Bosch and Bruegel:

An Examination and Comparison of

Triptych of the Temptation of Saint Anthony


The Numbering at Bethlehem


Michael S. Beyer


June 2000


On initial examination of the artist's most famous works, Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder seem to have little in common.  The revelation that Bruegel studied and copied the works of Bosch begins to shed light on Bruegel's atypical and original style found in the late Renaissance of northern Europe.  The comparison of works by the two artists also creates an interesting contrast of technique, content, and focus, revealing perhaps not two vastly different personalities but at least two distinct periods of time for creating art.

Similarities between the works of Bosch and Bruegel can be noticed primarily in the latter's early works.  The similar style is no accident, and the confusion over which artist did such works as "Dulle Griet" would probably have been a compliment to Bruegel.  When Bruegel was beginning his career the works by Bosch were still very popular despite the artist's death nearly thirty years prior.  The imitation of style was intentional, either at the command and instruction from Hieronymus Cock, Bruegel's first employer at the House of the Four Winds, or simply by market and patron demand.  Bruegel's works were intended to replicate the imagination and vocabulary of Bosch as much as possible.  Early engravings by Bruegel such as "the Seven Deadly Sins" or "The Virtues" appear to be from the mind of Bosch if not for Bruegel's name in the lower right side corner.  In fact, these two series "launched (Bruegel's) career with unexpected speed." (Foote p. 80)  Thus, when Bruegel continued to ape Bosch with paintings like the "Fall of the Rebel Angels", the similarities were intentional and, Bruegel most likely hoped, successful. 

            The representation of the fantastic creatures and monsters is not the only way Bosch influenced Bruegel.  Bosch and Bruegel both used very complex compositions.  Bruegel may be credited for developing the wimmelbild but Bosch was certainly a forerunner.  The horizon of both artists' works tends to be uplifted slightly akin to a stage setting but not as much as in Gothic art.  This uplift gives the artists not only a bird's eye view but allows more space in which to use for representing countless actions and adventure.

            A typical Bruegel contains several large groups of people.  In "The Numbering at Bethlehem", Joseph and the Virgin on donkey are dwarfed and virtually ignored and hidden by the scene around them.  A busy crowd in front of the Inn of the left foreground draws immediate attention, acting as a repoussoir as the crowd is formed upon a diagonal pointing toward the upper right of the painting.

"The Numbering
at Bethlehem"

  In the center this crowd is broken by the larger simpler forms of barreled wagons covered by a neutralizing and minimized tone of a snow covering.  From this center the eye is left to follow countless activities, but led by a tall tree on the left of the painting leading the eye to the river and the sun where miniature figures carry bundles on their backs.  These figures with bundles follow a diagonal pointing back right to just above the central barrel-wagons.  The motif of the wagons is continued by a broken or disassembled wagon above which in turn leads the eye to the second large crowd around another inn.  To this crowd's right more wagon wheels, thus a motif connecting and referring back to the center.  A line of buildings in back form a town and blocks the view of a horizon, thus pushing the eye back down the right side of the painting and to the second river.  Here a tree marks the right hand border of the painting again leading the eye towards the second river.  On this river children play seated on sleds and using sticks: a sharp contrast with the older, walking and hunched figures with bundles using sticks as canes instead of sled-oars, crossing the first river above.  The second river curls down inwards to the viewer's left: thus a crowd, barreled-wagons, and a river all immediately surround Joseph and Mary framing them in obscurity.

            Bosch's work remains just as complex, though less organized.  In the "Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony", the viewer does not have a clear focus.  St. Anthony is situated obviously and directly in the middle of the central panel but too much action and fantastic creatures surround the Saint.  There are three elements aiding the attention to St. Anthony, though none very successful.  The first is the grouping of four men crossing the bridge in the foreground on the left side panel. 

Left Wing
Flight and Failure
of St Anthony
(190 Kb), 131.5 x 53 cm


The group heads toward the central panel on a diagonal pointing directly at St. Anthony.  On the right side panel the largest figure in the foreground, which is a cloaked and bearded figure similar in appearance to St. Anthony, is seated with head turned slightly towards the viewer.  More importantly, this figure is aided with the light-colored rock he sits upon, composing a diagonal again towards the St. Anthony in the central panel. 

