An introduction to Hieronymus Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch was an imaginative painter who lived in the Netherlands in the late 15th (and early 16th) Century. There is not an official date of his birth, but it believed that he lived circa 1450 - 1516. His true name was Jerome van Aken, and he came from a family of painters, with his grandfather, father, several uncles and a brother all being professional artists. Perhaps wanting to stand out from the crowd, he changed his first name to "Hieronymus" (which is a Latinized version of Jerome), and his last name to "Bosch,"" which was a shortened version of the name of his home town, s'Hertogenbosch.

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We've got three different portraits of Hieronymus Bosch below ... little is known of his life, so art historians have tried to piece info together as best as they can. The portrait below left is attributed to Jacques Le Boucq circa 1550, so it was created after Bosch died and can not be a direct portrait. The portrait, below right, is by Cornelis Cort circa 1570, so this too was created after Bosch's lifetime. The image in the center insert is by an anonymous painter, with an even less-specific date, "16th Century," so it is hard to know if this could have been created from life or not.

three different portraits of the artist Hieronymous Bosch

Art historians don't know much about Bosch's life, and they don't know much about his artistic training either, other than he was probably taught to paint by his father or one of his uncles. There are no known Bosch writings or diaries, and what little is known about him has been pulled from brief public references to him in the municipal records of his hometown 's-Hertogenbosch. Nothing is known of his personality or his thoughts on the meaning of his art, which makes him even more mysterious, since his paintings often depict struggles between people and frightful monsters straight from Bosch's vivid imagination. It has been noted that he lived during violent times in the Late Middle Ages, but he seemed to have internalized and depicted this violence much more intensely than any of his contemporaries, which include notable artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian, and Raphael.

All this talk about mysterious art, depictions of struggles, monsters and more ... let's take a look at some of his art. Bosch only left behind 25 known paintings, but one can find countless reproductions of his paintings online, including this collection of paintings at the Museo del Prado in Spain, and on this website for the Noordbrabants Museum. The Noordbrabants Museum is notable for several reasons, including the fact that it is located in Bosch's home town of 's-Hertogenbosch, and because they had a 500th Anniversary exhibition, for which they managed to secure 20 of the 25 paintings by Hieronymus Bosch.

What I'd like to do, however, is focus on a selection of details from his paintings, giving you a chance to zoom in and see some of these specific images that earned him the nickname "the devil's painter." This is not to say that he was an evil person, but rather that he depicted such hellish imagery at times that one could wonder how he even imagined such things.

detail from the Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch

another detail from the Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch

Above are two details from Bosch's masterpiece "The Garden of Earthly Delights," a large-scale triptych painted in the early 1500's. There's plenty of depravity going on here, let's look at the detail above left first. We've got the bird-like monster eating a human being head-first while birds exit the human's body via the rear end; bottom right we've got a woman helping a man throw up into a large hole in the ground while the person to the left is expelling coins from his rear end into the same hole; then there's the monster on the center left side who is beating a drum while the square hole on top of the drum reveals a person inside being tortured with this violent attack of sound.

Above right we've got a collection of komodo dragon-like monsters chewing up the intestines of a knight in armor, above which another man is being stabbed through his abdomen by a monster with butterfly-like wings coming from its ears. It's a pleasant afternoon in Bosch's world, don't you think?

Here's a pair of more-gentle details from "Garden of Earthly Delights" below, although still on the very-bizarre side of things. Below left is a pair of pantsless people apparently dancing with a tulip bulb over their heads while a calm owl sits on top. Below right is some sort of faceless fish-like monster eating people while another group of people carry it forward, topped off by a calm bear cub and bird on his back, and another man trying to pull the curling tail for who-knows-what reason. What is this all about?

Garden of Earthly Delights, detail view by Hieronymous Bosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch, a detail of which is featured here

Bosch's imagination is pretty unique as far as his vision of flying creatures. Below left is a detail from the triptych version of "The Temptation of St. Anthony," circa 1501. We've got flying fish and other monsters, a praying priest and a ship on the back of another monster under attack by more monsters. Below right is a detail from "The Haywain Triptych," circa 1512-15, showing a swarm of giant winged insects and other monsters, ready to spill out from the depths of a cloud and swoop down to terrorize the swimmers in the water below.

detail of The Temptation of St. Anthony by Hieronymous Bosch

detail from the painting The Haywain Triptych by Hieronymous Bosch

With all of these Hieronymus Bosch monsters fresh in your imagination now, why not try out our arts game "Hieronymus Bosch Invaders," where you must take on a swarm of Bosch creatures attacking from outer space. They'll come at you in waves, and you must stop them from destroying you.

You can also check out more of our art games here.

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