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Hieronymus Bosch

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Gothic and Early Renaissance
 
 
Hieronymus Bosch
 
 
 
The Last Judgement
 
 
While sin and folly occupy a prominent place in Bosch's art, their significance can be fully appreciated only within the context of a larger medieval theme, the Last Judgment. The Day of Judgment marks the final act of the long, turbulent history of mankind which began with the Fall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Eden. It is the day when the dead shall rise from their graves and Christ shall come a second time to judge all men, rewarding each according to his merits. As Christ himself foretold (Matthew 25:34, 41), the elect will enjoy the eternal bliss prepared for them »from the foundation of the world«, while the damned will be condemned to the »everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and hisangels«. Time will cease and eternity begin.

The preparation for this Final Day was one of the chief concerns of the medieval Church. It taught the faithful what conduct would enable them to be numbered among the blessed; it warned backsliders and evildoers of the awful punishment which awaited them if they failed to reform. The majority opinion is represented by Thomas a Kempis who told the readers of the »lmitation of Christ«, »it is good that, if the love of God does not restrain you from sin, the fear of Hell at least should restrain you«. Thus, the unending torments of the damned were described, in lurid details, in countless books and sermons, while meditations on the Last Judgment and Hell played an important part in various spiritual exercises, including those of the »Devotio Modema«.

The terrors of the Final Reckoning were intensified by a general sense of its imminence. There had always been prophets who insisted that the world was nearing its end, but the feeling of impending doom grew particularly acute in the late fifteenth century. For Sebastian Brant, the sins of mankind had multiplied to such an extent that the Last Judgment must surely be close at hand. Other writers represented the world on the threshold of the final age, in which the prophecies described in the Revelation of St John would soon come to pass. Plagues, floods and other natural disasters were regarded as manifestations of the wrath of God and current political events were searched anxiously for signs of the Last Emperor and of Antichrist.

In 1499, a German astrologer confidently asserted that the world would be destroyed by a second Deluge on 25 February 1524. In 1515, Albrecht Durer made a watercolour recording his famous dream in which he saw the final catastrophe brought about by huge columns of water crashing to the earth; somewhat earlier, Leonardo da Vinci made drawings of whole cities swept away by raging floods whose dynamic structure was observed with scientific detachment.

Nowhere, however, was this chronic anxiety of the age given more vivid expression than in Bosch's imposing »Last Judgment« triptych in Vienna, executed probably during his middle period. The largest of his surviving works, the »Last Judgment« is prefaced on the outer wings by the figures of St James the Greater and St Bavo, painted in grisaille (left and right). Despite the gloomy and threatening landscape through which St James moves, neither this panel nor its companion prepares us for the apocalyptic scenes which unfold within. Here, across the three inner panels, appear the First and Last Things, beginning with the Fall of Man on the left wing.


Triptych of Last Judgement
Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna

This, the largest of Bosch's paintings (163.7 x 127 cm/ 66 x 50 in), is also one of the most revealing and accomplished. The familiar story is clear. Every one of his contemporaries, poor, trusting, illiterate peasants as well as educated burghers, would have grasped the significance of almost all the details and believed the basic message implicitly. But some of the images must have been frighteningly new and distressing, if not actually inducing despair. Other painters had treated the same subject powerfully, but no one, before or since, has had the creative intensity and ability to actualize the dreaded unknown in such fantastic images. This is particularly true in the devils, demons, evil spirits and unnerving monsters that Bosch created to inhabit the nether world. His contemporaries, if they thought he saw (and they would have believed it possible) and accurately represented the monsters and denizens, and the hellish regions they inhabited, must have been convinced that hell was a place to avoid at all costs. The deadly sins are all depicted a number of times and erotic symbolism abounds.



