Hieronymus Bosch and our never-ending struggle between good and evil

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I do not accept that human beings continue to cling strongly to dichotomies, oppositions, wars, clashes due to a lack of intention towards resolution. Nor do I accept why many people fear confrontation, different opinions, and in a perpetual self-defence, convince themselves that a confrontation is equivalent to a clash. But it is not.


masculine noun

1. Material or ideal juxtaposition made for the purpose of evaluation.


masculine noun

1. Hostile and violent encounter, with particular reference to collective or individual fighting.

I do not accept that the reason for all this human mental confusion, is the principle that most people want to be right, without considering what this implies or to what losses stubbornness can lead, nor without often listening, either to the other or to themselves. This is why, over the centuries and cultures, human instincts have changed very little, and so has the instinct to pursue reason, which has perpetuated obscene customs such as war.

War has never ended, it has always been here with us, sometimes far away, sometimes closer, sometimes told and sometimes silenced. I still do not believe in the possibility of peace, as long as the definition of peace is this:


feminine noun

1. The situation contrary to the state of war, guaranteed by respect for the idea of interdependence in international relations, and characterised, within the same state, by the normal and fruitful development of political, economic, social and cultural life.

The opposite situation to the state of war

Language describes and creates, it is the basis of our civilisation, but it seems that for the definition of ‘peace’ there is no imaginative or creative human capacity, and in order to be able to narrate it, one has to cling to its opposite. How frightening. Let us all make an effort for a moment and try to describe what peace is. The collective unconscious needs a booster like this, otherwise we would end up like those little monsters in Bosch’s paintings, characters with half-human and half-beastly features, each one intent on living out his own condemnation in solitude, at a total distance from the other.

Hyeronimus Bosch uses a surrealist style, derived from the study and re-elaboration of Roman grotesques, as a metaphor and symbolism to narrate the human misfortune of “always wanting to be right”, the human desire to persevere in error, as opposed to the paradisiacal possibility that we have, if only we wanted, to spend time in a garden and be love in full awareness.  

A triptych of possibilities

Looking at his triptychs, especially the so-called ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’, I see the temporal narrative, but above all the narrative of possibilities: demonic, earthly or divine.

Everyone chooses what death to die of, what pain to suffer, what trauma to grow old with in Bosch’s stories; our free will makes us perpetual victims. These zoomorphic creatures represent the evils we inflict on ourselves: competition, resentment, envy, self-harm, lack of self-love, guilt, selfishness, death… We humans seem to be the weakest of the species, we probably are.

This is due to the fact that we are always on the alert, on the defensive, ready to clash with others and with ourselves; we let our minds wander, turning facts and objective reality into giant surrealist Boschian tales.

I love Bosch for his ability to make human discomforts transparent and obvious, those that we ourselves are constantly trying to hide, camouflage, omit, in a fictitious quest for perfection and above all, to appear perfect in the eyes of others. In the same way, at other times, we take these pains and we wallow in them, we amplify them, we put them around us like shields that harden over time and leave us petrified.

When we look at his paintings, we are stimulated by the details that invite us to look for hours at the miniatures of which they are composed.  But I believe that Bosch also set up his triptychs to tease and provoke in us some of that perverse satisfaction that a being has in seeing someone else fail, in seeing him fall into the lowest depths of humanity, in order to feel better about his own inadequacy.

Seeking in the other an end rather than a mean

Hieronymus Bosch understood very well the human meanness of reducing the other being to a means, an unknown object to be used for personal gain: we do it in our relations with others when we look for the solution to our shortcomings in the couple, we do it in our relations with nature when we exploit its resources without respect, we do it in social relations when we think only of ourselves and not of the community, and we do it even towards ourselves.

Human beings lack sentimental education and, above all, the understanding that what is other than us is not a means but an end, something with which to build: a confrontation, not a clash.

Bosch draws the thousands of possible consequences resulting from the human clash, but the reasons for this are contained in symbols that can be codified at will. Thus, by transcending the reasons but exposing the consequences, Bosch makes us understand that no matters why a conflict occurs, no matters knowing who is right if the end is in any case a condemnation. Bodies hanging, tied up, twisting and touching, blades, torture machines, cauldrons… but also an insatiable lust: everything describes the irrepressible human need to excel over others.

I don’t want to talk about Christianity, hell and heaven and Catholic precepts, because I don’t think Bosch was referring to these when he painted. Religions have always been symbolic accounts of spiritual growth, and Bosch’s paintings likewise tell of the various levels of consciousness possible in human beings.

True free will is for the few

Do we really know what free will is? And above all, are we really sure that we can master it? I believe that humans are too often at the mercy of the control he believes he has but in reality does not have, because it is ephemeral and in reality senseless. In the true Garden of Earthly Delights (the left-hand panel) there are only a few of them, two + one, the two are the humans and one is the consciousness, the “divine word”, which unites the dichotomy (Adam and Eve) and makes them a trio, a system … “so that this group of three forms a closed circuit, a complex of magical energy.” (Wilhelm Fränger).

Hence my need not to settle for excuses, or polarities, or the ‘aut aut’, because we know from Eastern philosophies that there is a third way, a triptych, a trio that is more than the individual parts.

Defining peace

Perhaps peace can be defined as creation: addition instead of subtraction, the outstretched hand, the extra chair, instead of the wall or the blown-up bridge. Better to create than to hate, better to add than to take away, so art is a concept that, at least in part, identifies with the idea of peace.

Because in the loneliness and impotence towards a bad world that has hurt you, you can do as Bosch does and make it emerge like a fairy tale to the outside world, or absorb it and drown in it.

Author Details
Set builder, decorator and graphic designer. She loves looking at art and getting emotional.
Paola D'Andrea
Set builder, decorator and graphic designer. She loves looking at art and getting emotional.
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