Realist Ahead of His Time

Hieronymus Bosch 1470-1516

The paintings of Jerome “Hieronymus” Bosch have mystified critics and scholars for 500 years. They are in the Gothic style of the Middle Ages but have a uniqueness all their own. Looking at his work from the perspective of P-A, we find that he expresses, albeit unconsciously, some of the deepest truths of the human condition.

His most famous work, The Garden of Earthly Delights, is wonderfully complex. Playing off the interpretive remarks of the author David Piper we can see that Hieronymus Bosch “saw” more than he knew. “Bosch, however, seems indifferent to the rationalism and realism of north or of south [Italy]; instead, the symbolism underlying so much Netherlandish art seems in the Garden of Delights to have run riot, and become entirely detached from reality.”[i]  Bosch is in touch with a much more profound reality underlying the illusion (rationalism and realism) that people in his time and today take to be reality. He has revealed in the large triptych (7’ x 10’) the unconscious origins (detached from reality) of human behavior such as the shadow, id, ego, superego and the survival strategies of people seeking security, sensation and power.

The grotesque world Bosch sets before us is the very reality that people in his time and our own are trying to deny and escape from. “But its pessimism, and love-hate obsession with the world of the senses turned sinful and terrifying, are representative of a deep-seated strain in the Christian outlook.”[ii]  That outlook has changed remarkably little in the last 500 years in the West thanks in part to Christianity.

The P-B institution of religion remains an obstacle to seeing more profoundly into the nature of reality. An unwillingness to “see” both the light and the dark aspects of human nature increases the level of fear to the point that we flee before our own nature. Fear serves as dense fog magnifying the ominous, murky images of our own hidden shadows.

The meaning of it all is by no means clear. “Some of the symbolism seems fairly intelligible even now—for instance, the recurring giant soft fruits, strawberries, as a symbol of carnal appetite.”[iii]  The origin of much human anxiety is the belief in sin—the fear that we are grievously flawed—and will be punished by a deity whose love is not unconditional.

The paranoia of Church in relation to Bosch’s work revealed its unconsciousness as an institution. “The suggestion [belief] that the Garden of Delights is the visual manifest of an heretical creed has been abandoned.”[iv]

Because of the inability of those who would understand this very prescient painter to change to a more profound perspective, he remains an enigma in the world of art and psychology. “Psychoanalytical interpretation might seem more appropriate but has not yielded definite results. Bosch’s imagery had an immediate appeal to Surrealists and their followers, but their hindsight is of little help in determining what meaning it had for Bosch.”[v]   

Salvador Dali (1904-1989) would not have had difficulty relating to Bosch’s work and in fact we can think of Bosch as the first Surrealist 500 years ahead of his time foreshadowing Freud no less.

In his painting The Night (1919), Max Beckmann (1884-1950) was expressing his own dread about the future after experiencing the horrors of the First World War. He felt a responsibility to look at reality without flinching. “‘We must participate in the great misery to come,’ Beckmann wrote in 1920, ‘We have  to lay our hearts and nerves bare to the deceived cries of people who have been lied to, the sole justification for our existence as artists, superfluous and egoistic though we are, is to confront people with the images of their destiny.’”[vi]

It is important to realize that P-A transcends time and has always been relevant to those mystics who had attained the “right view.” It took Freud to give impetus to more general awareness of the deeper aspects of human nature than Bosch intuited all those centuries ago. “However, the twentieth century’s interest in Bosch is perhaps chiefly a reflection of its own interest in the Unconscious.”[vii]

Realist Ahead of His Time

[i]     Piper, David. The Illustrated History of Art. Octopus Publishing Group, London. 1986, page 98.

[ii]     Ibid.

[iii]    Ibid.

[iv]    Ibid.

[v]     Ibid.

[vi]    Hughes, Robert. The Shock of the New. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1981, page 290.

[vii]   Piper, op. cit., page 98.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.

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