Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings are all about the details. The celebrated Early Netherlandish painter is known for his Biblically-themed landscapes, which he peppered with fantastical—and often macabre—micro-portraits of humans, animals, monsters, and hybrid creatures. Many of these works are thought to illustrate humanity’s foibles, or serve as a cautionary reminder of sinners’ eternal fates.
Bosch was presumably born in 1450, and was in his mid- to late 60s when he died in 1516. In honor of the quincentenary of Bosch’s funeral mass, which was held on August 9, 1516, here are eight facts about the artist’s life, work, and legacy.
1. HISTORIANS DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT BOSCH.
Few artists are as revered—or as mysterious—as Hieronymous Bosch. At the height of his career, he was famous throughout Europe, and art lovers in the Netherlands, Spain, Austria, and Italy enjoyed (and often imitated) his work. Still, historians know surprisingly little about the painter’s life.
Bosch left behind no diaries, letters, or documents. Further complicating things, art historians say there are only around 25 known paintings and some 20 drawings worldwide attributed to the artist. Also, Bosch never dated his works, so we don’t know exactly when he painted them, or how old he was at their time of completion.
Here’s what we do know about Bosch: He was born in the Dutch municipality of 's-Hertogenbosch, likely between 1450 and 1455. (Like many aspects of Bosch’s life, his exact birth date is unknown.) Records show that he spent much of his life in his hometown, and that his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and most of his uncles were also painters. Bosch’s father, Antonius van Aken, was an artistic adviser to the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, a prestigious Christian confraternity that revered the Virgin Mary. Bosch, himself, joined the fraternity in the late 1480s.
The artist was also a husband: Around 1480, he married Aleyt Goijaert van den Mervenne (sometimes written as Aleyt Goyaerts van den Meerveen, among other spellings). She was from a wealthy merchant family in the nearby town of Oirschot, where they moved soon after.
The Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady recorded Bosch’s death in 1516, and his funeral mass was held at the church of Saint John on August 9 of the same year. Experts don’t know how Bosch died, or his precise date of death.
In short, Bosch was a respected, influential, and wealthy member of his Dutch community—a life that belies his morbidly creative mind.
2. BOSCH IS KNOWN BY MANY NAMES.
Bosch’s life is ambiguous, and so is his name. Over the centuries, the artist’s first name has been recorded as Heironymous, Jheronimus, Jeroen, Jerom, and Jerome. And in 1604, Dutch art historian Karel van Mander—the artist’s first biographer—used the name Ieronimus. Around the same time period, 16th-century art critic José de Sigüenza wrote Bosch’s first name as Jerónimo.
As for the painter’s last name, it isn’t even really Bosch: His hometown, 's-Hertogenbosch, was colloquially known by locals as Den Bosch, and Bosch chose to adopt this moniker as his surname. Historians have recorded Bosch’s real last name as Anthonissen, Anthoniszoon, van Aken, or van Aeken.
Most contemporary sources say that Bosch’s birth name was, in fact, Jheronimus van Aken—so why so many monikers? Art historian Nils Büttner offers some clarity in his 2016 biography, Hieronymus Bosch: Visions and Nightmares. According to Büttner, Bosch used the name Hieronymus van Aken while signing official legal documents. (The Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady’s records also refer to him by this name.) Publicly, Bosch went by the name Jheronimus Bosch. Meanwhile, Bosch’s family and peers simply called him Joen. Today, most academics simply refer to the artist as Hieronymus Bosch.
3. BOSCH'S MOST FAMOUS WORK IS
THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS
Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bosch may have died 500 years ago, but contemporary musicians, designers, choreographers, artists, and authors continue to draw inspiration from his works—mainly from his most famous painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights.
English rock band XTC recorded a track called “Garden of Earthly Delights” for their 1989 album Oranges & Lemons. In 2015, Raf Simons—who served as Christian Dior’s creative director from 2012 until late 2015—based an entire fashion collection on the painting. Choreographer and director Martha Clarke distilled the work into a dance/theater production. For its Spring/Summer 2014 season, Dr. Martens created Bosch-inspired heaven and hell-printed boots, shoes, and bags. Crime writer Michael Connelly named his popular Detective Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch character after the painter. There’s even a Bosch-themed coloring book.
