Hieronymus Bosch
The Complete Paintings and Drawings

By Jos Koldeweij Paul Vandenbroeck Bernard Vermet

Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Copyright © 2001 NAi Publishers, Rotterdam; Ludion Ghent/Amsterdam, the authors. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-8109-6735-9

Chapter One

Hieronymus Bosch's name appears in the Duke of Burgundy's household accounts in 1504 in the following form: `Jeronnimus Van aeken dit bosch paintre' ('Jeronnimus van Aeken, known as Bosch, painter'). The artist was paid for a triptych to be painted for the then Duke, Philip the Handsome — a commission of which nothing further is known. A document from `s-Hertogenbosch six years later refers to the painter `Jheronimus van Aken, scilder ofte maelder, die hem selver scrift Jheronimus Bosch' ('Jheronimus van Aken ... who styles himself Jheronimus Bosch'). This was the name by which he was known in `s-Hertogenbosch and it was under this name that he became famous around the world. However, since `Jheronimus' has always been known in the English-language literature as `Hieronymus' (or `Hieronymous'), we will continue this practice, albeit somewhat reluctantly, in this book.

In 1742, more than two centuries after his death, Bosch was cited once again in a list containing the coats of arms of the members of the Confraternity of Our Lady — a religious association of which he was a member and for which he had worked. Beneath a blank escutcheon — Bosch was, after all, a craftsman-artist who did not have a coat of arms — his name was given as `Hieronimus Aquens [of Aachen] alias Bosch', to which the words `seer vermaerd schilder, obiit 1516' ('very famous painter, died 1516') were later added.

Hieronymus Bosch was far from the only person to use the reference to his home town as a toponym. Adding the name of the town or village was a useful and important means of identifying anyone who became known beyond their own locality. The fact that Hieronymus firmly adopted the name of `Bosch' and systematically signed his work with it enables us to conclude, therefore, that his reputation extended far beyond the city walls of's-Hertogenbosch. To have used the toponym van Aken, which referred to his family's roots in what is now the German city of Aachen, would simply have confused matters. He continued to work until his death at the family workshop on `s-Hertogenbosch's market square, which his genius transformed from a relatively primitive and provincial operation into an atelier of world renown. His surviving oeuvre is tiny, amounting to a few dozen works on oak panels and paper. Yet even that compact body of work has sparked heated debate as to authorship, dating, internal coherence, meaning and initial destination. This chapter explores how Hieronymus worked in the cultural context of the city of's-Hertogenbosch.


Hieronymus Bosch's name is recorded on several occasions in the `s-Hertogenbosch archives but hardly at all outside his native city. Bosch is usually mentioned in a financial context, whether or not in connection with commissions.

One of the earliest recorded instances of the artist's name refers to `Jeronimus gezegd Joen' ('Jeronimus known as Joen'). It dates from 1474, when the young painter's son was caught up in the financial affairs of his father, `Anthonius die maelre' ('Anthonius the painter'). Anthonius appears in another financial document a few months earlier, accompanied by his four children, one of whom is named as Jheronimus. During his lifetime, Bosch was called J(h)eronimus, Jeroen (once), Joen (several times) and occasionally Jonen. The most formal of these was, of course, the Latin version. Educated clerks duly inflected this in the written sources to the genitive case Jheronimi, when describing things that were `of' him — his possessions, in other words — and to the dative case Jheronimo, when a payment was made `to' him. It is not clear why his parents named him `Jheronimus'. That local variant of the Latin saint's name `Hieronymus' (Jerome) had not been used in the family before, nor was it common in `s-Hertogenbosch. Hieronymus was, however, a significant name at the time. The popularity of Saint Jerome — one of the great Church Fathers — grew sharply in the 15th and 16th centuries, fostered in the Low Countries by the `Devotio Moderna' movement. The Brethren of the Common Life adopted Jerome as their patron, and were even known as Hieronymites. In 1425, they founded a house in `s-Hertogenbosch, not far from where Hieronymus Bosch was born. An altar dedicated to Saint Jerome was installed at the city's Church of Saint John on 8 October 1459. The iconographical theme of the penitent saint in the wilderness became extremely popular around 1500, thanks not least to Hieronymus Bosch himself. The Hieronymite House (Gregoriushuis) in 's-Hertogenbosch and the altar in Saint John's have thus been frequently cited as the original locations of, respectively, the Saint Jerome panel in Ghent and the Hermit Saints Triptych in Venice, in which Bosch's patron saint occupies the central position.

