch as a practitioner of the occult arts. More recent scholarship views Bosch as a talented artist who possessed deep insight into human character and as one of the first artists to represent abstract concepts in his work. A number of exhaustive interpretations of Bosch's work have been put forth in recent years, but there remain many obscure details.

An exact chronology of Bosch's surviving work is difficult because, of the approximately 35 to 40 paintings attributed to him, only 7 are signed and none are dated. There exists little documentary information on the early life of the artist, other than the fact that he was the son and grandson of accomplished painters. His name does appear on the register of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, located in the city of his birth, and there is mention of him in official records from 1486 until the year of his death, when he was acclaimed an Insignis pictor ("distinguished painter"). In addition to painting he undertook decorative works and altarpieces and executed designs for stained glass.

Works attributed to his youthful period show an awkwardness in drawing and composition and brushwork somewhat limited in its scope. Such paintings as "The Cure of Folly," "Crucifixion," "The Adoration of the Magi," "The Seven Deadly Sins," "The Marriage at Cana," "Ecce Homo," and "The Conjurer" are representative of this period. The presence of certain motifs, expanded in the more sophisticated works of the artist's middle period, and a limited technique, unsure yet bold, provide a beginning from which to view Bosch's artistic origins. Between the first painting in this early group, "The Cure of Folly," and the last, "The Conjurer," a steady development can be seen. The iconography of the latter is more complex, and the characteristic themes that received their fullest expression in the great masterpieces of his late period have begun to emerge.

In these early paintings Bosch had begun to depict humanity's vulnerability to the temptation of evil, the deceptive allure of sin, and the obsessive attraction of lust, heresy, and obscenity. In calm and prosaic settings, groups of people exemplify the credulity, ignorance, and absurdities of the human race. However, the imagery of the early works is still relatively conventional, with only an occasional intrusion of the bizarre in the form of a lurking demon or a strangely dressed magician.

To Bosch's fruitful middle period belong the great panoramic triptychs such as the "Hay Wain," "The Temptation of St. Anthony", and the "Garden of Earthly Delights." His figures are graceful and his colours subtle and sure, and all is in motion in these ambitious and extremely complex works. These paintings are marked by an eruption of fantasy, expressed in monstrous, apocalyptic scenes of chaos and nightmare that are contrasted and juxtaposed with idyllic portrayals of mankind in the age of innocence. During this period Bosch elaborated on his early ideas, and the few paintings that survive establish the evolution of his thought. Bosch's disconcerting mixture of fantasy and reality is further developed in the "Hay Wain," the outside wings, or cover panels, of which recall the scenes of "The Seven Deadly Sins." The cursive style that he worked out for the triptych resembles that of watercolour. In the central panel, a rendition of the Flemish proverb "The world is a haystack from which each takes what he can," Bosch shows the trickery of the demon who guides the procession of people from the earthly paradise depicted on the left wing to the horrors of hell shown on the right one.

Bosch's "The Temptation of St. Anthony" displays his ascent to stylistic maturity. The brushstrokes are sharper and terser, with much more command than before. The composition becomes more fluid, and space is regulated by the incidents and creatures that the viewer's attention is focused on. His mastery of fine brush-point calligraphy, permitting subtle nuances of contour and movement, is fully evident. Bosch portrays man's struggle against temptation, as well as the omnipresence of the Devil, in his "St. Anthony," one of the best keys to the artist's personal iconography. The hermit saint in this work is cast as the heroic symbol of man. In the central panel St. Anthony is beset by an array of grotesque demons, their horrible bodies being brilliantly visualized amalgamations of human, animal, vegetable, and inanimate parts. In the background is a hellish, fantastically bizarre landscape painted with the most exquisite detail. Bosch's development of the theme of the charlatan deceiving man and taking away his salvation receives its fullest exposition in the "St. Anthony," with its condemnation of heresy and the seductions of false doctrines.

