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None of Bosch's surviving paintings, of which there are about 40, bears a date or can be dated by documentary evidence. This makes it extremely difficult to establish a convincing chronology for his work. There is a fair measure of agreement as to which paintings can be placed at the very beginning of his career and which are from the flower of his maturity, but there are considerable differences in scholarly opinion about the dating of individual works and their place in his development.
The Conjurer and Ecce Homo are generally thought to be among his earliest works, their immaturity showing in the comparative stiffness and awkwardness of the figures. Even in these paintings, however, there is a pointer to Bosch's later preoccupations in the grotesque faces that reveal mankind's cruelty and folly. The works on which Bosch's reputation now mainly rests are the three astonishing triptychs, The Hay Wain, The Garden of Earthly Delights and The Temptation of St Anthony. They swarm with bizarre figures and show Bosch's imagination to have been one of the most powerful, original and disturbing in the history of art.
As well as creating such vast, teeming panoramas, Bosch could also focus memorably on a single figure, as in St John the Baptist in the Wilderness, and he was a master of the dramatic close-up, exemplified in The Crowning with Thorns. This last painting is an excellent example of the beauty of Bosch's technique; it was not tight and highly detailed, like that of many of his contemporaries, but subtle and varied, the paint often applied very thinly.
This painting is generally accepted as one of Bosch's earliest designs; although some scholars think it is a copy of a lost original rather than a work from the master's own hand. It is a vivid depiction of gullibility and stupidity; the bending figure whose dress indicates that he is some kind of dignitary is so immersed in the tricks being performed that he does not notice his purse is being stolen.
In contrast to the violence of Ecce Homo, the atmosphere of this scene is one of touching domesticity. Joseph doffs his hood and looks abashed at the presence of such distinguished visitors. On the white sleeve of the king on the right is a depiction of the Israelites gathering manna an Old Testament allusion to the coming of Christ.
Pilate presents Christ to the people of Jerusalem. Beside Pilate are the words 'Ecce Homo' (Behold the Man); the crowd bays back 'Crucifige Eum' (Crucify Him) and across the stone wall (where two donor figures have been painted out) is inscribed 'Salve nos Christe redemptor' (Save us, Christ redeemer). Bosch hardly needs words, however, to convey the horror mob law.
This is regarded as the first painting in which Bosch revealed his unique imaginative gifts. It is based on a Flemish proverb: 'The world is a haystack, and everyone snatches what he can from it.' The hay wagon represents earthly goods, and the whole world including a pope and an emperor goes with it as it rolls - inexorably towards Hell on the right wing. Christ appears in judgment overhead. In the left wing is represented the Garden of Eden, with the creation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Paradise. There are many brilliantly depicted details, notably the nuns in the foreground who stuff a sack with the precious hay, and the lovers on top of the wagon who ignore the guardian angel behind Ahem while a demon pipes in front of them.
This is Bosch's largest, most complex and probably most famous painting; in it he reached the height of his imaginative powers. It is similar in conception to The Hay Wain, with Paradise and Hell in the wings flanking a central panel representing mankind's sinful activities. Although the monsters are the most hideous Bosch ever created, the painting has extraordinary beauty of colour. There is another version of this painting, probably from Bosch's workshop, in the Escorial near Madrid.
St John lived an ascetic life in the desert. Bosch shows him pointing at a lamb, which represents Christ the Lamb of God. The huge and fantastically-formed plant beside which the saint reclines is probably intended to symbolize sensual delights, which John has rejected for his life of religious devotion.
Somewhat uncharacteristically, Bosch does not dwell on the physical horrors of the scene, but instead creates a poignant image of suffering patiently endured the beautiful head of Christ is one of the finest things he ever painted. The significance of the bizarre headgear of the tormentors is uncertain.
St Anthony was a hermit saint who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries and is generally regarded as the founder of monasticism. His ascetic life in the wilderness brought on hallucinations, which featured prominently in the stories about him that acquired wide popularity in the middle Ages. He became a popular subject in art, too, and there are several copies of the whole or parts of this painting. Bosch seems to have taken certain details from an account of the Saint's life that was published in Dutch in 1490. St Anthony's `temptations' was of two kinds: fleshly inducements in the form of sexual favours and worldly goods; and attacks by demons (the Latin word 'tempto' has both meanings). Bosch combined both meanings over the three panels, creating a dazzling and disturbing fantasy world,
Writer – Marshall Cavendish