Bosch, The Triptych and Narrative

Anandadeep Roy, UG III, Roll no: 25

The form of the triptych occupies an iconic position in the art of the Northern Renaissance. It is a form in which came into full fruition in the 15th and 16th century. A number of artists in the Early Northern Renaissance contributed to its development as a form which could be used in a variety of ways. I shall examine the triptychs of some of these Early Dutch artists and chart the differences between these and the triptychs of Hieronymous Bosch. By doing so I will also explain what stylistic, contextual and narrative changes Bosch contributed to that form and how that might have impacted later artists.

A number of artists are worth mentioning in the context of the triptychs of the Early Northern Renaissance. The first important artist to look at is the Tournai painter, Robert Campin.

 Campin’s contribution to the art of the triptych can be studied through one complete surviving triptych and one incomplete. The Merode Altarpiece (1425 – 1428), the complete triptych by Campin, depicts one single scene – The Annunciation. The entire triptych depicts one single scene, though the form of the triptych enables Campin to experiment with the simultaneity of three different incidents as well as space, which he depicts as contiguous through the three panels.  The left panel depicts the donor and a figure generally acknowledged as being his wife, bearing witness to the Annunciation. The central panel depicts the actual event of the Annunciation while the right panel depicts St. Joseph making a mousetrap. An interesting point to note about this work is that the Annunciation was usually placed before Mary’s marriage to Joseph, but here they are depicted as living together.

The format of the triptych makes the space within the painting simultaneous but discreet. They are discreet in the sense that each painting is separated by the frame of the triptych. Narratives in the triptychs of the Early Northern Renaissance followed a left to right movement. However, in this work there is no considerable feeling of movement. It is one single incident from the Bible depicted not as a narrative but as a moment in the narrative. The narrative does not thus reside within the painting but in identifying the incident in the larger context of the Bible and thus providing the narrative imaginatively. This explains the lack of movement that we see in this painting and this is a trend we find in later paintings influenced by Campin as well.


The Merode Altarpiece (1425) by Robert Campin

The other triptych attributed to Campin and his school, The Werl Triptych (1438), is incomplete as its central panel is lost. The left panel depicts the donor with St. John the Baptist and the right panel depicts St. Barbara. Like The Merode Altarpiece, it also possibly showed a central devotional scene and like The Merode, did not depict much in the way of narrative. As mentioned before, the narrative rested solely on identification. A point to note about the Werl Altarpiece is that it shows the strong influence of contemporary Jan van Eyck’s work, specifically The Arnolfini Marriage.


The Werl Altarpiece Fragments by Robert Campin

Jan van Eyck is another painter whose contribution to the Early Northern triptych was significant even though there is only one actual triptych attributed to him existing – The Dresden Altarpiece. There is also ofcourse the monumental Ghent Altarpiece, however it is more a polyptych and thus beyond our direct purview. The Dresden Altarpiece (1437) depicts a typical sacred conversation. The piece in its entirety once again depicts one chamber and one incident. The left panel depicts the Archangel Michael presenting the donor, the central panel shows Mary and the Christ Child to whom the donor is being presented and the right panel shows St. Catherine. This convention of depiction was common during the Renaissance. What we should note about this particular work is the fact that the entire piece in fact depicts one room with masterful use of perspective but no narrative movement. There is a certain subtle movement in the painting from the donor to the central figure of the Christ and Mary, but this is within the painting itself and not narrative in nature. The exterior of the triptych depicts the Annunciation.


The Dresden Altarpiece (1437) by Jan van Eyck

The next in this lineage of Early Northern triptych painters is the possible student of Campin, Rogier van der Weyden. He shows the influence of Campin very obviously and also the influence of van Eyck. His triptychs follow the same structural and compositional tends as established by them with some alterations in specific cases. But these alterations as we shall see do not add narrative movement to the triptychs but only reinterpret the conventions of his predecessors well within the limits set by them.

