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Modern Surrealism in the 16th Century

I’ll wager that the name Hieronymus Bosch is not on the tip of anybody’s tongue. But, then again, maybe it is. He may have painted in the 16th century but his work is still popular in the surrealist corners of the 21st century. It’s trendy enough to adorn socks, Doc Martens, and skateboards in the last decade or so. And Metallica used one of his paintings as inspiration for their video Until it Sleeps. His style was extremely distinctive, especially for its time. If you take a look at this triptych of The Last Judgment (1503) you’ll see why one writer described Bosch’s work as ‘daydreams and nightmares.’ It’s a good fit for our dark turn towards Halloween.

The final Christian judgment isn’t a unique topic in western art. You could even call it pedestrian. Bosch just had a peculiar way of handling this staple of Christian theology. His Garden of Eden on the left mostly conforms to artistic norms: it’s a beautiful landscape and the Adam and Eve story follows the standard Biblical arc. But what’s happening up there in the sky is terrifying, more so because no one below sees it coming. God has expelled rebellious angels from his presence and the falling devils look like a swarm of insects locked in aerial combat. Darkness, terror, and violence are all descending on the idyllic world below. And I don’t need to tell you that they’re not coming to have ghoulish fun.

Judgment and hell take up the other two panels. If the left panel was meant as a portent, here is what it foreshadowed. The typical ‘hell’ imagery of fire and destruction is present but moved to the background. That leaves us to be primarily confronted with an overwhelming orgy of torture. Those devils descending from the sky over Eden are having their way with the world now. Zoom in and look at some of the things going on. The demons flay, burn, boil, mutilate, castrate, rape, impale, and dismember at will. Typical judgment scenes depict the virtuous on one side and the damned on the other, but here all we see is the gross and relentless dispatch of the damned. The way he portrayed it manages to be graphic without being gratuitous, though, which makes us think about the purpose all of this serves. In Bosch’s mind, humanity let it come to this, which is especially dark. It’s really inventive, even a little bit sci-fi for 16th century. He likely painted it with the help of assistants. But it’s still his vision even if he didn’t personally imagine every detail. So I have to ask, what kind of mind comes up with this stuff? I wish I could pry into his brain to find out. Or maybe go back in time to chat with him as it came together.

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