Hieronymus Bosch

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Gothic and Early Renaissance
Hieronymus Bosch
The Triumph of the Saint
In his pictures of the saints, Bosch seldom depicted those miraculous exploits and spectacular martyrdoms which so fascinated the later Middle Ages. Except for the early »Crucifixion of St Julia«, he showed the more passive virtues of the contemplative life: no soldier saints, no tender virgins frantically defending their chastity, but hermits meditating quietly in a landscape.

Three variations of this theme appear in the sadly damaged triptych ofthe» HermitSaints« in Venice, painted towards the middle of his career. In the centre St Jerome fastens his gaze on a crucifix, secure against the evil world symbolized by the remains of a pagan temple scattered around him on the ground and by two monstrous animals engaged in a death struggle below. On the left, St Anthony the Hermit resists the amorous advances of the Devil-Queen, an episode to which we shall return. Snugly ensconced in a cave chapel on the right wing, St Giles prays before an altar, the arrow piercing his breast commemorating the time when he was shot accidentally by a passing hunter.

All three saints reflect the monastic ideal as set forth, for example, in the limitation of Christ«: a life spent in mortification of the flesh and in continuous prayer and meditation. »How strict and self-denying was the life of the holy Fathers in the desert!« exclaims Thomas a Kempis, »How long and grievous the temptations they endured! How often they were assaulted by the Devil! How frequent and fervent their prayers to God! ... How great their zeal and ardour for spiritual progress! How valiant the battles they fought to overcome their vices!«
In the »St Jerome at Prayer«, Bosch gave an even more telling image of this ideal. Jerome has cast himself down, a crucifix cradled in his arms; his splendid red cardinal's robe lies abandoned on the ground. Absent are the dramatic gestures-the breast-beating and the eyes raised adoringly to the Cross - with which other artists represented the penitent saint, but in this still, intent figure, Bosch has nonetheless poignantly expressed Jerome's spiritual anguish. The peaceful background panorama contains no hint of evil, but the swampy grotto in which the saint lies is rank with corruption and decay. In his autobiography, Jerome describes how his meditations in the wilderness were interrupted by visions of beautiful courtesans. These lustful thoughts are undoubtedly symbolized by the large decomposing fruits near the saint's cave, reminiscent of the flora in the «Garden of Earthly Delights«. Only by surrendering completely to the will of God could Jerome subdue his rebellious flesh.

In another picture (Madrid, Museo Lazaro-Galdiano), Bosch shows St John the Baptist seated in a humid summer landscape. The composition may well have been influenced by a painting done some years earlier by Geertgen tot Sint Jans. Geertgen represented the thoughtful prophet staring abstractedly into space, rubbing one foot against the other, but Bosch shows him pointing purposefully towards the Lamb of God crouching at lower right. This gesture traditionally identifies John as the forerunner of Christ, the »precursor Christi«. In this instance however, it also indicates a spiritual alternative to the life of the flesh symbolized in the great pulpy fruits hanging near him on gracefully curving stems, and in the equally ominous forms rising in the background.

Triptych of the Crucifixion of St Julia
Oil on panel, 104 x 119 cm
Palazzo Ducale, Venice

Hermit Saints Triptych
St Anthony, St Jerome, St Giles
c. 1505
Oil on panel, 86 x 60 cm
Palazzo Ducale, Venice

Hermit Saints Triptych. St Jerome (central panel)
c. 1505
Oil on panel, 86 x 60 cm
Palazzo Ducale, Venice

St Jerome in Prayer
c. 1505
Oil on panel, 80,1 x 60,6 cm
Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent

Jerome was born about AD 342 and died in Bethlehem in AD 420. He studied philosophy at Rome and became one of the most learned of the Latin Fathers of the Church, a great biblical scholar who revised the Latin version of the New Testament and worked over or translated the whole Bible, known since the 13th century as the Vulgate. He was ordained a priest but did not exercise his priestly office. In 374 he retired to the desert near Antioch and spent some years among the hermits. While there he was visited by temptations and lustful visions of the flesh. Most representations of St Jerome show him in a state of penitence in the desert. Bosch's painting depicts Jerome as a reclining praying figure, having cast aside his cardinal's robe and hat. which are often shown as indications of both his service to the Church and his rejection of the priestly office. Around him are familiar symbols of the bodily temptations: broken fruit, an evil smelling swamp, indicating decay and corruption, and a lurking owl. There is also a small dog-like creature at the bottom left, which probably represents a lion, Jerome's symbol.