The Annunciation Triptych (1434) is a fine example of his work. We can note the similarities between this work and The Merode Altarpiece easily. The left and the right panels show external, outdoor scenes while the central panel shows the domestic scene of the Annunciation. Unlike the Merode Altarpiece, this work shows two outdoor scenes which frame the interior moment of the Annunciation, but like the Merode Altarpiece, the donor appears on the left panel and most significantly there is still no definite narrative movement or any distinctly noticeable movement within the painting itself. It is, like the Merode Altarpiece, a moment extracted out of the Bible which can be narratively situated in the Bible only by the informed viewer.


The Annunciation Triptych (1434) by Rogier van der Weyden

An interesting deviation from this sort of use of the form of the triptych to a more narrative use can be seen in The Miraflores Altarpiece (1442 -1445) by van der Weyden.  The Miraflores Altarpiece depicts three scenes from the life of Christ, a representation of the holy family (as concluded by Panofsky), the aftermath of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. It may be argued that this piece provides some kind of narrative moving from the left to the right, but one should not forget that these are discrete scenes as well and only provide a narrative because of their location within the form of the triptych. An interesting aspect of this painting is the archway reliefs which depict older narratives from the Old Testament. Though it may appear that the archway reliefs provide some sort of continuous narrative movement, they are far too intricate to form a recognizable narrative until examined far more closely and even then, the scenes are isolated, individual scenes, not continuous moving narratives.

The Miraflores Altarpiece (1442 -1445) by van der Weyden

Other triptychs of van der Weyden include The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1445 -1450), The Beaune Altarpiece (1445 -1450), and The Braque Triptych (1452). Most of these operate within the boundaries established by van Eyck and Campin. They are mostly single scenes like The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece and The Braque Triptych.

There were many other triptych painters extant in the Netherlands during this time but most of them, including the ones mentioned above follow certain conventions of depiction and narrative that not many deviate from. I have chosen to look at Campin, van Eyck and van der Weyden because they form a triumvirate of the most representative artists of the Early Northern Renaissance. In their work as we have seen there are certain common features emerging out of the conventions that they follow. Some of them are:

  • In my opinion, there is almost no obvious noticeable narrative movement. The triptychs either depicts one scene, one moment in time, spatially distributed over three panels, or three discrete paintings forming a narrative by virtue of their location not because of any significant narrative movement within them or across them.
  • In the case of the paintings depicting a single chamber, the panels are linked by a common perspective. Examples of this include van Eyck’s Dresden Altarpiece and van der Weyden’s The Seven Sacraments triptych. In case of the paintings depicting a single scene but different locations simultaneously then there is a disruption in relative perspective across the panels. This disruption along with contextuality of the panels forms the link between them.
  • There is great emphasis on the importance of figures in all the triptychs. Single figures or occasionally a group of figures dominate the entire triptych. Most often it is Mary or Christ. The side panels are subjected to the dominant presence of the central panel and thus their figures are also relatively less important within the triptych. These include the image of the donor, angels and saints. However, while within the larger triptych these figures may seem less important, they occupy central positions within their panels themselves. The narrative, if there is one, is heavily dependent on these large central figures. Without them , the triptych cannot provide a focus of adoration, which is usually its purpose. These figures, either in a narrative or depicted isolated, form the focus of most of these triptychs. The painter does not often try to shift focus away from these figures as this would subvert the purpose of the object.
  • The subjects of these triptychs are very realistically Biblical and religious. Most of them are not meant as allegories directly though they contain many hidden symbolism. Apparently, however, they are religious icons meant as objects of devotion and their subject matter reflects this.
  • Though I have not elaborated on it, the relation between the Interior of the panels of a triptych and the exterior panels of a triptych form an important aspect of how the triptych is viewed. In most of the early triptychs, the interior and exterior panels bore little relation to each other and often stood in stark contrast to one another. If there was a relation, the exterior was firmly subjugated to the subject matter of the more richly illustrated interior panels. Example of this can be seen in van der Weyden’s The Braque Altarpiece and van Eyck’s Dresden Altarpiece.

Hieronymous Bosch’s contribution to the triptych form was considerable. He painted around sixteen triptychs out of which around eight survive in their entirety. Out of these eight we will look at three and see how Bosch uses the aforementioned conventions and features either subverting them or reinterpreting them within the genre of the triptych and thus reinventing the form itself.

