This early triptych puts three saints in Bosch’s distinctive and fantastic wildernesses. His mature style and unique vision are fully expressed for the first time.
The Artist: Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516)
The Painting: The Hermit Saints Anthony, Jerome and Giles (catalogue raisonné no. 2)
Dates: c 1495-1505
Media: oil on oak panel
Dimensions: left wing 85.4 × 29.2 cm, central panel 85.7 × 60 cm, right wing 85.7 × 28.9 cm
Location: Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice
Credits: Photo Rik Klein Gotink and image processing Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project.
Triptychs showing the lives of the saints were popular in churches during Bosch’s time, and one common theme was penance during their time spent in ‘the wilderness’, withdrawn from the comforts of life. This triptych shows three well-known saints in that situation: at the left Saint Anthony (the subject of other paintings by Bosch), in the centre Saint Jerome (Bosch’s name saint, and the subject of his earlier painting), and at the right Saint Giles.
There are several different Saints Anthony, but usually (and sometimes with confusion) this refers to Saint Anthony the Great, who – according to Athanasius and the Golden Legend – spent long periods in the deserts of Egypt being tempted by the devil because of his asceticism and piety. His attributes include a bell, pig, book, and Tau cross, but he is most usually shown being tempted – often with naked women and riches – and in association with fire (Saint Anthony’s Fire).
Saint Jerome’s attributes are a lion (from dubious hagiography), the conventional rig (especially hat) of a cardinal (although at that time there was no such office), the cross, skull, trumpet (of the Last Judgement), owl (as a sign of wisdom), books, and writing equipment.
Saint Giles (in Latin, Aegidius) was a Greek Christian hermit saint who reputedly spent years alone in the forest near Nîmes, in France, in the company of a deer. He was finally discovered by the king’s hunters, who shot an arrow aimed at the deer which wounded Giles instead. His attributes therefore include an arrow, a deer, a crozier, and a hermitage.
The three panels forming this triptych show the three hermit saints undergoing prayer and penance during their periods spent in ‘the wilderness’. In each panel, the saint’s head and shoulders are close to the centre of that panel, and they are at an improvised altar appropriate to their setting. They are surrounded by collections of highly inventive objects, including their attributes, and symbols associated with their lives and missions. Many, if not most, of those objects are inventions or portmanteau creations unique to Bosch.
In the left panel, Saint Anthony leans on a stick, held in his left hand, while pouring water from a jug held low with his right hand; he may be drawing water from a well. The devotional area in front of him has a thin voile curtain hanging from the branch of a dead tree, behind which is a nude woman. A devil is on the branch.
In the foreground, there is a collection of bizarre objects, mainly portmanteau creatures, such as a head on a pair of shoes, with a nesting owl on top of it. There is also a wizened gnome-like man stood reading a book on a stone slab, and a fish with arms which appears to be pouring itself a glass of drink from a jug.
The background is dark, night-time, with fire emitting from voids in the surface, and silhouetted by bright white lights behind are a bridge with lychgate, and a church. People are visible, and at the left a building is on fire. The overall effect is of a disturbing, almost apocalyptic vision.
In the centre panel, Saint Jerome kneels in front of a small rounded altar, within which is a stunted old tree. This may be the throne from the ruins of a palace. In his right hand is a rock, which he uses to beat himself in penance. Resting on the altar is a crucifix with a miniature detailed carving of Christ. The outside of the altar has a relief, showing biblical scenes. To the right is a cardinal’s hat, and Jerome wears the red robes of a cardinal.
Behind him (to the left of the painting) is a section of tiled floor. In front of that (closer to the viewer) is a cylindrical painted pillar showing a miniature figure praying, and a representation of the heavens. Further back, a small statue leans at an impossible angle, having possibly fallen from the pillar. The rest of the foreground is composed of a couple of rodent-like creatures fighting, the opening of cellars, strange stone steps, and other objects.
Behind Jerome is a small rocky tump, with strange plants and other formations on it, topped by a hut. At the foot of this tump is a little lake, on which there is a heron, a lion drinking, and other wildlife. Behind the land soon drops to a distant plain, on which there are scattered trees and villages, which have churches with steeples.