Triptych of Last Judgement.
St James the Greater (left outer wing)
Grisaille on panel, 167 x 60 cm
Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna


Depicted as a pilgrim on the Road of Life, St James the Greater is carrying the symbols associated with him: the staff, the large-brimmed hat and, on it, the scallop shell, his special identification. St James, brother of St John. was the first of the Apostles to be martyred (AD 44). According to legend, after his martyrdom his body was brought from Jerusalem to Spain, where a shrine set up at Santiago de Compostella became one of the great attractions for Christian pilgrims in the later Middle Ages. The landscape in the background carries details of significant reference: on the top left reminding the faithful of death as punishment in life; in the middle left , the long and difficult journey of the blind, hall and lame; and on the right the warning of robbers and murderers on the path through life. This panel, and that of St Bavo (opposite), are painted in grisaille, a method of using grey monochrome that often gives the impression of sculpture. The closed triptych would merge with the surrounding sculpture, giving no indication of the colourful and frightening images inside.



Triptych of Last Judgement.
St Bavo (right outer wing)
Grisaille on panel, 167 x 60 cm
Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Vienna



Bavo was born in Brabant, probably in the late 6th century, and died in 653. He was a rich landowner, made a good marriage, fathered a daughter but led a disorderly life until the early death of his wife induced a dramatic change. He gave away all his possessions to the poor, put himself under the direction of Bishop (and Saint) Amand of Maastricht and devoted the rest of his life to good works, becoming known as the Protector of Flanders. He became a greatly revered saint in the northern Netherlands and a number of churches, including the Groote Kik - the most impressive church in Haarlem — are dedicated to him. In Bosch's grisaille panel Bavo is depicted in elegant dress carrying a hawk on one hand and a purse in the other, representing pleasure and good works respectively, as he gives to the poor, young and old. The significance of the mummified foot and the bowl balanced on the child's head has not been determined.


Triptych of Last Judgement. Paradise (left wing - detail)
Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna

Bosch has set the scene of the Fall in a rich landscape and shows the progress of the action from the lower to the upper levels. At the base the creation of Eve is treated somewhat similarly in design to Michelangelo's composition in the Sistine Chapel, which was painted at about the same time, although the feeling in each work is very different. Bosch, in the waning of the Middle Ages in northern Europe, had a strong sense of the actuality of hell fire, while Michelangelo, in the High Italian Renaissance, placed strong emphasis on the human values in the story. On the second level we see the Temptation: Eve holds out the apple from the Tree of Knowledge to Adam, while a singularly unserpent-like creature, female it may be noted, holds out another. Note too, the ubiquitous owl of evil on a branch to the left. The third level shows the couple driven from the Garden of Eden by a sword-wielding angel. Above the landscape is empty. The fourth level, the sky, shows God driving the rebel angels out of Paradise, in the process of which they are transformed from humans to insect monsters.


Triptych of Last Judgement. Last Judgement (central panel - detail)
Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna


Triptych of Last Judgement. Last Judgement.
Frying Bodies (central panel - detail)
Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna

In this panel of the painting Bosch has created some of his most powerful images. There appears to be no limit to his visual imagination nor any restraint in depicting it. The metamorphosis of one thing into another is a constant device, as can be seen in this and the following illustrations taken from this panel. In the centre of this detail an old woman with lizard-like feet is frying human remains, while two eggs (symbols of sexual creativity) are waiting to go in the frying pan. Behind, another monstrous hag is turning a body on a spit and another body can be seen already prepared. On the right a beetle-like creature is dismembering another figure for the frying pan. This is truly hell's kitchen. Another figure in the foreground, repenting too late, has his hands clasped in prayer while a monster is spitting him for the knife. There also seems to be a mouse metamorphosing into a porcupine — or vice versa.

 
 
 

Triptych of Last Judgement. Last Judgement.
The Cask (central panel - detail)
Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna

To the left of the detail shown on 'Frying Bodies' a scene of gluttony is represented. Here a gross figure drinks from a cask held up by an almost human demon. A good example of Bosch s creative vision can be seen in the fish monster approaching the table at which the drunkard sits. The fish, a symbol of lewdness. is changing or has changed into a two-legged soldier figure, fully armed but without a body and with legs emerging from its helmet. A different form of the metamorphosis process can be seen in the head of the drunkard, where, on the left, he is being supported by a particularly vicious looking demon. The red shape can be seen as a turban and the head can be seen looking to the left — a familiar child's game. In the background another figure, in the back kitchen, can be seen cooking some more human remains, or is she just pressing their blood into the pot that stands below the boiler?


