Before Bruegel there was the Dutch artist, Hieronymus Bosch (1450? – 1516). And one of his most important works – altar panels depicting The Last Judgment – forms the diamond in the crown of a Vienna university’s historic picture gallery.
- Famous triptych from around 1505 (?)
- Part of a permanent exhibition of paintings at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna
- See also: Vienna Museums | Best art in Vienna
(Hieronymus Bosch, Weltgerichts-Triptychon, um 1490 – um 1505, Öltempera auf Eiche © Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien)
A triptych for the ages
In Vienna, a major collection of paintings by the old masters actually belongs to a university: the Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien (the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna).
The highlight of that magnificent collection appeared on wood sometime around the start of the 16th century: Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, The Last Judgment. Most consider it his second-greatest work, nestling behind the triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, in the Bosch all-time Top Ten.
The artist’s name tends to conjure up fantastical images of biblical scenes and religious motives, as if Bosch painted in late-night drug-fuelled moments of enlightenment.
The problem with dear Hieronymus is we don’t have a lot of documentation or information from the time to allow an undisputed interpretation of his oeuvre.
Don’t expect any wise insights from me (this is a tourism website). Various views exist, seeing Bosch’s works as, for example, simple renditions of contemporary concepts. Or vehicles for moral and spiritual education. Or entertaining outpourings of a truly fantastical imagination. Etc. etc.
Whether imaginative, interpretive, didactic, or merely illustrative, The Last Judgment certainly holds the attention like few other pieces of art.
Hieronymus Bosch, Weltgerichts-Triptychon, Detail, um 1490 – um 1505, Öltempera auf Eiche © Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien
The left panel features relatively straightforward scenes from The Garden of Eden: Adam and Eve leaving the refuge, pursued by a sword-wielding angel; the apple incident (with the serpent seemingly half woman, half lizard); and similar. Only the battle of angels near the top hints at what’s to come in the next image.
The central panel depicts The Last Judgment itself, with most of Bosch’s creative efforts going into the vast variety of ways to torture and punish the damned. Only a few lucky souls find their up to heaven.
This is the Bosch of popular perception, full of the bizarre and fantastical…a theme that continues in the final panel with its portrayal of Hell itself.
When closed, the two outer panels/shutters show Saint James and Saint Bavo respectively (if you don’t recognise the latter name, he’s the patron saint of, for example, Ghent in Flanders).
You can lose yourself in the main central panel. Your eye wanders from detail to detail, picking out an ever greater variety of people, figures and miniature dramas played out in oils. Closer examination reveals Bosch’s use of themes, notably the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.
The experience mirrors that when viewing some of the Bruegels in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. So it’s no surprise to find that many saw Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525?-1569) as Bosch’s natural successor.
Where to see The Last Judgment
The permanent exhibition of works from the academy’s paintings collection resides in the rather fine 19th-century university buildings on Schillerplatz square.
Renovation work meant, however, that the exhibition spent a long time on holiday over at Palais Lobkowitz, home to the Theatermuseum. The paintings are currently transferring back to the academy, with the grand reopening on October 8th, 2021.
Bosch’s The Last Judgment likely forms a centrepiece of the displays, which include several dozen works from the likes of Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt, as well as regular temporary exhibitions.
Subway: Museumsquartier (U2 line) or Karlsplatz (U1, U2 and U4 lines)
Tram/bus: walk up from the Burgring or Oper/Karlsplatz tram stops (both served by the 1, 2, D, and 71 lines. The 62 also stops at the latter station). The 57A bus also passes nearby (get off at the Getreidemarkt stop, for example).
Address: Schillerplatz 3, 1010 Vienna | Website