The first triptych we will look at is The Last Judgement, created some time after 1482. The left panel shows incidents from the Garden of Eden, from the creation of Eve, to the Temptation and the Fall. The central panel can be roughly divided into two halves, the upper lighter half where Christ and the angels occupy a heavenly throne and the lower darker half which shows the chaos of the Last Judgement. The right panel shows a continuation of the darker half of the central panel. Beginning from the left panel we already see that there is a distinct change in the style not to mention the form of depiction. Bosch shows us not one incident across three panels but three moments from history juxtaposed against each other forming a larger narrative. Within each moment he shows, there are many other narratives shown simultaneously with disregard for the unity of time. For example, in the left panel of The Last Judgement, Bosch depicts multiple incidents from the Book of Genesis within one picture itself. The greater narrative of history as represented by the entire triptych is thus composed of many (if I may be allowed to use a slightly anachronistic term), meta-narratives. In the central panel, the figure of Christ and heavenly beings have some sort of importance as figures but their centrality is subverted by the chaos of figures that compose the most interesting part of The Last Judgement. The contrast between the dark half and the light half, highlights the myriad grotesque forms of the darker half. Bosch’s triptych unlike the earlier triptychs clearly don’t have central figures to who he wants to draw attention. If anything, by using the variety of monsters and the contrast between the dark and the light, he draws attention to the myriad shifting forms. In the left panel, the central figures are clearly Adam and Eve, who are not depicted in one moment, but many moments that the viewer is encouraged to follow and read as a moving narrative.


The Last Judgment by Hieronymous Bosch


The second triptych, The Haywain Triptych, is structurally similar to The Last Judgement with one significant difference. In The last Judgement there is nothing connecting the three panels other than a sense of a larger narrative history. In The Haywain Triptych there is a distinct narrative movement across the three panels implied by a certain movement within the panels themselves. From the left panel, Eve looks to the central panel where the fools are indulging in various sins. The cart of the central panel is gradually being pulled towards Hell with its varieties of Eternal damnation. Unlike The Last Judgement, there is not only the implication of a narrative but a direction by the painter to follow a certain narrative in the painting as implied by the painting itself, not just its contextual meaning.


The Haywain Triptych (1516) by Hieronymous Bosch

The third Bosch triptych that is of considerable importance to our study is The Garden of Earthly delights. By far Bosch’s most accomplished work it is also structurally similar to the other two triptychs. The left panel depicts once again the Garden of Eden this time with only one scene, possibly the scene where God presents Eve to Adam. In this triptych, unlike the previous two, Hell does not flow into the central panel, but imitating the perspectival linking of the triptychs depicting chambers, he links the Garden of Eden to the wild, Utopic and fantastic Garden of Earthly Delights of the central panel. We see once again, a plethora of narratives in the central panel, giving the sense of chaotic movement within the painting itself. Bosch’s style replaces the static isolated, iconic images of religious images with a joyous celebration of the sensual world. The focus is not on one single figure but the represented by the assemblage of all these figures that can be discovered and interpreted only by the viewer. There is also the over arching narrative of history that Bosch seeks to depict with the dualism of “what was” and “what will be” through the Garden and Hell in the right panel respectively.


The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490 -1510) by Hieronymous Bosch

Some observations can thus be made from this superficial study of these three of Bosch’s triptychs.

