The Disturbing Paintings of Hieronymus Bosch: A Short Introduction

Most casu­al view­ers of Hierony­mus Bosch’s paint­ings must acknowl­edge his artis­tic skill, and many must also won­der whether he was com­plete­ly out of his mind. But insan­i­ty, how­ev­er vivid­ly sug­gest­ed by his imagery, isn’t an espe­cial­ly com­pelling expla­na­tion for that imagery. Bosch paint­ed in a par­tic­u­lar place and time — the Nether­lands of the late fif­teenth and ear­ly six­teenth cen­tu­ry, to be spe­cif­ic — but he also paint­ed with­in a dom­i­nant worldview.“He grew up in a time of deep reli­gious anx­i­ety,” says Youtu­ber Hochela­ga in the video essay above. “Ideas about sin, death, and the dev­il were becom­ing more sophis­ti­cat­ed,” and “there was a gen­uine fear that demon­ic forces lived amongst the pop­u­la­tion.”

Hence the analy­ses like that of Great Art Explained, which frames Bosch’s best-known paint­ing The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights as an expres­sion of “hard­core Chris­tian­i­ty.” But some­thing about the trip­ty­ch’s sheer elab­o­rate­ness and grotes­querie demands fur­ther inquiry. Hochela­ga explores the pos­si­bil­i­ty that Bosch worked in a con­di­tion of not just fear­ful piety, but psy­cho­log­i­cal afflic­tion.

“There is a dis­ease called St. Antho­ny’s fire,” he says, con­tract­ed “by eat­ing a poi­so­nous black fun­gus called ergots that grow on rye crops. Symp­toms include sores, con­vul­sions, and a fierce burn­ing sen­sa­tion in limbs and extrem­i­ties,” as well as “fright­en­ing and over­pow­er­ing hal­lu­ci­na­tions that can last for hours at a time.”

This psy­choac­tive pow­er is now “believed to be behind the many Danc­ing Plagues record­ed through­out the Mid­dle Ages.” This expla­na­tion came togeth­er when, “in the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, it was dis­cov­ered that when ergots are baked in an oven, they trans­form into a form of lyser­gic acid diethy­lamide, also known as LSD.” Did Bosch him­self receive the bizarre visions he paint­ed from inad­ver­tent­ly con­sum­ing that now well-known hal­lu­cino­genic sub­stance? The many paint­ings he made of St. Antho­ny “may have been a form of devo­tion­al prayer, done so in the hopes that the saint would rid him of his debil­i­tat­ing ill­ness.” Look at The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delighteven today, and you’ll feel that if you saw these mur­der­ous bird-human hybrids around you, you’d try what­ev­er you could to get rid of them, too.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Hierony­mus Bosch’s Bewil­der­ing Mas­ter­piece The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights

A Dig­i­tal Archive of Hierony­mus Bosch’s Com­plete Works: Zoom In & Explore His Sur­re­al Art

The Mean­ing of Hierony­mus Bosch’s The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights Explained

Hierony­mus Bosch’s Medieval Paint­ing The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights Comes to Life in a Gigan­tic, Mod­ern Ani­ma­tion

New App Lets You Explore Hierony­mus Bosch’s The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights in Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty

The Musi­cal Instru­ments in Hierony­mus Bosch’s The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights Get Brought to Life, and It Turns Out That They Sound “Painful” and “Hor­ri­ble”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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