“The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it.” - Albert Einstein
We may bemoan the horrors of life in this present day and age, but anyone well-read in history will be quick to observe that we humans are not a particularly attractive species. Every age seems to have had its fair share of wars and battles, great social upheavals, public disturbances, an excess of dictators and madmen. History is replete with crimes against humanity, crazed murderers and enormous calamities where humans shed the blood of other humans in abandon. Art comments on this aspect of human nature with perhaps more graphic immediacy than the pen of the historian. For Art Sunday today, a painter that was obsessed with this propensity of the human to succumb to temptation and engage in behaviour that highlights the dark side of the human soul.
Hiëronymus Bosch, (pseudonym of Jeroen Anthoniszoon Van Aeken, born c. 1450, ‘s Hertogenbosch, Brabant [now in The Netherlands] died Aug. 9, 1516, s Hertogenbosch) is a brilliant and original northern European painter of the late Middle Ages whose work reveals an unusual, complex and individual style. Although firstly recognised as a highly imaginative “creator of devils” and a powerful inventor of seeming nonsense full of satirical meaning, Bosch demonstrated insight into the depths of the mind and an ability to depict symbols of life and creation.
Bosch was a pessimistic and stern moralist who had no illusions about the rationality of human nature or confidence in the kindness of a world that had been corrupted by man’s presence in it. His paintings are sermons, addressed often to initiates and consequently difficult to translate. Unable to unlock the mystery of the artist’s works, critics at first believed that he must have been affiliated with secret sects. Although the themes of his work were religious, his choice of symbols to represent the temptation and eventual ensnarement of man in earthly evils caused many critics to view Bosch as an occultist. It is now conceded that Bosch was a talented artist who possessed deep insight into human character and as one of the first artists to represent abstract concepts in his work.
Approximately 35 to 40 paintings are attributed to him, but only 7 are signed and none are dated. There exists little information on the early life of the artist, other than the fact that he was the son and grandson of accomplished painters. His name does appear on the register of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, located in the city of his birth, and there is mention of him in official records from 1486 until the year of his death, when he was acclaimed an Insignis pictor
(“distinguished painter”). In addition to painting he undertook decorative works and altarpieces and executed designs for stained glass.
Works attributed to his youthful period show an awkwardness in drawing and composition and brushwork somewhat limited in its scope. In the early paintings Bosch had begun to depict humanity’s vulnerability to the temptation of evil, the deceptive allure of sin, and the obsessive attraction of lust, heresy, and obscenity. The presence of certain motifs, expanded in the more sophisticated works of the artist’s middle period, and a limited technique, unsure yet bold, provide a beginning from which to view Bosch’s artistic origins.
To Bosch’s fruitful middle period belong the great panoramic triptychs, often constructed to be used as altarpieces in church. His figures are graceful and his colours subtle and sure, and all is in motion in these ambitious and extremely complex works. These paintings are marked by an eruption of fantasy, expressed in monstrous, apocalyptic scenes of chaos and nightmare that are contrasted and juxtaposed with idyllic portrayals of mankind in the age of innocence. During this period Bosch elaborated on his early ideas, and the few paintings that survive establish the evolution of his thought. Bosch’s disconcerting mixture of fantasy and reality is further developed in this period and the artist takes every opportunity to highlight the consequences of sin and immorality.
Bosch’s maturity illustrates the peak of his iconographic style and the artist’s powers are used to great effect to produce masterworks. The “Garden of Earthly Delights,” is representative of Bosch at his mature best, showing the earthly paradise with the creation of woman, the first temptation, and the fall. The painting's beautiful and unsettling images of sensuality and of the dreams that afflict the people who live in a pleasure-seeking world express Bosch’s iconographic originality with tremendous force. The chief characteristic of this work is perhaps its dreamlike quality; multitudes of nude human figures, giant birds, and horses cavort and frolic in a delightfully implausible, otherworldly landscape, and all the elements come together to produce a perfect, harmonious whole.
The artist’s late works are fundamentally different. Instead of meadows or hellish landscapes inhabited by hundreds of tiny beings, he painted densely compacted groups of half-length figures pressed tight against the picture plane. In these dramatic close-ups, of which “The Crowning with Thorns” and the “Carrying of the Cross” are representative, the spectator is so near the event portrayed that he seems to participate in it physically as well as psychologically. The most peaceful and untroubled of Bosch’s mature works depict various saints in contemplation or repose. Among these works are “St. John the Evangelist in Patmos” and “St. Jerome in Prayer.”
The painting above, “The Temptation of St. Anthony”
(1505-06 Oil on panel, 131.5 x 119 cm -central, 131,5 x 53 cm - each wing. Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon) displays his ascent to stylistic maturity. The brushstrokes are sharper and terser, with much more command than before. The composition is more fluid, and space is regulated by the incidents and creatures that the viewer’s attention is focused on. His mastery of fine brush-point calligraphy, permitting subtle nuances of contour and movement, is fully evident. Bosch portrays man’s struggle against temptation, as well as the omnipresence of the Devil. This painting is one of the best keys to the artist’s personal iconography. The hermit saint in this work is cast as the heroic symbol of man. In the central panel St. Anthony is beset by an array of grotesque demons, their horrible bodies being brilliantly visualised amalgamations of human, animal, vegetable, and inanimate parts. In the background is a hellish, fantastically bizarre landscape painted with the most exquisite detail. Bosch's development of the theme of the charlatan deceiving man and taking away his salvation receives its fullest exposition in the “St. Anthony,” with its condemnation of heresy and the seductions of false doctrines.
Bosch’s preoccupation in much of his work with the evils of the world did not preclude his vision of a world full of beauty. His adeptness at handling colour harmonies and at creating deeply felt works of the imagination is readily apparent. Though a spate of imitators tried to appropriate his visual style, its uniqueness prevented his having any real followers.
Bosch depicts the duality of human nature. His illustrations of man the angel, and man the devil, underscore the frailty of humanity, ever ready to lapse into beastliness and succumb to temptation. However, at the same time Bosch allows humans to be redeemed by beauty, altruism, bravery, honour and goodness. Each of us battles constantly internally on a daily basis to subdue our dark side and allow our inner light to shine through. It is unfortunate that so many of us do little to suppress the evil and commit acts little or great that exemplify our vice and malevolence.