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Between Magic and Reality
Biography of Hieronymus Bosch
Hieronymus Bosch was born in 1450 in Hertogenbosch, a
provincial but prosperous town located in the modern Netherlands close to the Belgian
border. He is one of the most famous of the Netherlandish artists, known for
his enigmatic panels illustrating complex religious subjects with fantastic,
often demonic imagery.
Too little information is safes about his life. His father
and grandfather were both painters in the same town before him and apparently
Bosch lived all his life there. From his childhood he lived in artist’s family.
He married a reach and highborn woman, Aleid van Mervey. Hieronymus Bosch
joined the lay of the Confraternity of Notre Dame. It was founded in 1318. The
symbol of the organization was white swan. This sodality consists of friars
and secular people. This organization kept away from the Catholic Church, it
confessed ideas of humanism and mysticism. The sodality organized a number of
printing houses and schools. Bosch was responsible for designing a
stained-glass window, among several other works, for the town church.
In 1480 he was for the first time mentioned as a painter.
The last time he was mentioned in the books of sodality – the 9 of August 1516.
It was the day of his funeral.
Mystery of Bosch’s paintings
Bosch is one of the most mysterious painters in the world.
The attitude toward him has changed through years. His contemporaries thought
that he was a strange man, who paint fantastic pictures, frightful and funny at
the same time. His paintings became very popular in Spain and in Portugal. In
Portugal there are the most good collections of paintings of Bosch. There are
thousands of books about Bosch and his works. References to astrology,
folklore, witchcraft, and alchemy, in addition to the theme of the Antichrist
and episodes from the lives of exemplary saints, are all woven together by
Bosch into a labyrinth of late medieval Christian iconography. Some scientists
think that Bosch was a forerunner of the surrealism. Some think he was a real
catholic, some that he was an atheist. From his paintings we can understand
that he was a very well educated person, he knew Bible and lots of other books
of past and present, he also new lots of folk legends. He was good at science,
medicine, astrology and even alchemy. We can say that he also knew music
because we can find lots of musical instruments on his pictures. Scholars
differ in their interpretation of Bosch's art, but most agree that his pictures
show a preoccupation with the human propensity for sin in defiance of God, as
well as with God's eternal damnation of lost souls in hell as a fateful
consequence of human folly. The main theme of his paintings was the opposition
of Good and Evil, of God and Devil, of life and death.
Among the dozens of Boschian paintings, the autograph works
generally accepted as his include the following: The Marriage at Cana (Museum
Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam), The Seven Deadly Sins (Prado, Madrid),
Crucifixion (Museus Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels), The Hay Wain (Prado), The
Death of the Miser (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), The Temptation
of Saint Anthony (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon), The Garden of Earthly
Delights (Prado), The Adoration of the Magi (Prado), and Christ Carrying the
Cross (Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent).
Periods of paintings
Dated works by Bosch do not exist so we cant only imagine
the chronology of his paintings. Researchers divide his work into 3 periods –
the earliest, mature and oldest period.
The paintings which belong to the earliest period (1470 –
1500) mostly devoted to religious themes. Most of them are illustrations to the
Bible. In the manner of this time we can see an incertitude. Some of the
paintings are miniatures. Among the paintings of the first period there are
such works as “The Adoration of the magi”, “Christ Shown to the People”, “
Crucifixion”, “ The Seven Deadly Sins”.
We can refer such pictures as “Garden of Delights”, “The
last Judgement”, ‘Monsters”, “ The Hay Wain” etc. to the middle period of
Bosch’s work. His paintings in that period were full of little figures of
people and other creatures, sometimes unreal and strange. But to the end of the
middle period and in the last period of his work Bosch’s paintings become
simply and light. Most of them devoted to the life of saint people, like “
Temptation of St Anthony”, “St John the Evangelist on Patmos” and others. The
evil became more realistic, it connected with real people, not monsters.
The technics of paintings
The technics of Bosch’s painting is different from other
painter’s technics of his time. The colors are more bright and rich and this
make his paintings more lively and dinamic. Often he draw on the piece of wood.
