Saints and villains, animals and demons: everyday life painted by Bosch

Painting by Hieronymus Bosch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

a forerunner of genre painting

Francesco Stocchi

“Another Renaissance” is the exhibition at Palazzo Reale in Milan that houses the works of the painter, who became famous for the monsters that populate his paintings

A wanderer with mismatched shoes, gaunt, with an uncertain look backwards seems to leave misery and desolation. He is the symbol of man in his life path, a sort of “Everyman”, a popular moral tale from the end of the 15th century. Represents the “homo viator”, the pilgrim who goes through life weighed down by the baggage of his earthly existence. He faces his fate along a path full of temptations. It seems that a prosperous future awaits him, if he can continue without too much delay.

Let’s change the scene. In a vast landscape dotted with extraordinary scenes (a man intent on hanging a bear after having pierced it with his arrow, another, naked, runs away chased by a swan, a huge fish tries to jump over the walls of a castle … ), the pagan giant Reprobus carries a child across a river. During the crossing the child becomes unbearably heavy. It is Jesus, who bears the burden of the sins of the world. He baptizes the giant Christopher (Christ bearer) who becomes the patron saint of travelers.

And then elsewhere, a homeless man with a basket on his back is about to step onto a rickety bridge. He tries with a stick to keep a thin dog with scary teeth at a distance. Behind him, a man is tied to a tree, the victim of three robbers about to take his possessions. Apparently unaware of the robbery, a shepherd and a shepherdess dance among their sheep to the sound of a bagpipe. In the distance a crowd has gathered around a gallows.

Two panels, two scenes. The one on the left shows a city on firethe whole is teeming with diabolical figures. The right panel depicts the shipwreck of the Ark where Noah and his family are on the deck as the pairs of animals land through a trap door in the desolation after the flood.

In three medallions, real visions, here are the devils attack and terrorize a farm. Dead cattle lie in front of the house. An elegantly dressed woman raises her hands to the sky and takes flight, while a man kneels to pray. A devil takes over the farmer’s crop while the demons pull a man out of the house to whip him. Finally, in the fourth medallion, Christ brings salvation.

Scenes that seem to have been taken from everyday life, enriched by dreams or nightmares with an allegorical function. The result is a symbolic construction that using an apparently truthful image of the late Middle Ages becomes even more pregnant in the conscience of those who read these images. Read more than contemplate because given their richness and scenic complexity, the works of Bosch they offer themselves to a reading rather than a simple vision. Each one, following the images, creates his own literature where the profane is connected in a natural way to the Christian. This blend of the everyday and the supernatural shows how close the artist can be said to our current visual language, shaped by a constant flow of movies (stories) and images (visions).

Bosch, the great pioneer of everyday representation, was probably born around 1450 into a family of artists: his great-grandfather, grandfather, father and uncles were all painters. They were called Van Aachen, from the name of the city of origin of the family. Only Jheronimus bore the surname Bosch, from his hometown, ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Perhaps he called himself that to make his customers understand, most of whom were out of the ordinary, where he lived. Where can Bosch be found? A ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

Bosch’s work (around twenty paintings remain) is animated by biblical scenes and scenes from everyday life, saints and villains, animals and demons. He has become famous for the monsters that populate his paintings of him in various forms. A little lazily associated with the adjective passeparout “surreal”, in reality its associations and references follow a precise method and direction, aimed not at surprising or fantasizing but at teaching, showing the meaning of things but wanting to go beyond this learning. More than a surrealist therefore, a forerunner of genre painting.

“Bosch and another Renaissance” is the title of the exhibition set up at the Palazzo Reale in Milan. Inaugurated last Wednesday, it will be open to the public until 12 March.

Saints and villains, animals and demons: everyday life painted by Bosch