One of Bosch’s greatest paintings, the Lisbon triptych is highly original and inventive, in some respects surpassing even his Garden of Earthly Delights as a masterpiece. The fragment in Kansas City has only recently been recognised as being part of another version, the rest of which has been lost.
The Artist: Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516)
The Painting: The Temptation of Saint Anthony, reverse The Arrest of Christ and Christ Carrying the Cross (catalogue raisonné no. 4)
Dates: c 1500-1510, probably between 1500 and 1503
Media: oil on oak panel
Dimensions: left wing 144.8 x 66.5 cm, central panel 145.1 × 132.8 cm, right wing 144.8 × 66.7 cm
Location: Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, Portugal
Credits: Wikimedia Commons.
The Painting: The Temptation of Saint Anthony, fragment (catalogue raisonné no. 3)
Dates: c 1500-1510
Media: oil on oak panel
Dimensions: 38.6 × 25.1 cm
Location: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO
Credits: Photo Rik Klein Gotink and image processing Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, via Wikimedia Commons.
Documentary records make it clear that Bosch painted several different versions of the Temptation of Saint Anthony, of which it appears that the Lisbon triptych is the sole complete survivor, and the fragment in Kansas City the only remains of another.
Saint Anthony (the Great, of Egypt, the Abbot, etc.) was born in 251 CE to wealthy parents in Lower Egypt. When he was 18, his parents died, and he became an evangelical Christian. He gave his inheritance away, and followed an ascetic life. For fifteen years he lived as a hermit. During this time the devil fought with him, afflicting him with boredom, laziness, and dreams of lustful women. Then the devil beat him unconscious.
Friends found him and brought him back to health, so he went back into the desert for another twenty years. This time the devil afflicted him with visions of wild beasts, snakes, scorpions, etc., but again he fought back. He eventually emerged serene and healthy. He went to Alexandria during the persecution of Christians there, to comfort those in prison. He returned to the desert, where he built a monastic system with his followers.
His attributes are a bell, a pig, a book, the Tau cross (like a capital T), sometimes with a bell pendant. He is commonly shown being tempted in a wilderness, often by naked women, and is associated with fire (“Saint Anthony’s Fire”).
Bosch had already featured Saint Anthony on the left wing of his Hermit Saints Triptych (Venice) (c 1495-1505).
The exterior, two grisailles showing Christ being arrested and carrying the cross up to Golgotha, opens to reveal three brightly-coloured panels showing different scenes of the temptation of Saint Anthony.
The exterior consists of two separate scenes of Christ’s Passion, painted in grisaille.
That on the left shows Christ’s arrest in the olive grove, in the still moments just before daybreak. Jesus Christ is shown kneeling prostrate just above the centre, at the near edge of a dense throng of people. Behind him is an armoured angel, and several others bear weapons and shields. In front of Christ another figure kneels, his face turned towards the viewer and his mouth wide open, as if shouting. In the foreground, the Apostle Peter threatens to slice the ear from the cowering figure of the high priest’s servant. Judas makes his departure in the left foreground, the payment hanging in his purse.
On the right, Christ is again just above the centre of the painting, carrying his large and heavy cross on his right shoulder, and assisted by Simon of Cyrene, who is behind and to the right. Around them is a dense crowd of people, including an adult male carrying a baby on his shoulders. In the foreground, the two criminals to be crucified alongside Christ are seen. One is blindfolded, and talking to a priest. The other is seated against a priest, who appears to be hearing his confession. One of their flimsier crucifixes is abandoned on the ground at the right lower corner.
Inside the triptych, the left panel shows Saint Anthony being assisted by three others, as he crosses a small wooden bridge, in a state of complete exhaustion, perhaps after being beaten unconscious by the devil. In the countryside around that group are weird human and portmanteau animal figures. In the sky above, Saint Anthony is seen again, being flown around on the back of another invented animal.
In the immediate foreground there are two strange creatures. To the right, a bird with the bill of a crossbill carries in that bill a letter. That creature wears an inverted blue funnel on its head, and a bright red cloak. It has long, floppy ears with small polka dots on them. Its human legs bear a pair of ice skates, and it skates on those across a frozen stream.
On the left is an invented bird-like creature with a long straight bill, which is swallowing a whole frog. It stands on an egg, the shell of which is broken open to allow a small duck-like creature to be emerging. Under the bridge which Saint Anthony is crossing is a human figure reading from a sheet. Opposite him is a rodent of similar size, and another creature looms behind.
Saint Anthony is slumped forward, his arms hanging vertically downwards. He is supported by three helpers, of whom only one has his face visible (and he wears red robes). It has been suggested that his face may be a self-portrait of Bosch. The other two wear monks’ cowls. They cross the bridge from left to right.