The "Garden of Earthly Delights," representative of Bosch at his mature best, shows the earthly paradise with the creation of woman, the first temptation, and the fall. The painting's beautiful and unsettling images of sensuality and of the dreams that afflict the people who live in a pleasure-seeking world express Bosch's iconographic originality with tremendous force. The chief characteristic of this work is perhaps its dreamlike quality; multitudes of nude human figures, giant birds, and horses cavort and frolic in a delightfully implausible, otherworldly landscape, and all the elements come together to produce a perfect, harmonious whole.

Bosch's late works are fundamentally different. The scale changes radically, and, instead of meadows or hellish landscapes inhabited by hundreds of tiny beings, he painted densely compacted groups of half-length figures pressed tight against the picture plane. In these dramatic close-ups, of which "The Crowning with Thorns" and the "Carrying of the Cross" are representative, the spectator is so near the event portrayed that he seems to participate in it physically as well as psychologically. The most peaceful and untroubled of Bosch's mature works depict various saints in contemplation or repose. Among these works are "St. John the Evangelist in Patmos" and "St. Jerome in Prayer."

Bosch's preoccupation in much of his work with the evils of the world did not preclude his vision of a world full of beauty. His adeptness at handling colour harmonies and at creating deeply felt works of the imagination is readily apparent. Though a spate of imitators tried to appropriate his visual style, its uniqueness prevented his having any real followers.


Explications of Bosch's paintings include D. Bax, Hieronymus Bosch: His Picture-Writing Deciphered (1979), a pioneer Dutch study originally published in 1949; Wilhelm Fraenger, Hieronymus Bosch (1983), a controversial viewpoint; and Carl Linfert, Bosch, rev. ed. (1989). Walter S. Gibson, Hieronymus Bosch: An Annotated Bibliography (1983).

Encyclopaedia Britannica


Portrait of Hieronymus Bosch
Pencil and sanguine
Bibliotheque Municipale d'Arras, Arras
Life and Milieu

Hieronymus Bosch lived and worked in 's-Hertogenbosch, the place from which he takes his name, an attractive but fairly quiet Dutch city not far from the present-day Belgian border. In Bosch's day, 's-Hertogenbosch was one of the four largest cities of the duchy of Brabant, which formed part of the extensive territories of the ambitious dukes of Burgundy. The other chief Brabantine cities, Brussels, Antwerp and Louvain, lie to the south, in what is now Belgium; 's-Hertogenbosch is in the north, geographically close to the provinces of Holland and Utrecht and the Rhine and Maas rivers. In the late Middle Ages, 's-Hertogenbosch was a thriving commercial town, the centre of an agricultural area, with extensive trade connections with both Northern Europe and Italy. Although its cloth industry was important, the city was especially famous for its organ builders and bell founders.

The predominantly middle-class commercial population must have determined much of the city's character, for 's-Hertogenbosch lacked the active court life of Brussels or Malines; unlike Louvain, it possessed no university, nor was it the seat of a bishopric, as were the other major cities of Brabant. Yet a vigorous cultural life was by no means absent. 's-Hertogenbosch had a famous Latin school and, by the end of the fifteenth century, could boast of five »rederijker kamers« or chambers of rhetoric, literary associations which presented poetic and dramatic performances on various public occasions.

Religious life seems to have been particularly flourishing; a great number of convents and monasteries were situated in and around the city. Of special interest are the two houses established by the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life. A modified religious order without vows, this brotherhood originated in Holland in the late fourteenth century in an attempt to return to a simpler and more personal form of religion, which was called the »Devotio Moderna«. Its character is well exemplified in the famous devotional treatise, the limitation of Christ«, generally attributed to Thomas a Kempis, which, as we shall see, must have been well known to Bosch and his patrons. The »Devotio Moderna« played an important role in the religious revival of the fifteenth century and probably contributed to the extraordinary increase in the number of religious foundations in 's-Hertogenbosch. Indeed, by 1526, just ten years after Bosch's death, one out of every nineteen persons in 's-Hertogenbosch belonged to a religious order, a much higher proportion than can be found in other Netherlandish cities at that time. The presence of so many cloisters and their economic competition seem to have attracted considerable hostility from the townspeople, an attitude which we shall also see reflected in Bosch's art.

