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Let's figure it out: how did the clergy tolerate Bosch's odd creativity?

They called Bruegel "rustic", while Bosch could rightly be named "elegant" or "exquisite", because everything he created was extremely mature and flawless. However, he could have been named "horrible" just as well, as his fantasy gave rise to really strange things.
Here is how biographer Karel van Mander, the author of the book, wrote about him,
"Who can relate all the wondrous and strange fantasies which Jeronimus Bos conceived in his mind and expressed with his brush, of spooks and monsters of Hell, often less pleasant than gruesome to look at?"

Bosch painted Paradise and Hell, scenes from the Old and New Testaments, biblical parables and illustrations to folk proverbs. His "Garden of Earthly Delights" fascinates as a creation of a director overusing prohibited drugs. His Hell horrifies, delights and awakens the perverse curiosity about all those tortures he invented for sinners there.

"What a brave artist! How come the Inquisition did not condemn him for these blasphemous pictures?" This question is fairly common for those who see works by Bosch. Let’s try to understand why the Inquisition was so patient. More precisely, let’s find out whether they had any reasons for frown when it came to Bosch.
The answer is 'no', they didn’t have any. Because Hieronymus Bosch did not produce anything particularly curious for the Inquisition.

Portrait of Hieronymus Bosch. Attributed to Bosch (self-portrait?). Probably, its author could be Jacques Le Boucq.

To see this, we have to delve a bit into the artist’s biography. So, Hieronymus Bosch (whose name in fact was Jeroen van Aken) was born supposedly in 1453 in the Flemish city of 's-Hertogenbosch, into the family of a painter Anthonius van Aken. His grandfather was a painter, as well as his uncles, and even his mother was a daughter of a wood carver, so there was no hope for the boy to choose a different profession. Most likely, he took his initial training in his father’s workshop; afterwards, during his apprentice journey, he saw the paintings of his great predecessors: Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

Back in his hometown, Bosch married. His wife was Aleyt van den Meerveen, a girl from a wealthy family, who was his childhood friend. We do not know whether the marriage was happy, as it is only known that he did not have children, that the wife’s dowry allowed him to be considered a fairly prosperous citizen, and that she survived him for three years. It is also known that he belonged to the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, glorious by its charity, which consisted of both monks and laymen, and he painted certain paintings by order of the Brotherhood. Since these pictures quite satisfied his customers, we can confidently say that the well-to-do citizens of the 's-Hertogenbosch had no thoughts about blasphemy in Bosch`s paintings.

The brotherhood was not the artist`s only customer. Two local influential families, the Venetian Cardinal Grimani (who was undoubtedly able to decide what is permissible and what is not), the King of Castile and the ruler of the Netherlands Philip I, and Margaret of Austria, the sister of the King, also commissioned him the paintings. In short, without leaving his small town, the Flemish artist managed to find a very significant glory during his lifetime. His art was especially appreciated in Spain (now the largest collection of Bosch’s works is there).

Hieronymus Bosch. The hay
The hay
1515, 135×190 cm
"I do not deny that he painted effigies of strange things, but only when he came to paint the Hell … All of this, Bosch has done with prudence and decorum, while the others have done the same and did so without discernment and judgment," Spanish humanist (and collector) Felipe de Guevara wrote about him in the 16th century. And the Escorial librarian, monk José de Sigüenza, who lived in the 17th century, formulated the difference between Bosch and contemporary artists even better, "The difference that … exists between the pictures of this man and those of all others is that the others try to paint man as he appears on the outside, while he alone had the audacity to paint him as he is on the inside."
In fact, the paintings by the artist fascinated even King Philip II, who was a gloomy, melancholic, pietistic man who also believed that there is nothing good hidden in the human soul. Notionally, the fact alone that Philip II collected the paintings by Bosch, is quite enough to say that "they had no sin in the religious context". But here we have to recall that Philip reigned after the artist’s death, so we get back to the time when Bosch lived and worked.

This period is somewhat unclear, it is roughly between 1470 and 1516. Bosch lived the life not too short (as for his contemporary), but in 1516, he died and left an artistic legacy of eight drawings and twenty-five paintings (only seven of which are signed). Twelve more paintings are considered "doubtful". In fact, these twenty-five "exact" and twelve "probable" paintings are quite enough to make the modern world, which has seen many other artists, remain fascinated by Bosch’s morbidly bizarre art, because any of his work can be viewed almost endlessly. Strictly speaking, even if there only remained one altarpiece with "The Last Judgment" or "The Garden of Earthly Delights" from his heritage, that would be enough, as every inch of its pictorial space carries so much meaning.
Hieronymus Bosch. Judgment
1500-th , 163.7×247 cm
In Bosch’s dreams about the Last Judgment, the attitude of an intelligent medieval man to sin and the reward for it, is ideally reflected: not the faith in hundreds of years on a simple infernal frying pan for breaking a fast or visiting an indecent girl, but anticipation of the most inventive torture, in which pain adjoins pleasure; no wonder he invented so many musical torments for sinners.