Van Aken

Hieronymus Bosch, his brothers and his other relatives are systematically identified in archive documents with the surname van Aken. Hieronymus, then, began in the early part of the 16th century to adopt the toponym `Bosch', which referred specifically to his native city and home, just as the name `van Aken' had done generations earlier in Nijmegen, where his forebears lived for a while in the 14th century before settling in `s-Hertogenbosch. It is tempting, therefore, to read the letter `A' on the insignia of the skating messenger-bird in the foreground of the Triptych of Saint Anthony in Lisbon as a reference to Bosch's original surname. Pilgrim's souvenirs from Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) often feature a capital `A' — sometimes crowned with a small cross — to identify their origin. Two small shields in the Tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins (on the water bottle in the Luxuria scene and the little stained-glass window in the Invidia scene) might also be decorated with the letter `A' as a reference to the artist's surname and alternative toponym `van Aken'. Opinions differ as to the reading of the inscription on the letter that the monstrous avian messenger clasps in its beak in Lisbon. If the word is indeed bosco, as has been suggested, and if Bosch painted it for a Portuguese or Spanish patron, then Hieronymus may have used the bird figure to link his two toponyms.


Jheronimus Bosch is the name by which the now world-famous painter wished to be known. He was not, however, the first artist from `s-Hertogenbosch to adopt the city's name as his surname, nor was he the last. Willem Clockgieter ('William Bellfounder') gave his name on a bell he founded in 1373 as Wilhelmus de Buskoducis ('William of 's-Hertogenbosch'). Likewise, in the early 15th century, a cameo-maker and jeweller called Michel de Bois-le-Duc (the French version of's-Hertogenbosch) was employed by the highest French court circles — for no less a person, indeed, than that supreme patron of the arts, Jean, duc de Berry. Arian de Bosleduc was paid in 1468 for his work as peintre to the preparations for Charles the Bold's marriage in Bruges, while a certain Johannes Bell de Buscoducis printed books in Cologne in the 1480s. After the death of Hieronymus Bosch, Cornelis Bos, also known as Vanden Bossche (c. 1510's-Hertogenbosch-Groningen 1556), worked as an engraver, probably in his native city as well as Antwerp, other cities in the Northern Netherlands and ultimately in Groningen. Balten Bos, otherwise known as Balthasar Sylvius or Van den Bosch (1518's-Hertogenbosch-Antwerp 1580), also worked as an engraver in Antwerp, where he even produced prints of his illustrious namesake's work. And a number of sculptors were active in mid-16th-century Spain under the name of De Bolduque. Direct contemporaries of Hieronymus — people he must have known — also appropriated the toponym Bos or Bossche. Alart Duhameel (?1449?-Antwerp before 27 January 1507) was an architect and engraver, who used the city's name in the prints he produced during his time in 's-Hertogenbosch (no later than 1478-1494/95). This usage varied from adding the word Bosche to his monogram, to — on one occasion- S'HERTOGEN BOSCHE. As the master builder of Saint John's Church, he must have had dealings with Hieronymus Bosch, while his prints also show clear evidence of his familiarity with the artist's work. A second engraver active around 1500 also added the city name bos to his own name. Only five prints are known by this hitherto anonymous artist, one of which — the now unique print Job Consoled by the Musicians — has long been linked to Hieronymus Bosch. We will return in due course to the work of this monogrammist, whom we shall identify as Michiel van Gemert, who also worked in `s-Hertogenbosch as a master silversmith.

Finally, we need to mention the painters Aert and Gielis van den Bossche alias (van) Panhedel. Gielis appears in the accounts of the Confraternity of Our Lady for 1521/22 and 1522/23 in connection with the wings he painted for an altarpiece on which Hieronymus Bosch had previously worked. He was referred to again later (1545/46) as `Gielis van den Bossche tot Bruessel woenende' ('Gielis van den Bossche, residing in Brussels'). His father, Aert van den Bossche, had already worked in Brussels in 1490, and is recorded there in 1499 as `Aert van Panhedel alias van den Bossche, schilder' (painter). All this suggests that these particular Panhedels also came from `s-Hertogenbosch. Whether or not Aert or, a generation later, Gielis were also born there is not known. In 1505, Aert Panhedel also registered in the Bruges painters' guild under the name 'Harnoult van den Boske'. The same entry states that he had a 15-year-old son called `Gilken van den Booeske'. We will come back to this Gielis van den Bossche at the end of this chapter.

Rebuses of the city name


A map of Guelders drawn up some ten years after Hieronymus Bosch's death shows a fortified city. Its defensive walls enclose a very large church and several smaller ones, a city gate, a water-gate and many houses. The word bos (woods, forest) appears above the city, in a fairly open space by the water. It would be a strange inscription if we did not know that this was `s-Hertogenbosch. A local humanist wrote a somewhat mannered paean of praise to his city and its church around 1550 — an ode that is now all but unreadable owing to its learned panegyrical phraseology. The author is intimately aware of his city's earliest history. Its name — literally `The Duke's Forest' — refers to the former forest (bos), which was a rich and hence much-loved hunting ground of the Duke (hertog) of Brabant, and which, as a city, was destined to enjoy a prosperous future. He looked back with pride over that history, while drawing comparisons between it and the present. The result is a fascinating insight into how strongly the image of the city in the Duke's forest persisted in the 16th century: `For as many rows of trees that once stood in the wild wood, so many streets and inns can now be seen in this stately city. As many paths once led into the wood as roads and gates now lend access to the town. For every hopping bird or leaf on a tree, or for every wild beast to be seen in the forest, so many people can now be seen in 's-Hertogenbosch. Truly, just as the dark forest is home to all manner of creatures of different classes and trees of all types, so is `s-Hertogenbosch [Sylva ducalis] home to people of every description.'