Despite frequent criticism of the religious order, however, the moral authority of the medieval Church had not, as yet, been seriously shaken. Religion still permeated all aspects of everyday life. Each guild had its own patron saint, and every citizen participated in the great feasts of the Church and in the annual religious processions. The two impulses of life in 's-Her-togenbosch, the sacred and the secular, found their finest expression in the great church of St John, at once the symbol of the still-intact medieval faith and a testimony to the civic pride and commercial prosperity of the city. Begun in the late fourteenth century on the site of an older structure and only completed in the sixteenth, it is a fine example of Brabantine Gothic, noteworthy for its wealth of carved decoration. Of particular interest are the rows of curious figures, monsters and workmen, sitting astride the buttresses supporting the roof, some of which bring to mind the fantastic creatures of Bosch.

The church of St John was in the early phases of construction when Bosch's ancestors settled in 's-Hertogenbosch in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century. Their family name, Van Aken, suggests that they originally came from the German town of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle). In 1430 - 31 appears the first certain reference to Bosch's grandfather, Jan van Aken, who died in 1454. Jan had five sons, at least four of whom were painters; one of these, Anthonius van Aken (died c. 1478), was the father of Hieronymus Bosch.

Unlike Albrecht Durer, Bosch left no diaries or letters. What we know of his life and artistic activity must be gleaned chiefly from the brief references to him in the municipal records of 's-Hertogenbosch and especially in the account books of the Brotherhood of Our Lady. These records tell us nothing about the man himself, not even the date of his birth. A portrait of the artist, perhaps a self-portrait, known only through later copies, shows Bosch at a fairly advanced age. On the assumption that the original portrait was done shortly before his death in 1516, it has been supposed that he was born around 1450. Bosch first appears in a municipal record of 1474, where he ist named along with his two brothers and a sister; one brother, Goossen, was also a painter. Some time between 1479 and 1481, Bosch married Aleyt Goyaerts van den Meervenne, evidently some years his senior. She came from a good family, however, and had considerable wealth of her own; in 1481 there occurred a lawsuit between Bosch and Aleyt's brother over family property. It is assumed that Bosch and his wife lived in 't Root Cruys (the Red Cross).

In 1486-87, Bosch's name appears for the first time in the membership lists of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, with which he was to be closely associated for the rest of his life. This brotherhood was one of the many groups devoted to the veneration of the Virgin which flourished in the late Middle Ages. Founded sometime before 1318, the Brotherhood at's-Herto-genbosch comprised both lay and religious men and women. Their devotions were centred on a famous miracleworking image of the Virgin, the »Zoete Lieve Vrouw«, enshrined in the church of St John where the Brotherhood maintained a chapel. Attracting members from all over the northern Netherlands and Westphalia, this large and wealthy organization must have contributed significantly to the religious and cultural life of 's-Hertogenbosch. Its members engaged singers, organists and composers to supply music for their daily masses and solemn feasts. They also commissioned works of art to embellish the chapel of Our Lady, and in 1478 they decided to construct a new and more splendid chapel attached to the north side of the unfinished choir of St John. The project was entrusted to the church architect, Alart du Hamel, who later engraved some Boschian designs.

Most of Bosch's family belonged to the Brotherhood, and were employed by them in various tasks, frequently to gild and polychrome the wooden statues carried in the annual processions. Bosch's father, Anthonius van Aken, seems also to have acted as a sort of artistic adviser to the Brotherhood. In 1475-76, for example, heand his son were present when the Deans of the Brotherhood discussed the commission of a large wooden altarpiece, completed in 1477 for their chapel.

Hieronymus Bosch may have been one of Anthonius's sons present at these negotiations. However, his first recorded transactions with the Brotherhood occur in 1480-81, and thereafter he received a number of commissions from them. These included several designs, one in 1493-94 for a stained-glass window in the new chapel, another in 1511-12 fora crucifix, and a third in 1512-13 for a chandelier. The small fee he received for executing the last-named project suggests that he did it mainly as a benevolent gesture.

