Hieronymus Bosch has defied pretty much all art historical methods in the study of both his work and work done in his style. Bosch’s work is psychologically raw, yet psychology in and of itself cannot pin his work and its intended message down. Indeed, Bosch has often been called “the first Surrealist”. One would be forgiven for viewing Bosch’s work for the first time and thinking it was created during the Surrealist Movement with the unconscious being splayed not just on canvas but in the public mind; guided in method by the great works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Dali had a great talent for showmanship and hobnobbing with many crowds to get his art into the world: a famous line of his being, “I am Surrealism.” Bosch, however, was Surrealism more than 400 years before the greats of the movement like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte were even born.
So, what is the best light, the understanding that is best employed, to view his work? Bosch’s work has been labeled “demon making,” yet the folklore and religion of his time are not sufficient to pin down his work and its intended message. His work has been examined in light of alchemical and Rosicrucian traditions; yet these esoteric schools are not in and of themselves sufficient to really understand Bosch’s message. Bosch has been put through many schools of astrological thought (these traditions themselves are quite misunderstood by the modern art historian) with not much avail. Bosch and his work have also been repeatedly put through the historiographic thresher, with basically no product coming out. Bosch has been examined linguistically in light of motifs in his works that have been interpreted as Dutch proverbs in animalistic, hellish, and monstrous embodiments. Yet this alone also falls short of grasping Bosch’s message.
So, in this dizzying array of schools of thought, lenses through which to view the works, what is the best way to study and truly understand the message of the enigma that is Hieronymus Bosch? The best way is to combine the methods and schools of thought discussed above; all of the schools and points to be researched in depth. The psychological Bosch must be employed just as the historical, the alchemical…