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 Delights even 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.
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.