Hieronymus Bosch, the Trendiest Apocalyptic Medieval Painter of 2014

The Garden of Earthly Delights is now on leggings, in children's books, and getting name-checked by cool bands. Why?

Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1510 (Hieronymus Bosch/Wikimedia)

The paintings of fanatical late medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch were popular for their little nightmare details: a man playing a flute made out of his own nose, or a bird-monster devouring sinners and pooping them into the gaping maw of a pit. King Philip II of Spain—patron of the Inquisition—kept one of Bosch’s grim paintings in his bedroom and would meditate on it for hours at a time.

Bosch’s best-known painting remains The Garden of Earthly Delights. The center of the triptych shows a horde of naked humans in shocking tantric contortions. The right panel shows Hell, the natural destination of the denizens of the center panel.

Now, that’s all been turned into a product targeted at young museum gift-shop goers.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1510 (Hieronymus Bosch/Wikimedia)

“I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical when I was first asked to design a coloring book on Bosch with The Garden of Earthly Delights as the main piece,” author Sabine Tauber told me. “It does not seem appropriate for children at first sight.” Tauber focused on lighter scenes and natural details to make the book more accessible. Its title font matches Dr. Seuss.

It makes a good companion to Pish Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch. That children’s book takes the perspective of Bosch’s housekeeper, who's fed up with the mess his wild monsters make around the house.

Those two products speak to the fact that despite Bosch dying almost 500 years ago, his dark visions seem more popular than ever. He has a giant, attractive new coffee table book from art publisher Taschen. In 2007, his hometown of Den Bosch finally gave him a museum. He is on a new line of Doc Martens, and on leggings, and on cutoffs—just so no one at your favorite brunch spot forgets about the way of all flesh. The guy even has his own line of skateboards. How did this happen?

Doc Martens

Bosch enjoyed great popularity while he was alive. He inspired so many imitations that it’s challenging to define his original canon. But by the heady Counter-Reformation days of the early 17th century, Bosch was out and Baroque was in.

"The Catholic Church was reasserting itself, and it wanted to emphasize the church and salvation and saints, which was not exactly what Bosch focused on,” Larry Silver, a professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania, said over the phone. “Take Rubens. There’s just no way that Bosch and Rubens can be simultaneously alive. That's one of the things that spelled the end for him, that turn from pessimism to the lighter side.”

That state of affairs persisted until the early 20th century. Scholars like Carl Justi showed a musty sort of interest, but it took sexy avant-garde types like André Breton’s Surrealists to begin Bosch’s reintroduction to popular society. The Surrealists praised imagination and the unconscious. They also delighted in Sadism and blasphemy, railing against organized religion and bourgeois morality.

This sort of bohemian delight became a constant presence in Bosch history. A persistent thesis, first advanced by Wilhelm Fraenger in 1947, holds that Bosch was a member of a secret cult of sexpot heretics called The Brethren of the Free Spirit. In this interpretation, the central panel of the Garden doesn’t show a fallen and sinful world, but the sect enjoying glorious tantric delights in a state-of-nature cornucopia of free love. It might not come as a surprise to learn that the painting gets a mention in Chapter 37 of The Da Vinci Code.

The sex-cult thesis was even more popular than the idea that Bosch had been on a bad trip from eating moldy rye bread. According to author Walter Bosing, it “acted like a problem-solving wonder drug both for Bosch scholarship at institutes of higher learning and for the sensational appetites of certain audiences.” A bizarre example is ‘60s philosopher Norman O. Brown, a sex therapist who connected Freud’s anal eroticism theories to Martin Luther’s doctrine of salvation by faith alone. He “cited Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights as an illustration of his own theories put into practice.”

These interpretations, such perfect fits with modern stereotypes of the unhinged psychedelic artist, are a joke to today’s experts. Bosing calls them “scholarly nonsense,” and all the academics I interviewed laughed when I brought them up.

“I want to say around the ‘60s—I’m not sure, maybe that would be too good a story—people got tired of repeating the moralizing things and started to wonder if there wasn’t a wilder intellect at work,” said Craig Harbison, professor emeritus in art history at UMass. Dr. Silver agreed: “In the Hugh Hefner era, you can imagine in the ‘60s and with the birth-control pill, all the sex seemed very enlightened and very liberating."

These theories, while lacking the potency of the hippy days, are still ingrained in the popular imagination. In an interview with Pitchfork, Fleet Foxes lead Robin Pecknold digressed on Flemish art: “Bosch is the weirdest, too. He has LSD stuff before LSD was even invented.” You can understand why the image persists. It takes no effort to accept that Bosch was a man totally outside of his time, attending Eyes Wide Shut-style orgies and dabbing maniacally at his canvas under the moonlight, days-old moldy rye crumbs peppering his beard.

“We do have the types of the starving artist, the visionary artist. That originated with Van Gogh, who is really the poster child of the romantic idea that individual difference and mental unbalance are necessary for the greatest artists,” Silver said. But today’s literature is anything but supportive of that. "The solitary genius idea is holding up less and less under current research. We are definitely breaking down the stereotype of Bosch as a crazed, drugged individual."

A production still from the upcoming film Hieronymous (Courtesy of Erik van Schaaik)

In any case, he’s now a muse to some of today’s most important creators. Director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim) cites Bosch as an inspiration for his famous surreal imagery. The late Alexander McQueen featured him in his final collection. Best-selling author Michael Connelly named his star detective after the painter, and keeps a print of Bosch’s Hell painting above his writing desk.

His relevance now may come from the fact that the present day shares some things with Bosch’s times, according to Harbison. “[His age] was a little bit like today, people feeling like everything is sort of falling apart,” he said. “It leads to an artistic burst of fantasy and imagination,” Over and over, Bosch painted the Biblical idea of man being “born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” He held profound distrust of historic institutions. He pilloried the gilded clergy of his day. He had our millenarian taste for apocalypse.

Erik van Schaaik, the writer and director of Hieronymus, a promising animated feature now in development, discovered Bosch while he was a teenager interested in horror movies.

“I call him the first heavy-metal artist,” said Schaaik. His script embraces that interpretation. “It’s a story about a young artist who’s real rock and roll, but living in an oppressed world where he can’t get his visions out.”

Sketches for the forthcoming Hieronymous (Courtesy of Erik van Schaaik)

There was a weird proverb in Bosch’s day: “The Devil’s ass is Hell’s gateway.” It was the inspiration for this little detail in the left panel of The Temptation of the Saint Anthony. It’s an example of how Bosch laced his iconoclasm and hellfire with humor, a hallmark of the grotesque form. He draws the world’s sins in the sand and then pauses to set off a whoopee cushion. His style is a dark sort of rock and roll, fronted not by a drug addict but a fiery Old Testament prophet—and somehow perfect for a coloring book at the same time.