Around the turn of the 14th century, for reasons still not completely clear, the average annual temperature underwent a precipitous drop for the next half millennia during what scientists have termed a “Little Ice Age.” Planting seasons were reduced throughout France and the Holy Roman Empire; lush vineyards in the Low Countries and England were blighted; the River Thames regularly froze over (until well into the Industrial Revolution). For two years starting in 1315 massive crop failures throughout Europe led to thousands of deaths. A generation later, and a population already sickly from famine was far more at risk from the bubonic plague, which in the infamous pandemic of 1347 (the Black Death) may have killed a third of Europeans.
These years of pandemic and climate change were well attested to in later artwork, especially in Germany and the Netherlands. The frozen lake and low winter light in Pieter Brueghel the Elders’ 1565 “The Hunters in the Snow,” the pustule-covered Christ in Mathias Grünewald’s 1523 “Crucifixion,” those grinning and corpuscular demonic skeletons from Hans Holbein’s 1526 “Danse Macabre,” and the eschatological mania of Albrecht Dürer’s 1496 woodcut “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.”
Before all of them, however, was the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, born sometime around 1450, who was at the height of his artistic skill during the decades on either side of 1500, and died in 1516, only a year before all that northern European gothic mania would culminate in Martin Luther’s “95 Theses.” Alice K. Turner described Bosch in The History of Hell as “one of the handful of truly original creators of hell.”
I would argue that more than even that, Bosch was both the inventor of the modern Western imagining of the demonic while transcending that very same tradition — all because of bad weather and moldy bread.
Since he was a psychedelic visionary, it’s been hypothesized that the deranged piety of the painter was inspired by ergot poisoning. Claviceps purpurea, the most common variety of the fungus ergot, produces an alkaloid known as ergotamine, which in chemical composition is closely related to lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. Because of the damp growing seasons, ergot rot was endemic throughout northern Europe, and infected rye often found its way into bread. John Waller explains in The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness that the mold could “induce delusions, twitching, and violent jerking,” mentioning how Alsatian millers had fitted their wooden pipes which transported flour with intricate carvings of distinctly Boschian faces as a reminder of hallucinatory risks.
Art historians have long looked for some explanation of Bosch’s imagery: a shrieking insectoid demon with globular, coal-black eyes wearing a Flemish matron’s chaperon; an avian devil with a chamber pot as a crown stuffing a nude man into its gaping beak; a pig in a nun’s habit forcefully embracing a screaming man. Those are just details from the dense tableaux of his most celebrated work – “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” painted between 1495 and 1505. Jeffrey Burton Russell argues in Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World that part of Bosch’s impact isn’t only because he “introduced a complex and varied symbolism open to interpretation,” but also because he “shifted the focus of evil from the demonic to the human.” Part of what strikes viewers of Bosch’s work is that regardless of how grotesque his demons are, they are also individuals.
Laurinda S. Dixon makes the most connoisseurial case for Bosch’s ergotism in an essay from Art Journal, but ultimately any diagnosis must only be conjecture. We feel the need to explain Bosch’s macabre obsessions in some way, the singular, fantastical, unprecedented nature of his paintings.
Bosch can be partially explained by the context of the High Middle Ages: The distinctly Teutonic religious malaise and mania which he shares with Brueghel and Dürer and which reached its apotheosis with the coming Reformation, and the melancholy which marked a region that had gotten colder, sicker, and hungrier. While the Italian Renaissance has its share of demonic imagery, nothing was produced that quite matched Bosch for horrific import. For that matter, nothing else was produced anywhere that quite equaled his hellish vision. Both allusive and illusive, because a central attraction to Bosch has been the sense that he possesses some ability to divine cursed verisimilitude, that if his images seem too remarkable that it’s because he actually knew what hell looked like.
I venture such a claim only to emphasize just how otherworldly and sui generis Bosch happens to be, a necromancer who was able to pull hell upward to earth and to preserve it in oil and wood. As Turner argues, Bosch’s “demons and tortures are more varied and imaginative than anything we have seen yet.” No other artist in Western painting has ever captured such an enduring demonic imaginary like Bosch has. He single-handedly perfected the visual idiom of perdition, and the result has been five centuries of nightmares, the progeny of the Netherlandish painter visible in contemporary Satanic imagery from horror movies to heavy metal music.
There is an eternal quality about Bosch, not just that he influences modern culture, but that his multitude of horrors somehow exists outside of any simple framework of past, present, and future. He’s endlessly interpretable, and what exactly any occult revelation he presents might evoke or connotate must by necessity shift. In our own years of pandemic and climate change, in my book Pandemonium: A Visual History of Demonology, I return to another segment of “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” describing what looks like, if anything, a “fiery cityscape, collapsed and burning skyscrapers, twisted steel I-beams and crumbling concrete, the haze of nuclear fallout across the skyline of a once-mighty and modern metropolis.” Whether Bosch is in hell or we are remains as unanswered as the origins of his strange and terrible visions.