Have you ever been awakened from a dream so bizarre you couldn’t understand it? Today we consider Hieronymus Bosch, the inscrutable master of the surreal. Here is a master of capturing in detail that which we’ve all brushed against in the recesses of our imagination. The man himself is likewise opaque: He left no journals, letters or documents behind. Is his work his literal point of view, or is there perhaps a wink behind the artist’s brush?
As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :
Perhaps it is Bosch’s rich and vivid sense of humor that saves his work from solemn self-righteousness and moralism. His paintings are spiced with depictions of foolishness being repaid in appropriate coin, and with many subtle puns and not-so-subtle jabs at hypocrisy and corruption. He created rich and unforgettable satire, peopled with the strange and exotic visions that burst forth from his imagination. Sometimes these delight, but sometimes they horrify.
Death was an ever-present reality in late medieval times, with life expectancies much shorter than in our own time, and there were always the specters of famine, pestilence, and disease. After death, Bosch reminds us, comes judgment. He illustrated the hell we create for ourselves on earth, what follows our life on this planet, and how our sinful actions might be repaid in kind in the afterlife. Though Bosch painted other subject matter, he is best known for his depictions of hell, the place where judgments are meted out. For Bosch, the devil is quite literally in the details, the nightmarish elements present in his depictions of hell.
Sometimes the grotesque creatures that inhabit his imaginative visions of judgment are hybrids of humans and beasts, or of humans and trees, or of humans and inanimate objects. The variety of Bosch’s invention is stunning. His paintings often work in the same way our nightmares do, merging elements of things that are familiar to us in combinations that make them seem menacing and horrific, playing on our fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. He can often be scatological, as we see demons of hell excreting sinners from their rectums or a man standing over a pit defecating gold coins into the abyss. The later Surrealist painters owe a sizable debt to Bosch’s work for showing how the familiar can be made unfamiliar, and even frightening, by combining elements of reality in unexpected ways.
What is the difference between real and surreal as it pertains to religion?
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
D I G D E E P E R
WORM THAT DIETH NOT
One of the attributes of hell spoken of by Jesus is that it is a place where for the damned “their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44, 46, 48; cf. Isa. 66:24). The image gives rise to grotesque imaginings in memento mori literature of the late Middle Ages such as John Lydgate’s Dance of Death, and, in the graphic arts, numerous vivid paintings of the tortures of the damned, especially among Flemish artists such as Hieronymus Bosch. “Gnawing of the worm” became a circumlocution for the operations of the conscience in medieval morality plays (e.g., Everyman). For De Quincey, in “The Affliction of Childhood,” the phrase reflected rather the unrelieved grief experienced for years after the death of his sister, an association echoed in Poe’s “Morella” and “Ulalume” in more grotesque fashion. In a lighter, if satiric vein, Aldous Huxley describes the inextinguishable Puritan Mrs. Grundy as resembling “the King and that infernal worm of the Bible—she cannot die” (Music at Night, “To the Puritan All Things are Impure”).
David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992).
The Garden of Earthly Delights
The works of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch are full of fantastic figures, expressions of the medieval belief in witchcraft and demons. Bosch specialized in religious allegories and satirical treatments of themes from everyday life. Despite a pessimism and stern morality, he influenced many later artists through his mastery of delicate tones and his loose, rapid, direct style. His work marked the end of medieval painting.
Bosch was born Jeroen van Aeken about 1450 in ’s-Hertogenbosch, now in the Netherlands. He joined a religious brotherhood in 1486 and for the rest of his life took an active part in the affairs of the Brotherhood of Our Lady.
His fame spread, and in 1506 he was paid for his Last Judgment, painted for the king of Castile (Spain). A fragment in Munich, Germany, is thought to be a part of the lost painting. A St. Anthony by Bosch is listed in a 1516 inventory of the collection of the king’s sister. Accounts of the time also mention some Bosch works in Venetian collections.
Of the 40 paintings attributed to Bosch, seven are signed but none dated. Bosch early dealt with traditional subjects in rough, clumsy works such as the Crucifixion. Later he painted great panoramic triptychs, or three-paneled paintings, that provided glimpses into a hellish pandemonium. Examples are The Temptation of St. Anthony and The Garden of Earthly Delights. In his late works he changed radically, painting dense groups of half-length figures that seem to be crowding forward out of the picture. Typical of these is The Crowning with Thorns, in which four executioners surround Jesus.
Although first recognized as an inventor of seeming nonsense, Bosch demonstrated insight into the depths of the mind and an ability to depict symbols of life and creation. Bosch died in ’s-Hertogenbosch on August 9, 1516.
“Bosch, Hieronymus,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).
Belting, Hans. Hieronymous Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights. London: Prestel, 2012.
Bosing, Walter. Bosch. Köln: Taschen, 2000.
I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.
Let’s explore together!
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Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.
He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.
He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.
Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.
He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.
Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com
Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.
Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).
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