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26 July 2017
Morning Sedition

That’s Utter Bosch!

Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights (tryptichon)

Garden of Earthy Delights (tryptich) by Bosch

The fifteenth century painter Hieronymus Bosch is one of those artists whom you either love or hate. His work is complex, and filled with monsters and mankind, angels and demons, signs and symbols. All concern the inherent corruption in humanity and the punishment to be meted out. Redemption is, alas, not an available option. (Guess he needed to get out a little more. Or maybe he got out too much...)

A half-millennium ago when Europe was moving out of the Middle Ages, Hieronymus Bosch, a prosperous painter and landowner in the duchy of Brabant in what is now the Netherlands, was widely admired as one of the cleverest, most pious, most perceptive, most apocalyptic masters of his times. He then slipped into several hundred years of obscurity. The symbolism and message of his terrifying masterpieces seemed bizarre and unsavory and even heretical. But he has been rediscovered in the 20th century. American tourists, who have little Bosch at home, now crowd through the museums of Europe to be awed by his great triptychs or to track down his smaller masterpieces.

The World of Bosch by Stanley Meisler

Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights (Hell)

Garden of Earthy Delights (Hell) by Bosch

Bosch's personal background, or at least what is know of it, apparently had a lot of influence in his work:

Hieronymus Bosch was born around 1450 (the exact date was not recorded) in the duchy of Brabant, which was then the realm of the dukes of Burgundy. He lived during unsettled and anxious times. The old medieval order imposed by the Church was straining and cracking under the onslaught of the growth of cities, the new vigor of commerce and capitalism, the rise of national states, the demands for religious reform and the beginnings of science. Minds were growing curious, analytical, adventurous. During Bosch's lifetime, the Dutch humanist Erasmus wrote Praise of Folly, the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus proposed that the sun was at the center of our solar system, and Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. In 1517, a year after Bosch died, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Historians point to these events as the beginnings of the modern world.


Bosch was among the pessimists. A member of a lay religious fraternity, he witnessed the corruption in the medieval Church and the sins of his townspeople, and cried out his warning of a wrathful retribution. The idea of an impending punishment was not new, of course, for it came directly out of the teachings of the Church. But Bosch issued his message with an imagery so fierce it could astound and chill his contemporaries and still fascinate his admirers 500 years later.

The World of Bosch by Stanley Meisler

Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights (detail)

Garden of Earthy Delights (detail) by Bosch

Everything is a symbol in Bosch's work: eggs represent sexual creation and alchemy; birds are unbelievers or carrion eaters representing death or decaying flesh; knives are punishment meted out for evil; the funnel hat is hypocrisy or deceit, intemperance, or an imposter doctor or alchemist. The number of symbols is quite large, but scholars have made compelling arguments for their value in decoding otherwise hidden messages.

But what is interesting is how artists are reinterpreting Bosh's work into three-dimensional versions. 3D Mouseion has a large collection of figures from paintings, including those by Bosch and other artists, rendered in 3D.

Here are some of the Bosch action figures. The "Bird with Letter" is from the tryptichon The Temptation of Saint Anthony; it is probably the most famous of the Bosch figures.

Bosch's Bird With Letter

Bird with Letter

The inscription on this note in the beak of this birdlike monster on skates could throw a light on the contemplated symbolism. Unfortunately, this text, which is difficult to read, is open to various interpretations, but none of them are proven to be accurate. The postman-like freak is perhaps delivering a letter to the conspiring figures in the hole under the bridge. The funnel on this curious bird’s head gives him a preposterous appearance. This headwear is referred to elsewhere as wisdom or absent-mindedness, but that symbolism seems unsuitable here.

Bird with Letter

Bosch's Helmeted Bird Monster

Helmeted Bird Monster

This helmeted bird monster is carrying a pencil box and an inkpot in its beak, in which the nun, decaying into a pig, is dipping her pen. A severed foot is swinging from the bird's helmet referring to the horrible corporal punishments which could be expected in hell. The pig, indeed an indictment against the decay of clergy life, is tempting the man who is sitting beside him and it appears that he is drawing up a contract. Is the man possibly selling his soul?

Helmeted Bird Monster

Bosch's Egg Monster

Egg monster

Amidst the many unlucky ones who are speared, ripped open, strangled or even fried, the monster in the egg that has been shot by an arrow, steps jovially into the middle panel. He appears to be detached from his entourage. Meanwhile, his fellow monsters are painstakingly going about their core-business: carrying out the merciless delivery of the final punishment, for us sinners, in a most inventive manner.

Egg monster

Sources and Further Reading

  1. The World of Bosch by Stanley Meisler
  2. Bosch figures
  3. Ibiblio page on Bosch


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