In the right panel, Saint Giles stands praying and slightly crouched inside a small cave. At his feet is a deer, above which is a scroll with writing on it. An arrow impales his left side. Above him is an image which might show someone trying to enter his cave, or it could be a representation of Christ. There is an owl just visible in a small cave at the left edge of the panel, just above the level of Giles’ head. A collection of strange objects, such as the bleached skull of a bird, and a tiny wizened tree, are scattered across the foreground.
The background shows grassy meadows rising to a rocky pinnacle, and dense woodland. In the far distance are rolling woods.
Bosch had already (assuming the currently proposed dates are accurate) painted a fairly unusual depiction of his name saint, Jerome, but the three panels here are a very clear departure from that comparatively conventional approach.
Although far from being formulaic, each panel has a foreground with peculiar objects, the saint in the midst of their devotions, then a background which ranges from the worrying apocalyptic to the pastoral.
As with most of Bosch’s mature paintings, you can spend all day studying their intriguing details, and many months trying to fathom their symbolic associations and meanings. I will here just show four of the more interesting areas on the panels, to give a flavour of their richness.
The foreground of the left panel features a complete zoo of weird creatures, mainly assembled using a mixture of parts of real creatures. At its centre, for example, is a bird with human legs, a peacock-like posterior, and the bill of a spoonbill. None of these is exactly a fearsome monster, but as chimeras or portmanteaux they are unnatural and internally disturbing. They demonstrate Bosch’s extensive knowledge of wildlife, and his great and visionary invention. Note that each of the three panels contains his signature owl.
In the centre panel, Saint Jerome is quite similar to the figure in his previous painting. The relief shown on the outside of his altar may contain scenes from the story of Judith and Holofernes, which may refer to Judith’s and Jerome’s chastity. The painted surface just below that is more irreverent: it shows an owl (the only one in the centre panel, as far as I can see) perched on a stick stuck up an arse. Behind is another relief on a tablet, showing someone trying to mount a unicorn.
Behind Saint Jerome, at the left of the centre panel, is this painted pillar. Its lower section contains a figure kneeling in prayer. Above that is a nebulous layer, and at the top a layer representing the heavens, with the sun and moon shining. In front of that are sundry small creatures, including a snake, and in the immediate foreground a lizard disappearing into a cylinder, and the skeleton of a small animal.
The right panel is not as heavily decorated with these inventions. Shown here is the scroll detailing the sins of the king, which the king dared not confess, and a book nearby. I think that there is the faint image of an owl in the small hole by the branch in front of Giles’ face. The porcupine creature at the top is visually related to creatures shown on the left panel.
Making sense of it all
It remains controversial as to how literal and detailed an account we should try to make of these paintings, when reading them. Some of these objects – saintly attributes, for example – are clearly intended to be important. Others, such as the idol and Saint Anthony’s nude woman, are essential to the story. But did Bosch intend anyone to understand the symbolic meaning of the various body parts in his composite creatures, assuming that they could be understood?
My own opinion is that many of these objects are, like trees and buildings, to create a scenic effect. Taken in those terms, they represent the fantastic visions, temptations, and nightmares which these saints experienced during the times that they spent in the wilderness, during their periods of devotion.
This painting has not apparently been the subject of any dispute as to it being an authentic work by Bosch’s hand.
Unfortunately the panels underwent significant modification during their time in Austria (in the nineteenth century, when they had been removed from Venice): paintings on the reverse of the wings were removed, and have been lost. The tops and bottoms of the panels have been cropped, removing their arch at the top, as late as 1895. At some stage the triptych has also probably been exposed to fire. Previous retouching brought overpainting of many parts of the triptych too.
During 2013-2015, the Bosch Research and Conservation Project undertook extensive conservation work on this triptych, which had looked as shown above. The images used in the rest of this article are based on its new, post-conservation appearance.
Matthijs Ilsink, Jos Koldeweij et al. (2016) pp 122-131 in Hieronymus Bosch, Painter and Draughtsman: Catalogue Raisonné, Yale UP and Mercatorfonds. ISBN 978 0 300 22014 8.