  • There is definite and distinct narrative movement within each panel of Bosch’s triptychs as well across the three panels of one triptych. Each individual character in the plethora of characters has narrative potential and gives the viewer the feeling of motion. – either the passage of time or a shift through space.
  • Bosch uses perspective masterfully. In some of the panels perspective provides a link between two panels thus broadening narrative possibilities, while in other panels the absence of perspectival continuity suggests a certain disjunction between either the time of the two panels or the difference between the imagined space of the subject of the two adjacent panels. For example, in the Haywain Triptych, there is a movement as alluded to by the cart moving towards Hell. But Hell is a discrete, separate space alluded to only by the movement of the cart. Thus it cannot be shown in the same space occupied by the cart. Hence a discontinuity of perspective as well as setting provides a narrative continuity of the movement implied by the cart.
  • Bosch does not give much importance to central figures. This is a salient feature of all the paintings that I have examined here. Though there are exceptions to this in his oeuvre, Bosch seems to prefer not having central figures. The emphasis on the figure is replaced by an emphasis on what Bakhtin called the “carnivalesque.” The “carnivalesque” features prominently, as Bakhtin himself pointed out, in all of Bosch’s paintings. It is manifestation of his inclusion of secular content in pictures that were otherwise meant as religious. The singular linear narrative of the Life of Christ or the single isolated iconic Biblical moment is replaced by the color and fantasy of medieval life – where the grotesque exists side by side with the sublime.
  • The triptychs, though they may have begun as religious pictures, have many secular elements in them. As Lynn Jacobs writes in her essay, The Triptychs of Hieronymous Bosch, it is one of the devices he uses to subvert the form of the triptych to ultimately open up new modes of expression within its paradigm. The content of Bosch’s pictures as well as his ephemeral style, according to Jacobs, expands the horizons of what the triptych could do. It is clear from looking at his paintings that Bosch used the form of the triptych in a different and as we shall see, in a revolutionary way.
  • Another strategy that Bosch employs to subvert the paradigm of the triptych is, according to Jacobs, his treatment of the relationship between the interior panels and the exterior panels. In earlier triptychs like The last Judgement, he follows the established convention of painting two saints on the exterior panels. Later, however, he begins painting the exterior panels almost as elaborately, if not as colourfully, as the interior panels. By doing this, he gradually erased the boundaries between the subject matter of the two kinds of panels and liberated the external panels from being dictated by the subject of the interior panels. An example of this can be seen on the exterior panels of The Haywain Triptych, which constitutes a separate work of art in its own right, The Peddler.


The Peddler, closed view of the Haywain Triptych by Hieronymous Bosch

To conclude, Bosch, as we have seen clearly changed the form of the triptych is Netherlandish painting forever. By his formal innovations as well as his imaginative experimentation he was able to bring about a transformation in the nature of the genre of triptychs itself. His influence was felt by subsequent generations of Netherlandish painters. His painting style became so popular that an entire school of artists are assigned as his followers. Though many artists were deeply influenced by Bosch’s style and genius, his most significant spiritual pupil is Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Bruegel used Bosch’s innovations in a number of paintings. In Proverbs he creates a “carnivalesque” atmosphere not to the extremes to which Bosch took it, but still a ribald and merry environment, where characters, mostly peasants and craftsmen illustrated various Netherlandish proverbs. This picture also shows the lack of focusing on a central figure that we saw was a salient feature of Bosch’s most famous paintings. Each proverb however provides the viewer with a miniature narrative contained within the proverb itself, the picture being animated by the recognition of the proverb.


Proverbs (1560) By Pieter Bruegel The Elder

A second Bruegel’s painting that shows Bosch’s influence is Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1560s). Here, the main narrative event, the fall of Icarus, is marginalized by a central figure of a peasant. The peasant is not significant in any obvious way and appears to be just a depiction of peasant life. This shows the intrusion of secular medieval and Early-modern life into painting that was otherwise meant to be religious or classical. Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is, in a certain sense, the epitome of this kind of subversion, a device developed by Bosch.


Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1560) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder


Bakhtin, M. M. Rabelais and His World. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T., 1968. Web.

Blum, Shirley Neilsen. Early Netherlandish Triptychs; a Study in Patronage. Berkeley: U of California, 1969. Print.

Bosing, Walter, Hieronymus Bosch, and Ingo F. Walther. Hieronymus Bosch, C. 1450-1516: Between Heaven and Hell. Cologne: Taschen, 1987. Print.

Jacobs, Lynn F. Opening Doors: The Early Netherlandish Triptych Reinterpreted. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 2012. Print.

Jacobs, Lynn F. “The Triptychs of Hieronymus Bosch.” Sixteenth Century Journal 31.4 (2000): 1009. Web.

Panofsky, Erwin. Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on Art History. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Panofsky, Erwin. Perspective as Symbolic Form. New York: Zone, 1991. Print.

Snyder, James. “The Renaissance in the North / the Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Introduction by James Snyder :: Metropolitan Museum of Art Publications.” The Renaissance in the North / the Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Introduction by James Snyder :: Metropolitan Museum of Art Publications. Digital Collections, Metropolitan Museum of Art Library, 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.


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