Depictions of hell, and the torments of the condemned, are among the most intriguing and beautiful paintings arising out of the late Middle Ages. They still arouse curiosity, even fascination, in the digital age. It’s 550 years since Dirk Bouts painted “The Fall of the Damned (1470)”, but the painting still resonates with contemporary eyes. Horror, suffering, misfortune and terrible fates are timeless subjects. But what is really going on in is a triumph of artistic achievement in the realm of realizing the imagination, making it manifest in strokes of pigment, and immortalized it in paint on panel.
The late middle ages saw the flowering of several magnificent artistic creations of Hell. The most famous were those of Hieronymus Bosch, Jan van Eyk, Roger Van Der Weyden, and Hans Memling. Surprisingly, Bouts’s painting predates the most notorious of all, the right panel of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” by at least 20 years, and his less famous “The Last Judgement” by more than a decade. We can say that the most dramatic visual conjuring of Hell was a group effort of these five painters, all part of the Northern Renaissance, and all but Memling hailing from the Netherlands (he, along with Pieter Bruegel, came from neighboring Belgium).
A popular art history YouTuber, said this of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”:
“Bosch’s imagery, no matter how bizarre, is nothing more than a faithful representation of the world in which he lived. It is an intensely moralistic work, that should be approached as what it is, religious propaganda”.
That is undoubtedly a legitimate interpretation of the work, and would apply to all the paintings of hell I’ve mentioned, however, I couldn’t disagree more. The world Bosch depicted didn’t exist anywhere, though today you can get it in a swimsuit, even a bikini.
If interested, you have the option to choose the more gruesome right panel for your swimming attire.
Unless there were people flirting within membranous bubbles that emerged from giant aquatic flowers, Bosch’s world did not exist until he committed it to paint.
And while there may be an underlying propagandist rationale that justifies an artist making such an outlandish creation in the first place, it is merely the pretext and does not begin to encapsulate what we actually see in even one of the myriad peculiar scenes that populate his paintings.
We may say that these works sought to frighten us, to control our behavior, to repress our actions, thoughts, and desires, but there’s an extraordinary irony: in order to perform this ostensible good work, artists were themselves given free reign to allow their imaginations to go completely off the rails. They envisioned a mystical and darkly religious realm populated by hideous demons and monsters, varieties of which were left to their own peculiar invention. There is nudity, depravity, abject cruelty, torture, humiliation, and all manner of unspeakable acts. The paintings are the equivalent of X-rated horror movies, but done by the best cinematographers of the age, so that they are simultaneously gory AND dripping with religious profundity.
Even today, when we envision hell, it has the broad outlines established by these Netherlandish painters of half a millennium ago. There will be rocky cliffs, fire, demons, slithering reptilian creatures, and contraptions for the most ghastly torture. But there will not be computers, smart phones, or even rotary pay phones. Somehow Hell doesn’t have high-speed internet, Windows operating systems, skyscrapers, superhighways, or even microwaves or televisions.
The hell these painters created was a feat of human imagination and virtuosity. The paintings themselves are among the most creative, provocative, and technically proficient of all time. Part of this is just due to the task itself: to fully develop an imaginary environment in pigment so that everyone else can see it. The artists played God by envisioning such worlds, and populating them with conscious, interacting entities. It is ironic that the assignment of depicting hell is what gave them license and impetus to achieve this.
Bouts’s contribution is less known, and while it may be overshadowed by the grand accomplishments of his more renowned contemporaries, it is an outstanding example of the genre, and a masterpiece of its kind. Not that much is known about the life of Dirk Bouts, nor are those factual details very relevant here. This is the right panel of a triptych, the center panel of which only a fragment remains. He is a notable painter of religious themes. He studied under van der Weyden, and was influenced by van Eyck.
Now, let’s move on to the painting.