Right Wing
St Anthony in Meditation
(190 Kb), 131.5 x 53 cm


The third device, and perhaps the most successful, is the open space directly below and to the rear of St. Anthony in the central panel.  The ruined building sets a stage, aided by the light gray hue of the stone contrasting with the predominantly dark colors in the remainder of the composition; this difference of hue attracts the eye. 

Central panel
Temptation of St Anthony
(210 Kb), 131.5 x 119 cm (52 x 47 in)


This space around St. Anthony is in fact the only free-open space.  Everywhere else the landscape breaks and rolls, creatures come and go, fires rage and winged creature fill the air.  Even if all of Bosch's symbols could be understood today, they seem to bleed into one another, sharing the complicated and crowded spaces. 

Detail of the central panel
(230 Kb)


Both Bosch and Bruegel added figures to their works alla prima.  It can be inferred that Bosch added figures to fill empty space while Bruegel added figures to fill a pattern.  Bosch and Bruegel fill their works with crowds of creature and characters, but only Bruegel finds a manner of placement that pleases the eye and does not confuse the senses.  Bruegel made a quilt of images while Bosch made a jumble.  

Outer Wings
Grisaille on panel
(180 Kb), 131 x 53 cm
Left: Arrest of Christ in
the Garden of Gethsemane
Right: Christ Carrying the Cross

            Bosch and Bruegel also share a characteristic emphasis they give to individuals in their works.  Despite those rarities such as Bosch's "Calvary with Donor", few of either artists work ever indulge the viewer with a personal connection into the painting.  The closest the artists ever come to representing human personality is when Bruegel portrays every-day activities or common Flemish proverbs.  Otherwise, Bosch's creatures are too horrific and the humans too dumb and insulting for any viewer to feel welcomed and involved by them.  A viewer may recognize a character as a Priest or an alchemist, but nothing beyond that initial recognition and connection to surface definition.  In no work by Bosch is the viewer offered a fainting Virgin or a crying Mary Magdelane as found in Roger van der Weyden's "Descent from the Cross".  In van der Weyden's the characters may be Holy Saints but they non-the-less portray shared emotions of humanity and not phantasmagorial landscapes of Bosch.  Bosch's St. Anthony stares out at the viewer and might even exhibit a posture a viewer would sympathize.  St. Anthony, however, is depicted too small and recessed into the painting to give any immediacy that would connect with a viewer and override the fantasy surrounding him. 

            Bruegel remains as distanced from the viewer as Bosch does.  Bruegel shows action but never human expression or detailed faces.  The artists force the viewer to stand apart from humanity far from where one feels a part of the scene.  The viewer recognizes elements of the scene and story constructs but never gains more detail or proximity to the story.  By way of vagurity and distance, a Pope in Bosch's work is as meaningful as a child-on-sled in Bruegel's.  Both characters fill a role, play a part, add to the story but have neither a name, a time nor a face. 

            Bruegel mimicked Bosch's style and acquired certain characteristics.  The differences of the artists far outweigh their similarities.  For one, Bruegel is as mute for meaning as Bosch is for clarity.  "Unable now to communicate, a master who dearly loved enigma, the key to which still has not been found." (Fraenger p. 9)  So not only are the dates and origins of works by Bosch debatable but what the artist was attempting to communicate.  The difficulty lies in Bosch's chosen symbols, motifs, and implications, which are all ambiguous.  The voluptuous nude figures can be interpreted as portraying man in a primal state of nature and peace or the beauty and allure that the Devil uses to encourage sin.  Bosch is said to have been alternatively a part of an Adamite cult and in opposition to such sin and human folly.  One can be certain that Bosch was attempting to convey a message; his fantasies were not just contemporary decoration. 

            During the century of Bosch a religious painting could not have been made without choosing one side or the other: the church or it's reformers.  Thus, the Triptych Temptation of St. Anthony contains nuns themselves tempting St. Anthony.  Alternatively, like Dante Bosch could be reminding viewers that not even his Holiness the Pope is exempt from Hell.  Bosch has become ambiguous to our century, but his works are none-the-less laden with possible narrative. 

