Far from being a pervert or a fanatic, as some have supposed, Hieronymus Bosch was a man of his time who reflected the thoughts and fears of a society obsessed with the apocalypse, argues Laurinda Dixon.
There is no parallel in the history of art to Hieronymus Bosch's so-called Garden of Earthly Delights. The best-known work of the Dutch painter has fascinated and challenged viewers for half a millennium.
When opened, the triptych's three scenes reveal what seems to be a straightforward biblical account. Adam and Eve appear in the left panel, their many children in the centre, and hellfire and damnation fills the right. On further inspection, however, things are not as they should be.
To begin with, no descendants of the first parents ever lived so well.
Instead of the thorns and thistles the Bible says were food for Eve's children, Bosch's multitude of young, handsome folk feast on giant strawberries. They seem more like children at play, taking exuberant advantage of a world devoid of any hint of danger or evil as they frolic naked among giant birds and gleefully place flowers in bodily orifices best left unexposed in polite society.
Some modern scholars, viewing the nudity in Bosch's triptych with post-Freudian eyes and post-Victorian morality, assume the painting is a sermon on the wages of sin and the transience of human pleasures. Others see rampant immorality and claim the artist was a heretic or pervert. Dutch art historian Paul Vandenbroeck recently called the triptych "a warning against the consequences of sexual perversion", an interpretation that relies on a stubborn persistence of modern cultural conventions regarding nudity that did not exist in the Renaissance.
Some scholars believe the meaning of Bosch's painting was accessible only to a highly trained elite. Others find clues in bourgeois vernacular culture and fundamentalist Christian morality. Yet another approach is championed by those who deny any deeper meaning altogether. To them, Bosch's paintings are visual extravaganzas.
The more we study Bosch's paintings, the more obvious it becomes that the artist was neither a fanatic nor a heretic. He was, rather, a man of his time, active in the religious life of his community and conversant with numerous aspects of human experience and intellectual inquiry. Though some more sensational theories are slow to die (such as that Bosch was a member of a secret, heretical sect of nudists) most scholars now realise that his art, strange as it is to modern sensibilities, possessed a profound significance for his contemporary audience.
Complicating matters is the fact that Bosch's name appears on only seven of the 25 or so works attributed to him. None shows a date. We have no information about the original owners or intended functions of these paintings. Even the number of pieces considered to be by Bosch is disputed.
His style was widely copied in the late 16th century by people using his name to cash in on his notoriety. Experts are forced to admit that traditional assumptions about how Renaissance artists worked are highly suspect in Bosch's case.
His paintings have also suffered at the hands of past owners, having been insensitively restored, overpainted and literally cut to pieces in the 500 years since they were created. Scientific analysis now allows us to date the age of wood panels, so some of these crimes against Bosch's art can be resolved, if not forgiven.
A spectacular example is the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen's recent, but temporary, reunion of four Bosch paintings: the Ship of Fools (from the Louvre, Paris), the Death of the Miser (from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC), the Allegory of Gluttony (from the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven) and the so-called Wanderer (from the Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam). Although intended to be seen as parts of a triptych, they now reside in four museums, separated by thousands of miles, an ocean and sensitive national politics.
We know next to nothing about Bosch's life. No documents exist that pinpoint his artistic training and formative influences. Unlike his younger contemporary Albrecht Durer, who meticulously documented his extraordinary life in letters and diaries, Bosch left us few clues. Not even his date of birth is recorded. We know that he was part of a family dynasty of painters, whose given name was van Aken, that he paid substantial taxes, belonged to a prestigious confraternity and married well. The fact that Bosch eventually took as his own the name of his hometown suggests his reputation was international. But whether he ever ventured to Italy or elsewhere, is anybody's guess.
Bosch was not only wealthy but also pious. He was well educated, and a deft synthesis of science and piety permeates many of his paintings. Art historians readily accept this in the case of Italian artists such as Leonardo da Vinci but have been slow to recognise the same phenomenon in considerations of Northern Renaissance artists.
In Bosch's era, the devout practice of science was treated as a means of obtaining salvation. Early chemistry, for example, had as its goal the transmutation of matter into a higher, perfect form, achieved with the help of God. Alchemy, based on distillation, was an important adjunct to medicine, pharmacy and metallurgy. Alchemical texts, which inspired Bosch, were profusely illustrated with symbolic images of great variety and originality, as well as down-to-earth diagrams of furnaces and flasks.
To anyone familiar with the look of a chemical laboratory, the strange flask and oven-shaped landscape forms scattered throughout the Garden of Earthly Delights are recognisable as thinly disguised distillation apparatus. In the context of the biblical theme of the triptych, they signal the pious chemist's attempts to create a cure-all "elixir of life" - a "quintessence" capable of healing all illnesses and, on a larger scale, returning the human race to the state of grace enjoyed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
When closed, the exterior of the triptych displays the image of an empty, drowned earth encased in a round glass flask - waiting to be brought to life by the hand of God, the ultimate alchemist.
There are too many references in Bosch's triptych to the practical and philosophical trappings of early chemistry to mention here. But the many allusions to Renaissance science in this and other works - including astrology, humoral medicine and physiognomy - identify Bosch as a learned man who shared the tastes and intellectual acumen of the humanist scholars of his day.
The concern with morality and science that suffuses Bosch's paintings was motivated by the even more pervasive phenomenon of millennialism.
Preparation for the final days of the world, vividly described in the Book of Revelation, was a chief concern for many in the 15th century. As the year 1500 approached, cultural paranoia increased, for the numerical date signified the millennium plus 500 years.
Bosch portrayed the events of the Apocalypse and the pervasive fear of the end of the world in several paintings of hellfire and damnation. One of the most powerful is the "hell" panel from the Garden of Earthly Delights. Here the chemical metaphor and apparatus work together to inflict a panoply of perverse tortures on the damned. The eschatological importance of alchemy - its promise of a reborn world and an earthly paradise achieved by science - was clearly important to the painter and his patrons.
In a sense, Bosch's world was much like ours - on the brink of great change yet also mired in the past. He saw the foundations of civilisation torn down and pieced back together again as religious scholasticism gradually yielded to secular scientific method. Geographic and even celestial boundaries expanded dramatically with the discovery of the Americas and the first inklings of a sun-centred universe. Knowledge of the human body followed suit, as anatomical and surgical study flourished. At the same time, however, the planets and stars were still believed to determine human character, and learned men debated the healing powers of precious stones and unicorn horns.
Bosch's popularity today is stronger than ever. The striking details of his paintings have become icons of popular culture. Perhaps it is his seemingly inexhaustible imagination that grips us; perhaps, too, it is his ability to give form to our fears that makes his imagery timeless. As we continue to marvel at Bosch's paintings, and scholars persevere in their efforts to unravel his enigmas, we would be wise to heed the words of the 16th-century art critic Jose de Siguenza. He said of Bosch: "If there are absurdities in his work, they are ours, not his."
Laurinda Dixon is professor of art history at Syracuse University, New York. Her book Bosch was published last month by Phaidon (£12.95).