Hieronymus Bosch «Visions of the Hereafter» 1490, Palazzo Ducale, Venice
«Visions of the Hereafter» is a polyptych of four panels by Hieronymus Bosch, dating from around 1490. It measures 87 x 40 cm. It is housed at the Doge's Palace, Venice.
The painting depicts Terrestrial Paradise, where the remaining sins of the saved were washed away. The Fountain of Life stands on top of the hill. It has been assumed that the Paradise and Hell panels, inspired by a panel of Dirk Bouts, once formed the wings of a Last Judgment altarpiece; more probably, however, they were originally intended as independent works illustrating the rewards and pains of the Particular Judgment. The pictures have been disfigured by heavy overpainting and darkened varnish, and critics are not unanimous in attributing them to Bosch; nevertheless, it would be difficult to ascribe their compositions to anyone else. In the Paradise pair, the left-hand panel depicts the elect shepherded by angels into a rolling landscape from which rises the Fountain of Life; this is the Terrestrial Paradise, a sort of intermediate stage where the saved were cleansed of the last stain of sin before being admitted into the presence of God. Already one group of souls looks expectantly upwards.
Ascent of the Blessed
The actual entry of the saved into Heaven is depicted on a separate panel presenting a vision of celestial joy. Shedding the last vestige of their corporeality, the blessed souls float upwards through the night, scarcely supported by their angelic guides. They gaze with ecstatic yearning towards the great light which bursts through the darkness overhead. This funnel-shaped radiance, with its distinct segments, probably owes much to contemporary zodiacal diagrams, but in Bosch's hands it has become a shining corridor through which the blessed approach that final and perpetual union of the soul with God which is experienced on earth only in rare moments of spiritual exaltation.
Fall of the Damned into Hell
The ascent of the blessed into Heaven is balanced in the third panel by the descent of the damned into the pit of Hell. The damned hurtle past in the darkness, seized upon by devils and scorched by Hellfire spitting through fissures in the rocks.
In the final panel, Purgatory, a craggy mountain belches forth flames against a fiery sky, while the souls struggle helplessly in the water below. Not all the torments are physical: oblivious to the bat-winged devil tugging at him, one soul sits on the shore in a pensive attitude, seemingly overwhelmed by remorse. Hell, no less than Heaven, has been interpreted in the spiritual sense of the mystics. The marked contrasts between light and shade, with sudden flashes in the sky at the top of the painting, heighten the dense and dismal atmosphere of hell, which contrasts with the serene light and colour in the two panels of paradise.
Bax, Dirk. Ontcijfering van Jeroen Bosch. Den Haag, 1949
Fischer, Stefan. "Hieronymus Bosch. The Complete Works", Cologne 2013.
Gibson, Walter. Hieronymus Bosch. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1973. ISBN 0-500-20134-X