Hieronymus Bosch was an Early Netherlandish painter. He must have lived in two worlds simultaneously – the real one and the world of his imagination. His work is known for macabre and nightmarish depictions of hell, fantastic imagery, detailed landscapes, and illustrations of religious concepts and narratives.
One of the motifs that regularly appear in his works is an owl. If you were to count the owls in all his paintings, Hieronymus Bosch was probably the most owlish major artist of all time. All of them painted in a very realistic manner keep a watchful eye. There is a lot of speculation about what his owls ‘mean’, and how they should be read. This is not helped by the seemingly multiple and contradictory meanings which have been associated with owls.
Sometimes they might signify wisdom, other times ignorance; they may bring the comfort of sleep at night, or be harbingers of murder and the occult. But it seems that around 1500 the owls were generally associated with menace and death and had an emblematic, moralistic significance. For example, popular at the time The Dialogue of Creatures tells the story of a long-eared owl who wanted to rule over other birds. And it seems that Bosch generally used it as a symbol, placing it in contexts with an atmosphere of menace. Even to emphasise it’s threatening presence he sometimes drew it surrounded by other, hostile birds that try to drive the owl away.
Bosch’s Famous Owls:
1. Ecce Homo
In this Ecce Homo the owl is peering out towards us from the alcove in a brick wall next to the soon-to-be crucified saviour. It is staring at us, making sure that the whole scene is having a proper impression on us.
2. The Haywain
Here Bosch used the owl’s presence as a way to mock his characters’ folly. A large wagon of hay is surrounded by a multitude of fools engaged in a variety of sins. An angel on top of the wagon looks to the sky, praying, but none of the other figures see Christ looking down on the world. Only the owl is watching.
3. The Wood Has Ears, The Field Has Eyes, c. 1500
This drawing features an oversized little owl in the hollow of a dead tree. This is an allegorical image, a visual expression of the Dutch urging to be discreet. The Latin text at the top says: “Poor is the mind that always uses the invention of others and invents nothing itself”.
4. The Garden of Earthly Delights
In the left of the center panel, a man hugs a giant owl. While the owl has long been a symbol of knowledge, in Bosch’s hell “knowledge” was frowned upon as a reminder of the fall from grace.
The owl, commonly regarded as a symbol of wisdom, can represent several cynical ideas in Christian imagery.
Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. – Romans 1:22-23
Another owl can be found in the left panel, in the eye-catching fountain in the centre. The owl can represent those who, preferring darkness to light (like the owl), rejected Jesus and God; this could be significant since Adam and Eve rejected God by eating the forbidden fruit. More likely, the owl here is viewed as a robber-bird, which stands for foolishness, blindness (as he cannot see in the light, or see the light of Christ) and a bird which accepts the fact that there is evil in the world and does nothing to prevent it.
Here in the upper right corner we can see a group of figures pluck fruit from a tree. Below there are two cherry-adorned dancing figures, seemingly partly covered by an egg, on which an owl is perched.
5. The Owl’s Nest
This is one of only three autonomous drawings by Bosch. It is not a preparatory study but a work of art in its own right. It has a remarkable perspective with its close-up view of a gnarled treetop with three owls and other birds set against a broad landscape with villages.