Bosch and his Moral High Horse

Little is known about Hieronymus Bosch. A Dutch painter born in the 15th century, the most we know about him is gleaned from the mere 25 paintings that are definitively attributed to him (a number significantly whittled down over the years).

Using triptychs and diptychs, Bosch was able to conduct religious narratives through his art. Among his most famous is The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1480-1505) – was Bosch really as stern a Christian as demonstrated in this painting?

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking the scene is a whimsical child’s fairytale. But closer inspection reveals the heavenly and hellish intricate details, embodying both ecstasy and despair.

To me, this is a warning from Bosch’s moral high horse. The story of the Fall of Man. On the left panel (the start of the story), God is bringing together Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The large middle piece shows an orgy of indulgence – humanity acting with free will, engaging in ultimate pleasures. The right reveals the misery of the depths of hell – the consequences of man’s sin: God’s awesome wrath (prompted of course at the start, by Evil Eve).

Some scholars disagree that Bosch was a religious zealot, claiming instead that the tender colours he uses and the beauty of the scene means he can’t possibly have deemed them as sinners.  More controversially, it has even been pointed out that his use of ‘hairy’ figures (figures coated in a layer of brown fur) in the middle panel could be indicative of his heretical view of evolution.  Some art historians argue they are simply an imagined alternative to our civilised life. What do you think?

Explore the mysteries of Bosch along with other artists at the Tracing Bosch and Bruegel. Four Paintings Magnified exhibition, showing at the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen until 21st October 2012. If you can’t make the exhibition, but want some more information about Bosch and his art, find all you want and more in this lavishly-illustrated Bosch ebook.

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