In This Article Hieronymus Bosch

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Technical Studies
  • Museum Exhibitions
  • Bibliographies
  • Early Sources
  • Essay Collections
  • Life and Times
  • Patrons and Early Collectors
  • Style and Attribution
  • Followers in the 16th Century
  • Bosch in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Renaissance and Reformation Hieronymus Bosch
by
Laurinda Dixon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0064

Introduction

The art of Hieronymus Bosch (b. c. 1450–d. 1516) has challenged and fascinated viewers since the 15th century. His hybrid creatures and creative monstrosities seem unprecedented in the art historical canon and therefore mysterious to 21st-century viewers. Adding to this general sense of bafflement is the fact that we know perhaps less about Bosch than any other artist of his era. Unlike his famous contemporaries, Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci, who documented their lives and works in copious letters and writings, Bosch left us nothing in his own words. His date of birth is unknown, and we cannot say if he ever left his birthplace, the town of ’s-Hertogenbosch (the modern city of den Bosch, the Netherlands), from which he took his professional name. For the most part, the art itself is all that is left us, although ironically documentation does exist for several lost paintings. Today, only about twenty-five works are accepted as by Bosch’s hand, and his name appears on only seven of these. None shows a date. With the advent of sophisticated means of technical examination of panels, even these few are being disputed. No less important is the question of meaning in Bosch’s works, which were produced at a time when artists delighted in veiling content within layers of enigma and symbolism. As scholars continue to delve into the historical and artistic contexts from which Bosch evolved, the inscrutable painter emerges as a man of his time, conversant in the historical, intellectual, and religious controversies of his day. His works reflect a tumultuous era, different from, but no less complex than our own.

General Overviews

The last fifty years have experienced a revival of interest in Bosch, resulting in a plethora of scholarly literature. Monographic studies before this time often sacrificed objectivity in favor of hyperbolic description and copious photographic reproductions. Modern scholarship now eschews the idea that Bosch’s imagery has no meaning beyond its ability to shock and fascinate. In fact, Bosch’s motifs and metaphors, enlivened by a unique sense of fantasy and wit, embody serious notions of piety and morality, which were also addressed by the major thinkers of his day. Bosch’s revolutionary landscapes and innovative use of genre motifs evolved from and expanded the Netherlandish visual tradition that formed him. Gibson 1973 was the first to consider Bosch’s oeuvre in this balanced and rational way, followed in Vandenbroeck 1987, which applies sociological theory to Bosch’s subject matter, and Dixon 2003, which emphasizes the influence of medieval scientific traditions. The quincentenary of Bosch’s death in 2016 was marked by several new monographs and major exhibitions of his work (see Ilsink and Koldeweij 2016 and Maroto 2016, both cited under Museum Exhibitions). Among the best are Schwartz 2016, which updates Gibson’s mainstream approach to Bosch’s iconography in a similarly engaging way. Koerner 2016 views Bosch’s iconographical approach similarly, but coins the term “enemy painting,” to describe the effect of marshalling fear and dread in the viewer. The Jheronimus Bosch Art Center in ’s-Hertogenbosch marked this important year by hosting a variety of events related to the painter, and maintains a website for public access. Monographs on Bosch continue to be published and eagerly bought by the public, especially in light of the five hundredth anniversary of his death. The following is a highly selective listing of collected essays, containing new material and original approaches to the problem of Bosch.

  • Dixon, Laurinda. Bosch. London: Phaidon, 2003.

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    Presents Bosch as a man of his times, active in the life of his community, and conversant with the religious, social, and intellectual developments of his day. Bosch’s works reflect a world of mutable boundaries and multiple points of view. Good general survey suitable for undergraduates.

  • Gibson, Walter S. Hieronymus Bosch. London: Thames & Hudson, 1973.

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    Although out of date, this engaging book is still solid in its tenets, emphasizing the historical and cultural significance of Bosch’s works in the context of Christian orthodox piety. If supplemented with selected readings and better images, it is an excellent source for students.

  • Jheronimus Bosch Art Center.

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    The center, located in ’s-Hertogenbosch, maintains an authoritative web presence, featuring selective bibliographical references, suitable for the general public, and information dealing with exhibitions and events related to Bosch.

  • Koerner, Joseph Leo. Bosch & Bruegel, From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life. Vol. 57. Bollingen Series 35. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

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    A collection of the author’s lectures delivered at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, in 2007. Koerner studies the works of Bosch and his later follower Pieter Bruegel the Elder as a continuum. As exemplars of the genre tradition, they therefore serve as a seductive trap, representing the powers of evil in direct contrast to Godliness. Written in a captivating philosophical theoretical prose style, this study presents the image itself as an enemy of piety. Includes notes and index, but no bibliography.

  • Schwartz, Gary. Jheronimus Bosch, The Road to Heaven and Hell. New York and London: Overlook Duckworth, 2016.

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    In clear language and an accessible style, Schwartz explores Bosch’s links to the institutions of his hometown, including the confraternity of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, and to the larger religious, literary, institutional, and artistic institutions that provided inspiration for his fertile imagination. Appropriate for students and the general readership.

  • Vandenbroeck, Paul. Jheronimus Bosch: Tussen Volksleven en Stadscultuur. Berchem, Belgium: EPO, 1987.

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    An important study of the urban, middle-class social milieu in which Bosch worked, although somewhat burdened by sociological and anthropological terminology and controversial in its designation of certain works by Bosch as secular while they may also address Christian values.

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