home artnews artists Hieronymus Bosch: A Mysterious Master’s Early Life and Major Works

Claire Selvin


April 29, 2020 2:57pm

Mandatory Credit: Photo by The Art Archive/Shutterstock (5850820fe) The Garden of Earthly Delights, triptych, 1500-1505, grisaille, oil on oak panel, 205.6 x 386 cm. Central panel depicts the sinful world before Noah’s flood (Hieronymus Bosch) Art (Paintings) – various Artist: BOSCH, Hieronymus (1450-1516, Flemish) Location: Museo del Prado Madrid

The life and work of the Netherlandish artist Hieronymus Bosch, to whom 20 paintings have been definitively attributed, have long captivated audiences around the world. Considered one of the greatest artists of the Northern Renaissance, Bosch is known for creating restlessly imaginative works rich in religious symbolism, allegory, and fantastical elements depicted in bustling scenes across expansive compositions. If his crowded proto-Surrealist paintings have been acclaimed by many, his early life and the origins of his work are still less widely known. The guide below traces key milestones in Bosch’s youth and career up to the completion of his world famous work, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1500).

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He was born into a family of painters.
Hieronymus Bosch was born between 1450 and 1456 in the Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. He was the fourth of five children born to Antonius van Aken and Aleid van der Mynnen. Known as Jheronimus in his early years, Bosch’s grandfather Johannes Thomaszoon van Aken was among the most prominent painters in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the first half of the 15th century. According to art historian Stefan Fischer’s 2014 book Hieronymus Bosch: The Complete Works, Johannes built what was considered a “painter dynasty” for his family, affording his children and grandchildren relatively comfortable lives. While very little is known of Bosch’s father’s art practice, Hieronymus is first mentioned in documents as a member of Antonius’s workshop in 1475. 

A fire engulfed Bosch’s town in 1463.
On June 13, 1463, a fire raged through ‘s-Hertogenbosch, obliterating Bosch’s childhood home. It is believed that the artist bore witness to this disaster, which was perhaps one of the most devastating events of his early life. It’s possible that the catastrophic incident influenced Bosch’s later works, some of which include blazes raging in their backgrounds.

As a young man, Bosch married a merchant’s daughter.
Scholars are still unsure what, exactly, Bosch was up to between 1475 and 1480, but they do know he married Aleid van der Mervenne, who came from a wealthy family, sometime between 1480 and 1481. According to Fischer, Bosch benefited from the funds, land, and status that came with the union, and he established his own workshop soon after the pair married. At this point in his life, Bosch became an artist in his own right, and he was poised to make meaningful connections with influential royal patrons.

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Hieronymus Bosch, Crucifixion with Saints and Donor, ca. 1490, oil on panel.J. GELEYNS/© ROYAL MUSEUMS OF FINE ARTS OF BELGIUM

The artist’s earliest known works depicted explicitly religious scenes.
A painting titled Crucifixion with Saints and Donor (ca. 1485–90), which is now held in the collection at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, is believed to be among Bosch’s earliest surviving pieces. Fischer writes that, while it remains unknown where it was originally displayed, the painting, like many other devotional images of the period, was created to ensure salvation for the soul of the donor depicted kneeling at the foot of the cross. Crucifixion with Saints and Donor is something of an outlier in a body of work that favors eccentric, dizzying, and disconcerting compositions, and Bosch would later project his idiosyncratic style onto various religious subjects.

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Hieronymus Bosch, St. John the Baptist in Meditation, ca. 1490, oil on panel.WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Bosch’s iconic style begins to reveal itself in paintings of saints.
The rich colors and the bizarre imagery of The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1500) are prefigured by less strange subject matter: Bosch’s early pictures of saints. His painting St. Jerome at Prayer (ca. 1485–90) shows the saint clutching a crucifix contorting his body so as to fit within a compact enclosure in the wilderness. St. John the Baptist in Meditation (ca. 1490), an oil on panel painting in the collection of the Fundación Lázaro Galdiano in Madrid, shows the saint dressed in a vivid red robe slightly obscured by an otherworldly—and somewhat threatening—plant of monumental size. And in Bosch’s two-winged St. John on Patmos, an altarpiece made for the exclusive Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, a religious co-fraternity of which Bosch was a member, a wiry devil with reptilian extremities and a small fire burning above his head conspires in the corner of the composition to thwart Saint John’s writing of the Book of Revelation.

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Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1494, grisaille on oak panel.WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

An early commission by an Antwerp couple foreshadowed his hellish scenes.
Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1494), which is part of the collection at the Prado Museum in Madrid, is widely considered a masterpiece by Bosch. The work depicting the biblical event on its interior panels was commissioned by donors Peeter Scheyfve and Agneese de Gramme of Antwerp. Replete with elaborate details and religious symbolism, the painting shows Mary and Jesus receiving gifts beneath a thatched roof in disrepair. Ghostly faces of astonished onlookers peer around the side of the house, and the donors of the work are pictured on the far left and right wings of the piece. Beyond the central action and the imminent collision of two armies in the background, Bosch has rendered a sprawling—if not entirely accurate—city of Bethlehem. The relative tranquility of this verdant and expansive composition would soon give way to chaotic and nightmarish interpretations of religious scenes.

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Hieronymus Bosch, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, ca. 1500, oil on oak.GIANNI DAGLI ORTI/SHUTTERSTOCK

As he became successful, scary visions emerged in his work.
According to Fischer, Bosch started employing at least one assistant by 1499, just before he completed another show-stopping masterpiece of unknown patronage. That he was able to hire an assistant at all was a sign that he achieved success. Soon, Bosch would produce The Temptation of Saint Anthony (ca. 1500), a triptych whose interior chronicles futile attempts by demons and other evil forces to coerce Saint Anthony from salvation. The busy central panel, which shows a hellscape of flames, is inhabited by multifarious creatures that try to lure Saint Anthony into debauchery and sin.

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Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail), 1490-1500, oil on oak panel.GIANNI DAGLI ORTI/SHUTTERSTOCK

The Garden of Earthly Delights was painted for a count’s marriage.
Bosch’s most famous painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, was made to commemorate Count Henry II of Nassau-Breda’s wedding. Fischer explains that the piece was intended to illustrate the “benefits and hazards” of marriage through the lens of biblical storytelling. The triptych shows Adam and Eve in a harmonious landscape on the left, a hedonistic paradise at the center, and a blazing hell awaiting the unbridled lovers on the right panel. But, as with many of his other works, Bosch’s penchant for humor and absurdity shines through his masterpiece. Nude figures twist their spindly bodies around one another and perform acrobatic poses, birds and animals look on or join in the erotic revelry, and some participants congregate in snug shells and enclosures of various shapes and colors. Levity can even be found in the macabre scenes of destruction on the triptych’s right side, where a pair of giant ears wields a massive knife and monumental musical instruments are used as torture devices. More than 500 years after its creation, The Garden of Earthly Delights, which puts Bosch’s boundless imagination on full view, remains a source of intense fascination and entertainment for art historians and art lovers alike.

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