On the wood colors became more bright and at the same time crystal. He also
used varnish atop the colour.
Bosch originally solved the problem of
space. In his earliest works he try to follow the rules of the traditional
perspective, but then, in his next works he invent his own technics. It is the
fantastic space full of little figures, composed several chains. In his last
works his technics changed again. All figures moved to the first plan. There is
no perspective on this paintings.
Stylistically, Bosch worked in a manner
called alla prima, a method of applying paint freely on a preliminary ground of
brownish paint. He was familiar with Dutch manuscript paintings and with
foreign prints, and many of his images can be traced to these sources.
The paintings of Hieronymus Bosch are full
of symbols. The symbols are so different that it is very hard to find one
general key to all of them. One symbol can denote lots of different things and
objects. The symbols in Bosch’s paintings came from different sources: alchemy,
magic tractates, folklore, religious books and others.
The symbols, which came from alchemy, are the most enigmatic
in his paintings. It is often symbols of evil, Devil and demons, and also
symbols of lust. There are lots of crystal spheres in his paintings and it’s
come from alchemy. We can see different stages of substance, water, gas and
We can see different fruits and berries that
symbolized lust. There are lots of symbols of male and female in his paintings.
Always sharp objects like arrows, knifes, horns are the symbols of man.
Symbols of woman are circles, shells, jugs, etc.
Bosch took lots of symbols of animals from
bible: we can find camels, rabbits, pigs, horses and other “impure” animals, which
symbolized sin and evil. Often we can see an owl on his paintings. It is a
symbol of wisdom and at the same time of heresy. Also there are lots of
skeletons of animals and stale trees on his paintings.
Other symbols that we can often find in his
works are steps, which symbolized cognition in alchemy and also sexual
intercourse. Also the symbol of cognition is the key. One of the most fearful
symbols is the clip leg – the symbol of pain, torture and magic.
The works of Hieronymus Bosch (aspecially
the paintings of the second period) are full of different images of Satan. We
can see a traditional demons with horns, wings and tale, but also there are
bugs, half-human half-animal creatures, anthropomorphic machines and other
grotesque figures. Often Bosch painted demons as a music instruments, mostly
wind-instruments. Finally one of the most prevalent symbol of his paintings is
a mirror – the symbol of temptation.
The first period of Bosch’s work: Seven Deadly Sins
We don’t know exactly when Hieronymus Bosch
created “Seven Deadly Sins”. It was somewhere between 1475 – 1480. It’s painted
with oil on the piece of wood, and it was a surface of the table. The size of
this painting is 120 x 150 sm. According to Mr. Feldman this painting concerned
with the style of emotion, like the most paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. It can
be also a style of fantasy but this painting is more sarcastic than fantastic.
Primarily it belonged to Spanish king Philip the Second. Now it is situated in
Madrid, in Prado museum. It is signed by Hieronymus Bosch.
The central, circular composition symbolized the eye, eye of
Universe, eye of God. In the apple of the eye there is a figure of Jesus Christ
and a sentence under him: Cave,cave d[omi]n[u]s videt (Beware because God look
at you). The light rays radiate from the figure of Christ. Some researchers
said that it is a symbol of mirror that fends off all human sins. Around him
there are 7 miniatures represented 7 sins and each sin is named. There are: Ira
(ire, rage, anger), Superbia (vanity), Luscuria (desire), Accidia (laziness), Guia
(guzzle), Avaritia (avarice) and Invidia (envy). At the corners of the painting
there are four other miniatures represented Death, The Last Judgement, Hell and
Heaven. There are two sentences from Bible at the top and bottom of the
painting. There are no allegories on this painting, everything is concrete,
taken from life. Bosch depicted people of different sections of population, but
all of them are sinners. The main idea of this painting that our blood and our
money is nothing for God. Every person will be on the last Judgement and if he
is sinner he will be send to Hell.
