The Tree-Man

Hieronymus Bosch-The Tree-Man Circa 1505
Another one of the drawings that can be definitely attributed to have come from the hand of the master, The Tree-Man is also a figure that features prominently in the right panel hellscape of the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.

As the date of composition of The Garden of Earthly Delights cannot be determined accurately beyond the range of 1490 to 1510, it is a matter of conjecture as to whether the drawing of The Tree-Man is a preparatory sketch or a later variation on this most memorable, nightmarish character.

Although not situated in hell, the landscape of The Tree-Man is nevertheless rather bleak and blighted. In the centre of the foreground a stunted tree sits near the bank of a river that has inundated a large part of the background land. Various species of birds feature, including a stock, a pair of swimming ducks and an owl.

Dominating the scene is the Tree-Man, a monstrous hybrid of human face, rotting tree stumps, broken eggshell and boats. Inside the hollow cavity of the body a group of people (surely damned) appear to be involved in drinking, gambling and whoring. Also a crescent moon flag juts from this unusual posterior opening. The Tree-Man sports extraordinary headgear on which a large pitcher is balanced. Inside this vessel is a small blurry figure that is pointlessly dangling a fishing line and another man precariously clings onto a ladder while reaching out to a line that is attached to the flag.

It has been suggested that the Tree-Man’s face in both this drawing and in The Garden of Earthly Delights is a possible self-portrait of Bosch. In the triptych the headgear closely resembles an artist’s palette and the sideways, conspiratorial expression of rueful resignation that greet the viewer do point towards the Tree-Man being an elaborate, knowingly ironic signature.

29 thoughts on “The Tree-Man

    1. His use of symbols is pronounced, though what they mean is the subject of much, much debate. His line is exceptional, this is a wonderful drawing, but I completely agree with you… hanging this in your living room when be the source of many a night’s troubled sleep

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  1. Bosch is fascinating. Some Biblical symbolism here perhaps? The mustard tree that represents the kingdom of heaven and provides shelter for all the birds of the field somehow corrupted for a more sinister use? The man who loves the word of god is like a tree planted by rivers of water, whose leaves don’t wither and whatever he does will prosper… but instead its a flood and he’s filled with sin?

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    1. Definitely Biblical symbolism, whether esoteric or exoteric depends upon your viewpoint. Bosch frequently painted sin and folly. That is an interesting lead regarding the man who loved the word of God, which verse is that?

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      1. Psalm 1 verse 3. I went to a Catholic college – we had to take 2 classes on religion. One of them focused on King David and the Psalms. He was quite the poet/musician.

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  2. Cake, thanks for sharing another thought-provoking work of art. Though I recall seeing Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” I’ve never given his work any attention. The approximate date of the featured painting coincides with the period of Christopher Columbus’ voyages to the so-called New World (1492-1502).

    While Bosch may not have been influenced by Western Europe’s Age of Discovery, “The Tree-Man” is a weird depiction of Man on the move. Man is no longer rooted to the land, but ventures across the water to an unknown future. Looking back with disdain to the world he leaves behind, he carries with him all of his past learned immoral behavior.

    In a branch high above, an owl – the Christian symbol of mourning and desolation – portents the ruination that befalls the earth.

    As Peter notes, in his above comment, Man has changed little since Bosch’s time.

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    1. In the Garden there is possibly a pineapple, which of course is a New World fruit and therefore would signify that Bosch knew of Columbus and the changes that were occurring rapidly at that time in Europe. The owl is interesting, it appears in the majority of Bosch’s painting. Now in the early modern period the owl represented folly (due to its awkwardness in daylight) see Goya’s Sleep of Reason (I will send you the link to the post I have written) for owls in this respect. Yet there were a contrary tradition in Christian literature that hearten back to the ancient tradition of owls (especially Pygmy owls) in an altogether more positive light. Now in what sense did Bosch portray the owl? Studying his paintings it seems that he saw them as wise, yet frequently looking down on folly, which was possibly his great subject matter. Thanks for the detailed comment and the food for thought.

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      1. Thanks for sharing the link to an earlier post. Interestingly, this past Saturday, my five-year-old neighbor showed me her large toy collection of owls. Owls are wise, she told me. How times have changed!

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    1. Quite right, I am working my way up to The Garden, but as it so detailed and having been the subject of such much analysis I am quite fearful. It almost defies logical analysis. Thank you for the comment, it is always appreciated.


  3. Bosch is so amazing! There’s a Taschen book came out a yr or 2 ago, its really huge, with fold outs, someone has a video of it on utube, its one of those things where you just might go nuts and buy it for £60, even tho u really don’t need it!! 😀 😀

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    1. I have a couple of smaller books on Bosch, I have seen this book. It is bigger than some coffee tables but I was tempted to buy it. Taschen is a great publisher, I have dozen of Taschen’s lying around, always interesting and good quality. They seem to love Bosch.

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    1. Not much is known about him apart from an approximate date of birth, the date of his death and the town where he spent his life in Holland (though it wasn’t Holland then) where he had a workshop. The last medieval painter really who was somehow way ahead of his time.


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