Bosch Demonology

by Larry Solomon, copyright © 2002


The images in Bosch's paintings are fantastic and surreal: Satan with a bird's head and human body, a man with the body of a gigantic broken egg and tree-trunk legs with branches impaling its body. The following images include a man without a body, amoured witches with tree-trunk heads, a pig-headed clergyman with gaping hole in his body and demon companions, a knight with wings and thistle head riding a jug with horse's feet, and above all are the many strange juxtapositions.

What imaginative powers could bring forth such images? What are the sources and reasons for Bosch's surreal imagination? Bosch was apparently aware of the litany of devils and demons that inhabit the literature and art of his time. One of these was Lilith, shown in the above picture on the far right as a woman with a tree-trunk on her head and reptilian tail, cradling a child. A similar figure is shown on the left grasping a trunkless demon by the ear and spiked horn.

Demons differ from devils. The latter are fallen angels who were created by God and then condemned to hell when they followed Lucifer, who believed himself equal to God's omnipotence. Demons arose from the pagan religions as earthly spirits, both good and bad. The bad ones were evil from the start. They lurk among humans urging them to sin and waiting to prey upon them when they did. Lilith was a demon. She was condemned to be eternally barren and longed to press a baby to her breast. Driven by envy, Lilith spawned a band of evil creatures called Lilin or Lilis, who were depicted as owls. Owls are ubiquitous images in Bosch's art, frightening birds of prey who lurk in the earth's darkness waiting to prey upon sinners. The owl is considered to be an emmisary or symbol of Satan himself.

Literary and visionary sources were likely an important source for Bosch's imagery. One may have been the Dominican visionary, Alain de la Roche, who preached in the Netherlands. His ideas were not unusual for fifteenth century religious sentiment, full of sexual imagery. He preached about "beasts personifying the sins of the flesh, equipped with fearsome genital organs and belching streams of fire whose billowing smoke darkened the earth; He saw the meretrix apostasiae, the whore of apostasy, spawning apostates, devouring them, vomiting them up again, then embracing, fondling them like a mother." (Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages) Additionally, there was the Flemish theologian, Dionysius van Rijckel, founder of the Christian monastery at Bois-le-Duc. He sought, along with other clergy, to put the fear of God into the people, threatening eternal torture in Satan's inferno. Sinners would struggle to escape as they burned in Hell, "groaning and screaming in never-ending pain".

Other literary sources include the Visione Tondalus, De divinatione daemonum of St Augustine, The Four Temptations and The Spirtual Tabernacle by Jan van Ruysbroeck, De Animabilus, Summa theologica, Scriptum super libros Sententiarum by Albertus Magnus, and the sermons by Dionysius van Rijckel (Liber de quatuor hominum novissimis) and Jean Gerson (De diversis diaboli tentationibus).

Bosch was not the first or only artist to use demons and monsters to warn the populace of a future of agonizing torture if they did not atone for their sins. Some of these come from illuminated book miniatures.


Limbourg Brothers: Tundal's Hell, Tres Riches Heures du de Berry. (c 1415) Chantilly, France, Musee Conde

Yet another source of imagery comes from the gothic cathedrals from this era They were adorned with gargoyles (water spouts), which were designed to protect the house of worship from demons and to put the fear of God's retribution into the hearts of sinners. One of the most telling of these is from St John's cathedral in s'Hertogenbosch, Bosch's home town.

A gargoyle from a cathedral (Santa Maria del Fiore, Duomo) in Florence is oddly familar to Bosch's bodiless monsters.

The winged-lion gargoyle at Bosch's home cathedral resembles some of the demons in his paintings.

The Origin of Devils and Demons

During Creation, some of God's angels rebelled and declared themselves equal to God (vanity). They were then cast out of heaven and fell to earth. In Bosch's Haywain triptych this scene is depicted.

As the angels fall they are transformed from human forms to insects, scorpions, and birds in midair. Those that reach the earth become various beasts (animals), and among the lowest are the toads and other reptilian forms falling into pools of water. Some become devils. One becomes Lucifer himself, often represented as an owl peering out of a dark hole in a thatched roofed cave dwelling. Thus, Bosch saw the beasts and birds of the earth as creatures of the evil, emissaries of Satan.