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Hieronymus Bosch, also spelled Jheronimus Bos (born Jeroen Anthonissen van Aken in c. 1450—buried August 9, 1516 in 's-Hertogenbosch) was a brilliant Dutch artist of the Northern Renaissance. For 500 years since his death, his personality remains enigmatic and his artworks inspire today’s artists, designers, and filmmakers.

Individual art style of Hieronymus Bosch:

• Pictures are filled with multitudes of densely compacted groups of beings.
• Bold and unrestrained fantasy in depicting monsters and hell is visualized in canonic religious scenes.
• Bright visual imagery is combined with moralizing meaning.

The most famous paintings and triptychs by Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Temptation of St. Anthony, Christ Carrying the Cross.

's-Hertogenbosch is a Dutch town from which the artist Jeroen Anthonissen van Aken took his nickname Bosch. The city is also commonly known as Den Bosch. In the past, the town has been famous for manufacturing bells and organs, which drown out everything in fifteenth century in there. It was a religious center in the Middle Ages, every sixth inhabitant of 's-Hertogenbosch belonged to one of the European religious communities. Death, suffering, burden of guilt was in trend among devout Dutch Christians those years. And if someone has strayed from the righteous path, his/her way in the darkness was lightened by the fires of inquisition.

This partly explains the emergence of such an original and frightening genius as Bosch. But it’s only in part.

Paintings by Hieronymus Bosch show complex and multi-figure riddles to solve by generations of art historians. The artist as a person is still a mystery as well. An honest researcher should use word ‘probably’ in the artist’s biography more often than one would have liked.

Bells and organs

Hieronymus Bosch’s ancestors probably had German roots. Their family name suggests that they came from the city of Aachen (Aken in Dutch). Almost all men in van Aken’s family were artists. Hieronymus’ grandfather, Jan van Aken, was a painter, his father, Anthonius van Aken was a painter and an artistic adviser, his brother Goossen van Aken and three of his uncles were painters as well. So, Hieronymus Bosch has probably studied his craft in a home studio.

Hieronymus was born allegedly circa 1453—although most of his biographers talk cautiously of 1450—in 's-Hertogenbosch, one of the centers in the former duchy of Brabant, the southern Netherlands nowadays. It was a big trading town having a market square as a center. Roman Catholic church called the tune in 's-Hertogenbosch. It influenced the cultural, intellectual and social life in the town, one way or another. The local economy also relied mostly on it. One of its ‘core enterprises’ was The Brotherhood of Our Lady, a large and wealthy social and religious association of devotees to worship the Virgin Mary, founded in the early fifteenth century. Van Akens have been serviced the Brotherhood for two centuries. Frescoes at the Cathedral of Saint John are attributed to Jan van Aken. The Brotherhood has commissioned many paintings to Anthonius van Aken as well. The family was not poor at all. Having worked for the Brotherhood, Anthonius van Aken has been able to build a house made of stone in the main square of 's-Hertogenbosch.

As to Hieronymus Bosch, he was first mentioned as an artist in archives of The Brotherhood of Our Lady’s in 1481 only. By the standards of those years, he was more than a mature artist in his age of 28. His age and a thorough familiarity with theology, made several researches assume that painting was not his first choice: initially Hieronymus has been training for priesting.

In any case, the genes have taken their toll. Hieronymus Bosch inherited the family business and has been collaborated with the Brotherhood all his life. In addition to painting, he designed altarpieces, undertook decorative works for solemn processions, executed designs for stained glass, pulpits, chandeliers, etc.

Around the same time, Bosch married Aleyt Goyaerts van den Meerveen, coming from a rich and influential family. It was a good match. Hieronymus Bosch has become a prosperous landowner and has even been involved in litigation between him and his brother-in-law who considered himself deprived of his property rights. Court ruled in favour of the artist.

Of course, Bosch immediately joined The Brotherhood of Our Lady as an honorary lay member. There exists documentary information in official records indicating that Hieronymus Bosch presided the Brotherhood’s meetings that took place in his own house more than once. He still painted a lot for a token fee, for he didn’t work to make a fortune. Meanwhile, pictures by Hieronymus Bosch were becoming less complying with his image of a respectable burger. They increasingly tended to have a content for which some Surrealism artists would later call him an ‘honorary professor of nightmares’.

