Detail of "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymus Bosch (Wikimedia)

Why Bosch's Hell feels so real: The answers lie in Freud, Jung and the humble cronut

On the 500th anniversary of the painter's death, we examine why this specific vision of eternal damnation endures

Noah Charney
April 17, 2016 1:30AM (UTC)

Dolls have always freaked me out. I do not attribute this to some formative trauma — I’ve never been attacked by dolls, and I have staunchly avoided any horror movies featuring them. But I still won’t go near my three-year-old daughter’s creepily lifelike Bambolina. Slip it under the covers next to me in bed, and we could reproduce that scene from "The Godfather."

This got me wondering, what is it about dolls that are so creeptastic? The more realistic they are, the worse (though my daughter might argue otherwise). Well, Freud has an explanation for this, as he does for all things. Realistic dolls embody the unheimlich, which is roughly translated as “the uncanny” (not, as I originally thought, something to do with the Heimlich maneuver). As he wrote, the uncanny “derives its terror not from something externally alien or unknown, but something strangely familiar which detects our efforts to separate ourselves from it.”


In Freud’s 1919 essay entitled “The Uncanny,” he describes a story in which a doll that appears to be real “I cannot think — and I hope most readers of the story agree with me — that the theme of the doll named Olympia, who is to all appearances a living being, is…the most important element that must be held responsible for the quite unparalleled atmosphere of uncanniness evoked by the story.” The doll is creepy, uncanny, because it seems to straddle two worlds, living human and plastic toy. It is a liminal object.

Liminal zones or beings occupy the narrow space between two opposites, a bit of both, wholly neither. Twilight is the liminal time between day and night. Venice is a liminal city, between aquatic and terrestrial. A centaur is a liminal being: half horse, half human. A cronut is a liminal snack: half croissant, half donut, all delicious.

No creator has better embodied the liminal than Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch, whose work is being featured this year, the 500th anniversary of his presumed death (so little is known of his life that scholars can only guess at his birth and death dates). Exhibitions around the world bring this Renaissance Dutch painter to the fore: at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, at the Museo del Prado in Madrid and in his hometown, the wonderfully-named (and punctuated) ‘s-Hertogenbosch.


Hieronymus Bosch may not be a household name (asking Americans to read his first name aloud would make a good Tonight Show segment), but the reverberations of his imagination certainly are. For Bosch was best known for his creative visions of Hell, which he painted in a number of his works, including his most famous, “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” And his idea of Hell led to our own today. Though the likes of Marilyn Manson have (perhaps predictably) borrowed Boschian imagery for albums and music videos, so too have Michael Jackson and David Bowie. The image of Hell as a scorched battlefield in which demons torture the damned, often in sexualized ways or manners ironic to their sins committed in life, emerged from Bosch’s fertile brain and brush. Of course, he did not invent this idea of Hell. It had been preached from pulpits throughout the Middle Ages, a period in which overt physical suffering was considered a pretty good deterrent to sinning. But while medieval Last Judgment scenes are rich in cackling demons and the quivering damned, they are more caricature than realist, and certainly less vivid and creative in their monstrous concoctions.

Anthropologist Victor Turner wrote that liminal entities often appear as monsters, representing “the co-presence of opposites,” (high/low, scary/funny, good/evil, human/inhuman, alive/dead). There are two ways in which Bosch’s paintings of Hell are liminal. First, they are indeed realist. You may scoff at this, since the majority these days do not believe that Hell is real. But for Bosch and his contemporaries, Hell was a very real, very frightening place. His painted rendition may be studded with monsters he had never seen on Earth, but his audience was ready to believe that they lurked in the afterlife. His Hell also looks remarkably like a realistic battle scene, where clusters of demons rape and mutilate and murder. Swap the demons for soldiers in contemporary garb, and you might be looking at a history painting of a real battle. Thus, what viewers see is both authentic to the horrors of life on Earth, and injected with an otherness of the never-seen. A liminal world full of liminal beings.

And then there are the creatures in the paintings, and not just in Hell. Bosch’s works (only around 25 are extant and confirmed authentic) are famous for his invented monstrosities, which do not spring wholly from the imagination but, Frankenstein-like (or perhaps Human Centipede-like) are sewn together from real animals. What people most remember (so vividly that a toned-down version featured in a children’s book, “Pish Posh Said Hieronymus Bosch”) are his hybrid creatures in which he linked two animals, or an animal and a human: a fish with legs, a dog with an armadillo’s back, a leopard with a rhinoceros horn, a rabbit with porcupine quills. These figures, often peripheral to the main subject of the painting, are what ingrain in the mind: disturbing, haunting, but with a childlike macabre playfulness. They embody the uncanny, which is defined as “strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way.” They can make you smile and send a shiver down your spine. These are uncanny, liminal creatures.


Bosch’s universe strikes us that much more deeply because we recognize the otherworldly tableaux that he paints. It is the world of our dreams: part nightmare, part fantasy. Our dreams are, themselves, liminal (our mind is awake and wanders while our body sleeps) and are full of Freud’s unheimlich. Dreams can be fantastic (but feel real) or realistic with interjecting unreal fantasy elements. Thus the dream state, and its contents, are both liminal.

Having gotten our Freud on, we might also turn to the other celebrity historical psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. His theory of archetypes also applies to Bosch’s painting. Archetypes are universal, mythic figures that Jung thought had a consistent symbolic meaning for most of the world’s cultures. Mothers, tricksters, heroes, flood legends, even creatures like dragons appear in every known culture, and Jung theorized that what they represented to these diverse humans was consistent, a subconscious fear or desire. When we dream of them or place them into art or literature, they represent ideas, like allegorical constructs, that analysts can interpret. Bosch then enters the discussion, but in a chicken-or-egg fashion. He painted what we think of as the archetypal image of Hell, full of archetypal demons. Did we take on Bosch’s personal idea of Hell, based itself on medieval Last Judgment paintings and the fire-and-brimstone sermons of his time? Or did Bosch skillfully paint what has always been our archetype? Jung would argue the latter.


Later theorists picked up on this. Jacques Lacan thought that the unconscious, that liminal realm populated by archetypes, was structured, like a language has grammatical structures, and that these structures could be mapped and analyzed. Lacan might say that Bosch’s paintings are a projection of the unconscious, and the fact that, throughout his oeuvre, there are consistent image types and this surreal, liminal landscape means that his imagination and brush have projected the unconscious, given it structure that we might otherwise not have been able to articulate or, in this case, visualize. Another psychologist, Melanie Klein, described “unconscious phantasy”: “From the moment the infant starts interacting with the outer world, he is engaged in testing his phantasies in a reality setting. I want to suggest that the origin of thought lies in this process of testing phantasy against reality; that is, that thought is not only contrasted with phantasy, but based on it and derived from it.” In Boschian terms, this testing of "phantasy" against reality is seen in his placement of “phantasy” figures into a realist painting, creating this liminal hybrid vision, part imagined, part real. His work captures us because, even if unconsciously, we recognize our “unconscious phantasy” in his paintings.

You don’t need to get all Lacanian, Jungian, Freudian or Kleinian to enjoy Bosch. You don’t even have to like cronuts. His work haunts, produces smiles, is full of darkness and whimsy. Whatever you do, be sure to see it. And, if at all possible, sneak a cronut into the gallery.

Noah Charney

Noah Charney is a Salon arts columnist and professor specializing in art crime, and author of "The Art of Forgery" (Phaidon).

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Art Carl Jung Cronut Hieronymus Bosch Painting Sigmund Freud

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