Triptych of Last Judgement. Last Judgement.
A Musical Scene (central panel - detail)
Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna

On the platform above the kitchen a sort of concert is being played for a female who is being embraced by a snake-like monster while a happy dragon looks on. A singularly revolting monster is twanging a mandolin on his head while a duck-like figure wearing hunting boots blows a hunting horn. The woman's long tresses suggest both Eve and the seductress, and she appears not yet to have become aware of her undoubted fate. To the left another female figure reclines in seemingly unconcerned contemplation of a slimy demon who is approaching her couch. Another monster is coiled behind her. The whole of this scene comments on the seductive effects of music and the female form.


Triptych of Last Judgement. Last Judgement.
The Urn (central panel - detail)
Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna

A detail close to the Frying Bodies shows an arrow-pierced figure prepared for roasting on the spit while others hang like cured hams behind the fire. In the centre of the detail there is a blue painted metallic urn-like object in which naked unfortunates are being 'processed' by soldiers. It is difficult to determine precisely how it works but it looks extremely unpleasant. Behind this a green pot lies on its side and on it is a platform on which other unfortunates are towing a red object that suggests a millstone and is controlled by demons. Near the bottom of this panel there is a figure composed of only a head on legs, similar to one seen in the detail on The Cask. These 'gryllos', as they are called, appear frequently in Bosch's work, but their precise significance is not known.


Triptych of Last Judgement. Last Judgement.
Monsters with Knife (central panel - detail)
Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna

In the bottom right corner of the panel are a group of monsters carrying a large knife, whose phallic symbolism is unmistakable. The funnel — the familiar symbol of deceit and intemperance - can also be seen in this complicated ensemble. The demons are varied. One is transforming from a fish into at least a scaly human leg while another, wrapped in the red shape, has a sharp beak and a keen eye. There is also a lizard leg emerging from the group. Another beaked figure is carrying a basket containing a human being and a demon. It is difficult, if not impossible, to explain all the forms that Bosch invents in terms of a Christian symbolism and it is very likely that some have no more than his creative imagination as their inspiration.


Triptych of Last Judgement. Hell (right wing - detail)
Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna

The ultimate and permanent expectation for the damned, and in Bosch's view that would be most people, will be hellfire. torment, wailing and the gnashing of teeth. It is God's awful prospect for humankind. It was a subject that Bosch treated a number of times, always effectively but most potently, perhaps, only in the right wing of The Garden of Earthly Delights. Here, however, while the images are characteristically Bosch, the total effect does not fully cohere. Nevertheless there are a number of powerful inventions in the details.

 
 
 
The story recounted in the second and third chapters of Genesis has been placed in a lush garden; in the foreground we see the creation of Eve, followed by the temptation of the First Couple. In the middle distance they are driven from the garden by an angel. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden is paralleled above by the expulsion from Heaven of the Rebel Angels, who are transformed into monsters as they descend to earth. Although the revolt of proud Lucifer and his followers is not mentioned in Genesis, it appears in Jewish legends and entered Christian doctrine at an early age. These were the angels who sinned and whose prince, envying Adam, caused him to sin in turn. It was further believed that Adam and Eve had been created by God in order that their offspring might fill the places left vacant by the fallen angels. In this panel, Bosch thus depicted the entrance of sin into the world and accounted for the necessity of the Last Judgment.

The inclusion of the Fall of Adam and Eve in a representation of the Last Judgment is unusual; the other two panels of the Vienna triptych depart even more from traditional iconography. Generally Heaven was allotted the chief role in the eschatological drama. As in the altarpiece by Roger van der Weyden, it is the act of judgment which is stressed; the judged are relegated to positions of secondary importance, and the felicity of the saved is described as fully as the pains of the lost. In Bosch's version, however, the divine court appears small and insignificant at the top of the central panel, and very few souls are numbered among the elect. The majority of mankind has been engulfed in the universal cataclysm which rages throughout the deep, murky landscape below.

