The score of a song painted on a butt, two ears pierced by a knife, naked bodies inside a mussel … The Dutchman Jheronimus van Aken (1450-1516), better known as El Bosco, only needed 20 paintings and 9 drawings to create one of the most recognized iconographies in art history. He is considered the quintessential phantasmagoric painter of dreams. But also on its darkest side: that of nightmares.
We put the magnifying glass on seven grotesque details in the vastness of ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’
At the end of the 15th century, a period that some call late Gothic and others Pre-Renaissance, the artistic trend seemed to seek more and more aspects such as harmony, illusionism or monumentality. However, the path of El Bosco was totally different. It does not fit either in the Flemish painting on panel usual then or in the pictorial art north of the Alps, which more closely followed the Renaissance coordinates. So where do your influences drink from?
It is one of the questions to which he tries to answer Bosco: the complete work, a monograph that covers the life and work of the Dutch painter while trying to unravel many of the unknowns that he still awakens today. This is the responsibility of the art historian and specialist in Dutch painting Stefan Fischer, who with this volume dares to shed light on the process of both material and intellectual creation of the author of The Garden of Earthly Delights.
It is not an easy task. As indicated between the pages of the book, many details of El Bosco are still shrouded in mystery. The researchers have not been able to find documents that directly explain his life or art, so his profile has had to be drawn up from small historical snippets from his biography.
In fact, there is not even a portrait of El Bosco that we can assure that it faithfully represents his appearance. One of them was made by the Dutch engraver Cornelis Cort and, like others, it follows an unknown model that corresponds to the idea that one had of a painter of religious and gloomy subjects. In this way he showed a thin man with a half-mane, large eyes and an austere appearance, an image that could be perfectly idealized.
The Van Aken family of painters
Bosco grew up in Bolduque (south of the Netherlands), a city to which he was very close and where it is estimated that he spent the most important part of his life or even all of it. There is nothing to prove your stay elsewhere.
What is known is that the Van Aken family began living in Bolduque from 1427 and that it was El Bosco’s grandfather, Thomaszoon van Aken, who founded the workshop from which his five children (all of them painters) would later feed. This was the painter par excellence of the city in the middle of the 15th century, since he worked for one of the most important organizations in the region around which the spiritual, religious and political elite met: the Brotherhood of Our Lady. In fact, in the vault of the main church of the city you can find a Christ crucified with donors that, despite not being attributed to any artist, coincides in many lines with the painting of the same name that El Bosco would make years later (1480 – 1485).
The Van Aken dynasty of painters achieved some recognition in Bolduque throughout the 15th century, allowing them to live in a secure economic and social position since practically the generation of El Bosco’s father, Antonius van Aken. Less is known about him than about his son. The little that is known suggests that he lived since 1492 with his family in a small stone house near the market, where other artisans and merchants like butchers or potters also stayed.
It was there that around 1450 Jheronimus, the fourth of Antonius’ five children, was born. Practically nothing is known about his first 20 years because, among other things, a fire in 1463 ended up destroying part of the city and his father’s house. Interestingly, at the top of the right pane of The Garden of Earthly Delights A burning city is represented with buildings surrounded by flames. Was this the event that inspired you? It is an assumption.
The time and intensity with which El Bosco collaborated in his father’s workshop or whether in the following years he received any higher training is unknown, but the truth is that a determining factor in his life was the marriage he contracted with Aleid van der Mervenne (between 1480 and 1481).
Since then, El Bosco moved to his wife’s house, from a higher social class, and installed his own workshop there, with which he would become a self-employed painter on the margins of his family. Thanks to Aleid, not only did the artist’s economic status improve, but also his social relationships: her family was part of a group of business merchants.
The bases of what grotesque and humorous
The oldest surviving work of El Bosco is the one already mentioned Christ crucified with saints and donors, which means that his first jobs are not tested until he reaches 30 years old.
Another of his early jobs is Saint Jerome in prayer (1485 – 1490), which the rest of the painters used to represent sitting while studying in his cabinet. It was not what Bosco did. The Dutch author chose to display his differentiated knowledge of biblical themes, of the lives of the saints and of the bestiaries that would later become his hallmark.
In this way, it shows a Saint Jerome surrounded by symbolism. For example, the way in which he embraces the crucifix is interpreted as a way of throwing himself at the feet of Christ. It does so by lying under a rock alluding to the side of the Messiah and which, in turn, serves as protection as a nest for birds. Meanwhile, the red of the right cloth refers to the color of the sores of Christ, lying on a trunk in allusion to the crown of thorns. On the wood there is also an owl, a symbol of the seductive evil about to attack a small blue tit perched on one of the branches. Animals, therefore, embody bodily death for the sin from which Jerome seeks to escape by fasting and prayer.
It should be borne in mind that even historians differ when it comes to accurately dating certain works by El Bosco, but it is known that the author began many of his commissions for the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Bolduque after entering it in around 1486. This situation allowed him to enjoy the bourgeois life of married while, on the other hand, he could resort to the studies of the order.
With this, El Bosco began a new stage in his life, as a citizen and as a painter, but one that was fundamental for what came later: art based on the grotesque and the humorous. The painter managed to transfer these concepts, considered typical of marginal arts, to painting on board. Paradoxically, it was these “inferior” forms that opened up the possibilities of El Bosco that we know today, that of putting before the viewer a mirror with the moral deficiencies and capital sins of the time. Or, what is the same: hell.