Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Bosch, Hieronymus

(circa 1450-1516) Dutch painter who may have been born in the town of 's Hertogenbosch, where he lived most of his life and died; hence perhaps his surname. He is an extremely important figure in art history, and a Taproot source for many painters and illustrators of fantasy material. The nightmarish exorbitance of his work, the surreal intensity of the Landscapes of Hell which he appears to create out of whole cloth, all tend to make HB into a figure who seems inexplicable to later generations, but, while there is no questioning the intensity or the reach of his imagination, his great paintings were created in accordance with the precepts of Allegory as understood by Christian artists at the end of the Middle Ages. They were perhaps heterodox in execution, but their intended meanings were at the time both manifest and unimpeachable.

HB's first extant painting probably dates from circa 1475. In possible chronological order his works of greatest fantasy interest include "The Seven Deadly Sins", "The Haywain", "The Last Judgement", "The World After the Flood"/"The Wicked World", "The Ship of Fools", "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" and "The Garden of Earthly Delights", the last being the most influential of all. Peter S Beagle's nonfiction study, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981), is an intense response to this panoramic triptych, whose Carnival implications seem endless. Ian Watson's quasi-sf The Gardens of Delight (1980) is probably the most important fictional response; Tom Holt's romp Faust Among Equals (1994) sees HB employed as a landscape architect employed to redesign Hell as a theme park along the lines of this picture.

The picture's most famous single image is probably that of the "human tree" which dominates the right panel: the legs are tree-trunks, each bedded in a skiff afloat in obscure waters; the torso is hollow, contains humans and other figures; the head faces us, ruefully, from underneath a kind of vast plate/hat, around which a bevy of unhuman figures dance to music emitted by a great reddish bladder. Interpretations of the human Tree are exceedingly numerous: in fantasy terms alone, the interaction between Bondage and Metamorphosis in the overall image is extremely powerful.

For the 20th century HB is inexhaustible, like Pieter Bruegel after him. Especially in the darkness of the dawn before the Eucatastrophe, his panoramas underly the Landscapes of fantasy. [JC]

Hieronymus Bosch


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.