Behind them are more strange figures and creatures. One has a man’s face, bare hindquarters with a tail, and streams liquid from under the tail. It appears to be blowing a set of bagpipes. On the right is a group including a figure with a red cloak and mitre, a reindeer wearing a red cloak, and a large bird with white plumage, a black cowl, and a bill like a black spoonbill.
Behind them a grassy hill is formed over the back of a giant, whose naked buttocks and legs face the viewer, similar to Bosch’s earlier tree-man. The giant’s head pokes out on the other side, an arrow stuck into its forehead. Beside the giant’s left thigh is the front of a cottage built into the hill, with a woman shown at the window.
Further into the distance is a coastal scene with two sailing vessels. The land rises steeply from that coast, and on a craggy hilltop on the right there is a blazing beacon.
In the air above, three bizarre flying creatures are passing. The nearer consists of bat wings and daemons, and on its back is Saint Anthony, his black robes emblazoned with the Greek letter T, Tau. More distant creatures contain fish, an armoured male mermaid, and a boat with a naked man pointing his buttocks at the viewer. A huge fat louse is emitting vapours from its anus and bears a large scythe.
The centre panel shows Saint Anthony at the centre, kneeling in prayer and surrounded by bizarre figures, creatures, and objects, as if in a vision of temptation. In the background a town is burning.
The foreground shows more scenes involving bizarre figures, creatures, and objects. At the left, a jumble of them emerges from the huge shell of a strawberry-like fruit. One of those figures is astride a goose, and playing a harp. In the middle is a small pond, in which a hybrid between a fish and a boat is floating, and a man is seen inside another strange creature.
Further back on the right is a column decorated with reliefs, at the foot of which are several strange figures, one wearing an inverted funnel on its head. A small group at the right edge rides a pitcher on legs and a huge rat. Saint Anthony is kneeling opposite the figure of a nun, but looking directly at the viewer.
Behind and to the left of him further figures are seated and standing around a circular white table. To the left are more weird figures apparently moving towards the middle of the panel. Dominating the middle ground, behind the saint, are the ruins of an old tower, within which a priest is praying by a lifelike crucifix.
Stretching into the distance at the right, the tower appears linked to a more substantial tiered building, which terminates in a large egg-shaped tower. Various figures are on this building, including a naked person with their hands held above their head.
In the distance on the left is a town on fire. The nearest farm and buildings are not burning, but a little army is crossing a small hump-backed bridge in front of them. Further back the buildings are silhouetted by the orange and red of rising flames, against the palls of smoke and night sky. In the air are several curious flying machines and creatures, including an armoured ship and a huge goose with the after-end of a sailing ship.
The right panel shows Saint Anthony seated, with a book open in front of him. He is again surrounded by strange figures and creatures from a vision of temptation. The background shows a prominent windmill and towers, behind which is a wintry landscape with snow on the ground.
In the foreground, in front of the saint, is a circular table, half-covered with a white tablecloth. The table is supported by naked human figures, one of whom has his left foot in a large pot. Another wears an armoured glove which is brandishing a heavy scimitar, but a creature has passed a thin-bladed sword through its neck. At the left edge of the table, another naked human is blowing a curiously curved trumpet. To the right an abdomen with ears and legs, wrapped in a red cloth hat, has a sword stuck into it.
Saint Anthony sits on a small earth slab, a book open in front of him. Although his body is orientated to the left and into the distance, he is looking to the lower left of the panel, where the table is. He wears dark brown hooded monastic robes, and his right hand holds a stick out in front of him. The left shoulder of the robes bears a Greek letter T, Tau.
In front of him, slightly deeper into the distance, is another group of figures, daemons, and objects, clustered around the hollow trunk of a dead tree. Inside the hollow, a naked woman peers out. The tree is draped with a scarlet sheet, under and on which there are several daemons. At the top, an old person pours liquid from a ewer into the bowl held up by a daemon below. A bird resembling a woodpecker is perched on one of the upper branches. At the right edge, a shortened person in a scarlet robe walks off to the right using a wheeled walking frame.
The middle distance consists of a European-style windmill at the left, and two large tower-like structures on the far side of a moat. A figure fights a monster in that moat, bearing a sword at it. Armies are massed on ramparts connecting the towers, and on the top of the left tower there is a fire.
Behind those fortifications is an open space, in which people are gathering in a group, and a northern European town, with a church and spire. Beyond that is rolling countryside, with another windmill on the horizon.
The salient object in the sky is a huge fish, on which a man and woman are seated. The man holds a long rod on his right shoulder, at the far end of which is a lantern.
The Kansas City fragment
Saint Anthony fills the upper half, with him kneeling down, holding a pitcher in his right hand, filling it with water by immersion. He wears a heavy black cloak, with the letter Tau emblazoned on the front right.