The King of Horror

Well, it's kind of hard to miss how the style of Hieronymus Bosch goes beyond the scope of any canons within his iconographic manner, as a whole. There is a “Christian Rock” style in a modern pop-industry: many groups, doing the Lord’s work, sound louder than hell and gloomier than apocalypses. In a way, they might be considered Bosch’s followers. He as well was glorifying the Lord’s name but became famous for the Devil present on his canvases.

He definitely was a misanthrope. In Bosch’s eyes, probably the worst sin was to be carefree and gullible. His famous works The Haywain, The Conjurer, The Ship of Fools (available on our portal) do not praise stupidity in any way. Hieronymus Bosch never gave anyone credit for anything. A simpleton has sinned not less than a thief who had got his hand in a dupe’s pocket. A priest selling the indulgences will burn in eternal hellfire together with a murderer who bought the forgiveness from him. The mankind is doomed and there is no hope.

It comes quite naturally that his original worldview, coupled with his brilliant talent, could not be left unnoticed.

Some researchers assume Hieronymus Bosch travelling to Italy in circa 1500. This assumption is based on his Triptych of the Crucified Martyr, allegedly dedicated to St. Julia of Corsica, a folk saint popular in Northern Italy. Besides, art historians see how Hieronymus Bosch was influenced by artworks of Giorgione and Leonardo da Vinci.

Other researchers believe that Bosch has never left 's-Hertogenbosch, although his paintings were famous and he has earned the renown in his lifetime, which spread far beyond borders of his native city; he was well-known outside the Netherlands. By the way, that was the reason why he started signing his works as ‘Jheronimus Bosch’.

Besides the abiding Brotherhood of Our Lady, his works have been commissioned by many famous noblemen. Paintings by Hieronymus Bosch were purchased by Philip I, King of Castilе, called the Handsome, Henry III of Nassau-Breda, and King Philip II of Spain. However, his contemporaries could hardly understand his artworks. They saw theological puzzles instead of edification and satire, at best, or else read them as exhilarating and thrilling horror stories. The artist was a horror maker for them. If there was a technology known in fifteenth century that allowed for animating pictures by Hieronymus Bosch, the owners would supply the audience with a pop-corn.

Devil inside

Since we know very few facts about Hieronymus Bosch, we can judge his personal identity by his paintings only. There are still plenty of weird, often conflicting versions of who Hieronymus Bosch really was: a fervent Catholic or a secret heretic, a visionary or a practicing alchemist, an Antichrist or a Messiah, an alien, a schizophrenic or a prophet… A man who had such horrifying images swirling around in his head must have indeed gone slightly mad. However, we do not have any reliable proof neither of his madness nor of any other ‘abnormalities’. It’s quite the other way round. Hieronymus Bosch apparently has lived a surprisingly calm and normal life. At the time of Clive Barker and Hans Rüdi Giger, such a life style seems too regulated, well-ordered, and even boring. If he was a blasphemer, then he was a very lucky one, for the most ardent inquisitors patronized him. Some have started to speak about secret heresy of Hieronymus Bosch only in the sixteenth century. And he safely did not make it to Reformation era.

The artist died in 1516. As a prominent Master, he was solemnly consecrated in a funeral mass held in the church of Saint John.

Today, there is a men’s store in a house where Hieronymus lived someday. Nowadays, there are neither bird-headed monsters, nor gigantic frogs, nor crucified women martyrs that you might have happen to meet on the streets of 's-Hertogenbosch back in those times. Nothing in this quiet province would hint you at the source Bosch has taken his inspiration from.

However, José de Sigüenza, a Hieronymite monk from Spain, has solved this riddle back in the early seventeenth century. He wrote in 1605: “The difference between the work of Bosch and that of other painters lies in the fact that the others depict man as he appears on the outside. Only Bosch dared to paint him the way he is on the inside.

Written by: Andrew Zimogliadov
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