De Tuin der Lusten
From 'The Garden of Earthly Delights'.

Hieronymus Bosch is one of the most colorful, inventive and influential painters of all time. A highly imaginative artist, he is best known for his vivid and often frightening depictions of Hell. While this was not an uncommon subject in medieval European painting, Bosch still stood out above his contemporaries. Before him, nobody ever made such creative and surreal depictions of eternal damnation. He painted gruesome demons, monsters and other haunting creatures, but with masterful strokes that made his fantasies look all the more realistic and thus believable. One can also find some use of sequential narrative in his paintings, so he can be considered a very early forerunner of modern-day sequential art (comics).

Bosch's work gives a grim and very fatalistic view of mankind. Many paintings attributed to him show people fooling, torturing and murdering each other. 'De Keisnijder' ('Cutting the Stone') depicts a quack doctor trying to remove a supposed stone from his client's brain. In 'De Goochelaar' ('The Conjurer') a man is so amazed by a magician's trick that he fails to see that he is being robbed by a bystander. Jesus Christ is surrounded by menacing heads in 'Christ Carrying the Cross', and in 'St. Christopher Carrying the Christ Child' a man in the background hangs a bear from a tree. Even the Church is not spared in his fatal vision. In 'The Haywain', numerous people all try to grab hay from a huge wagon. A priest is shown in the right corner enjoying a drink in a chair, while several nuns slavishly bring him bales of hay. To the left, the pope and kings follow the vehicle by horse. Unbeknownst to all the greedy individuals who fight and kill each other over this hay, the chariot is pulled to Hell by demons.

The Conjurer by hieronymus Bosch
'The Conjurer'.

Hell and the Last Judgment were a recurring subject in Bosch's work, almost to the point of obsession. He made monumental paintings around this theme, such as 'De Hooiwagen' ('The Haywain'), 'Het Laatste Oordeel' ('The Last Judgment'), 'Paradijs en Hel' ('Paradise and Hell'), 'De Val van de Verdoemden in de Hel' ('Fall of the Damned into Hell') and his most famous work: 'De Tuin der Lusten' ('The Garden of Earthly Delights'). The canvases are filled with dozens of eye-catching scenes. Horrifying devils, witches and monsters scare and torment sinners without mercy. Some are walking body parts, others animal hybrids or gigantic man-made objects. The pitch dark skies are only enlightened by massive fires with an eerie glow. Bosch's nightmarish visions of the afterlife feel more memorable and effective because of his skill as a painter. He had a sharp eye for realism, which makes even the most unbelievable creatures and backgrounds all the more convincing.

Mysterious life
A major reason why Hieronymus Bosch's work remains so enigmatic, even after all those centuries, lies in the fact that not much is known about the man's life. He was born in 1450 as Jheronimus van Aken in the Dutch village 's-Hertogenbosch, which would later inspire his artists' name "Hieronymus Bosch", or "Jeroen Bosch” as Dutch-language speakers know him today. Bosch came from an artistic family. Both his uncles, father and grandfather were all painters, but their work hasn't survived. In 1488, Bosch joined the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, a Roman Catholic contrafraternity. He received many requests to make paintings for noblemen and clergymen, which made him a well known and respected name during his lifetime. He passed away on 9 August 1516. With so little documentation available, let alone anything that could have explained his mesmerizing works, it comes to no surprise that people have predominantly studied his art instead. This makes him both one of the most analyzed visual artists in history, as well as one of the most misunderstood. None of his works have been personally dated, most required their titles long after he died, and it's not always certain whether they were made by him, his pupils or one of his many imitators.

The Last Judgement by hieronymus Bosch
Scene from 'The Last Judgment'.

Inspirations and overall message
Modern audiences are often amazed by the cruel, sinister and haunting imagery in Bosch's works. However, they tend to forget what daily life in the Middle Ages was like. Lack of sufficient scientific and medical knowledge meant people barely survived illnesses, ailments, epidemics or accidents. Many who weren’t either cured or killed by their treatment, were handicapped or scarred for life. Superstitions and fear of the unknown resulted in witch hunts, interrogations under torture and public executions. Wars and natural disasters also shortened many people's lives. Bosch didn't have to invent such horrors - they were all around him. By the same token, his sensational visions of Hell weren't meant as entertaining fantasies. They represented what most people actually feared eternal damnation would be like. Bosch merely visualized these beliefs. So audiences interpreted his paintings as warnings to repent from their evil ways. But the artist himself seemed less convinced that mankind would be saved. In 'The Last Judgment' only a tiny few manage to fly to Heaven, while the majority is doomed for eternity.