There is no documentary evidence that Bosch ever left his home town. However, a sojourn in Utrecht is suggested by certain aspects of his early work, while the influence of Flemish art on his mature style indicates that he may also have travelled in the southern Netherlands. It has been proposed that Bosch painted his »Crucifixion of St Julia« during a trip to northern Italy, where the cult of this saint was especially popular, but it is more likely that this work was commissioned by Italian merchants or diplomats residing in the Netherlands, as was, for example, the Portinari triptych of Hugo van der Goes.

One final entry in the accounts of the Brotherhood of Our Lady records Bosch's death in 1516; on 9 August of that year, his friends in the Brotherhood attended a funeral mass in his memory in the church of St John.
There are only a few other references to Bosch's works. From several seventeenth-century sources we learn that other paintings by him were to be seen in St John's church. In 1504, finally, Philip the Handsome, duke of Burgundy, commissioned an altarpiece from »Jeronimus van Aeken called Bosch«, the first time, incidentally, that the painter was referred to by his place of origin. The altarpiece was to depict the Last Judgment flanked by Heaven and Hell; its huge dimensions (nine feet high by eleven feet wide) would have approached those of Roger van der Weyden's »Last Judgment in the Hospital at Beaune. This work is lost, but some scholars believe that a fragment of it survives in a small panel now in Munich, while others identify the »LastJudgment« triptych in Vienna as a reduced replica by Bosch of Philip's altarpiece. Neither suggestion is entirely convincing. Of Bosch's paintings in the church of St John there remains no certain trace today. They probably disappeared when 's-Hertogenbosch was taken from the Spanish in 1629 by Prince Frederick Henry and his Dutch troops, and Catholic splendour was replaced by Calvinist austerity.
Numerous paintings bearing Bosch's name can be found in museums and private collections in Europe and the United States. Many of these are only copies or pastiches of his original compositions, but over thirty pictures and a small group of drawings can be attributed to him with reasonable certainty. Except for his early works, however, the chronology of these paintings is difficult to determine with any precision. None are dated, and some have been so heavily damaged and overpainted that it would be hazardous to base a chronology on subtle nuances of style and technique. It is more rewarding to study Bosch's paintings according to their subject-matter; only after a thorough examination of his imagery may some insight be gained into the nature of Bosch's artistic development.

Two Male Heads
Oil on panel, 14,5 x 12 cm
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Two Caricatured Heads
Pen and bistre, 133 x 100 mm
Lehmann Collection, New York

Artistic Origins and Early Biblical Scenes

Ecce Homo
Oil on panel, 52 x 54 cm
Museum of Art, Philadelphia

If we know little about Bosch's life, we know even less about his artistic background. It is generally assumed that he was trained by his father or one of his uncles, but all their paintings have been lost, including those commissioned by the Brotherhood of Our Lady. Some light can be cast on the stylistic origins of Bosch's earliest works, however, by considering them within the context of fifteenth-century Netherlandish painting in general. By the time his name began to appear in the records of 's-Hertogenbosch, the first great masters of the Flemish school, Jan van Eyckand Robert Campin, had been dead some thirty years. Roger van der Weyden had also died, but his cool and restrained art was continued, somewhat ineptly, by his followers in Brussels; it had also profoundly influenced Dirk Bouts, now at the end of his career in Louvain, and Hans Memling in Bruges. A more independent style was emerging in the powerful compositions of Hugo van der Goes in Ghent.

During Bosch's lifetime, the northern provinces of the Netherlands were neither as wealthy nor as politically powerful as Brabant and Flanders, and they had neither the extensive patronage nor the large workshops of the cities to the south. Many early Dutch paintings, moreover, were destroyed in the iconoclastic riots of the Reformation and so relatively few have survived. Nevertheless, it is evident that a fairly significant school of painting existed at Haarlem under Geertgen tot Sint Jans and his followers, while the anonymous Master of the Virgo inter Virgines worked in Delft during the last two decades of the century. Although only a few panel paintings can be connected with Utrecht, this ancient city, seat of a bishopric, seems to have been an important centre of manuscript illumination whose originality and significance have yet to be fully recognized. The stylistic unity of Flemish painting, dominated as it was by the genius of Roger van der Weyden, is absent in the northern Netherlands, where local and individual styles were more predominant. The Dutch artists, nevertheless, have many qualities in common, including deeply felt, expressive interpretations of biblical narrative and, especially in the case of Geertgen tot Sint Jans and the illuminators, a vision of man and the world based more on direct experience than on artistic convention.