St John the Baptist in the Wilderness (Meditation)
Oil on panel, 48 x 40 cm
Museo Lazaro Galdiano, Madrid

St John the Baptist was the son of Elizabeth, cousin of Mary, the mother of Christ. Known as precursor Christi, he prophesied the coming of Christ and is often associated pictorially in his youth with Christ. It was he who later baptized Christ. Also traditionally associated with the Lamb of God, the symbol of the Redeemer, in Bosch's painting St John is depicted in the wilderness lying in meditation and pointing to the Lamb, quietly seated in the bottom right. Again the traditional, endemic temptations of the flesh are indicated by the exotic luscious fruit, symbols of carnal pleasure, growing close to the Saint. The presence of monsters in Bosch's paintings is not always explicit, often seen only in that form of metamorphosis characteristic of modern Surrealism. One example is the elongated rock on which St John is leaning, which transforms at its left into a rat-like head, the rat being another symbol for sex as well as for general filth and lies against the Church.

In a painting in Rotterdam, St Christopher appears in a landscape similarly charged with evil. His red cloak bunched up behind him, the giant Christopher staggers across the river, with the Christ Child on his back. According to legend, Christopher had served a king and the Devil himself in a search for a powerful and worthy master, a search which ended only when a hermit converted him to Christianity. The hermit stands at the edge of the water at lower right, but his treehouse has been transformed into a broken jug which houses a devilish tavern; above, a naked figure scrambles up a branch towards a beehive, a symbol of drunkenness. Across the river, a dragon emerges from a ruin, frightening a swimmer, while a town blazes in the shadowy distance. These and other sinister details recall the landscape on the exterior of the »Haywain« triptych, but unlike the »Haywain« pilgrim, Christopher is well protected by the passenger he bears.
No less secure against the wiles of the Devil is St John the Evangelist in a picture in Berlin. The youthful apostle is depicted on the island of Patmos, where he had been banished by the Emperor Domitian and where he composed the Book of Revelation, presumably the volume on his lap. His mild gaze is lifted towards an apparition of the Virgin enthroned on a crescent moon, the Apocalyptic woman described in Revelation 12:1-16. She is pointed out to him by an angel whose slender figure and delicately plumed wings appear scarcely more substantial than the misty Dutch panorama behind. Perhaps influenced by earlier representations of this subject, Bosch for once restrained his predilection for demonic spectacles. There are, to be sure, several ships burning in the water at lower left, and a little monster can be seen at lower right, both details probably suggested by St John's Apocalypse, but neither seriously disturbs the idyllic landscape in which the saint enjoys his vision.
But the evil thus suppressed in the Berlin »St John« bursts out on the reverse of the panel, painted in grisaille, where monsters swarm like luminous deep-sea fish around a great double circle. As in the Prado »Tabletop«, Bosch employs the mirror motif, this time, however, showing a mirror of salvation: the Passion of Christ unfolds within the outer circle, culminating visually in the Crucifixion at the top. The Mount of Golgotha is repeated symbolically in the inner circle, in the form of a high rock surmounted by a pelican in her nest. The pelican, who supposedly fed her young with blood pricked from her own breast, was a traditional symbol of Christ's sacrifice. She appears very appropriately on the back of this picture devoted to St John, the beloved disciple who had rested his head, as Dante tells us (»Paradiso«, XXV), on the breast of the Divine Pelican himself.

