PhD defence: The influential society behind painter Hieronymus Bosch

Date of news: 16 September 2021

Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450-1516) was already a celebrated painter in his own time. It is striking that many of the contemporary lovers of Bosch's art were in contact with each other in one way or another. Art historian Marieke van Wamel examined the influential society of burghers, clerics and nobles who made a significant contribution to spreading the fame of Hieronymus Bosch and his work in Europe. She will defend her dissertation on 20 September.

The popularity of Bosch's work is by no means a modern phenomenon; theHieronymus_Bosch_Johannes-de_doper painter's name and art were also well-known in his own time. Art historian Marieke van Wamel investigated who his patrons and owners of his paintings were and how they were in contact with Hieronymus Bosch's work and with each other. 'The relationship between Bosch's work and the owners of his work is often described in a rather one-dimensional manner,' explains Van Wamel. ‘For example, it has been suggested that the nobility valued his paintings mainly because they were a fashion. But that does little justice to the artistic and intellectual motivations of these art lovers. And certainly for the urban elite, a work by Hieronymus Bosch was probably one of the most prestigious purchases they could make. That is why they must have selected the artist carefully.’

Van Wamel examined many of the 21 works from Bosch's core oeuvre in relation to the patrons and early owners of his work. Because little information has survived about commissions given to Bosch and his workshop, it was not easy to connect the works of art to specific clients. Van Wamel: 'But there are other methods we can consult. Firstly, a number of patrons had themselves and their family members depicted in the painting. Secondly, works by Hieronymus Bosch are described and listed in inventories of late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art collections.'

Burgher elite

The bourgeois elite mainly ordered paintings with devotional portraits from Bosch. They depict contemporary individuals, families or a group of persons suited in a religious context. The main function of these religious works was commemoration, but they also served to represent social status and prestige. Bosch's portraits depict a wide spectrum of patrons: from the notables of the city of 's-Hertogenbosch to the urban elite of Antwerp.

The devotional portraits are the most direct sources of information about Bosch's patrons who, especially when it came to their own portraits, exerted their influence on the creation of the work of art. ‘But with regard to the overall composition and design of the painting, we can assume that the contribution of Hieronymus Bosch will have been very substantial or even decisive. He was selected for his distinctive style and approach’, says Van Wamel. 'If you compare his devotional portraits with those of other painters, you will see that Bosch's are less traditional than usual, which is characteristic of both the style of the painter and the taste of his patrons.'

Religious institutions

A second group of Bosch clients is made up of religious institutions. This is a difficult group to analyse, because none of the paintings Bosch made for churches and monasteries has survived the centuries. Van Wamel: 'In order to interpret the relationship between Bosch's work and ecclesiastical patrons, I have therefore mainly based myself on references in chronicles and administrative archives.' The patronage of the many monasteries and churches in the city and the surroundings of 's- Hertogenbosch will certainly have been of great importance to Hieronymus Bosch. For example, it is described that paintings by Bosch hung in prominent places in the Sint-Janskerk in 's-Hertogenbosch. He painted at least one altarpiece for a church outside the city. He also received various commissions from the Brotherhood of Our Lady. The members of the brotherhood who selected Bosch's work belonged to the urban elite. However, the paintings were intended for locations with religious character. Many clerics apparently appreciated Hieronymus Bosch's depiction of religious subjects.


During the sixteenth century, Bosch's works found their way into many collections of European nobility and royalty, especially in the Burgundy and Habsburg empire, of which 's-Hertogenbosch was a part. The number of Bosch paintings in each collection is very limited. In contrast, the total number of collections in which Bosch's work can be found is remarkably large. ‘The aficionados in question, of different European origins, were all part of the circles around the court in the Netherlands’, says Van Wamel. ‘It is very likely that the artistic advisers employed by the court were responsible for recognising the quality of Hieronymus Bosch and bringing his work to the attention of the high nobility. The appeal of Bosch’s work was mainly in the (intellectual) meaning of the paintings and the status of the ownership. Many of the first owners were in close contact with one another and will undoubtedly have influenced each other's taste.


Although there were substantial differences between the three social groups of owners and patrons, they should not be considered too strictly separated, concludes Van Wamel. ‘Institutions such as the Brotherhood of Our Lady moved between the worlds of the urban elite and the clergy, and members of the burgher elite operated in the vicinity of the court’, explains Van Wamel. ‘Hieronymus Bosch was not a painter of splendour. On the contrary, his imagery and the content of his work bear witness to a particularly critical attitude towards ostentatious outward display and appearance. In his work the emphasis is not on the realistic representation of the material world but much more on its essence; the meaning and the idea. The preference for this aspect of Bosch's work was shared by all patrons and owners of his paintings, whether they were members of the burgher elite, the clergy or the nobility. By owning paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, they wanted to associate themselves with the way this artist perceived and rendered the world.'

Marieke van Wamel will defend her dissertation on 20 September, from 16.30.