Because 's-Hertogenbosch was a part of Brabant and the church of St John represents the high point of Brabantine Gothic, many writers have sought the origins of Bosch's art in the traditions established by Robert Campin, Roger van der Weyden and other artists who worked in the southern Netherlands. Bosch's later works, it is true, show many connections with Brabant and the south, but his earliest paintings display more affinities with Dutch art, particularly with the manuscript illuminations.

Among the works generally ascribed to Bosch's first period of activity (c. 1470-85) may be included several small biblical scenes: the »Epiphany (Adoration of the Magi)« in Philadelphia, the »Ecce Homo« in Frankfurt (with a related version in Boston, Museum of Fine Arts) and an altar wing in Vienna, the »Christ Carrying the Cross«. Their early date is suggested by their relatively simple compositions and their adherence to traditional compositional types.
This early style is especially well exemplified in the charming »Epiphany« in Philadelphia.

Oil on panel, 74 x 54 cm
Museum of Art, Philadelphia

The dignified comportment of the Kings is set off by the impulsive gesture of the Christ Child, while the aged Joseph stands discreetly to one side, removing his hood as if abashed by the presence of the splendidly dressed strangers. From behind the shed two shepherds look on with shy curiosity. At this early date, Bosch's grasp of perspective was apparently none too firm; particularly ambiguous is the spatial relationship of the stable to the figures in the foreground, although the crumbling walls and thatched roof have been painted with a loving attention to detail. In the distance at the upper right can be seen a pasture filled with grazing cattle and the shimmering towers of a city.
The intimate, almost cosy atmosphere of the Philadelphia »Epiphany« is replaced in the Frankfurt »Ecce Homo« by the brutality of his Passion.

Ecce Homo
Tempera and oil on oak panel, 71 x 61 cm
Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt

Crowned with thorns and his flesh beaten raw by the scourge, he now stands with Pilate and his companions before the angry mob. The dialogue between Pilate and the crowd is indicated by the Gothic inscriptions which function not unlinke the balloons in a modern comic strip. From the mouth of Pilate issue the words »Ecce Homo« (Behold the Man). There is no need to decipher the inscription »Crufige Eum« (Crucify Him), the cry which rises from the people below; their animosity is unmistakably conveyed by their facial expressions and threatening gestures. The third inscription »Salve nos Christe redemptor« (Save us, Christ Redeemer) once emerged from two donors at lower left, but their figures have been painted over. As with the Magi in the Philadelphia »Epiphany«, the heathen character of the men surrounding Christ is suggested by their strange dress and headgear, including pseudo-oriental turbans. The scene's essential wickedness is further indicated by such traditional emblems of evil as the owl in the niche above Pilate and the giant toad sprawled on the back of a shield carried by one of the soldiers. In the background appears a city square, the Turkish crescent fluttering from one of its towers. The enemies of Christ have been identified with the power of Islam which in Bosch's day, and long afterwards, controlled the most holy places of Christendom. The buildings, however, are late Gothic; only the oddly bulging tower in the distance evokes a feeling of far-off places.
The Dutch character of these two early works is unmistakable. The Philadelphia »Epiphany« represents a reworking of a composition which had long been used by the Dutch manuscript illuminators. Likewise, the homely faces and animated gestures of Christ's tormentors in the »Ecce Homo« recall Passion scenes in Dutch manuscripts of the second and third quarters of the fifteenth century, where we encounter similar physical types, slight in proportion, flatly modelled and often unsubstantial beneath their heavy robes.