St Christopher
Oil on panel, 113 x 72 cm
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

St John the Evangelist on Patmos
Oil on oak panel, 63 x 43,3 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

St John the Evangelist on Patmos (reverse)
Oil on panel, diameter 39 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin


St James and the Magician

Much mythology surrounds the story of St James the Greater. Among these legends that of the magician Hermogenes was well known in the Middle Ages as reflecting the power of the Saint to counter magic with miracles. Briefly, the story goes that James was preaching and was approached by the Magician's assistant, who was sent to confound the Saint's teaching. But James converted the assistant. The Magician, justly infuriated, cast a spell on the assistant, who, in turn, appealed to St James to free him. This James did. The Magician then sent demons to torment James. Eventually, after much toing and froing, St James converted Hermogenes, who, in his turn, performed many miracles; a salutary story illustrating the power of the early saints. The medieval belief in the actuality of the demon world is demonstrated here by the convincing setting and costume, particularly of the enthroned Magician and of his apparently 'conversational' relationship with the demons. St James, with his angel and the retreating demons, can be seen on the upper left.


Triptych of the Temptation of St Anthony

It is likely that these little pictures of the saints were intended to be contemplated in the quiet of the cloister or private chapel. They present, in terms of the monastic ideal, the arduous path which the Christian pilgrim must climb to regain his lost homeland and achieve union with God. Nowhere, however, were the vicissitudes of the spiritual life more vividly and circumstantially detailed than in the legend of St Anthony the Hermit, founder of Christian monasticism, which Bosch painted on an altarpiece now preserved in Lisbon.

St Anthony is a recurrent figure in Bosch's work. In addition to the left wing of the »Hermit Saints« triptych, his figure appears several times on a drawing in the Louvre. A small panel in the Prado, showing the saint meditating in a sunny landscape, is also generally attributed to him although many details deviate from his usual style. Nevertheless, the Lisbon triptych remains his most comprehensive statement of the theme, the particulars of which he drew from the »Lives of the Fathers« and the »Golden Legend«, both of which were available in contemporary Dutch translations.
As we learn from these medieval compendia of saints' lives, St Anthony passed most of his long life (c. 251 -356) in the Egyptian desert, where his extraordinary piety made him an object of special attention for Satan. Once while praying in the shelter of an old tomb, Anthony was overwhelmed by a horde of devils who beat him so relentlessly that he was left for dead. After several fellow hermits had rescued and revived him, however, he returned to the tomb, where the devils caught him a second time and tossed him high into the air. This time his torments ended only when a Divine light illuminated the tomb and dispersed the devils. Satan then appeared in the guise of a beautiful and saintly queen whom Anthony encountered bathing in a river. Taking the hermit into her city, the Devil-Queen showed him all her supposed works of charity, and it was only when she sought to seduce the bedazzled Anthony that he recognized her true nature and intentions.

Two of these episodes are represented on the left inner wing of the Lisbon altarpiece. In the foreground, the unconscious Anthony is carried across a bridge by two companions dressed in the habit of the Antonite Order, accompanied by a secular figure who has been identified with some plausibility as a self-portrait of Bosch. Anthony appears again in the sky, borne aloft by demons, while other monsters buzz around him like angry insects. These scenes conform fairly closely to the written sources but as in so many other instances, Bosch enriched the original accounts with a wealth of inventive and dramatic detail. Three monsters confer beneath the bridge as an equally grotesque messenger skates towards them on the ice. A bird gulps down its newly hatched young at lower left. On the road ahead of Anthony and his companions, another group of demons approach a kneeling male figure whose body forms the roof and entrance of a brothel; a false beacon lures ships to their destruction in the sea beyond; and the shore is littered with corpses.

This powerful evocation of a corrupt and stinking world is no less apparent in the right wing, where Bosch used as his starting point the story of the Devil-Queen, a subject he had already depicted in the » Hermit Saints« altarpiece. The Devil-Queen appears in the river before Anthony, shielding her private parts with a false modesty and surrounded by her infernal court. Anthony averts his eyes from this obscene group only to be summoned by a demon-herald to the devilish feast in the foreground. The open-air table, the cloth slung tent-like over the tree stump beside the temptress, and the servants pouring wine seem like a grotesque parody of the traditional Garden of Love. In the background looms the city of the Devil-Queen, its demonic nature betrayed by the dragon swimming in the moat and by the flames erupting from the top of the main gate.

