The Secret Erotic Allusions in the Work of Hieronymous Bosch
23 oktober 2020 
6 min. read

The Secret Erotic Allusions in the Work of Hieronymous Bosch

Hieronymous Bosch (c.1450- 9 August 1516) is undoubtedly one of the most difficult to interpret masters from around 1500. His work is known as labyrinthine, it has no clear outlines. The boundaries between authentic work, imitation and copy are partly blurred. The significance of many paintings that can be attributed to him with certainty is unclear or disputed.

Exceptional Position

In his time he occupies an exceptional position, although in his paintings numerous contemporary forms and ideas such as allusion, quotation or main motif can be recognized. Erotic allusions and sado-masochist details, for instance, can be found in several of his paintings such as ‘The Temptation of St Antony‘, ‘The Wayfarer‘, ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, and ‘The Last Judgement‘.

erotic Hieronymous Bosch drinking pee

Fig.1. Detail of the center panel of the ‘ triptych ‘The Last Judgement‘ (c.1482)

Naked Fat Man

The center panel of Bosch’s triptych The Last Judgment, depicts a nude figure, probably a woman, pissing though a window into a barrel through a funnel, and finally a naked fat man is drinking the liquid which comes out of the barrel (Fig.1). Transfigured in the style of the era, a naked man drinking the pee of a naked female is one of the favorite subjects of modern-day pornography. The right panel of this triptych shows a naked man, pierced right through by a sword, with the beak of a bird riveted in his anus, like a modern-day dildo (Fig.2).

Bosch The Last Judgement sword through the body

Fig.2. Detail of the right (Hell) panel Bosch’ triptych ‘The Last Judgement‘ (c.1482)

hieronymous bosch erotic

Fig.3. Detail of the central panel of the triptych entitled ‘The Last Judgement‘ by Hieronymous Bosch (c.1465-1516)


The central panel of this triptych depicts sins (Fig.3). Its central figure, the so-called ‘tree man’, represents a tavern with the bagpipe, a symbol of debauchery and the male genitalia.

Flowers in Ass

In The Garden of Earthly Delights, there is another naked man with, this time, a bunch of flowers stuck in his anus (Fig.3). In the same painting, one can see the lower half of a naked male body. Shame plays a role here as the man is hiding his erection with both hands (Fig.4).

he Garden of Earthly Delights flowers in anus

Fig.4. Detail from the triptych ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510)

he Garden of Earthly Delights hiding erection

Fig.5. Detail from the triptych ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights‘ (1490-1510)

Armless Dwarf

On the right panel of his pièce de résistance ,’The Temptation of St Antony‘, Bosch displays the usual temptations in the form of sensual seductions. One can see a hand on the private parts of a naked woman (Fig.5), but the owner of this hand is hidden behind a tree (Fig.6)!  According to Wikipedia the naked woman symbolizes luxury. Her seductive body is being presented to the holy person, who is depicted at right, deliberating while he glances at us simultaneously. The armless dwarf next to him, sporting a red mantle and using a walking frame, symbolizes humanity’s slothfulness.

Naked Demons

The last temptations are depicted in the foreground. The table with bread and a jar of vine, supported by naked demons symbolizes gluttony. The standing human pillar has his foot caught in a jar — an allusion to the sexual intercourse.

right panel Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony

Fig.6. Detail of the right panel of the triptych entitled ‘The Temptation of St Anthony‘ (c.1501)

detail nude woman The Temptation of St Antony'

Fig.7. Close-up of the nude woman in the tree from the triptych ‘The Temptation of St Antony‘ (c.1501)

jeroen bosch the wayfarer

Fig.8. ‘The Wayfarer (aka, The Pedlar)‘ (ca.1500) by Hieronymous Bosch (Source:


In The Wayfarer, a slender man sporting grey clothes is strolling, holding his hat in his left hand (Fig.7). He is holding a cane in his right hand warding off an agitated dog. On his back he is carrying a large basket with his “household goods” in it. These kind of baskets were commonly used by peddlers in the 16th century in the Netherlands. To the left a tavern (and probably also a brothel).

Dagger and Alder

The sign with the swan and the birdcage indicates that the house is indeed a brothel. Other erotic allusions are the dagger and alder (popular phallic symbols), the poached catskin (allusion to infatuation and passion), the stake and the (latrine) vessel.

The contemporary artist whose work strongly recalls Bosch is the German surrealist Michael Hutter. Click here for an article about him or here for an interview!

Sources: / Jheronimus Bosch by Hans Holländer /

Do you know of more erotic references in the work of Hieronymous Bosch? Leave your reaction in the comment box below….!!

About the author
Marijn is the founder of With more than 20 years of experience within the sensual and erotic art of shunga he is an authority in the genre. During this time he served many customers with complementing their art collection.


on 23 Oct 2020

The handle/stem of a spoon in the pot on the rooftop of the tavern is an obvious erotic sign!



on 23 Oct 2020

Thanks Philip. Yes, maybe there is also a hidden visual dialogue between that spoon and the spoon attached to the peddler's basket.



on 23 Oct 2020

Always had a special love for Hieronymous Bosch's work. Always saw it as a very intelligent attack on religious hypocrisy. Human frailty trying to sort through the labyrinth of life. Which paths lead to Heaven? Which to hell? The inclusion of saints and monks and other religious figures have purpose? Are they there because they are part of the world, or is there a subliminal intention, a sort of cynical bow to the religious power, a request for permission to depict such "vile" scenes as depictions of hell, the hell we all share? Are these religious personages warning the common folk, or partaking of, and delighting in, the same sins? Are they meditating, horrified, or lusting after the bare, free yet trapped bodies of the common mortals, the life they want to leave behind, but cannot? The blind lead the blind. Pain inflicted is pain received?, a reflection of pain feared?, the eternal pits of fire and brimstone, the promise of hell and eternal damnation are there, inviting us to jump in, like if in a bathhouse. Hieronymous Bosch realized that there is no escaping humanity, with all its contradictions. Shunga is right there, standing side-by-side with it, with depictions of demons and imagination defying supernatural creatures that portray fear of the unknown, and the desire to understand it. What's sex and copulation all about? Reproduction? Sharing? Togetherness? Belonging? Liberation? Enjoyment? Domination? Subjugation? All of these. And avoidance of loneliness too? Bosch had most likely no answers, heaven and hell were as are and will always be out of reach. He was in a way clueless. He had questions but no answers, like no one has, but his questions, his wanderings and wonderings were unique in form and daring for the time.



on 23 Oct 2020

Thanks JB. Nice analysis. You're absolutely right, all great art evokes more questions than it provides answers. Yes, shunga and in particular an artist like Kawanabe Kyosai seemed to enter the same universe as Bosch.

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