His monsters combine features of beings, which people are afraid of almost unconsciously — frogs, spiders, slugs, lizards, bats — with fragments of human bodies, suits of armor, details of machinery, and musical instruments.
However, do not assume that Bosch was the first "designer of monsters". The first idea suppliers for modern Surrealists were the artists of the ancient world, whose findings were later brilliantly developed by the medieval miniaturists and sculptors, who adorned columns of the cathedrals with oddly intertwisted strange creatures. It should be said that the authors of the cathedrals` capitals, chimeras and weirs are much more worthy of the Inquisition persecution, supposing that its purpose was to make away with obscenities. For these church sculptures contained plenty of obscenities.
Relief of a capital of the Church of Saint-Pierre, Chauviny

Below: Capital of the Monastery of Santa Maria de Santes Creus (Catalonia, 12th-13th cent.) Photograph:

For example, consider the words of the young Benedictine novice in The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco:

"I saw a voluptuous woman, naked and fleshless, gnawed by foul toads, sucked by serpents, coupled with a fat-bellied satyr whose gryphon legs were covered with wiry hairs, howling its own damnation from an obscene throat; and I saw a miser, stiff in the stiffness of death on his sumptuously columned bed, now helpless prey of a cohort of demons, one of whom tore from the dying man’s mouth his soul in the form of an infant (alas, never to be again born to eternal life); and I saw a proud man with devil clinging to his shoulders and thrusting his claws into the man’s eyes, while two gluttons tore each other apart in a repulsive hand-to-hand struggle, and other creatures as well, goat head and lion fur, panther’s jaws, all prisoners in a forest of flames whose searing breath I could almost feel. And around them, mingled with them, above their heads and below their feet, more faces and more limbs: a man and a woman clutching each other by the hair, two asps sucking the eyes of one of the damned, a grinning man whose hooked hands parted the maw of a hydra, and all the animals of Satan’s bestiary, assembled in a consistory and set as guard and crown of the throne that faced them, singing its glory in their defeat, fauns, beings of double sex, brutes with six-fingered hands, sirens, hippocentaurs, gorgons, harpes, incubi, dragopods, minotaurs, lynxes, pards, chimeras, cynophales who darted fire from their nostrils, crocodiles, polycaudate, hairy serpents, salamanders, horned vipers, tortoises, snakes, two-headed creatures whose backs were armed with teeth, hyenas, otters, crows, hydrophora with sawtooth horns, leucrota, manticores, vultures, paranders, weasels, dragons, hoopoes, owls, basilisks, hypnales, presters, spectafici, scorpions, saurian, whales, scitales, amphisbenae, iaculi, dipsases, green lizards, pilot fish, octopi, morays, and sea turtles. The whole population of the nether world seemed to have gathered to act as vestibule, dark forest, desperate wasteland of exclusion, at the apparition of the Seated One in the tympanum, at his face promising and threatening."

  • Detail of the carving in the Romanesque Maria Laach Abbey (Germany)
  • Grotesque figures of the Romanesque Cathedral in Kilpeсk, England
All sorts of fantastic monsters were placed not only on the capitals of church columns, they also frolicked aplenty on pages of manuscript books. "This was a psalter in whose margins was delineated a world reversed with respect to the one to which our senses have accustomed us. As if at the border of a discourse that is by definition the discourse of truth, there proceeded, closely linked to it, through wondrous allusions in aenigmate, a discourse of falsehood on a topsy-turvey universe, in which the dogs flee before the hare, and deer hunt the lion. Little bird-feet heads, animals with human hands on their back, hirsute pates from which feet sprout, zebra-striped dragons, quadru¬peds with serpentine necks twisted in a thousand inex¬tricable knots, monkeys with stags' horns, sirens in the form of fowl with membranous wins, armless men with other human bodies emerging from their backs like humps, and figures with tooth-filled mouths on the belly, humans with horses' heads, and horses with hu¬man legs, fish with birds' wings and birds with fishtails, monsters with single bodies and double heads or single heads and double bodies, cows with cоcks' tails and butterfly wings, women with heads scaly as a fish’s back, two-headed chimeras interlaced with dragonflies with lizard snouts, centaurs, dragons, elephants, manticores stretched out on tree branches, gryphons whose tails turned into an archer in battle array, diabolical crea¬tures with endless necks, sequences of anthropomor-phic animals and zoomorphic dwarfs joined, sometimes on the same page, with scenes of rustic life in which you saw, depicted with such impressive vivacity that the figures seemed alive, all the life of the fields, plowmen, fruit gatherers, harvesters, spinning-women, sowers along¬side foxes, and martens armed with crossbows who were scaling the walls of a towered city defended by monkeys. Here an initial letter bent into an L, in the lower part generated a dragon; there a great V, which began the word 'verba,' produced as a natural shoot from its trunk a serpent with a thousand coils, which in turn begot other serpents as leaves and clusters."
A page of The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux by illuminator Jean Pucelle, 1325−1328. Source:
A marginalia of the Chronicles of Jean Froissart, Bruges, 1470−1476
Illustrations as follows:
A grotesque figure from a French miniature, 1408
A page of the Breviary of Charles V, illustrated supposedly by illuminator Jean le Noire, 1350−1380
A marginalia of the Hours of Joanna the Mad, Bruges, 1486−1500

