Larry Solomon, copyright ©
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
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.
from devils. The latter are fallen angels who were created by God and
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
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
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
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
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".
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.
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
The winged-lion gargoyle at Bosch's home cathedral
resembles some of the demons in his paintings.
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
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
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
of the evil, emissaries of Satan.