This vast panoramic nightmare represents the earth in her final death throes, destroyed not by water as Durer and Leonardo were to envision it, but by the fire foretold in a thirteenth-century hymn, the sombre »Dies lrae«: »Day of Wrath, that day when the world dissolves in glowing ashes«. Bosch was probably also influenced by the account of the last days given in the Revelation of St John, a book which enjoyed renewed popularity in the late fifteenth century, when it was illustrated by Durer in his famous »Apocalypse« woodcuts of 1496-97. The wide valley dominating the central panel may represent the Valley of Jehoshaphat, which, on the basis of several Old Testament references (Joel 4:2,12), was traditionally thought to be the site of the Last Judgment, with the walls of the earthly Jerusalem blazing in the background. In any event, earth has become indistinguishable from Hell, depicted on the right wing, out of which the army of Satan swarms to attack the damned; the eternity of torment has begun.

The mystics claimed that the most grievous pain suffered by the damned in Hell was the knowledge that they were forever deprived of the sight of God. For most people, however, the torments of Hell were chiefly corporeal and so intense that, as one medieval sermon expresses it, the pains of this life will seem but a soothing ointment in comparison. For Bosch, too, the agony of Hell is mainly physical; the pale, naked bodies of the damned are mutilated, gnawed by serpents, consumed in fiery furnaces and imprisoned in diabolic engines of torture. The variety of torments seems infinite. In the central panel, one man is slowly roasted on a spit, basted by an ugly little creature with a bloated belly; nearby, a female demon has sliced up her victim into a frying pan, like a piece of ham, to accompany the eggs at her feet. An infernal concert appears in the right wing, conducted by a black-faced monster.

The Hell scene in the Prado »Tabletop« had paired off each punishment with one of the Deadly Sins; »there is no vice that will not receive its proper retribution«, says Thomas a Kempis, echoing a common belief of the time. Whether or not Bosch consistently followed this formula in the »Last Judgment« would be difficult to determine, although some of the punishments can be identified with specific sins. Thus, the avaricious are boiled in the great cauldron just visible beneath one of the buildings in the central panel. Around the corner, a fat glutton is forced to drink from a barrel held by two devils; the source of his dubious refreshment can be seen squatting in the window overhead. The lascivious woman on the roof above suffers the attentions of a lizard-like monster slithering across her loins, while being serenaded by two musical demons. On the cliffs to the right, across the river, blacksmith-devils hammer other victims on anvils, and one is being shod like a horse; these unfortunate souls are guilty of the sin of anger.

Some of these sins and their punishments can be identified from the inscriptions accompanying the Hell scene of the Prado »Tabletop«. Others occur in the traditional literary descriptions of Hell which flourished during the Middle Ages, generally in the form of visits to the nether regions by persons who returned to tell of their adventures. The best known of these »eyewitness« accounts is, of course, the »lnfemo« of Dante, which influenced generations of Italian artists.
Although Bosch followed none of these texts slavishly, he must have been familiar with them. Their influence can be seen not only in his rendering of specific punishments, but also in the general topography of his Hell, including such features as the burning pits and furnaces, and the lakes and rivers in which the damned are immersed. Some of his monsters are also derived from traditional literary and visual sources. The vaguely anthropomorphic devils, such as those in the blacksmith scene of the central panel, occur in many earlier Last Judgement scenes. Traditional, too, are the toads, adders and dragons which crawl over the rocks or gnaw at the vital parts of their victims.

Into this more or less conventional fauna of Hell, however, Bosch introduced new and more frightening species whose complex forms defy precise description. Many display bizarre fusions of animal and human elements, sometimes combined with inanimate objects. To this group belongs the bird-like monster who helps carry a giant knife in the centre panel; his torso develops into a fish tail and two humanoid legs, shod in a pair of jars. To the right an upturned basket darts forward on legs, a sword clutched in its mailed fist. Disembodied heads scuttle about on stubby limbs; others possess bodies and limbs which glow in the darkness. Several fiends blow musical instruments thrust into their hind quarters, bringing to mind the farting devil encountered by Dante («lnferno«, XXI, 139).
Not even the dragon which Leonardo da Vinci is reputed to have constructed in the last years of his life could have been as gruesome as Bosch's slithering horrors. And in the way their forms seem to change before our very eyes, Bosch effectively expresses the medieval conception of Hell as a state where the divinely ordained laws of nature have disintegrated into chaos.