The town of's-Hertogenbosch was founded in 1185 in the Duke's forest. This early history has been visualized in different ways — using a small group of trees to represent the forest, a single tree — the bosboom — as pars pro toro, or by presenting the city's foundation legend, with the Duke resting in his forest. Versions of the latter, narrative depiction gradually developed into almost visual word-games — rebuses of the city's name, which was rendered in a very literal image: `des hertogen bos' ('the Duke's forest'), `de hertog en zijn bos' ('the Duke and his forest') = 's-Hertogenbosch. When the city organized a major lottery in 1522 in an attempt to restore the parlous state of municipal finances, the silversmith and engraver Michiel van Gemert, to whom we referred earlier, was commissioned to make some of the prizes — 150 silver rings and, highly appropriately, 50 boemen or trees.

Hart-ogen-bos, hert-ogen-bos

The eloquence of the `s-Hertogenbosch tree as a visual image — used in seals, for instance, in the municipal arms, on pilgrims' badges, cloth marks or as hallmarks for gold and silver- lost none of its power over the years. These images, which refer to the name of the city, were literally `read'. This is plain from a number of visualizations, certainly including ones from Hieronymus Bosch's period. 's-Hertogenbosch's municipal musicians, for instance, wore precious, early 16th-century brodsies (brooches) which featured the municipal coat of arms with the tree hanging from another large tree. The musicians also wore armbands made of green velvet and trimmed with a red fringe, on which the name of the city was picked out in silver thread. The name was not, however, written out letter by letter, but was partially visualized in the manner of a rebus: s [heart] [eyes] bossche, to read ` s-hart-ogen-bossche'.

Later on, around the middle of the 16th century, local silversmiths produced insignia in the form of little shields for the city's blokmeesters or `district masters'. Once again, several of these shields feature a word-play to indicate the city's name — a stag (hert) in a wood (bos). The resting stag with its impressive antlers lends the wood a high status and forms a visual image of the Duke's forest or `s-Hertogenbosch.


Within this group of visual games with the city's name, in which the Duke himself, a stag in his forest, trees, hearts and eyes all feature, we cannot fail to mention Hieronymus Bosch's brilliant drawing, The Wood Has Ears, the Field Has Eyes. A thought-provoking Latin sentence appears at the top of the page, probably in Bosch's own handwriting. The Antwerp-based Bosch expert Paul Vandenbroeck has already focused on this inscription, and has also traced the origin of the phrase to a 13th-century pedagogical treatise entitled De disciplina scholarium ('On the Education of Youngsters'), which was believed in the Middle Ages to be the work of Boethius. The phrase in question reads: 'Miserrimi quippe est ingenii semper uti inventis et numquam inveniendis', which means, `It is characteristic of the most dismal of minds always to use clichés and never their own inventions'. It was regularly cited in early humanist circles — by Albrecht Dürer, among others — and illustrates Bosch's interest and contacts in those circles. The difficulty lies in how precisely we are supposed to interpret the words above this intriguing drawing. Is it intended as self-criticism, aimed at the artist who is unable to free himself from tradition, or as the confident statement of a draftsman who thinks that his own brand of creativity genuinely transcends such repetition? Bosch was active in precisely the period in which reflections of that nature became possible. A great deal more will undoubtedly be said about this drawing with the seven eyes and the seven trees with ears. The image itself clearly refers, however, to the somewhat more common saying The trees have ears and the fields eyes, which may have come down to us in any of several ways. The association of the popular saying with the toponym that Hieronymus adopted as his surname and with the name of his native city seems almost inescapable — oor-ogen-bos ('ear-eyes-forest'). This also helps us to understand the content of the Latin inscription — neither the proverb nor the word-image play were truly original. In both instances, Bosch drew on an established tradition, although he did so brilliantly. As we have seen, rebuses like this were extremely popular among the urban élite. Images of this kind were also much loved outside `s-Hertogenbosch, as we see in an anonymous Dutch woodcut from roughly half a century later (1546). Although not directly inspired by Bosch's drawing, the print illustrates the same proverb with an image of a forest full of ears and a foreground full of eyes. A Middle Dutch text appears in a frame above the male figure approaching on the left: `Dat Velt heft ogen, dat Wolt heft oren / Ick wil sien, swijghen ende hooren' ('The field has eyes, the wood has ears/ I want to hear all, see all, say nowt').

Excerpted from Hieronymus Bosch by Jos Koldeweij Paul Vandenbroeck Bernard Vermet. Copyright © 2001 by NAi Publishers, Rotterdam; Ludion Ghent/Amsterdam, the authors. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.