Hieronymus Bosch: The Last Judgement (Vienna)

Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Last Judgment (left wing, detail) (c 1500-1505), oil on oak panel, left wing 163 x 60 cm, central panel 163 × 127 cm, right wing 163 × 60 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.

The larger, and probably later, of two triptychs painted by Bosch showing the Last Judgement, it lacks his unique creatures, but is full of dire warnings of the suffering in store for sinners.

The Artist: Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516)
The Painting: The Last Judgement, reverse Saint James and Saint Hippolytus (or Bavo) (catalogue raisonné no. 17)
Dates: c 1500-1505, probably c 1503
Media: oil on oak panel
Dimensions: left wing 163 x 60 cm, central panel 163 × 127 cm, right wing 163 × 60 cm
Location: Gemäldegalerie, Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna
Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

Bosch’s second Last Judgement triptych is devoted to Saints James the Apostle (son of Zebedee) and Hippolytus (or possibly Bavo).

Saint James, the son of Zebedee, was one of the twelve Apostles, and is often known as James the Great. The patron saint of Spain, his major shrine is the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the terminus of the Way of Saint James (Camino de Santiago) pilgrimage through Spain. His attributes are those of pilgrimage, particularly the distinctive hat, and the scallop shell, which also marks the route to Santiago de Compostela.

Saint Bavo is less well-known, but a popular saint in Belgium and the Netherlands, being a patron of Ghent and Haarlem. Born near Liège as an aristocrat of Brabant, he reformed from his disorderly lifestyle, converted to Christianity, and died at his abbey in Ghent. His attributes are greaves, military and aristocratic attire, the falcon, and the sword. His saint’s day coincides with the day on which taxes were paid in Ghent, so he is often associated with a purse or bag of money.

More recently, the saint on the right has been identified as Hippolytus, a major theologian in the Christian church in the early 200s CE. Associated with horses, he was particularly interested in eschatology (including the Last Judgement), but does not appear to have any generally-recognised attributes. However, Ilsink et al. argue that the few known images of Saint Hippolytus are more consistent with Bosch’s representation here, particularly with respect to his being surrounded by the poor and beggars.

The painting

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Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Last Judgment (c 1500-1505), oil on oak panel, left wing 163 x 60 cm, central panel 163 × 127 cm, right wing 163 × 60 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.

The exterior cover, showing two plain grisaille images of Saint James (left) and Saint Hippolytus (right), opens to reveal a richly coloured triptych. On the left is a multiplex account of the Fall of Man and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and on the centre panel and right wing are apocalyptic scenes of torment and destruction, overseen by Christ and the Apostles.

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Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), after Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Last Judgment (c 1524), oil on lime, left wing 163 × 58 cm, central panel 163 × 125 cm, right wing 163 × 58 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.

Unfortunately the paint surface of Bosch’s original has deteriorated, and various retouching has been applied. For once, it was copied soon after completion, by Lucas Cranach the Elder in about 1520-24, around twenty years after it was completed. This may give a better idea as to how it originally might have appeared.

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Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Last Judgment (exterior, Saint James and Saint Bavo) (c 1500-1505), oil on oak panel, left wing 163 x 60 cm, central panel 163 × 127 cm, right wing 163 × 60 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.

The exterior grisaille paintings appear in good condition, although the heraldic shields at the foot were left blank. Ilsink et al. report the shield of Hippolyte de Berthoz under the blank surface of that on the right – strong evidence that the triptych had been commissioned by him, and that the saint depicted on the right is his name saint, Saint Hippolytus.

Saint James is shown bowed under the strain of his long journey. On his shoulders is the pilgrim’s hat, emblazoned with a scallop shell. He walks barefooted through wild, open country. In the distance are straggling trees, and what might be a lion (or wolf) devouring its prey.