In the final analysis, however, it is difficult for us to experience Bosch's Hell as did his contemporaries. Familiar with the conditions of the damned from the »Vision of Tundale« and similar literature, and from innumerable sermons, they would have felt, at least imaginatively, the alternation of extreme heat and cold, and they would have choked on the smoke and the fetid stench arising on every hand. They would have heard the screeching and hissing of the devils and, above all, the cries of the tormented. »Woe, woe, woe to us, the most sinful, wretched sons of Eve!« the damned wail in medieval sermons and books. Some of Bosch's victims clearly express their despair, as, for example, the screaming souls herded together beneath the tent in the right wing. Others, it is true, stare blankly before them, but it must not be assumed that they have become anaesthetized against pain. The Middle Ages thought otherwise. Not only did the agony of the damned persist at its highest intensity, but even the most horribly mutilated souls were perpetually made whole again, to commence their sufferings anew. And this process continued not for a time, but for all eternity.

The Vienna triptych shows the Last Judgment which embraces all men, an event which terminates all human history. In the »Vision of Tundale«, however, and in other sources which influenced Bosch, the torments of the damned are described as if happening in the present, in Purgatory, rather than at some unspecified time in the future. They reflect a belief in a particular judgment, a private reckoning to which each person must submit immediately upon his death; according to his merits, he was then dispatched to a place of torment or bliss, there to await the Last Judgment. Widespread during the later Middle Ages, this doctrine was treated by Denis the Carthusian in his »Dialogue on the Particular Judgment of God«, and, as Albert Chatelet* has shown, it inspired two panels by Dirk Bouts. These, in turn, were the model for four panels by Bosch, the so-called »Paradise« and »Hell« panels, preserved in the Palace of the Doges in Venice.


Terrestrial Paradise and Ascent of the Blessed
Palazzo Ducale, Venice

In this second Paradise panel the Blessed are being conducted to the presence of God. The course of the afterlife was a medieval preoccupation, and the panels elaborate the human condition from death either to Heaven or Hell. For the Blessed this meant the purgatorial introduction to the ascent to the godhead. In the most dramatic of the panels the chosen Blessed are being carried upwards by angels, ecstatically gazing into the great light bursting through the funnel into which they float. It is an image of great imaginative and inspirational power. It was believed that the panels were intended to form part of a triptych, but the current view is that they are linked panels.

Fall of the Damned and Hell
Palazzo Ducale, Venice

It has been assumed that these panels once formed the wings of a Last Judgment altarpiece; more probably, however, they were originally intended as independent works illustrating the rewards and pains of the Particular Judgment. The pictures have been disfigured by heavy overpainting and darkened varnish, and critics are not unanimous in attributing them to Bosch; nevertheless, it would be difficult to ascribe their compositions to anyone else. lnthe »Paradise« pair, the left-hand panel depicts the elect shepherded by angels into a rolling landscape from which rises the Fountain of Life; this is the Terrestrial Paradise, a sort of intermediate stage where the saved were cleansed of the last stain of sin before being admitted into the presence of God. Already one group of souls looks expectantly upwards. Several such gardens are described in the »Vision of Tundale«, and the Terrestrial Paradise, placed directly beneath Heaven, is shown in many mystery plays of the period. It was frequently identified with the Garden of Eden, thought to still exist on earth on some remote mountain inacessible to man, a belief which probably influenced the steep terrain to be seen in the Terrestrial Paradise as seen by Bouts and Bosch.