The same style appears in the Vienna »Christ Carrying the Cross«, where the head of Christ is silhouetted against a dense mass of grimacing soldiers and ill-wishers, one of them bearing the familiar toad on his shield. Christ's physical agony is heightened by the spike-studded wooden blocks which dangle fore and aft from his waist, lacerating his feet and ankles with every step. This cruel device was frequently represented by Dutch artists well into the sixteenth century. The high horizon is old-fashioned, as is the lack of spatial recession in the middle distance. In the foreground, soldiers torment the bad thief while the good thief kneels before a priest. The almost frantic intensity of his confession, well-expressed by the open-mouthed profile, contrasts vividly with the passive response of the priest who seems to suppress a yawn. The very presence of the priest is, of course, an anachronism, probably inspired by what Bosch had witnessed at contemporary executions; the same motif appears in the great multi-figure »Christ Carrying the Cross« which Pieter Bruegel the Elder was to paint almost a century later.

Christ Carrying the Cross
Oil on panel, 57 c 32 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

This urge to embellish the biblical text with details drawn from everyday life is characteristic for the later Middle Ages, it appears in the mystery plays and in such devotional books as the »Meditations on the Life of Christ« attributed to St Bonaventure. The Dutch illuminators, above all, frequently interpreted the sacred stories in common everyday terms in order to make them more immediate to the spectator.
This very human quality is no less apparent in another work which, although not a biblical subject, belongs to Bosch's early paintings. This is the »Conjuror«, now lost but known through a faithful copy at Saint-Ger-main-en-Laye (right). A mountebank has set up his table before a crumbling stone wall. His audience watches spellbound as he seems to bring forth a frog from the mouth of an old man in their midst; only one of the crowd, the young man with his hand on the shoulder of his female companion, appears to notice that the old man's purse is being stolen by the conjuror's confederate. The myopic gaze of the thief and the stupid amazement of the frog-spitting victim are superbly played off against the amused reactions of the bystanders, while the slyness of the mountebank is well conveyed in his sharp-nosed physiognomy. As in the »Christ Carrying the Cross«, Bosch exploits the human face in profile for expressive purposes. Although the »Conjuror« may possess a moralizing significance, as we shall see, it must have been inspired by a real-life situation closely observed. The perceptive, spontaneous humour of this little picture would be difficult to match in contemporary Flemish painting, but parallels can again be found among Dutch manuscript illuminators, such as the Master of Evert van Soudenbalch, active in Utrecht during the 1450s and 1460s.
Other biblical scenes may be ascribed to Bosch's early years: the »Marriage Feast at Cana« (Rotterdam) and the badly damaged Crucifixion of St Julia« (Venice, Palace of the Doges), of which only the central panel is from Bosch's hand (p. 84). In addition, there are several compositions which have survived only in copies of indifferent quality, including the »Christ among the Doctors» and »Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery« both of which recall the »Conjuror« in style. Among the early drawings are a sheet of animated male figures looking towards the right (New York, Morgan Library), perhaps a study for an »Ecce Homo« scene, and a monumental, relief-like »Entombment« (London, British Museum).

Group of Male Figures
Pen, 124 x 126 mm
Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

The Entombment
Ink and grey wash, 250 x 350 mm
British Museum, London

Only a few of the early paintings depart significantly from traditional iconography, but these exceptions anticipate the innovations of his later work. The treatment of the two thieves in the »Christ Carrying the Cross« is apparently without precedent, but still more unusual is the reverse of this panel, depicting a naked child pushing a walking-frame. This is the Christ Child, whose first halting steps clearly parallel Christ struggling with his Cross on the obverse, while the toy windmill or whirligig clutched in his hand probably alludes to the Cross itself. Thus Bosch gives us a touching picture of Christ in all his human frailty as he begins the road to his Passion.

Christ Child with a Walking Frame
Oil on panel, diameter 28 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Even less traditional is the »Marriage Feast at Cana«, painted towards the end of Bosch's early period. The picture is not in good condition; the upper corners have been cut off, many heads have been repainted, and a pair of dogs at the lower left may have been added as late as the eighteenth century.