Though The Garden of Earthly Delights (1510-1515)—which portrays the entire human experience, from earthly life to heaven or hell, in three attached canvases—is Bosch's undisputed masterpiece, he created other fantastical, lesser-known works, like The Last Judgment and The Haywain Triptych. Both paintings trace humanity’s path from creation to a sinful earthly existence, all the way to fiery damnation.
4. MANY OF HIS WORKS HAVE BEEN LOST OVER THE CENTURIES.
Many of Bosch’s works are thought to have been created for religious patrons. However, influential secular figures might have also enjoyed and purchased his elaborate paintings. For example, The Garden of Earthly Delights was displayed in Hendrik III of Nassau's Brussels palace by 1517—meaning either the ruler or another wealthy patron likely commissioned it.
Not all of Bosch’s paintings survived the centuries, and some that were once attributed to him have been debunked as imitations. But thanks in part to wealthy early collectors, like Philip II of Spain—who amassed multiple Bosch works during the late 16th century—many of them can today be seen in museums like Madrid's Museo Nacional del Prado.
5. EXPERTS RECENTLY REDISCOVERED A "LOST" BOSCH PAINTING.
Bosch’s paintings belong to some of the world’s most famous museums: the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to name a few. But until recently, one of the painter’s forgotten works sat in storage for decades at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum had acquired the painting—which was likely once part of a triptych—in the 1930s. Called The Temptation of St. Anthony, it depicts the titular saint filling a jug with water as he supports himself with a staff. Tiny, surreal figures hover in the foreground: a floating sausage, a fox-monster hybrid, and a toad wriggling out of the water.
The work was likely produced between 1500 and 1510. Experts believed it was created by one of Bosch’s art pupils, who studied at a workshop he ran in 's-Hertogenbosch. But in early 2016, experts who participated in an international research project called the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) announced that Bosch himself had painted The Temptation of St. Anthony. The researchers spent years examining this painting, along with other Bosch-attributed works held by museums around the world. They concluded in a statement that “Bosch’s hand is still clearly recognizable in the original brushwork.”
Needless to say, the “lost” work is no longer in storage: Earlier this year, Bosch’s hometown, 's-Hertogenbosch, held a major retrospective at the Noordbrabants Museum. The event was called “Jheronimus Bosch—Visions of a Genius,” and was timed to coincide with the 500-year anniversary of Bosch’s death. It featured 17 of the artist’s surviving paintings, including The Temptation of St. Anthony. It also showcased 19 of his drawings, one of them a newly discovered work called The Infernal Landscape. (Sadly, The Garden of Earthly Delights was deemed too fragile to be transported from its current home at Madrid's Prado.)
BRCP also discovered that two Bosch-attributed works from the Museo Nacional del Prado, The Cure of Folly and another work called The Temptation of St. Anthony, were likely painted by his pupils. These works were pulled from "Visions of a Genius" shortly before it opened on February 13, 2016.
6. BOSCH MIGHT HAVE INCLUDED A SELF-PORTRAIT IN
THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS.
There are no reliable surviving portraits of Bosch, so we don’t know exactly what he looked like. However, one art historian, Hans Belting, believed he incorporated his own figure into The Garden of Earthly Delights. Belting theorized that the cracked eggshell-man in middle of the third panel is Bosch, smiling ironically at the viewer.
7. THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS INSPIRED A BLOGGER TO CREATE IRREVERENT MUSIC.
In 2014, a Tumblr blogger named Amelia was studying The Garden of Earthly Delights when she noticed a peculiar detail: a series of musical notes tattooed on the posterior of one of Bosch’s tortured sinners. She zoomed in on the notes, transcribed them into modern notation, and recorded a piano version of the “600-years-old butt song from Hell,” as she referred to it in a blog post. Someone also wrote accompanying lyrics (Sample line: “We sing from our asses while burning in purgatory”). Amelia called the song "The Music Written on This Dude's Butt.”
You can listen to the song online—but, as Amelia herself points out, keep in mind that there are probably errors in the transcription, and the original tune likely sounded different during Bosch’s era.
8. BOSCH'S HOMETOWN HOSTS AN ANNUAL FLOATING PARADE HONORING HIS LEGACY.
You can celebrate the painter’s legacy by attending the annual Bosch Parade, a floating river extravaganza that’s typically held each June in 's-Hertogenbosch. The region’s creative types pool together to build elaborate, Bosch-themed floats, which they navigate down the Dommel River as thousands of onlookers enjoy the spectacle from land.
Additional Source: Hieronymus Bosch: Visions and Nightmares, Nils Büttner