These diabolic enterprises reach a climax in the middle panel. Devils of all species, human and grotesque, arrive from all directions by land, water and air, to converge upon a ruined tomb in the centre. On a platform before the tomb, an elegantly dressed pair have set up a table from which they dispense drink to their companions. Near by, a woman wearing a large headdress and a gown with an extravagantly long train kneels at a parapet to offer a bowl to a figure opposite. Kneeling beside her, almost unnoticed in the midst of this hellish activity, is St Anthony himself; he turns towards the viewer, his right hand raised in blessing. His gesture is echoed by Christ halfhidden in the depths of the tomb, which Anthony has converted into a chapel. The right wall of the sanctuary ends in a decaying tower covered with monochrome scenes. Two of them, the Adoration of the Golden Calf and a group of men making offerings to an enthroned ape, are images of idolatry, while the third, the Israelites returning from Canaan with a bunch of grapes, prefigures Christ carrying the Cross on the outer wings of the triptych.

A burning village illuminates the dusky background, probably a reference to the disease of ergotism or »St Anthony's Fire«, whose victims invoked the name of St Anthony for relief. The ancient association of ergotism with the devil-plagued saint may have been influenced by the fact that one phase of the disease is characterized by hallucinations in which the sufferer believes that he is attacked by wild beasts or demons.

The devils who have gathered around St Anthony display a complexity of form unusual even for Bosch. In the group far right, for example, a blasted tree trunk becomes the bonnet, torso and arms of a woman whose body terminates in a scaly lizard tail; she holds a baby and is mounted on a giant rat. Near by, a jug has been transformed into another beast of burden whose wholly unsubstantial rider bears a thistle for a head. In the water below, a man has been absorbed into the interior of a gondola-fish, his hands thrust helplessly through its sides. An armoured demon with a horse's skull for a head plays a lute at lower left; he sits astride a plucked goose who wears shoes and whose neck ends in a sheep's muzzle. All these shifting forms, moreover, display a richness of colour that confers a visual beauty on even the most disgusting shape. A recent, careful cleaning of the triptych, among Bosch's best preserved works, reveals brilliant reds and greens alternating with subtly modulated passages of blue-greys and browns.

This convocation of fiends ostensibly illustrates the second attack on Anthony described in the literary accounts; the miraculous light which dispersed the devils on this occasion can be seen shining through one of the chapel windows. But the devils do not seem about to scatter »like dust in the wind«, as one version has it, nor are they physically attacking Anthony. Instead, their torments must be understood in a spiritual sense. Like the monstrous creatures who confront Deguilleville's pilgrim, they are incarnations of the sinful urges with which Anthony wrestled in his desert solitude. In a drawing made around 1500, Albrecht Durer similarly illustrated the evil thoughts of a group of people at Mass by means of little devils fluttering about their heads. Bax has identified a number of sins symbolized by Bosch's monsters, chief among which is Lust. Lust is also represented more overtly in the group of buildings at extreme right, where a monk and a prostitute drink together within a tent; there may be a further reference in the dark-skinned devil in the central group: the demon of unchastity, we are told, once appeared to Anthony in the form of a black boy. It should not be surprising that even the most ascetic saints were susceptible to this particular vice: as the »Malleus Maleficarum« informs us, it was through the carnal act that the Devil could most easily assail mankind.