Below: The Gorleston Psalter marginalia (England, 14th cent.)
The Maastricht Hours marginalia, early 14 cent. — Bosch could well see these pictures
So, Bosch’s innovation was evident not only from the fact that he invented many odd creatures for his paintings, but that by taking already invented monsters from the book pages and temple capitals intended for them, he gave them extensive grounds, specifically arranged for monsters, not for people. The world of his "Temptation…" or "The Last Judgment" is a world where grotesque beings reign supreme, invading heaven, water and earth, trying the faith of the saints, enjoying the horror of sinners and entertaining themselves in every possible way. All these creatures are extremely diverse (unlike people, who are often generalized to equally built white and fragile creatures in multi-figured compositions, whose faces are almost devoid of individuality). In order for people and monsters to have something to do (and for spectators — to solve), Bosch gives his subjects a lot of entertaining toys — instruments of torture and musical instruments, jewelry, notes written so accurately that it is not difficult to play music after them, paper, ink and feathers, guns, cannons and siege towers, fire and water, earthly fruits of all sizes.
Hieronymus Bosch. The garden of earthly delights. Music Hell. Right wing. Fragment
The subjects can be lodged, say, in an egg, as it’s so symbolic.
Hieronymus Bosch. Concert in the egg
Concert in the egg
1480, 108.5×126.5 cm
Moreover, everything is symbolic in his pictures: grapes is the symbol of the Kingdom of God, snail stands for laziness and lust, fish symbolizes Christ, while wine (and grapes) and bread are the Sacrament of the Eucharist, strawberries are temptation, pelicans are the Love of the Lord, dog is both dirt and fidelity … On top of all of that, the artist actively used, for example, alchemical symbolism
Exquisite still-lifes and marvelous plants on canvases: flowers do not only beautify the appearance, but also open secret meanings, and convey messages to the attentive researcher. Leafing through captivating Herbarium, we're examining enigmatic garden of flower symbols.

Read more Symbolism is an art movement that has been reflected in painting, literature and music. It emerged in the 1870s-1880s in France, later spread to Belgium, Norway, and the Russian Empire. It reached the peak of popularity at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. Symbolism is characterized by sadness, introspection and understatement: as if an artist came to quiet despair, but he was too shy to talk about these feelings, so he painted them.

Read more
. Now we decipher this cryptography, missing not just words, but the whole sentences, for so many different interpretations are lost, but the speech of Bosch’s symbols was much clearer for his contemporaries.

The artists of that time soon realized that this mysterious style is in high demand, and they rushed to imitate him (fortunately, imitation and copying were completely respected at that time). The Catholic Church also had no claims to the imitators, because they told the flock about how terrible and various would be the infernal suffering (this knowledge is useful for the believers) and described the diversity of the devil’s ingenuity (this knowledge is also useful for the believers).
The works of the Antwerp master Jan Mandijn are the closest to the heritage of Bosch.
However, the claims to such themes certainly appeared later. At the early 16th century, the Reformation began with art secularization and iconoclasm, the Counterreformation appeared at the same time with its clear programs indicating what and how things and people should be portrayed to avoid heresies; at that time, artists who played nice with the themes of Hell, witchcraft and sexuality, suddenly found that the Church did not like their games anymore.
It was the time when discussions about the paintings by already deceased Bosch arose for the first time, posing the question, "Aren’t his altarpieces excessively erotic?" But the steadfast Catholic Philip II hung "The Seven Deadly Sins" by Bosch in his chambers, and the discussion about whether the artist was a heretic naturally faded.
However, this will be a whole new ball game.

Written by Oksana Sanzharova
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