During my studies I’ve grown to like Northern renaissance art very much. The work done by Hieronymus Bosch has captivated me from the moment I laid eyes on his twisted and warped
land/hellscapes as well as his unsettling character portraits. The fact that the king of Spain was a major commissioner of Bosch’s work has also peaked my interest, and now I have reason to investigate this Netherlands/ Spain connection.
It seems fitting that I spend a good deal of time talking about this particular painter because of how far his painting had actually penetrated into Spain; the king Philip II’s own
collection. Bosch was a painter born in the Netherlands around the 1450s.(1) Around 30 to 40 paintings are thought to be attributed to him, however he has only signed about Seven of his works. Very little is actually known about him or the intended meaning behind the contents of his strange paintings because there is very little record of his personal life, however, we do know he married into a pharmacists family and was believed to have dabbled in alchemy himself. Beakers and vessels reminiscent of an alchemist’s lab appear in many of his paintings. Some say that exposure to heavy metals could have worn away at his sanity giving the artist his warped
hellscapes, twisted imagery, and vile hybrid demons/chimeras. Others contend that he could have suffered from Saint Anthony’s fire, which came from a fungus that effected wheat/rye during
this time (Ergotism) and produced LSD like effects(2) in the person who consumed said wheat. Being that Bosh painted many scenes with Saint Anthony, who himself suffered from
ergotism(3), would seem to correlate. It’s possible that both could have had influence on Bosch’s work. Bosh Died in 1516(1), more than a decade before King Philip II was even born (1527) (1) and forty years before he even came to power. This means that Philip II Never had any work commissioned by the painter, but instead imported works from the Netherlands (under Holy
Roman Empire rule, which was easy to do because his family ruled over both the HRE and the kingdom of Spain.) He is the reason why Spain has so many of the artists’ masterpieces, such as the famed Garden of Earthly Delights.
During the reign of Philip II, Spain was undergoing a battle for religious purity by forcing no believers to convert to Catholicism or kill those who resisted (1). Art had become religious propaganda and was accessible to the masses; many people were illiterate and depended on the church for [religious] education (1). Spain was not only looking after its inhabitants in life, but in the afterlife as well. Spain apparently was a proto-Orwellian state where thought crime (act of holding unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question the ruling party (2)) was heresy. How then did the king find the dark subjects and bizarre style of Bosch acceptable, and moreover worthy of his collection? Surely his paintings were heretical in their nature due to their ugliness and seemingly unholy mergers of monsters and men? Bosch himself was a devout Catholic, and was known to have belonged to a religious confraternity devoted to the Virgin Mary (3). While Bosch’s art may have been unorthodox, his faith was devout. Looking at his work one cannot help but be drawn in by its mesmerizing chaos. Being a Netherlandish painter, his work is full of allegory and anecdote which would take a great foothold in Spain; this would have been useful to people who do not know how to read, but would have been able to pick up on stories from iconography. One of his most famous paintings, The Garden of Earthly Delights, is a prime example of this. The painting itself has numerous interpretations, but on a basic level can be described as a triptych depicting what appears to be Adam and Eve with Christ the garden of Eden in the left panel, what seems to be a continuation of Eden with an orgy of humanity in the center panel, and in the far right panel a three tiered depiction of hell (Reminiscent of other works by the artist.) While the piece wouldn’t have been acceptable in a church setting, it serves a purpose in a pore private venue as it shows the folly of man. It’s been proposed that the first two panels show a world if Adam and eve had never been tempted of original sin as the people in the middle panel are all seemingly the same age as Adam and Eve, and that the panel of hell is a reminder of what awaits the sinners, or reminds the viewer what awaits them if the succumb to temptation themselves (4). It’s this reminder of man’s inherent evil nature that would have been attractive to Philip II as he believed the Catholic church’s duty to assure the salvation of peoples souls, as they were incapable of doing it themselves (protestants did not believe they needed a priest to mediate conversation with God.)
It's Bosch’s cryptic and unnerving depictions of biblical stories that made him grow in popularity in Spain. Throughout the entire composition of The Garden of Earthly Delights there are fantastical animals and creatures that combine beasts and man. It was written by Spanish writer and art patron in 1560 that Bosch was "the inventor of monsters and chimeras." (5) Bosch can be credited in influencing other masters like Pieter Bruegel the Elder, (See The Triumph of Death) and would introduce a proto- surrealist style four hundred years before Spanish painter
Salvador Dali put paint to canvas; the ripples of his effect on art in Spain are still felt in thetwentieth and twenty-first centuries.
(4) Smith, Jeffrey Chipps. "10." The Northern Renaissance. London: Phaidon, 2004. 333-40. Print.