Bosch and the Details of Hell

HellOne of the most interesting and well done parts of Hieronymous Bosch’s work is his execution of landscapes in the Hells he creates. I used one of them for a label and was amazed at what you can see in it when you magnify it and look very hard. The image to the left is a great example of Bosch’s work. It is quite enlarged here and the detail he put into it is exceptional. First, he had a habit of showing the landscape buildings and people backlit when he was portraying Perdition. Backlighting done well will inject a note of ambiguity in what we are seeing, a straight-on front lit scene will tell us too much and compete with the action in the foreground. I don’t recall seeing a silhouette used as background in Western art before this piece.

In addition backlighting underlines the strength of the outline of the form and allows Bosch to make the building a stand in for The Devil. The burning building has a sort of Batman or devilish set of “horns” on either side and adds to the hellish vision. The components of the shapes are ambiguous though, and could be: smoke, part of a steeple, the shadow of fire where solids mix with the flame and blot out the escaping light, or a combination of a caved-in steeple and a jet of black smoke.

I was also struck with the way that Bosch insinuates several shafts of light jutting out from this burning silhouette. Shafts of light generally signal salvation and heavenly attention. This is quite the opposite.

Looking at the light might tempt you to look at the smoke and its patterns, too. Bosch has made it billow out as a real fire would, the dark streams of soot are coming off the highest projections of the building and that is what really happens during a fire. The keen powers of observation make the whole thing look like it would be full of choking dark particles. Perhaps the man near the flag pole is hacking and trying to get his breath.

Further contemplating the man on the left side of this detail, what else could he be doing? Is he busy planting The Standard of The Damned on the burning building? Perhaps he is resting in deep sadness while contemplating his own damnation. There seems to be an indication of another human in the building, too. Look to the lower right of the man with the standard and you will see a form with either a pole slung over its shoulder or maybe it’s a banister of a staircase. Again there is a great deal of confusion, just as there would be in a distant fire scene.

This is a great image to regard Bosch’s handling of the glow of fire and how he convinces us that is what the image is about. Looks highly uncomfortable as if the very stones of the building would be too hot to stand on and yet you have to stand on them.

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