            Bruegel, if not for the title of "The Numbering at Bethlehem", portrays a purely secular view of the world.  The Virgin and Joseph with Donkey and Ox too easily blend into the scene of wagons and roosters.  While Bosch most certainly had an agenda of one sway or another, Bruegel is just as certainly absent of agenda (although the lack of an immediate and obvious agenda might lean towards Protestant philosophies).  Bruegel is a painter long before a preacher.  In "The Numbering", crowds in front of the two inns do not insinuate a negative connotation of mankind.  While Bosch would have depicted at least some of this crowd as monsters, drooling and full of greed, Bruegel is free of any acidic or hallucinatory depictions.  The crowd is well mannered, almost rigid; well dressed; a parent grabs at a child in a motherly manner.  Two pigs are slaughtered but in a recognizably civil way.  The scenes of sin and redemption of Bosch are here with Bruegel replaced by work, reward and play (again, a possible hint of Protestant flavouring).

            Bosch and Bruegel deserve credit for helping to develop genre painting.  Each artist forged their own unmistakable (albeit imitated) styles so separate from their contemporaries.  Bruegel added to Patinir's formula for landscape, almost perfecting the colors for the light of the seasons.  A print of a work by Bruegel the Elder is as dull as a work by the artist's son.  Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicted the light of the day in such a manner that one feels as if the time of day is written in captions.  A sun low in the sky can often be taken as a sunrise or sunset.  More reds might dominate than blues during a sunset, but this all depends on season and location.  Bruegel never creates such a vague skyline or lighting.  In "The Numbering", the sun is obviously setting as work has not been completed and the Virgin looks weary from riding all day.  This idea is reinforced by patterns of yellowish-brown in the snow, apparently left behind by the dying light of the sun.  There is a glow in the sky that leaves an impression of a waning winter's day.

            Bruegel pays a great attention of detail to the form and structure of things.  The snow covering the barreled-wagons is thick on top thinning at the edges just as real snow coverings taper off near their border.  The figures Bruegel depicts come across as slightly stiff, but because of the absence of detailed faces and emotion.  The figures are proportionally perfect.  The tress are highly detailed as do the buildings seem architecturally sound.  None of this is so with Bosch's "St. Anthony". 

            The ruined shambles that St. Anthony kneels upon is not created from one perspective.  The arcade on the left is not in agreement with the stage-like platform in the foreground.  Indeed, all of the structures in "St. Anthony" look like a backdrop to a drama than parts of a landscape.  It becomes clear from examining architectural structures alone that Bruegel's foreground linked successfully with the background, where-as Bosch's did not. 

            Bosch did not pay as much attention to light, either.  There is not a unified source of lighting, with the only references to light being the shine on the large cherry in the central panel and the whitening of objects surrounding the inferno of the central panel's background.  Bosch depicted a pretty blue sky but the time of day is absolutely neutral and negligible. 

            Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the elder were two unique artists that were separated by no more than one century of time.  Bosch was influenced by his northern environment just as Bruegel was influenced by his popular predecessor, Bosch.  Each artist's subject matter and style can be pursued in ways that might take the researcher on quite opposite pathways.  Bosch and Bruegel do, however share many characteristics in their works that are not always immediately recognizable.


Reference List

Cuttler, C. (1991).  Northern Painting.  Forth Worth: Holt Rinehart and Winston, Inc.


Foote, T. (1968).  The World of Bruegel.  New York: Time-Life Books.


Fraenger, W.  (1999).  Hieronymus Bosch.  Germany: G + B Arts International.


Lucie-Smith, E. (1996) The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms.  London: Thames and Hudson.


Larousse Dictionary of Painters.  (1981) London: Hamlyn Publishing Group, Ltd.


Louvre; Paris. (1967)  New York: Newsweek, Inc.


Mullins, E.  (1981).  Great Paintings; Fifty Masterpieces, Explored, Explained and Appreciated.  New York: St. Martin's Press.


Vermeersch, V.  (1996).  The Museum of Ancient Art, Brussels.  Brussels: Ludion.


Prado; Madrid.  (1968).  New York: Newsweek, Inc.


Smets, I.  The Groeninge Museum, Bruges; A Selection of the Finest Works.  Brussels: Ludion.


Tansey, R.G.; Kleiner, F.S. (1996).  Gardner's Art Through the Ages, 10th. Ed.  Forth Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers. 


Michael Sean Beyer grew up in Woodstock, Illinois. He attended the Fine Arts program at the University of Texas in Austin for two years, before quitting for financial reasons and joining the United States Air Force.  He currently resides north of London, a member of the 352nd Special Operations Group at RAF Mildenhall.  Mr. Beyer holds a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Maryland's European Division and plans to return to the States in October 2000 to pursue a graduate degree in art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His most recent focus has been drawing and photography.  Mr. Beyer is twenty-four years old and can be reached at