The Owl as Represented in Renaissance Art

The Owl as Represented in Renaissance Art
Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch painted the owl the most of all artists in his time. I'll discuss possible reasons why and how its significance varies - including his famous 'Garden of Earthly Delights'.

A film on Bosch described the Netherlandish artist as intelligent, not a genius. That comment startled me, as we can attest to the brilliance and foresight Bosch possessed - certainly pre-Surrealism.

Bosch observed the people in his small village and painted what he saw as the lack of morals in society and its sins.

Throughout the history of art, owls can signify wisdom, ignorance, sin, the occult, the harbinger of murder, and the one to induce comforting sleep.

Bosch's owls appear to be threatening, as they are sometimes accompanied by other hostile birds. But why?

His "Ecce Homo" (1475-85), translated as "Behold the Man" - the words spoken by Pontius Pilate to the angry crowd before Christ was sentenced to be crucified - the 'Passion of Christ'. It is a panel painting, now in the Stadel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany.
In "Ecce Homo" we see an owl in the window of the brick building, looking at us, the viewer.

Bosch's "The Haywain" (1510-16) shows a wagon of hay with 'fools' committing sin. An angel looks upward towards heaven (and God) praying. An owl watches everyone and their sinful acts.

"The Wood Has Ears, The Field Has Eyes" (1500) is a drawing whose Latin inscription on the top of the page reads, "Poor is the mind that always uses the invention of others and invents nothing itself."

Bosch’s "Garden of Earthly Delights" (between 1490-1510) is his most recognized and perhaps most complex work - a triptych oil painting on panel. When it is displayed in a closed position, the outer panels are painted in grisaille and depict a perfect sphere of the planet - filled half with water.

In the upper left corner of this outer panel is a tiny depiction of God, holding a book. Interpreted by art historians, it is believed to represent the end of the world, rather than its inception.

When opened, on the center panel (left side) is a man hugging a huge owl. Although the owl may symbolize knowledge, remember, this is Bosch’s hell, and here the owl is a reminder of man's falling from grace.

On the left panel of "Garden of Earthly Delights," a large owl is perched atop humans holding cherries, who are deemed sightless (blind and foolish) from being covered with an egg. Owls, like some humans, prefer darkness, thereby rejecting the teachings of God.

The owl sees all, perhaps accepts the evil in the world, but chooses to do nothing.

"The Owl’s Nest" (1505-16) is one of three autograph drawings, and not a preparatory study.

Mystery surrounds the intended meaning of these drawings. What we do know is that the word 'bos' is the Dutch word for 'wood'. Is it a stretch for the artist to relate his family name 'Bosch' to the word 'bos'? In fact, the symbol of the owl may be the artist’s signature.

You can own 'Garden of Earthly Delights' by Hieronymus Bosch Art Print, available here from

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