Heaven by Hieronymus Bosch

Analysis and interpretations
Still, the mysterious and often bizarre imagery in Hieronymus Bosch's work has puzzled viewers for centuries. Some have called him a religious fanatic - either a devout Catholic or a member of a secret cult - obsessed with fear of going to Hell. Others consider him a prototypical protestant or even atheist, whose works ought to be interpreted as satire of the wild religious beliefs of his day. Psychologists have interpreted Bosch's works as manifestations of his personal subconscious, even though psychoanalysis didn't exist in his age. Surrealists see him as a predecessor to their style, but the artist never set out to be absurd. Many of the so-called “surreal” images in Bosch's work are usually just symbolic visualizations of proverbs, sayings, metaphors, allegories and biblical passages that have faded out of the public consciousness with the passing of time. Certain interpretations of Bosch's work have pigeonholed him as a madman or even a drug abuser, which underestimates his graphic talent and belittles his amazing imagination.

The Seven Deadly Sins by hieronymus Bosch
'The Seven Deadly Sins And The Four Last Things'.

Prototypical comics
One must also be cautious to call Bosch a pioneer in the field of comics, as he never made a comic strip in the modern sense. But something can be said for the fact that he made early use of narrative sequences to get his moralistic messages across. 'De Zeven Hoofdzonden en Vier Laatste Dingen' ('The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things') is a painting notable for its unusual execution. It features five circles. Four of them are small and respectively depict the death of a sinner, the Last Judgment, Hell and the Glory of being accepted into Heaven. These four circles surround a larger circle, depicting the seven sins in seven separate images. Within this large circle is yet another smaller circle in which Christ emerges from his tomb. What makes this work resemble a comic strip is the fact that all the small images are clearly separated from each other by the use of frames. Text is also used to accompany the illustrations, underneath each sin and in moralistic messages written on scrolls. The sins themselves are depicted in a rather comical way, which resembles the slapstick of a modern day humor comic. However, while the images are thematically connected, they don't follow a clear narrative order: they can be read any way the viewer wants.

Death of a miser by hieronymus Bosch
'Death and the Miser'.

A clearer example of a narrative sequence can be found in 'De Dood van een Vrek' ('Death and the Miser'), an outer wing of a lost triptych. It shows an old miser who collects coins and later, on his deathbed, still refuses to part from his wealth. The same man is shown twice within the same image. The passing of time can be understood by watching the figure at the bedside first, then looking at the man between the sheets. Greed leading to eternal damnation is also a theme in the triptych 'De Hooiwagen' ('The Haywain'). This work too shows a clear "story". In the first panel we see three different sequences featuring Adam and Eve, all taking place in the same image. Adam and Eve are created by God, then seduced by the snake and ultimately banned from Paradise. The sequence is interesting because it portrays the same characters in three successive events. The second panel of 'The Haywain' connects Adam and Eve's sin leading to mankind's doom with another sin having the same fatal result. A huge crowd follows a chariot of hay, trying to grab its content. Everyone is so blinded by their desire that they fail to notice that the vehicle is being pulled by demons and monsters. Their destination becomes clear in the third panel, Hell.

The Haywain by hieronymus Bosch
'The Haywain'.

'Het Laatste Oordeel' ('The Last Judgment') is another triptych depicting Adam and Eve's creation, seduction and eventual ban from Paradise in the first panel. The only difference is that here the sequence ought to be read from bottom to top, instead of the other way around. The second panel depicts Jesus and the saints conducting the Last Judgment while the sinners on Earth are tortured by demons, a scene which continues in the third panel.

The Last Judgement by hieronymus Bosch
'The Last Judgment'.

Hieronymus Bosch's magnum opus 'De Tuin der Lusten' ('The Garden of Earthly Delights') is a triptych which also departs from the story of Adam and Eve to make a prediction about mankind's fate if they continue their sinful ways. In the first panel we see Paradise, where God creates Adam and Eve. In the second panel is a similar Paradise where hundreds of nude couples engage in feelings of lust. The third panel again shows Hell as the ultimate penalty for their debaucherous behavior. Another interesting prototype of modern-day comic strip narratives is 'De Verzoeking van de Heilige Antonius' ('The Temptation of St. Anthony'). The triptych tells the story of St. Anthony. In the first panel he is actually depicted twice. First we see him traveling through the sky in the upper half of the image. After being brought down by demons, he is being supported by a monk and a layman, as we can see in the lower half. In the second panel St. Antony prays during a witches' sabbath, while in the final panel he tries to read the Bible without being distracted by demonic forces. Contrary to the previously discussed works, 'The Temptation of St. Anthony' actually tells a continuous story in all three panels with one central character as its protagonist: St. Anthony. The sequences also follow a very logical reading direction, namely from top to below and from left to right. Also notable to mention is that the triptych, when closed, tells another sequential story on its shutters, namely Jesus Christ being arrested and later crucified.

