Deeper into Hell: A Study of Hieronymus Bosch’s Monsters
The Garden of Earthly Delights, perhaps the best known painting by Hieronymus Bosch, offers a fantastic view of Paradise, Imaginary Paradise, and Hell. All three panels from the late fourteenth century triptych feature mysterious animals, but Hell is the most crowded with wild creatures. Studying these detailed monsters and their accompanying icons, a narrative can be drawn on medieval perceptions of sin and damnation.
Besides its darker color scheme, the Hell panel is set apart from the other two by its stark absence of nature. Paradise is an idyllic Garden of Eden and Imaginary Paradise, the center panel, teems with lush vegetation and exotic animals. Hell, by contrast, is an entirely barren land populated by sinners and the demons that torment them. While it is clear the damned are in constant pain from physical and psychological torture, Bosch’s hell departs from many other depictions, as no one is actually burning. There are areas of heat and cold in Bosch’s hell, and a lake of fire, but no flames continually burning the damned.
The fantastic monsters Bosch painted are called grillen in Dutch; they are symbols of evil and disorder (Battistini 290). Medieval Christianity viewed deformity, in art and in society’s unfortunate deformed individuals, as an outer manifestation of an inner evil (Battistini 160). “Monster” in the modern sense originated in Middle English, where it derived from the Latin “monstrum,” meaning “portent,” or, “sign of the gods.” The monsters in Bosch’s hell are a portent, and a sign of the gods, as to the fate that awaits the damned.
The hundreds of grillen on the Hell panel torment and interact with the damned; their faces, when visible, take on a range of “human” expressions. Atop the Tree Man (at the center of the panel), a bird-like demon leads one of the damned around in an endless circle; the creature appears joyful and light footed, in sharp contrast to his captive’s resistant, frightened step. To further the sense of disorder, some of the demons are clothed as humans, while all the humans are naked. Nakedness makes the damned more vulnerable, to the demons’ weapons and the river of ice in the mid ground. Nakedness also facilitates the sameness of the damned; with a few notable exceptions, Bosch’s humans are androgynous. In hell, even basic gender identity is thrown into confusion; individuality is nonexistent.
Positioned prominently among the demons is their leader, the Prince of Hell. Bosch’s Satan is a blue bird headed creature with jars for feet and a cauldron on his head. He sits on a high chair, eating sinners and excreting them into a pit, where partially hidden faces peer up. In the cauldron “crown” a window is reflected, a metaphor for a room with no way out. Another monster excretes gold coins into the pit, an allusion to the sin of greed and the fate of the greedy. In swallowing the damned, Satan illustrates hell’s “devouring maw;” this is a Pre-Christian conception of divinity, as both creative and destructive (Battistini 158). Satan devouring the damned is seen in other medieval works, including Giovanni da Modena’s The Devil Devouring the Dead, an anonymous Last Judgment, and Fra Angelico’s Punishments of the Damned in Hell. Beside Satan’s chair, which may be either a toilet or a throne, a woman is groped by a demon with a donkey’s head; this is the deadly sin of lust. The woman is further tormented by a toad on her breast; the image of snakes and toads biting the breasts of lustful women can be seen in other medieval renditions of hell, such as Punishments of the Damned in Hell. Bosch’s woman looks in the mirror, which is mounted on another demon’s buttocks, and casts a reflection in red, while the donkey’s head is reduced to lecherous eyes and lips. The mirror is an icon of vanity, another of the seven deadly sins.
Beneath the Prince of Hell a pig in a Dominican nun’s veil kisses a condemned sinner, trying to force him to sign his wealth over to the church. An assistant with a toad on his chest waits with the Papal seal to bind the contract, and a demon in a knight’s helmet is ready with the inkpot. This is Bosch’s commentary on the Roman Catholic Church; despite giving all he owns over to the church, the sinner did not receive the promised salvation, and everyone involved in the deal ends up in hell. Also, the pig in nun’s clothing is an allusion to corruption within the church, as is the demon inside a knight’s helmet; reading them by their uniforms, they are noble and spiritually pure, but underneath, they are evil and not what they seem. A foot hangs off the “knight’s” helmet; this is the emblem of beggars (Belting 44). The church, in essence, is no better than a forceful beggar, and actually much worse, since the promise of salvation it offered was broken.
In the left foreground one of the venial sins, gambling, is depicted; the gambler is forced against a table, with a knife staked through his right hand. His playing cards are strewn just out of reach. The gambler is also impaled with a sword in his chest, pushed in by a mouse-like demon. On the demon’s back is a plate with an amputated hand, holding two fingers up in an occult greeting. The gambler’s pose, arms and legs outstretched, and the knife nailing him to the table through his hand, suggest Christ’s crucifixion. Behind the table, a knife cuts off a blindfolded man’s head. The posture of this sinner, with his hand in his chin, suggests he is resigned to his fate; he was blind in life to his sins, and now finds himself still blind, but aware. Behind him is a chaotic crowd of the damned corralled by demons. A devil holds a game board with dice triumphantly overhead, while another grabs a heart off a sword, a prize won in a gamble. One of the damned walks with a knife in his back, indicating treachery and greed, particularly in the context of gambling. The only woman in this tableau stands over the first man [who is impaled against the table] looking forlornly down on him. She balances a die on her head and carries a pitcher and a lit candle. The pitcher has no spout to drink from, and the candle suggests enlightenment, though much too late to save the damned woman.
Above the gamblers, strange musical instruments torture the damned, physically and psychologically. A sinner is strung up on a lyre, another is tied to the neck of a lute. The third giant wooden instrument acts as a cage for a woman, while another man is held captive in a drum, banged on by a demon. All of these instruments are played, and the sounds they emit are excruciating; everywhere sinners are covering their ears and grimacing, except for a group forced to sing. The score to the music is written across the buttocks of another damned soul, and they are led in song by a toad-like devil with a hideous tongue. This scene represents a perversion of human creativity; music is used to torture instead of calm. The instruments, and music itself, are mankind’s invention, but the lust inspired by the senses has turned the invention on the inventor.
Above the instruments a women is hunched over with an egg on her back. The egg is an icon denoting life and fertility; in the context of hell, life [the egg], is a burden that bends the woman’s back. An egg is also an allusion of an alchemical athanor, source of creation and the incubator of the philosopher’s stone, which turned impure materials into gold (Battistini 290). Here, hell mocks fertility and creation, using its symbol in a setting of stagnation and destruction.
Moving into the panel’s mid ground, we find the Tree Man, a half-human half-monster, with his legs in two boats and a dark tavern scene unfolding in his opened belly. This same figure is found in an earlier Bosch drawing, The Tree Man, but in a natural landscape (Belting 38). The Tree Man in hell has roots that extend into the icy water around the boats; where tree roots on earth symbolize life and connectivity, in hell they dead end in the ice. This Tree Man has the same physical features as Bosch’s earlier figure, but his facial expression seems more somber and regretful. He may have Bosch’s face; scholars have long supported this possibility (Belting 38). Considering that this same face appears in the center panel more than once, it seems likely that Bosch has painted himself in hell. His admission, that the artist is just as guilty of sin as rest of the humanity, is a moment of realism inside a fantastic painting, and seems to increase the feeling of fear in the work. The Tree Man’s face is also the most realistically painted face in the panel; attached to a hollow body, this could be an allusion to the fate of man. When all of the body is gone, a human is still a human because of its mind, separating mankind from animals. But the mind, and its insatiable five senses, are responsible for sin and damnation, which animals, oblivious and innocent, are spared.
On the Tree Man’s head is a platform balancing a bagpipe that looks like a bladder and is played by demons, while devils parade damned souls around the instrument in a macabre procession. The bagpipe serves as a sexual symbol for both male and female organs, and its coloration, a light pink, further connotes the sex organs. Behind and to the left of the bagpipe, a pair of ears with a knife extending out crushes the damned; this torture device suggests several meanings. First, as ears, they suggest that sinners were deaf to spiritual laws while alive; the bodies being crushed underneath them reinforce this possibility. Also, the ears point back to the sound from the musical instruments, which the damned must now endure eternally. The ears and knife together symbolize the phallus, the main organ connected with lust.
To the right of the Tree Man, Bosch has placed another of the deadly sins; wrathful soldiers are impaled on a demon’s sword, as another soldier lies torn apart by his own dogs. These creatures, representing the dogs of war, are also grillen, with reptilian feet and rat-like tails. Beneath them another soldier, with tiny legs and spurs, rides a woman like a horse, with reins, into a cave. Besides the bestial lust this depicts, it is a rare commentary of the subjugation of woman in medieval society.
In the background, a city burns; paired with the marching army just below it, this seems more like a reference to war on earth than to the afterlife. The background of hell teems with tortured figures and demons carrying flags and war machinery; they are the armies of hell, the rebel angels. Placed in the background as they are, they could be mistaken for a medieval army, were they set on earth and not the afterlife. The lake of fire is churned by a Dutch windmill; this too draws a comparison with medieval life. The lake of fire and its surrounding scene—figures fleeing smoking ruins, a burning ship, a crowd of refugees—further the sense of chaos in war time. The expanse of the ruined city, and the presence of roads, suggests that the rest of hell is much the same, an endless war.
An icon appearing many times in the panel, ladders are easy to miss (visually, they get overwhelmed by the swarms of figures). Ladders represent a journey of initiation, whether the destination is heaven or hell (Battistini 238). They also express man’s desire to connect with the divine from the earth; the origin of this symbolism is the Biblical story of Jacob’s ladder to the gates of heaven. In the hell panel , ladders are a form of psychological torment; not only will the damned not climb out of hell to divinity, but most of the ladders lead to another sinister place, the gallows in one instance, a burning tower in another.
The Hell panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights occupies a separate place, iconographically, than other medieval artworks of hell; Bosch has added many more figures, symbols and intricate tableaux than most depictions. His grillen are the stuff of nightmares; the sheer volume of them, all with detailed expressions and gestures, make the viewer feel outnumbered and trapped. Bosch did not include all seven deadly sins in his Hell; focusing in on lust and greed, he created a feeling of inescapable destiny. If you indulge in either, here are the monsters waiting for you in the afterlife. In perhaps the greatest break from other medieval artists, Bosch put himself in the center of his monsters, staring back at us from hell’s dark, frozen depths.
Battistini, Matilde. Symbols and Allegories in Art. Los Angeles: Getty Publications,
Belting, Hans. Garden of Earthly Delights. New York: Prestel, 2002.