Saint Hippolytus (or Bavo) is dressed in the clothes of a noble, and is still wearing gold spurs. A falcon is perched on his left hand, ready to hunt, and his right hand dips into a purse. He is surrounded by the poor, who are begging. An old person behind is propped up on the floor. A child or dwarf in front of him holds up his hands in supplication, and a haggard woman is on her knees, a baby held by her head.

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Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Last Judgment (left wing) (c 1500-1505), oil on oak panel, left wing 163 x 60 cm, central panel 163 × 127 cm, right wing 163 × 60 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.

Inside the triptych, the left panel shows the Garden of Eden, with lush rolling countryside and lakes. At the top is God the Father, in a bright area, below which there is a host of angels tumbling from Heaven, from the darkening clouds. Some angels are shown white, and some (those who have been cast out from Heaven) are black, and engage in aerial combat with one another.

The story of Adam and Eve is told in three multiplexed scenes, read from front to back. In the foreground, God the Father (dressed in red robes) has just created Eve, while Adam rests on the grass. Behind that scene, Adam and Eve are at the foot of an apple tree. From its canopy, a naked figure hands them an apple to eat. In the middle distance, a red-robed angel brandishes a sword at Adam and Eve, and chases them from the garden.

To the right, next to the apple tree, is a small cliff. Half way up it is a dark shape which is probably an owl. A few other wild creatures are seen around the countryside, which is otherwise deserted.

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Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Last Judgment (centre panel) (c 1500-1505), oil on oak panel, left wing 163 x 60 cm, central panel 163 × 127 cm, right wing 163 × 60 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.

The centre panel is of a landscape full of torture and mutilation, receding through destruction and fire. Its dominant colours are brown and red in the foreground, darkening to black and flame in the background. Above this, in a bubble of blue sky, Jesus Christ presides, surrounded by angels, the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist, and the Apostles.

The foreground contains many scenes of impalement, torture, and gross physical suffering. These are inflicted by grotesque daemons on naked men and women. There are objects and creatures in common with his other Last Judgement and other paintings: a huge knifeblade, daemons consisting of large heads on feet without a body or legs, and musical instruments such as a lute, although here they are relatively small.

By the middle distance, there are more scenes of armies on the move, and at the right there is a large red flap with prominent spikes, set among rock walls. A limpid black river wends into the background, and further into the distance there are two vessels burning on it. Figures become less frequent in the distance, the landscape comprising ruined buildings which are still on fire. At the left, the sky remains blue, but it is inky black at the right.

Christ is seated on an arc of light, his feet resting on another arc. His hands are outstretched and his chest bare of his red robes. There are two small groups of six or seven Apostles and saints at each end of the arcs. Above them, on the left is the Virgin Mary, and on the right Saint John the Baptist (from his resemblance to Bosch’s earlier painting of him). To the outside of those figures are two angels with straight trumpets on each side; the pair on the left are talking, and one has lowered his instrument. These are almost identical to the equivalent figures in Bosch’s other Last Judgement.

To the left of the angels on the left, a few pious souls are being brought up to Heaven through a break in the clouds.

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Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Last Judgment (right wing) (c 1500-1505), oil on oak panel, left wing 163 x 60 cm, central panel 163 × 127 cm, right wing 163 × 60 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.

The right panel is laid out similarly to the centre panel, showing naked figures being tormented and tortured in the foreground, receding to fumaroles of fire amid complete destruction in the background, which is set at night.

In the foreground the daemons are even more gaudy in form and colour. One shoots arrows which impale a naked figure as a target, other figures are run through by swords, and in a mass of flesh on top of a low tower, which has a round mediaeval marquee pitched on it. At the right edge is a large green statue with its head thrown back and gushing flames from its mouth.

Further into the distance there is a boat with no sails, and behind that are ruined buildings silhouetted by leaping flames, which turn into flaming fumaroles in the far distance. The air and sky is full of flames, smoke, and the ashes of utter destruction.