In the large Dutch bible previously mentioned, an assistant of the Soudenbalch Master had presented the first miracle of Christ, the transformation of water into wine, as a rustic wedding feast; with characteristic humour, he showed one guest thirstily emptying a pot of wine, as if to explain just why Christ's miracle was so urgently required. Bosch's interpretation, on the other hand, is more serious in mood and much more complex in meaning. The marriage banquet has been placed in a richly furnished interior, most probably a tavern, the setting for the Cana story in at least one Dutch Easter play of the period. The miracle of the wine jars takes place at lower right; the guests are seated around an L-shaped table dominated at one end by the figure of Christ, behind whom hangs the brocaded cloth of honour usually reserved for the bride; he is flanked by two male donors in contemporary dress. Next to the Virgin at the centre of the table appear the solemn, austerely clad bridal couple; the bridegroom must be John the Evangelist, for his face closely resembles the type which Bosch employed elsewhere for this saint. Although the bridegroom remains nameless in the New Testament account, he was frequently identified as Christ's most beloved disciple. It was believed that at the conclusion of the feast, Christ called to him, saying: »Leave this wife of yours and follow me. I shall lead you to a higher wedding.« According to some writers, moreover, the abandoned bride was none other than Mary Magdalene. Thus the feast at Cana embodied the medieval ideal of chastity as more perfect in the sight of God than carnal union.

This medieval dualism between the flesh and the spirit receives further elaboration in the Rotterdam panel. Christ and his friends are pensively absorbed in some inner vision, unaware of the evil enchantment which seems to have fallen upon the banquet hall. The other wedding guests drink or gossip, watched by the bagpiper who leers drunkenly from a platform at the upper left. On the columns flanking the rear portal, two sculptured demons have mysteriously come to life; one aims an arrow at the other who escapes by disappearing through a hole in the wall. From the left, two servants carry in a boar's head and a swan spitting fire from their mouths; an ancient emblem of Venus, the swan symbolized unchastity. This unholy revelry seems to be directed by the innkeeper or steward who stands with his baton in the rear chamber. On the sideboard next to him are displayed curiously formed vessels, some of which, like the pelican, are symbolic of Christ, while others possess less respectable connotations, such as the three naked dancers on the second shelf.

The precise meaning of all these details remains unclear, as does that of the richly gowned child, his back turned to the viewer, who seems to toast the bridal couple with a chalice. However this may be, Bosch has undoubtedly employed the tavern setting as an image of evil, a comparison popular in medieval sermons, thereby contrasting the chaste marriage feast at Cana with the debauchery of the world.
In its transformation of a biblical story, the »Marriage Feast of Cana« introduces us for the first time to the complexity of Bosch's thought. It presents, on the one hand, a moral allegory of man's pursuit of the flesh at the expense of his spiritual welfare, and on the other, the monastic ideal of a life secure from the world in contemplation of God. These two themes were to dominate almost all Bosch's later art.

Marriage Feast at Cana
Oil on panel, 93 x 72 cm
Museum Boumans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Painted by Bosch towards the end of his early period, this is not a traditional treatment of the subject. The marriage at Cana is the story of Christ's first miracle - turning water into wine. The bride and bridegroom are central while the figure of Christ is placed on the right in front of the brocaded cloth of honour, customarily the bride's place. Christ's hand is raised in blessing. Although not mentioned in the Bible, the groom has been identified by Bosch as St John. It has also been contended that the bride is Mary Magdalene. There was a tradition that at the end of the feast Christ called to the groom to leave his bride and follow him. The fact that St John is known as Christ's best loved disciple lays a special emphasis on the interpretation. The symbolism is of a spiritual chastity more elevated and pure than the carnal union of marriage. The incidentals also attract great interest: the water jug filling wine jars; the drunken bagpiper suggesting a tavern, a licentious setting; a swan (an emblem of Venus) spitting fire, suggesting the opposite of chastity. Each part of the painting carries such messages, often hidden to us but recognizable to Bosch's contemporaries.