What feast of playful horrors is contained in any work by Hieronymus Bosch? This is one of his earliest. Before Bosch let his imagination travel to the land of hybrid creatures and the ironic tortures of Hell, for which he is best known (see his Garden of Earthly Delights on the other side of the same room in the Prado) he engaged us in a visual riddle that asks of us not what we see, but how we look.
This is the year of Bosch, the 500th anniversary of his death (scholars guess, we don’t really know his birth and death dates precisely), with major exhibitions popping up all over, from Boston to Madrid to his hometown (see a review of that exhibition in this magazine). There is also a hot debate launched by the hometown exhibit—some researchers now believe that this painting was not by Bosch, whereas the Prado museum, its owner, vehemently supports it authorship by the master.
The painter Hieronymus van Aachen (1450-1516) was born in the Dutch town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, from which he took the nickname Bosch. His precise birthdate is unknown, 1450 having been estimated by inference—a self-portrait of Bosch exists dated 1516, in which he looks about sixty years old. It is a wonder that the Prado boasts several of his paintings, as fewer than 25 works worldwide have been definitively attributed to him. His art has been described as prefiguring Surrealism, as allegorical representations of alchemy, as Freudian projections of the libido, and as nightmarish morality plays. He was fascinated with illustrations of sin and its punishment in the afterlife. But his approach was at once horrifying and playful, which appealed to the morose and brooding collector Philip II of Spain, who assembled these artworks that may be seen here.
The predecessor to Bosch’s visions of human moral failures and the ironic penalties for them exacted in Hell were the Last Judgment scenes in medieval church frescoes. These were meant to provide a visual vocabulary that illiterate church-goers would understand, showing them how not to behave (no gambling, flirting, or dancing on Sundays!) and the terrors that awaited them should they falter from the moral path through life (ironic tortures that invert the pleasurable sins in life into some unpleasant extrapolation of them). Such scenes provided the chance for an artist to stretch his creative wings, inventing tortures at the hands of fantastic demons. Bosch’s update of this trope is a nightmare dreamscape about which Freud would write, for Bosch incorporated elements of real life in his otherworldly depictions that echoed Freud’s, and later Carl Jung’s, beliefs about dreams.
Nightmares are an outlet, a projection of the guilt we feel about what we have done in our waking life, taking the action for which we feel guilty and distorting it into an imaginative punishment in our dreams. A psychological interpretation is neither extemporaneous nor contradictory to medieval morality. It simply gives a different title to human actions and failings. What is to the modern age of psychology the subconscious and the libido, was to medieval theologians the voice of the Devil and Original Sin.
These lessons may be applied to the work before us, entitled The Seven Sins and the Four Last Things. The support onto which Bosch paints is a wooden table top, rather than a canvas or traditional panel. We are meant to look down upon it. His composition is in the round, meant to be seen from all sides. Walk around it as you gaze. Like a Wheel of Fortune, we see the seven deadly sins: lust, greed, gluttony, envy, sloth, pride, wrath. We do not need to read to understand which sin is depicted in each image. See if you can identify them. Painted in the four corners are the potential points of salvation or condemnation which would result from refraining from, or submitting to, these sins: a dying man’s confession, Last Judgment, Hell, and Heaven. And in the middle of the sin circle is Christ, rising out of a sarcophagus to judge the quick and the dead.
But what is it that we see? There is something else there, but it is obscure. Our minds register something, but know not what. Take a step back, close your eyes and open them again. Is it? It is. The entire composition of the painting, when viewed without focusing in on individual painted scenes, is in the form of a great eye staring up at you. It is you, the viewer, to whom this work is addressed. You are the subject of Christ’s stare, as he watches your every move, should you fall into sin. The center of the eye bears the chilling Latin inscription: Cave, cave deus videt.
Beware, beware, God is watching you.