Think of mixing Fellini with David Lynch, sprinkling in a little James Joyce, and having it all put on canvas by Salvador Dali. Termed by some as "the most creative painter of fantasy who ever lived," Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch inventively captured the elements of dreams and the reality of medieval life, blending into his vibrant, teeming landscapes the grotesque, the surreal, the obscure, the sexual, and the fantastic. His canvases swarm with figures, almost as if he had been afraid to leave any dead space in his compositions.
Even when his images seem incomprehensible, however, Bosch handled paint with an instinctive delicacy -- the evil, deformed creatures of his imagination are painted with exquisite refinement and mesmerizing beauty. Deemed a religious painter, he nonetheless blended satire, pessimistic content, humor, and a deep interest in everyday life to convey corrupt, frail humanity in one of the last profound expressions of the medieval worldview.
Any understanding of Bosch requires grounding oneself in his world: Europe at the end of the fifteenth century was a complex web of superstitions, heresies, mystic pronouncements, itinerant preachers, and religious brotherhoods. Add to this repression, lots and lots of repression.
His "Garden of Earthly Delights" triptych, arguably his most famous work, conveys many of these themes to wild effect. A huge masterpiece completed in 1500 and now housed at the Prado in Madrid, the canvas is a study in lust. Employing the metaphor of the garden, Bosch populates the picture with exquisitely rendered images of cavorting, naked women, nude men astride fantastic, mutant animals, winged figures transporting succulent red fruit, and lots of touching, stroking, kissing, and fondling.
Upon closer observation, Bosch's riotous images and colors, seemingly random and free-associative, reveal themselves instead as precise, carefully selected symbols, fleshing out sobering allegories. For example, the left section of "Garden of Earthly Delights" features an enormous glass bubble containing a pair of lovers. The motif of the glass sphere was associated both with the instruments of the alchemist and with an ancient Flemish proverb that says: "Happiness is like a glass, which soon breaks."
Hell, another favorite topic of the times, was depicted by Bosch in his "Last Judgment" (1506-08) as a devilish, gigantic kitchen that features huge, sharp knives transformed into machines of torture. Bosch freely reinterpreted secular and religious motifs with unbridled creativity, not so much exploring the world of the subconscious, but rather reveling in every thematic variation, allusion, and symbol available to him -- causing him to be labeled a heretic by later generations.