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‘s Hertogenbosch ca. 1453 – 1516

Hieronymus van Aken, commonly known as Hieronymus Bosch, is one of the most beloved Northern artists of the late Middle Ages. Bosch’s idiosyncratic paintings exert an unfading fascination and enthralled his public then as much as they do now. His iconographic innovations were immediately admired and his paintings so coveted that an efficient production-line of copies was generated during his own lifetime and afterwards, by his family and followers. His work had a seminal influence on Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525–69) who made designs for engravings in the style of Bosch. Over the centuries, Bosch’s phantasmagoric depictions of religious and moralizing tales caught the imagination of the general public, eminent collectors and artists, inspiring Surrealists like Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró five hundred years later.

Documents shed light on aspects of his life while new technical studies provide insights into his working methods. This was exhaustively documented in the weighty catalogues for the 2016 Bosch exhibition (see Books). However, his motivation, practice and iconography remain a matter of contention. Bosch came from a family of artists in ‘s Hertogenbosch. He married into wealth and belonged to the city’s most exclusive and noble Brotherhood of Our Lady. Despite popular belief, his seemingly hallucinatory, chimerical iconography did not arise ex nihilo but is rooted in medieval folklore, Flemish mysticism, manuscript illumination, gargoyles and even illustrations of warfare. It is Bosch’s genius to have impressed this imagery in a corpus of a mere sixteen autograph paintings on the popular imagination. 

There was significant demand for his works not least among the highest circles of the Burgundian court whose ruler, Henry III of Nassau-Breda, is believed to have commissioned the iconic Garden of Earthly Delights triptych (Museo del Prado, Madrid). In the decades following Bosch’s death, Philip II of Spain was able to assemble a group of many of his greatest masterpieces such as the Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1494), the Garden of Earthly Delights (ca. 1505) and The Haywain (1512/15), all of them now in the Prado. Bosch’s surreal imagery has been associated with heresy, but it is more likely that he intended to illustrate the attainment of mankind’s salvation through pious living. One of his recurrent themes is the struggle of the righteous facing the lure of earthly pleasures. His Temptation of St Anthony (ca. 1500) in Lisbon depicts how the saint’s dogged resistance to a succession of diabolical inducements brings him to a spiritual Promised Land. The Haywain, which is closer to a fable-like narrative, warns us that the devotion to earthly pursuits over a life of piety will inevitably lead to eternal damnation. Having said this, Bosch takes a humorous pleasure in the depiction of devils and sinners to whom he devotes much more space in what is usually a triptych format than the moment of Salvation. In this, Bosch can be compared to the seventeenth-century poet John Milton who took far more pleasure in describing the forces of darkness than light in his epic work, Paradise Lost. A possible source for Bosch’s interest in the repeated depiction of Damnation with all its flaming fireworks is the fact that as a child he had been traumatized by a massive fire which engulfed and destroyed most of his hometown.  

Bosch was a versatile artist who applied different styles and painting techniques throughout his œuvre. His preparatory sketches and underdrawings vary from rough contours to elaborate designs as does the painting technique, often even within a single work. This versatility is most likely linked to the organization of the workshop and suggests that he employed assistants or even collaborated with family members in order to satisfy the high demand for his work. 

 

Top Auction Results for Followers of Heironymus Bosch

The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Sold for $902,500
New York, Christie’s, 30 January 2013, Renaissance, lot 113 

The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Sold for $850,000
New York, Sotheby’s, 28 January 2016, Master Painting Evening Sale, lot 8

The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Sold for £422,500 ($723,706)
London, Sotheby’s, 9 July 2014, Old Master & British Paintings Evening Sale, lot 6

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