Composition

The major difference in composition from Bosch’s other Last Judgement is the left panel, which here details the story of the Fall of Man, using multiplex narrative technique (or continuous as opposed to monoscenic narrative).

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Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Last Judgment (c 1495-1505), oil on oak panel, left wing 99.5 x 28.8 cm, central panel 99.2 × 60.5 cm, right wing 99.5 × 28.6 cm, Groeningemuseum, Bruges, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

This differs from other contemporary versions of the Last Judgement, in which the centre panel shows the division of people, the left wing those destined for Heaven, and the right wing those doomed to Hell.

The other notable difference is in the sequence from the painting on the exterior: in Bosch’s other Last Judgement, the importance of Christ’s sacrifice in the Passion was made clear, and offered hope with respect to the infernal scenes within (as did its left panel). The Vienna Last Judgement offers almost none of that hope. This may have reflected the growing opinion that the day of the Last Judgement was drawing near.

Details

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Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Last Judgment (left wing, detail) (c 1500-1505), oil on oak panel, left wing 163 x 60 cm, central panel 163 × 127 cm, right wing 163 × 60 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.

The three multiplexed scenes showing the Fall of Man in the left panel are separated carefully in space. The use of a human figure to represent the donor of the forbidden fruit is not unusual: the long ‘leg’ shown among the branches of the tree may represent the body of the serpent. Note the possible owl on the rock ledge to the right.

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Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Last Judgment (centre panel, detail) (c 1500-1505), oil on oak panel, left wing 163 x 60 cm, central panel 163 × 127 cm, right wing 163 × 60 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.

Tortures shown in the foreground of the centre panel include making an already portly man swallow liquid poured from a large barrel, suspension over a fire, lashing to a long lance, and various grinding machines. At the upper left a daemon wears a lute on its head, and there is a daemon with the form of large green bagpipes.

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Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Last Judgment (right wing, detail) (c 1500-1505), oil on oak panel, left wing 163 x 60 cm, central panel 163 × 127 cm, right wing 163 × 60 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.

The low tower with its round marquee is a feature of the foreground of the right panel. Inside the marquee are many figures squashed together, and another figure is shown on top of it, apparently blowing a straight trumpet from its rectum.

Making sense of it all

Overall the impression given by this triptych is much darker than Bosch’s other Last Judgement, as there is no offer of redemption, almost no apparent escape. This is more typical of the various apocalyptic movements which arose in Europe at this time, whose message was less ‘repent and be saved’, and more that of inescapable doom.

The details are more disturbingly gruesome and less inventive and fanciful than in Bosch’s previous depictions of similar themes. This is the sort of painting which you would not leave out over the Christmas season, not unless you wanted to drive your congregation to another church.

History

The early copy made by Lucas Cranach the Elder is no guarantee of the involvement of Bosch in the painting of this triptych, but weighs in its favour. Careful studies have revealed several differences in style and technique from those normally seen in works by Bosch, raising the question as to how much he was involved. Arguing for at least some involvement by Bosch, Ilsink et al. conclude that “substantial workshop involvement must be assumed.”

It is believed to have been commissioned by a Burgundian living in Bruges, Hippolyte de Berthoz, although earlier it had been supposed to have been for Philip the Fair. Ilsink et al. suggest that it may have been destined for the Chapel of Saint James in Saint Saviour’s Church in Bruges. It is not known whether it ever got there, and Hippolyte de Berthoz died in 1503.

It does apparently have quite extensive repainted areas from old attempts at its restoration, the last of which took place in 1954. Unfortunately it has not been included in the recent conservation work undertaken by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project. Let’s hope that it soon will be, as that would undoubtedly help research to resolve some of the many questions raised by this triptych.

References

Wikipedia (brief).

Matthijs Ilsink, Jos Koldeweij et al. (2016) pp 290-307 in Hieronymus Bosch, Painter and Draughtsman: Catalogue Raisonné, Yale UP and Mercatorfonds. ISBN 978 0 300 22014 8.