Hieronymus Bosch’s The Last Judgment triptych uses the three panels of the painting to represent the three biblical events that predict the terrible end of humankind: the Fall, the Judgment Day, and the eternal Death in Hell. The left panel displays the creation of Adam and Eve, the Fall, and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden by an angel, as well as the fight between angels and rebellious angels, which is observed by God.
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The central panel represents the Judgment Day, with God and the Apostles at the top of the panel, whereas trumpeting angels can be seen as well at the left and right sides near God. According to Bosing, the inclusion of Adam and Eve in the Judgment Day is unusual; Bosch aimed to show the entrance of sin in the world, which eventually led to the necessity of the Last Judgment (34). Using the Judgment Day as the central motif of the triptych, Bosch “establishes a hierarchy within this triptych” (Jacobs 1011).
The top part of the panel is painted in light blue colors, whereas the Judgment Day is presented in more dark, red-brown colors that represent the punishments of the damned. In Bosch’s vision, the Judgment Day brings fires (possibly Hellfire) with it; the damned are tortured and punished by monstrous creatures that are the transformed Rebelled Angels. The right panel displays hell and eternal Death in it, as well as the Prince of Darkness or Satan. Satan is seated near the entrance of Hell; he observes the damned. Despite the fact that the central and the right panel present different biblical events, they have similarities due to their hazy, dark colors that represent fear, torture, and punishment.
Bosch has an innovative approach toward the depiction of the Judgment Day and Hell in this painting because, traditionally, heaven and hell are placed symmetrically (heaven is above, and hell is below) (Koerner 58). However, this right panel (or left, from the central panel’s perspective) is symmetrical not to Heaven but to the Garden of Eden, the Heaven where Adam and Eve lived before the Fall. Koemer argues that using this triptych, Bosch shows us that humans create and suffer chaos from the beginning of their history (63). The lack of pure souls on the central panel implies that not so many people will be granted eternal life in Heaven. As Silver
Points out, angels struggle to find any blessed souls on the central panel; there are mostly damned souls who are judged and demons who torture them (137).
Another aspect of the triptych that needs to be considered is its outer wings. On the left-wing, St James the Great is depicted, while St Bavo appears on the right-wing. These pictures are less vivid than the internal parts of triptych because they are painted in grisaille (Bosing 34). Despite their gloominess and darkness, they cannot prepare the viewer for the vivid horrors depicted on the internal panels (Bosing 34).
The fear of doom evoked more by the internal than the external panels was intensified by other historical events of that time, including the plague and floods (Bosing 33). There were also prophets who argued that there were too many sins in the world and the Final Reckoning was close (Bosing 33). Bosch depicts this anxiety and fear of the Last Judgment vividly and horribly; he shows the sinful humanity in eternal fire, ignoring the human history but showing us the inevitable end.
Bosing, Walter. Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1450-1516: Between Heaven and Hell. Taschen, 2000.
Jacobs, Lynn F. “The Triptychs of Hieronymus Bosch.” Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 2, no. 5, 2000, pp. 1009-1041.
Koerner, Joseph Leo. Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life. Princeton University Press, 2016.
Silver, Larry. Peasant Scenes and Landscapes: The Rise of Pictorial Genres in the Antwerp Art Market. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.