Though 20th-century Surrealists have claimed him as a predecessor, Bosch must be understood in context of his own time. His fascinatingly gruesome paintings reflect the world he knew. No, he did not inhabit a demon-filled hell, but he did live in the late medieval world where war and plague were commonplace and fear of the approaching Apocalypse was palpable. According to the Book of Revelations, Christ would return to preside over the final destruction and judgement of the human race. Various theologians made numerous predictions over the centuries as to when this would happen; in Bosch’s lifetime alone, numerous dates were given: 1499, 1500, 1505, etc. Artistic representations of the Last Judgement often decorated churches and were designed to inspire fear and awe and few did this better than Bosch. Read from left to right, this triptych presents the fall of man and its hellish consequences. The left panel depicts Paradise as a lush pastoral landscape where several stories are told simultaneously: the creation of Eve, the serpent tempting Adam and Eve, the expulsion from Eden. Overhead, a battle rages with armed angels swarming like insects as Lucifer is expelled from heaven. The central panel is an apocalyptic landscape of steam and flame where demons inflict eternal and highly inventive torture on the damned. The seven deadly sins are all punished: in the lower left, a glutton is force fed excrement by devils; nearby, a grisly cook stews those guilty of avarice in a pot of molten gold; above on a roof, a nude woman so vain as to be oblivious to her punishment for pride, is lead by a dragon to a hellish bordello as a huge insect sinks its teeth into her pudenda; near her, a naked, lustful man waiting for a harlot is instead tormented by demons; in the right foreground, sinners are mutilated and impaled for their anger; above them, the slothful are shoed like horses by macabre blacksmiths; and in the centre foreground, a fat naked man in a hood, perhaps a corrupt judge, gets his just rewards for envy.
Above this darkness shine the participants of the Last Judgement: Jesus flanked by the Apostles, saints and trumpeting angels. However, there is no hope of salvation for those tormented below. Bosch depicts the aftermath of the decision, a chilling vision for the contemporary worshipper.
The right panel depicts an even deeper hell with its own nefarious Last Judgement, featuring the Prince of Darkness depicted with a rat’s body and stomach of fire deciding the horrific fate of sinners.
Bosch’s was an equal opportunity hell; prince or pauper, you could burn, and it was most likely a prince looking to avoid such a fate who commissioned this altarpiece. Except on Sundays and special occasions, the wings of a triptych were usually kept closed. The wings’ outer panels were also decorated and here Bosch has painted two grisaille portraits of Spanish St. James and Netherlandish St. Bavo. Based on the choice of saints, scholars have suggested that Philip the Handsome, the Habsburg ruler of Spain and the Netherlands, was the patron, a theory supported by the fact that St. Bavo resembles portraits of Philip.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1505 Giovanni Bellini: Virgin and Child with Saints, Venice, San Zaccaria
1507 – 8 Leonardo da Vinci: Virgin and Child with St John and St Anne, London National Gallery
1508 Albrecht Dürer: Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum