It is difficult to look through, or even look past, the peculiar images in Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings like The Garden of Earthly Delights and The Hay Wain. Figures like a knight with a tail, a nude man carrying a giant fish, a blue fairy with a trumpet for a nose and a peacock’s tail, and a stag with scaly, green legs are commonplace in Bosch’s macabre oeuvre. Anyone who has seen Bosch’s panoplies of the bizarre knows that Bosch is not a typical sixteenth-century painter. Perhaps this is why we cannot help but modernize him as much as possible, because he does not fit neatly into a prepackaged art-historical narrative about the Renaissance.

Since his death in 1516, descriptions of Bosch’s art have run the gamut from the psychedelic and the nonsensical to the proto-surrealist and the heretical. Scholars and artists marvel at the incongruous and topsy-turvy worlds he imagined. Even the sixteenth-century art historian Giorgio Vasari could not resist pigeon-holing Flemish masters like Bosch, whom Vasari found valuable only for their skill in depicting “fantasies, bizarre inventions, dreams, and suchlike imaginings.” In Bosch’s art, angelic and demonic figures peep out from behind the curtains; monstrous beasts torment holy saints; the lavish, the disgusting, and the glorious intermingle with unnerving familiarity; trees have ears and grass has eyes; and base, domestic drudgery bleeds into the spiritually luminous. Bosch strips even the most sacred scenes, like the passion of Christ, of any idealistic invention, preferring to depict the cracked and frayed, the dirty and messy, the complicated and ambiguous aspects of this life.

The art historian Nils Büttner offers a gateway to understanding Bosch’s art in his brief but thoughtful biography Hieronymus Bosch: Visions and Nightmares. In order to give Visions and Nightmares as much historical grounding as possible, Büttner builds his interpretation upon the limited “extant material sources” and the “no more than two dozen works” that we can be certain were done by Bosch. The lack of historical context, Büttner argues, is the greatest shortcoming of so much of Bosch scholarship. Preoccupied by what seems like novelty and innovation, many earlier studies tended to read Bosch through various, anachronistic lenses, relying too heavily upon “highly speculative theories . . . not based on any documentary evidence.” Scholarly conjecture has veered from historically groundless notions of Bosch’s latent Catharism to the unfounded suggestion, first put forward by Wilhelm Fraenger (1890–1964), that Bosch was a closet Adamite. Büttner scuttles these sorts of explanations that rely more upon “psychoanalysis and the collective unconscious” than “the context of the art and culture of the time.”

Büttner turns to what we do know about Bosch.

Instead, Büttner turns to what we do know. Bosch was born between 1450 and 1455, raised in the family home down the street from the cloth market in ’s-Hertogenbosch (or Den Bosch). During Bosch’s lifetime, Den Bosch reached the height of its economic and cultural influence in the Duchy of Brabant, boasting sons of the city like Bosch and the contemporary composer Jheronimus Clibano. This success likely had a knock-on effect for Bosch’s own career. While the surviving records of his life deal only with financial and property matters, it is clear that Bosch was rarely, if ever, the stereotypical starving artist. Bosch’s wife, Aleyt, was the daughter of a wealthy merchant who provided a substantial inheritance. By 1483, the couple had purchased one of the larger houses in Den Bosch, known as “In den Salvatoer,” complete with servants and workshop assistants, and only a few meters from the Bosch family home. Among his many patrons, Bosch could name several of Europe’s leading nobles, including King Philip I of Castile, who purchased The Last Judgment triptych, and Hendrick III of Nassau-Breda, who likely commissioned the monumental triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. Other patrons included Margaret of Austria, Queen Isabella of Spain, and ecclesiastics like Cardinal Domenico Grimani, eldest son of the Doge of Venice. By 1498, along with Aleyt’s family fortune, such high-profile buyers made Bosch independently wealthy, a status that he maintained for the rest of his life.

One of the essential elements in the general misreading of Bosch is the insistence upon placing him within the Renaissance art world. While 1516 marks several key moments in Renaissance history—including Erasmus’s Novum Instrumentum omne and Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece—Bosch’s death, perhaps, should not be counted among these. Büttner, instead, offers a reading of Bosch’s art that places him less in the Renaissance and more in the late medieval world. Avoiding the allure of seeing something deviant or mysterious in Bosch’s life based solely upon the shadows and terrors in his art, Büttner looks backward to the religious culture of the Middle Ages. Examining both Bosch’s most popular paintings and his lesser-known drawings like Infernal Landscape or Beehive and Witches, Büttner stresses two key elements in his interpretation: the analogical and the exegetical capacities of Bosch’s art. Büttner explains, “There was a widespread tendency in the Middle Ages to think in analogies, in figurative imagery and symbolic terms,” that were intended to be read, studied, and interpreted. Rather than a chaotic morass of figures, a Bosch painting was shot through with a formality that was rooted in medieval analogy and figurative meaning, which Büttner believes is communicated not only in his symbolism and imagery but also in the colors, shadows, and shades that Bosch deploys.

Although some scholars have tried to pigeon-
hole Bosch as a heterodox Cathar or Adamite, Büttner convincingly counters that there is nothing in Bosch’s art, or life, that is necessarily outside the pale of orthodox religion. In fact, the artist described in Visions and Nightmares was most likely wholly conservative in his beliefs. Underneath the veneer of bizarre imagery, Bosch’s art relies upon the traditional biblical narratives of the birth and passion of Christ and the apocalypse, along with the lives of the saints. In fact, the popularity of his art and the high-profile nature of his patrons suggest that the orthodoxy of his art was never in question by any contemporary authorities. Biographically speaking, Büttner writes, “All signs point to his total integration into the religious life of the town,” as its most successful artist and an active member of the Brotherhood of Our Lady (a wealthy and devout religious society).

What emerges in Visions and Nightmares, then, is a Bosch that should be understood in the context of the high and late Middle Ages. Bosch’s most popular work, The Garden of Earthly Delights, mirrors Dante’s Divina Commedia, both in its hierarchical cosmic structure and in its torments and glories of the saved and the damned. Other works of spiritual exaltation combined with human depravity like The Passion Triptych could have been illustrations of popular devotional writings like Thomas à Kempis’s De Imitatione Christi. The typical medieval image of the “world turned upside down,” exemplified in the grit and grime of northern festivity, was a popular motif in Bosch’s art, reflecting the chaos and complexity of the culture depicted in works like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s Decameron. Finally, the lewd, and always disturbing, figures of sexual temptation and scatological mockery that are a hallmark of Bosch’s art would have been familiar, even typical, for anyone acquainted with late medieval manuscript margins that were often illustrated with tiny grotesques.

Büttner seems convinced that symbolic knowledge is irrecoverable.

Unfortunately, Visions and Nightmares stumbles in the last few pages. Building to what seems like a crescendo that would present a thorough, historical framework with which to read Bosch’s art, Büttner concludes on a whimpering note of conciliation. He capitulates in a final jolting paragraph to an unexpected form of relativism about the inaccessibility of Bosch. He writes, “Bosch’s pictures are essentially not capable of being understood,” and “they are, in the end, the story of their interpretations.” While he prefaces this with the insight that “there are a host of wrong” interpretations, he follows with the wrongheaded opinion that “no right interpretation” exists.

This conclusion belies an otherwise stalwart defense of Bosch as a medieval artist, long misunderstood because of his seemingly novel art in a period of novelty. The fact that we no longer are capable of fully unpacking the medieval symbolic freight laden in Bosch’s paintings and drawings says more about our own cultural loss than it does about his art. Büttner seems convinced, or at least suggests in his capitulation, that this symbolic knowledge is irrecoverable. It seems to me, however, that Visions and Nightmares, despite the author’s concluding remarks, provides at least the first steps towards such a recovery project.