I’m not really interested in interpretation here, other than the loose context which is patently obvious to begin with. These are people who have fallen to hell, and here is the grim reality awaiting them. To go beyond that in terms of symbolism and so on can be tedious as well as dilute the experience. There’s explaining paintings, and there’s explaining them away. I’ve always thought the idea of “demystifying” art massively missed the point of art. The idea is to cast light on the mystery, to help people see it, not to extinguish it. It’s the difference between analyzing the lyrics to a song, coming to some conclusion about it in linguistics, as opposed to sitting down with headphones in the dark and listening to it.
Bouts was less interested in creating torture devices than in envisioning monsters. His single contraption for delivering agony is a giant wooden wheel churning over the black lake. We can see wretched individuals impaled over its protruding wooden spikes.
Only when you zoom in really closely do you notice a line of people, along a ledge, being forcibly led to take their turn on Beelzebub’s Ferris wheel.
If we read the painting top to bottom we may first notice the bat-demons, dragons, and other flying creatures that can capture people mid-air, starting the initiation into their gruesome fates early, and perhaps escort them to one or another gristly site.
There’s the inevitable furnace with people being cooked en masse.
We see one in the foreground, while in the distance a whole peak is aflame. The specks of paint toward the base of the fires may be people’s heads.
There’s the aforementioned wheel. There is a steep mountain that people are driven up and then pushed off into the lake of tar below,
and there is that body of foul water itself, where various sinister amphibians hunt and torment their victims.
But let us now enjoy, in some detail, the catalog of gruesome creatures this painter invented so long ago, as this is my favorite part. The people are done competently, mind you, but the artist’s real focus was given to the invention of his monsters. Note that there is only one woman who sinned profoundly enough to earn herself a ticket to pandemonium, though she figures front and center.
First is the bat person intercepting one of the free-falling damned. Somehow this is probably a worse case than crashing directly into the rocks or dark waters below. I’m not certain if it’s male, female, or what. As with most the monsters, it has talon-ed, raptor claws. The motif of the spiked segments of its wings are carried over to the head, with its 8 prominent horns. The most disturbing anatomical feature of this beast is its weird, wrinkled and speckled belly, and whatever is going on in the more nether regions.
There are two similar brown bat-creatures below, but the artist has troubled himself to individuate them with, among other things, different kinds of noses. The original has the most bat-like nose, one is more like that of a cat, and the last resembles a canine snout. They have different configurations of teeth and muzzles as well.
Special dedication has been bestowed upon the green bat, which with its four breasts is decidedly female. It even has a … … … tail. She has more of a furry head, and two horns rather than the 8 leathery spikes of the first bat creature. Her claws scoop into at least one of her victim’s eyes, as well as a nostril. While her face is mammalian, her body segues into the reptilian. Mammal-reptile-fish mash-ups were apparently an appropriately unsavory abomination suitable in the artist’s eyes for the devil’s minions.
My favorite monster is the dark orange spiked demon. The rows of thorns emanating from is head are expertly painted so they convincingly project outward in an array of directions, and at different lengths. He has the turtle-mouth of a gargoyle, protruding cheek bones, and a rough brow. He’s gifted with two sets of eyes, the lower where nipples ought to be. His ear is a cup of webbed spikes. He’s even got spikes on the outside of his arms, and the tops of his legs. Any question of the gender is rather specifically answered at the base on the torso. He wields a three-pronged weapon for beating and stabbing his accursed prey, and he’s inserted a claw in each of his victims eyes. I don’t need to say it, but, when I say he’s my favorite of the monsters, I don’t mean for his despicable deeds. I mean the design and rendering of the creature, the choice of color, the leathery skin, the gem-like green eyes, and the skin like a durian fruit.
In the bottom right is a long-nosed, possum-faced serpent of sorts. While our burnt orange thorn man had nostrils that could pass on a reptile, this peculiar hybrid has the black snout and whiskers of a mammal, a fish-fin of a cheek or ear, and then a robust lizard’s body with armored plates on its underside. You can see a bit of a shoulder behind a man’s foot, and then the webbed forepaw.
There’s another slithering beast, towards the middle of the painting, with a head shaped like a dog’s, but with a fish’s jaw, a lizard’s tongue, and a diminutive mammalian ear. There’s nice attention to his eel-like skin, his fiery eye, and individual shinny scales.
