To understand how Bosch’s hell became so influential, it’s worth looking back to what spurred him to paint these images in the first place. Born Jeroen van Aken around 1450, the artist later changed his name to the more regal-sounding Hieronymus Bosch to attract patrons and distinguish himself in a family of painters. His birth coincided with the Age of Discovery, when Western Europe began its global mapping of the world, and Christianity was undergoing a movement that anticipated the Protestant Reformation. Jos Koldeweij, an art-history professor who led the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, has said these earlier reforms called for making the Christian life one’s own, rather than relying on the church’s strict interpretations. “Each individual had to confront the permanent choice between good and evil,” Koldeweij said.
In this new spirit of independence, Bosch decided to abandon the Bible’s version of hell, which emphasizes fiery punishment and destruction, and create a more fantastical underworld that more closely resembled a battlefield. He invented sword-wielding monsters with lion-heads and an androgynous birdman who vomits nothing but dice, along with scenes where women are savaged by dogs and groups of men are raped by demons. Like the unremitting Saint Augustine, Bosch believed that hell was the result of man’s ultimate sin: an attachment to the pleasures of earth. A member of a skull-and-bones religious order, the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, Bosch saw hell as a physical world eternally separated from God. The idea was to render hell as a place so unthinkably foul that people would fear God and live according to the Gospels. This follows the narrative in The Garden of Earthly Delights: Adam and Eve are in the presence of God in the left panel and, after encountering the pleasures of earth in the center, are ultimately exiled from the heavenly realm as a result of their selfishness.
It didn’t take long for other artists to recognize the distinct power of Bosch’s work. In 1562, almost 50 years after Bosch’s death, the Renaissance master Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted The Fall of the Rebel Angels, which features a battle of decapitations and monsters smeared in blood and feces. Known to his peers as “a second Bosch,” Bruegel also painted The Triumph of Death, which shows a nihilistic hell on earth and today hangs in Madrid’s Prado museum directly across from Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Both artists had their works collected by Philip II of Spain, who became fascinated by depictions of human-animal transformations.
Today, Bosch’s representations of hell have relevance for both the religious and the secular. For Christian believers, it’s a nauseating reminder that they’ll be asked to account for the way they’ve lived and to, potentially, suffer the consequences. For the non-religious, who make up roughly 23 percent of the U.S. population according to the Pew Research Center, hell can function as a powerful metaphor for the fact that all humans are judged in life under the law. And for both groups, Bosch’s extreme portrayals of agony go even further than analogies—they reflect the horrors that humankind have committed and endured since biblical times.