Ira – on this miniature we can see the scrimmage of two
drunk peasants. Ira is the result of the alcoholism. A woman try to stop them,
but without any result. Bosch depicted the sin with the help of such symbols as
kicked off wooden shoes, a chair on the head of one man and others, but most of
all with the help of grotesque. The figures of peasants are awful and ugly,
they are very fat with crooked legs. The beautiful nature is also served to
show their unpleasantness.
Superbia – we can see a woman in her room, staying in front
of the mirror (the symbol of temptation), which is kept by the devil. The woman
trying on a new hat. The room is painted in the style of Bosch’s time and it is
look like many others rooms in the Holland houses. This picture is pointed
against the interest off many women in the fashion.
Luscuria – on this part of painting there are man and woman
in the tabernacle. We can see musical instruments on the ground – they
Accidia – the lazy priest is sleeping, instead of prey. A
cat on the floor is sleeping too.
Guia – the picture show us the scene of diner. I think it is
the most terrible picture because the food is given by nun. All characters are
awful and ugly. They look like animals, not people. One man is very fat while
the other is thin. They are very dirty.
Avaritia – in this picture we can see how the bribed judge
is going to accuse of the innocent man. The book on the wooden box is like a
dig under the justice.
Invidia – on this picture Bosch show us quarrel between the
neighbors. And their dogs like their masters bark at each other.
Other four pictures show to us what will happened to us.
First it is a fragment of death. It is the death of a reach man. The priest
gives him absolution. There is a skeleton behind the dying man. And above his
head the angel and the demon are fighting for his soul.
The next picture represent Doomsday. It is painted in the
traditional way. The Christ is seating on the throne with many angels around
him. And reveal people are below him, on the Earth. The Heaven is painted in a
traditional manner too. St Peter and other angels meet saintly people near the
gates of Heaven.
On this painting Bosch depicted Hell for the first time.
This picture is the key to other Bosch’s paintings of Hell because Bosch wrote
an explanation under every torture. For the sin of ire people are crucified.
Avid people siting in the fleshpot with a molten golden coins. Voluptuous
people are enchained to the bed and a terrible monster bite them. Drank people
are drinking dishwater. Bosch took some of the elements of tortures from the
book “Visions of Tundhall” about his vision of Hell. It was very popular book
in Bosch’s times.
Bosch use very bright, full colors in this
painting. They became dark and gloomy only in 2 parts of painting, devoted to
Death and Hell. There is a normal perspective in this picture. Most lines are
geometrical and straight. The painter doesn’t use lot’s of shades. The point of
attention is at the center of the picture on the Christ’s figure. We can see
balance and also harmony in this painting.
The main idea of the paintings “Seven deadly sins” is that
all people are the same in God’s eyes. And He knew all our deeds and our sins.
Every person, reach or poor will die and then come to the Last Judgement. No
one will help you besides God. The painting is circular to show us that the
sins are the same in every next generation. It is a symbol of the circle of
sins, symbol of our Earth, of our University.
I think it is a very meditative painting, that make us
thinking. May be because of that Philip the Second hung it in his tabernacle.
The second period of Bosch’s work: Garden of Delights
Bosch painted “the Garden of Delights” in
1500 – 1510. It is also oil painting. The size of the central part the painting
is 220 x 195, the size of each fold is 200 x 97. Now it is situated in Madrid,
The painting is full of little figures and
it is very colorful. Its look like a wonderful carpet. The figures of people
are dancing in a colorful roundelay. All colors are light, spring and soft. The
bright light is overflow the scene.
The painting is very harmonic. It has a normal
perspective. Most lines are curved and natural. It’s very hard to find the
point of attention because of the lots of objects on the painting but I think
it is at the one of fantastic building at the center of the painting.
At the outer part of the folds there is the
third day of the Creation. There are 2 sentences at the top of the painting – “Jpse
dixit et facta su[n]t” (He said and it’s appeared) and “Jpse mandavit et create
su[n]t” (He said and create). In the center in the crystal sphere appears the
first mineral and vegetal life.