There’s another slithering beast, towards the middle of the painting, with a head shaped like a dog’s, but with a fish’s jaw, a lizard’s tongue, and a diminutive mammalian ear. There’s nice attention to his eel-like skin, his fiery eye, and individual shinny scales. Close up you can appreciate the individual dabs, flecks, and strokes of paint the artist used to create his various textures – different hardnesses, reflectivity, porousness, and hairiness – throughout the painting. Two or three spots made with the tip of the brush give the eye a sharp specular highlight that produces the impression of a moist, glassy eye.
Moving to the left, another serpent/hound miscreant has curled under a man’s head and bit him around the neck with its long jaws. The folds formed in its upper jaw area are more characteristic of a dog’s muzzle than a lizard’s scaly armor. The base of its head and neck are outlined with a green blue to achieve a bounced light effect in order to articulate the rounded shape of the head from the darkness. The creature’s foot rests planted on a man’s head.
Above there is a somewhat more conventional dragon, though also with a dog’s ear and upper muzzle, except for the bony, down-turned horn on the end. This creature has a thorny head, and a large spiked-fin crest on its back.
A close-up of its side reveals rows of rhythmic strokes used to create an intricate formation of scales and hair.
The neat rows of flecks of paint on his eye are curiously reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh’s impressionist phase.
While most the creatures have teeth that are single fangs, this one has two-pronged teeth. It has devoured the majority of a man’s arm.
There’s another beaked creature behind the green bat-demon, and it’s spraying out some sort of poison into a man’s face.
There’s a similarly spitting reptile’s head on the right; a snaky fellow winding his way at the bottom; and closest to us is a green, jewel-eyed serpent with many implied small translucent feet, five of which are visible, that to my eye, admittedly, is more cute than frightening.
There are several bear or bore-like brutes, one clamping onto a man’s face, another about to latch onto the woman’s midsection, another peaking out between a few bodies, and one that is mostly glowing red eyes in the background.
In the foreground are the haunches and tail of an orange and green fiend, sharp spikes coming from his spine, a firmly planted raptor foot, and a claw at the tip of its tail. I finally decided that the head sticking out of the rocks behind his rear is possibly his own, and that he has a very long neck, but that’s definitely debatable.
If you study the shadow under the tail as it curls up the rock face, and the shadow under the foot creating a bold diagonal line in the opposite direction, we can see that the scene in the foreground is lit from the front, as if spot lights had been turned on suddenly interrupting the gruesome activities. And this effect explains why many of the monsters and people are looking directly back at us. The one pair of red eyes evoke deer’s eyes caught in the headlights.
To our eyes it might appear as if a photo had been taken with flash bulbs, but this is a painting from the Middle ages. The sudden flood of light illuminating the scene can only be created spontaneously by omnipotence, the self-same gaze of which we participate vicariously, as both the judge and the judged simultaneously. Because of this bright light, the people are not just horribly tortured, but caught in the act, and self-consciously humiliated, as it were, under the circumstances for perpetuity.
The single woman gazes directly back at us, and unlike the other victims, gauges her own eye with her pinky. It is apparently pointless for the afflicted souls to beg for mercy. The horrors will undoubtedly commence as soon as we look away. But for the instant, this tumult of debased and horrific activity is frozen, even petrified, for an eternity.
In reality it’s just a painting by a mortal artist, executed in his studio, using his array of gooey paints and sparse brushes. But this harshly illumined, otherworldly nightmare is what unique circumstances and opportunities in Medieval Netherlands lured him to create. Ultimately, it’s his own mind that has been crystallized in pigment, and immortalized on panel. There need be no literal or figurative God or hell. The painter has himself conjured it.
To end on a lighter note, if one were to remove this painting from its religious context, and the time and place of its creation, it’s pretty fine fantasy or sci-fi painting by today’s Instagram, Deviant Art, or Art Station standards. It’s not just a good painting of the damned, it’s damned good painting.
Stay tuned for the video version of this post.
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