Thematic Faces in the Paintings of Hieronymus Bosch

by Larry Solomon, copyright © 2002

While studying Bosch's works one can notice recurring faces, symbols, and themes. Here are some examples of a recurring face:

They appear in several different paintings in different locations and contexts, and they all depict holy men shown in three-quarter profile. Did Bosch use a model for these images? The myriad faces in his paintings were unlikely to have all been painted from models. Perhaps this one is an exception.Who could this model be? One possibility is that it is the image of the artist himself used as a signature. Since most of Bosch's paintings were unsigned this seems to be a logical possibility. Although many of the faces in Bosch's paintings may at first seem similar, each one has distinctive characteristics on close examination. That these could represent Bosch's stereotypical holy man also seems unlikely, because other Saints and Christ figures have different features in his paintings. One example of a another holy face is that of St John on Patmos:

7. St John on Patmos

This face also recurs in Bosch's works:

Who does this face represent? From the research of Jan Mosmans (see References), who unconvered an early portrait of Bosch, it seems clear that this is the image of the artist himself at different stages of his life. In another set of faces, 13 and 14 seem to be clearly the same individual, as do 15 and 16.

Figure 16 is the one of Bosch's most memorable images, ocurring in the Hell scene of the Garden of Earthly Delights, the "Tree-man" (17). Figure 14 is a rotated image of the Elf from St John on Patmos (18).

Figure 18 is especially interesting because of the location of Bosch's signature, just below the figure shown, which is at the lower right corner of the painting, a signature location. This is the same location for Figures 9 and 12b, i.e., signature location at the bottom right corner of the paintings.