The Temptation of St. Anthony
'The Temptation of St. Anthony'.

Perhaps the closest Bosch ever came to something that resembles a modern comic strip is 'De Hel en Vloed' ('The Hell and the Flood') . The work is a diptych depicting four biblical scenes. Two of those are shown in two circles, positioned on top of each other. This clearly separates two moments from each other in two separate frames and still tells a continuous story.

The Hell and the Flood by hieronymus Bosch
'The Hell and the Flood'.

Also worth mentioning, even though Bosch's authorship is nowadays disputed, is 'De Kruisdraging' (The Carrying of the Cross'). Jesus is carrying his cross amidst a crowd of very hostile and ugly faces. Most are borderline caricatures, but still recognizable as realistic portrayals of people. The image has inspired many cartoonists over the centuries. Marc Sleen referenced it in his series 'Nero', more specifically the album 'De Totentrekkers' (1974), where his uncle Omer owns a medieval painting clearly inspired by this work. Robert Crumb parodied 'De Kruisdraging' in 1981 for the fourth issue of his magazine 'Weirdo' by remodeling the characters in a contemporary setting.

Kruisdraging by hieronymus Bosch
'The Carrying of the Cross'.

Legacy and influence
Suffice to say, Bosch's work has a timeless power that fascinates viewers to this very day. Royals like Philip I "the Handsome" of Castile and his grandson Philippe II of Spain owned paintings by him. In his own century, his works were so popular that many artists tried to copy his style. One of the earliest was Pieter Bruegel The Elder, whose 'De Zeven Hoofdzonden' ('The Seven Sins', 1558), 'De Zeven Deugden' ('The Seven Virtues', 1558), 'De Val van de Opstandige Engelen' ('The Fall of the Rebel Angels', 1562), 'De Dulle Griet' ('Mad Meg', 1562), 'De Triomf van de Dood' ('The Triumph of Death', 1562) all feature Hellish and/or moralistic scenes. Lucas Cranach also copied Bosch until he found his own style. Bosch's dark satirical vision of mankind also manifests itself in the works of William Hogarth and Francisco de Goya. The mixture of absurdity and Freudian imagery found in the Surrealist movement is also found in Bosch’s paintings. Virtually any artistic depiction of the dark Middle Ages has been influenced by Bosch's works, not to mention that his name has literally become synonymous with the word "Hell". Together with Dante Alighieri's poem 'La Divina Commedia' ('The Divine Comedy') and Gustave Doré's unforgettable illustrations of that same work, he made the most iconic interpretations of the concept, which still inspires artists to this day. The word "Boschian" has become an eponym for any artistic depiction of Hell or the Middle Ages that resembles his work. In 2004, during the election of "De Grootste Nederlander" (The Greatest Dutchman"), Bosch came in at the 63th place. In 1998, an asteroid was named after him.

Together with Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Bosch is the first Dutch-language prototypical comic artist, whose work paved the way for similar prototypical sequential illustrators in the Low Countries, such as Otto van Veen, Romeyn de Hooghe and Willem Bilderdijk. Among the countless modern (comic) artists who've been influenced by Bosch we can find Hergé, Willy Vandersteen, Marc Sleen, André Franquin, Roland Topor, Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Edward Gorey, Terry Gilliam, Kamagurka, Jim Woodring, Nancy Burton, Victor Bregeda, Chet Zar, Steve Lieber, Angie Mason, Gummbah, Jeffrey Brown, Lectrr, Todd Schorr and Carlos Nine. GoT was inspired by Bosch's painting 'Het Narrenschip' ('Ship of Fools') to create his philosophical gag comic 'De Nieuwe Ark' (1972).  Comic books which take their direct inspiration from Bosch are Evi Nijs' 'Alex en het feest van Jeroen Bosch' (2015), Marcel Ruijters' biopic 'Hieronymus' (2015) and Peter Van Gucht and Luc Morjaeu's 'Suske en Wiske' album 'De Bibberende Bosch' (2016). Dutch illustrator Thé Tjong-Khing released a children's picture book based on Bosch imagery called 'Bosch' in 2015.

hieronymus Bosch
Portrait of Hieronymus Bosch, presumably by Jacques Le Boucq (ca.1520-1573).

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