In his composition Bosch followed Bouts's »Terrestrial Paradise« fairly closely, departing from it in only one significant respect. Whereas Bouts depicted the actual entry of the saved into Heaven in the sky above, Bosch reserved this scene for a separate panel presenting a vision of celestial joy that was utterly beyond the powers of the more earthbound Bouts. Shedding the last vestige of their corporeality, the blessed souls float upwards through the night, scarcely supported by their angelic guides. They gaze with ecstatic yearning towards the great light which bursts through the darkness overhead. This funnel-shaped radiance, with its distinct segments, probably owes much to contemporary zodiacal diagrams, but in Bosch's hands it has become a shining corridor through which the blessed approach that final and perpetual union of the soul with God which is experienced on earth only in rare moments of spiritual exaltation. »Here the heart opens itself in joy and in desire«, Ruysbroeck tells us, »and all the veins gape, and all the powers of the soul are in readiness.« Suso describes how the tremulous, enraptured soul is conducted above the ninth heaven into the »coelum empyreum«, the flaming heaven, there to gaze at the immeasurable, all-pervading immovable, incorruptible brightness«, and to sink into the »infinite solitude and profound abyss« of the naked Godhead. With such poetic language the medieval mystic sought to express the Beatific Vision, but no artist before Bosch had clothed it with a visual form of comparable power.

The ascent of the blessed into the »coelum empyreum« is balanced in the third panel by the descent of the damned into the pit of Hell. Bosch followed Bouts's version of this subject, but once again he transformed the prosaic images of his model. The damned hurtle past in the darkness, seized upon by devils and scorched by Hellfire spitting through fissures in the rocks. In the final panel, Purgatory, a craggy mountain belches forth flames against a fiery sky, while the souls struggle helplessly in the water below. Not all the torments are physical: oblivious to the bat-winged devil tugging at him, one soul sits on the shore in a pensive attitude, seemingly overwhelmed by remorse. Hell, no less than Heaven, has been interpreted in the spiritual sense of the mystics.

In his use of light to express the most ineffable concepts of the Divine, Bosch approaches Geertgen tot Sint Jans and the great German masters of the early sixteenth century. In Geertgen's enchanting little »Madonna and Child« in Rotterdam, the tiny celestial musicians glow to incandescence in the ardour of their love for the Infant Christ. No less ecstatic are Albrecht Altdorfer's magically lighted »Nativity« of c. 1513 and the angelic jubilation in the Christmas panels of the Isenheim altarpiece, completed by Mathis Grunewald about the time of Bosch's death. In the succinctness and simplicity of their imagery, the two Venice »Hell« panels remain unique in Bosch's work. Elsewhere he portrayed the fauna of Hell in inexhaustible variety. In a group of drawings attributed to Bosch with reasonable certainty, monsters proliferate in a multitude of shapes, no two exactly alike.

 
Legs sprout from grotesquely grinning heads, obscene bladder-like forms develop snouts and legs; some creatures are all head or rump. This taste for monsters Bosch shared with his age, which This same attitude is no less apparent in the sadly damaged »Last Judgment« fragment in Munich. It is occasionally identified as part of the altarpiece commissioned by Philip the Handsome in 1504, but was probably done somewhat later, towards the end of Bosch's life. A piece of drapery visible in the lower left-hand corner is all that remains of a figure which must have been much larger in scale than the other figures in the fragment. Perhaps it represented an oversized St Michael in the act of weighing souls, such as appears in Roger van der Weyden's triptych at Beaune. Behind and to the right of the drapery, the resurrected slowly climb out of their graves, among others, a king and several ecclesiastics, all distinguished by their headdresses. Around them dart monsters whose gossamer wings and long waving filaments and antennae glow against thedarkground.lt is difficult to remember that these jewel-like, delicately luminous creatures are engaged in tormenting the damned. Hell, for once, has become an aesthetic delight.


Last Judgement (fragment)
1506-08
Oil on wood, 60 x 114 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Munich




Last Judgement
Oil on panel, 99,5 x 60,3 cm (central panel), 99,5 x 29 cm (each wing)
Groeninge Museum, Bruges



Last Judgement (detail)
Groeninge Museum, Bruges



Last Judgement (detail)
Groeninge Museum, Bruges




Last Judgement (detail)
Groeninge Museum, Bruges

 


Last Judgment. Paradise (fragment )
Oil on panel
Private collection


Last Judgment. Death of the Reprobate (fragment)
Oil on panel
Private collection

 
 
 

 
 
 
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