The Heaven as usual is painted on the left
fold. The first man and all animals have been already created. The heaven is
full of different and sometimes fantastic animals: elephants and giraffes are
pasture with unicorns, birds with three heads and fishes with wings. The cactus
behind Adam is the symbol of Life Tree, the palm is the tree of the Evil and
Good. God begins to create Eve. With her creation the evil and sin came.
Animals begin to eat each others and in a fountain settled an owl – the symbol
of evil. This fountain that look like bright globe with a half-crystals
half-plants on it and a half-moon on the top is the symbol of heresy. The
center of it is the center off the all fold. It correspond with a figure of human-tree-egg
in the Hell. At the same manner the figure of God the Maker correspond with the
figure of Devil who eat the sinners. So the folds are symbolized Alpha and
Omega, the beginning and the End of the world.
The Hell on the right fold is painted in a dark colors. Some
researchers think that black, red and white colours are the symbols of
different stadies of boiling mercury. It is the world of iсe and fire. Bosch
took some episodes from the book “The visions of Tundhall“. Another sources
where Bosch could took his images are the book “Ars morendi” (1488) and “The
big calendar of cattlemen” (1493). The painting “Seven deadly sins” can also help
to understand this part of painting. The group near the Satan’s throne are the
vanity. The man who are crucified on the table is the bowler. We also can see a
man who conclude a treaty with devil. The gigantic ear with an
arrow in it is a symbol of the disaster. S. De Tolnay said that Hell is Bosch’s
nightmare. It is very interesting fact that we can see a self-portrait of Bosch
here, as a face of human-tree-egg. V. Fenger thinks that Hell is the place
where rebirth of our world begen. It happened with the help of two musical
instruments – harp, lute and pipes. But other researchers think that this
instruments are the symbols of evil. V. Frenger interpret them as a memory of
Heaven. He also said that the village, fire, mill and flood are the symbols of
The central part of the painting is our world that is full
of sins and evil. At the center of the painting there is a chain of people
around the spring of youth. G. Kombe interpret it as a alchemic motive of
eternal youth. In the spring there are women with a ravens on their heads and
it symbolized the heresy. The peacocks symbolized vanity, ibises – the past
joy, different animals in the cavalcade are the symbols of salacity and other
carnal sins. There are lots of symbols of male and female origins such as
half-moons, horns, cones, cylinders, spheres, etc. which are the alchemic
symbols at the same time. The fruits and berries are the symbols of salacity
and carnal love. The man who are carrying the shell with two lovers are the
deceived husband. Lots of spheres at different parts of the painting is the
symbols of the sins and vises and also the symbols of our world, full of sins.
Behind the bright colour and lots of light there are sins and evil. And the
colour also have it’s meaning. In alchemy red means creation and blue was the
colour of illusions.
It is the most mysterious and enigmatic
Bosch’s work. The meaning of the painting all in all and it’s symbols are the
reason for numerous debates. The first explanation of this painting was made in
1605 by a priest, Jose de Siguensa. He wrote in a book of order of St.
Hieronymus that on the painting we can see the appearance of the sin in the
Heaven, the evolution of the sin in our world and the punishment in the Hell.
However V. Fenger think that the painting is more optimistic and it symbolized
the depuration by the fire and ice in the Hell, than in the purgatory (the
central part of triptych) and than came to felicity in Heaven. Most of
researchers refuse the theory of Fender.
People of all epochs invented lots of
theories, sometimes fantastic and impossible about the meaning of Bosch’s
paintings and I think that lot’s of theories will be created later but no one
can prove it and nobody can find out which theory is right and which is not. Bosch's
pictures will stay for us as a mystery forever.
- “Мастера живописи. Босх” Доната Баттилотти, издательство “Белый
город“, Москва, 1998 г.
- Н. Н. Никулин “Золотой век нидерландской живописи. 15 век “
издательство “Изобразительное искусство“, Москва, 1981 г.
- Internet: http://www.kultur-online.com/greatest
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