Image, Symbol, and Music in the Art of Hieronymus Bosch

copyright © 2002 by Larry J Solomon


Brief Biography


Hieronymus Bosch (c1450-1516) was one of the late great medieval Dutch painters. Very little is known of his life, religious beliefs, or philosophy, but he is most well known for his painting of fantastic images and for his concentration of medieval symbols. Many scholars have tried to interpret the images and symbols in his paintings, but these interpretations often disagree with one another, resulting in speculations that are often contradictory. Thus, these images and symbols continue to fascinate and puzzle us today as the search for their meaning continues.

Jeroen Anthoniszoon van Aken (Bosch's orginal name) was born in 's Hertogenbosch in present-day Holland, near the Belgium border around 1450. It is assumed that his name "jheronymus" was chosen due to the family fondness for the patron Saint Hieronymous (St Jerome). Apparently, he used his town's name Bosch to identify and distinguish himself from the rest of his family. Joen or Jeroen (his more familiar names) was born as the fourth child of five into a family of painters in the Dutch tradition, and thus probably learned his technique from his father, Antonius van Aken, who was a professional painter. The Aken family came from Aachen in Germany; from which came their surname. 's Hertogenbosch is a small provincial town far from the centers of culture; so, it seems unusual that such a great artist lived and worked there. As an adult he became a church cleric and a lay member of the Brotherhood of Our Lady (a Virgin-Mary cult). The fraternity had a white swan as its emblem, which is curious considering its sacriligious use in his paintings. Bosch married Aleid van de Meerenne, who came from a prosperous middle-class family, around July 15, 1481.They had no children, but it is likely that he lived a comfortable life and may have enjoyed considerable artistic freedom. He created art that was replete with moral images and messages, containing symbols of warning and retribution for leading an immoral life. He died in his home town in 1516. Such important aspects as the dating and order of his works are unknown. Even the authenticity of many works is disputed. He had many imitators and his influence was recognized.

Environment. Bosch lived during a time of turbulence in western Europe. Just before the Protestant Reformation, there was widespread discontent with Roman Catholic clergy, who were believed to have become corrupt and immoral. The populace was increasingly losing respect for the moral tenets of these leaders, which, without strong moral leadership, led them to hedonistic and greedy behavior. Heretical sects were common. In reaction, in an effort to control the populace, Catholic Inquisitions condemned citizens as witches, wizards, and heretics. Hangings, beheadings, and burnings-at-the-stake became everyday public sights. Epidemics plagued the populace and killed thousands. Bosch himself may have succumbed to one of these epidemics. More than the printed word, art communicated moral messages, because most people were illiterate. Images of the devil and monsters were used as warnings and premonitions of the coming Last Judgment, which was predicted for the year 1500. It is quite possible that Bosch's paintings were commissioned by discontented new leaders who had lost respect for established authorities of the Church, which would explain his acrid anti-clerical images.

For more about Bosch, his life and art, try this link. To see reproductions of his works, try this link