Anthony, however, has overcome all his temptations through the strength of his faith. This faith is expressed in his gesture of benediction, thought to be particularly efficacious against the Devil; and the steady gaze which the hermit directs towards us is one of comforting assurance, as if he were saying, in the words attributed to him in the »Lives of the Fathers«: »though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear. «(Psalms 27:3.) It is the same gaze which we have encountered in the face of Christ which looks out at us from the Madrid »Christ Carrying the Cross« and the London »Christ Crowned with Thorns«. When Anthony recognized the presence of Christ in the miraculous light, he cried out: »Where wert thou a while ago, 0 good Jesus? Why didst thou not come to me then, to succour me and heal my wounds?« To which Christ replied, »Anthony, I was here, but I wanted to see thee fight, and now that thou hast fought the good fight, I shall spread thy glory throughout the whole world.« While the wings of the Lisbon triptych show Anthony tempted and tormented, the central panel thus shows him triumphant.

This last-mentioned episode of the central panel casts light on a frequently misunderstood aspect of Bosch's art. In representing Anthony and other saints tormented and tempted by the Devil, Bosch did not reflect a Zoroastrian dualism, as some scholars have suggested. He did not view the world as a stage upon which was enacted the struggle between equally powerful forces of good and evil, for this would have denied the omnipotence of God. On the contrary, Bosch and his contemporaries knew that God permitted Satan to send tribulations to men for the good of their souls. God lets the Devil attack the saints, explains St Augustine, »sothat by outward temptation they may grow in grace.«(»City of God«, xx, 8.) In his voluntary submission to these troubles, the man of God achieves the most perfect imitation of Christ.

It is most appropriate, therefore, that Anthony's sufferings are echoed on the exterior of the same altarpiece in two grisaille scenes from Christ's Passion. On the left, soldiers overwhelm Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane as viciously as the devils attack Anthony on the reverse, while Judas hurriedly steals away with his thirty pieces of silver. In the other panel, Christ's collapse beneath the weight of his Cross has halted the procession to Golgotha, allowing St Veronica to wipe the sweat from the Saviour's face. The executioners can hardly restrain their impatience at this delay, and the bystanders look on more with idle curiosity than with sympathy. Below, the two thieves confess to hooded friars whose disreputable characters have been deftly portrayed.

The Lisbon triptych thus sums up the major themes we have encountered in the art of Bosch. The spectacle of sin and folly and the shifting horrors of Hell are joined to the images of the suffering Christ and of the saint firm in his faith against the assaults of the World, the Flesh and the Devil. To an age which believed in the reality of Satan and Hell, and in the imminent appearance of Antichrist with the Last Judgment not far behind, the serene countenance of St Anthony looking at us from his haunted chapel must have offered reassurance and hope.

Yet, even as Bosch painted the Lisbon triptych, men were questioning the values for which St Anthony stood, particularly the cloistered life spent in solitude away from one's fellow men. Erasmus and other humanists were already teaching that salvation could be achieved by living and working in this world, while in 1517, only one year after Bosch's death, Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of a Wittenberg church and thereby initiated the events which completely disrupted the old order. Like Luther, Bosch frequently castigated the corruption of the clergy and the monks, but this was an old complaint and it is difficult to discern in his work any rejection of the medieval Church. His visual images were highly original; but they served to give a more vivid form to religious ideals and values which had sustained Christianity for centuries. In Bosch's art, the dying Middle Ages flared to a new brilliance before disappearing for ever.

The Temptation of St Anthony
Oil on panel, 70 x 51 cm
Museo del Prado, Madri

In this small panel Bosch shows the Saint reflecting and meditating in a curiously constructed hut in a sunny pastoral setting. The Saint's own separation from the world is in contrast to the well-being around him. A variety of mechanistic demons and monsters surround him, but his eyes arc fixed on the distance. The demons and the treatment of the landscape have given rise to doubts about the authentication of this work to Bosch. Although there are symbols that Bosch uses, there is some justification for doubt. However, Bosch is so individual a painter, using imagery that is essentially his own, that it is difficult to think who else might have painted this panel. While Pieter Breughel later used some of the same subjects and symbols, his technical treatment is so different that the painters are rarely confused.

Triptych of Temptation of St Anthony
Oil on panel, 131,5 x 119 cm (central), 131,5 x 53 cm (each wing)
Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Tiptych of Temptation of St Anthony (outer wings)
Grisaille on panel, 131 x 53 cm
Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon