More than 400 years before LSD was even invented, the Netherlandish artist Hieronymus Bosch created some of history’s trippiest paintings. His scenes feature such grotesqueries as devils on ice skates; hare-headed demons; knights being eaten alive by dog-lizard hybrids; and a pig in a nun’s habit kissing a naked man. He makes Salvador Dali look like Norman Rockwell.
For the first time, Bosch’s complete works have been collected in one luxurious, 300-page volume, to be published by Taschen this February in view of the upcoming 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death in 1516. Hieronymous Bosch: The Complete Works features full-color prints of the 20 paintings and eight drawings that make up his oeuvre, along with essays by preeminent Bosch scholar Stefan Fischer.
“Bosch is one of the very few painters who--he was indeed more than a painter!--who acquired a magic vision,” Henry Miller wrote in 1957. “He saw through the phenomenal world, rendered it as transparent, and thus revealed its pristine aspect.”
Bosch would likely have been an anomalous character in any age, but he certainly didn’t fit in with the artistic climate of the Late Gothic and Early Renaissance period in which he worked. Most Flemish and Renaissance painters, like Jan van Eyck or Albrecht Durer, favored solemn, realistic portraits and traditional depictions of religious iconography, not hallucinatory metaphor. But Bosch’s embrace of the freakish sublime did not render him a social outcast, as viewers of his work might assume--he was a member of the Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, an elite religious group in his home of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where he was born in 1450. His work was lauded in his time and commissioned by several princely patrons.
Best of all in Taschen’s comprehensive new book is a foldout spread more than three feet long of the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch’s most ambitious work, painted on three oak panels. In the first, God presents Eve to Adam, surrounded by a dancing weasel and undulating flocks of birds. The central panel presents Humankind before the Flood, a freakish bacchanalia of frolicking nudes, including a horde of people climbing out of a river and into a giant eggshell, and a passionate couple in a big bubble of amniotic fluid. In his book on the painting, American writer Peter Beagle called it an “erotic derangement that turns us all into voyeurs, a place filled with the intoxicating air of perfect liberty." The scene darkens in the triptych's right panel, a vicious hellscape brimming with fire and damned souls.
“Of what did Bosch dream? Of Christ’s Passion, of the wickedness and stupidity of the soldiers, of the vanity and transience of this earthly life, of Hell with its instruments of torture, of the temptation against which the holy men are capable of putting up little resistance,” German art historian Max Jakob Friedlander wrote in 1941. Finally available to the public in book form, the full collection of Bosch's painted dreams is an earthly delight not to be missed.
Hieronymus Bosch: The Complete Works is available for purchase from Taschen for $150.