In front of him are bizarre creatures, some floating on the surface of the water. These include a cloaked creature with the bill of a spoonbill, at a circular table-top covered with a white cloth. Others include a frog and a turtle. A fish with visible fangs is apparently walking on the bank, and there is an inverted funnel with human legs and arms, brandishing a curved sword in its right hand, and a shield in its left.
Most depictions of the Temptation of Saint Anthony, a relatively popular subject for religious paintings at that time, are inevitably more conventional. However, his visions are often shown in a manner which is more imaginative than other religious subjects, and has repeatedly given rise to strange scenes.
Very slightly later than Bosch, Matthias Grünewald’s diptych of the Visit of St Anthony to St Paul and Temptation of St Anthony (c 1515) shows this well: although some of the vegetation in the left panel is fairly exotic, the right panel is packed with all manner of extraordinary beasts and monsters.
A century later, Jan Brueghel the Elder’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony (c 1610) shows how this had almost become traditional practice. It is tempting to speculate that Bosch’s apparently well-known paintings of the Temptation may have encouraged others to paint so imaginatively.
The composition and fantastic details of these paintings by Bosch are quite different from others, and distinctively Bosch. From his use of vast fruit, through distant massing armies, to his characteristic flying contraptions, they are rich in his most unusual iconography.
The skating crossbill in the foreground of the left panel bears a letter against Saint Anthony. The badge shown on its left breast is that of freemasonry, and its curious inverted funnel hat occurs repeatedly in Bosch’s later paintings.
Things are no less strange up in the sky, where three fantastic contraptions fly in convoy. That bearing Saint Anthony consists of a portmanteau of a bat (or winged frog) with daemons, one of which holds a long-handled mallet. The saint is distinguished by the Tau cross on his robes.
The figures by Saint Anthony on the central panel show an extraordinary range of features, including a horn-like bill, a porcine snout, and Medusan hair. Common to his other paintings are musical instruments, including a lute and hurdy-gurdy, and the more prominent owl in this triptych, here perched on the black pig-knight’s head. This passage may include the saint’s attempted seduction by a beautiful queen.
The reliefs on the column shows scenes from Old Testament stories: at the top is the dance around the golden calf from the journey to the Promised Land; below that is a scene of idolatry, and at the bottom two figures carry an outsized bunch of grapes, the scouts which Moses sent on ahead into the Promised Land.
The mounted group below the column is probably a parody of the Flight to Egypt, with an aged Joseph, the Virgin Mary as a tree creature, clutching a baby in swaddling bands. At the lower left of this detail is another figure wearing an inverted funnel on his head.
A second, less obvious, owl appears in a hole just over halfway up the pillar of reliefs.
The distant burning town has been painted in great detail, including its blazing church. The skies around are dotted with angels in flight, including one carrying a stepladder.
The right panel is less complex in its content, although Saint Anthony and the temptations in front of him are still intricate and rich in fine details.
The background of the right panel appears less finished, with the windmill at the left being quite sketchy still, and the more distant buildings painted in very simply. This may of course reflect later overpainting by way of retouching, rather than Bosch’s original paint layer. The armies on the battlements appear to be laying siege to the towers.
Making sense of it all
The elaborate iconography of this painting has been much less studied than, say, Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, but appears just as complex. At a superficial level, it is easy to dismiss them as fanciful representations of the visions with which the devil tempted Saint Anthony, but that does not explain their many peculiarities.
For example, common to the Lisbon triptych and the Kansas City fragment is the use of inverted funnels as hats. Not seen in Bosch’s earlier works, they are known from miniatures of the late 1100s as symbolic dress of Jews.
Round white tables are another unusual and repeated image in both paintings, and in other circumstances might be associated with cardplay and gaming. But here Bosch refrains from that allusion, and puts a ewer or jug on them.
His aerial contraptions are a more consistent feature of earlier paintings, but it is puzzling that the left panel might show the saint being conveyed to heaven on one. Neither is it clear why he is shown twice in that same panel.
There is still much to learn about the more detailed reading of this remarkable triptych. For the moment, it is probably best summarised as showing how Saint Anthony was able to resist these almost overwhelming temptations, in peace and calm, as a result of the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ when he suffered and died on the cross (the theme of the exterior).
This appears to have been long accepted as the original work of Bosch, although it is thought that many copies were made of it at the time. There is no evidence to suggest that the Lisbon triptych was such a copy, and ample to conclude that it is one of the originals.
It is believed to have been commissioned by a Burgundian living in Bruges, Hippolyte de Berthoz, passed on to his son on the father’s death in 1503, then sold on to Duke Philip the Fair, the Duke of Burgundy, in 1505.
Matthijs Ilsink, Jos Koldeweij et al. (2016) pp 132-159 in Hieronymus Bosch, Painter and Draughtsman: Catalogue Raisonné, Yale UP and Mercatorfonds. ISBN 978 0 300 22014 8.