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9-12: Nightmares of Hieronymus Bosch

Helen Nagan / Learn NC

As part of a unit on Medieval Art, students will become familiar with some of the works of Hieronymus Bosch. They will identify symbols and imagery of fear and will be able to relate this to some of their own fears and nightmares.

Learning outcomes

Students will:

become familiar with the work of Hieronymus Bosch.

gain proficiency in identifying and interpreting symbols in a work of art.

gain a better understanding of the context of art within Medieval society.

Related Links

Teacher planning

Time required for lesson

3 hours


Prints of the following:

By Hieronymus Bosch:

  • The Garden of Earthly Delights
  • Death and the Miser
  • Christ Carrying the Cross
  • Temptation of St. Anthony

(Other Bosch prints can be used to supplement discussion.)

By Benvenuto di Giovanni: Christ Carrying the Cross

By Edvard Munsch: Der Schrei (The Scream)

By Pablo Picasso: Guernica

By Kathe Kollwitz: assorted drawings

Technology resources

Computer with Internet access


Although this lesson could be taught in isolation, with a heavy emphasis on Medieval art history, it works best as a component of a unit on Medieval art. I often try to schedule it close to Halloween, so that the fear images we have now can be a relevant part of the discussions.

About a week before using this lesson, tell the students that we will be discussing some images and ideas from their dreams. Talk about creating a dream journal (perhaps put one together in class). Encourage students to write down their dreams as soon as they wake up. Students may also want to write down dreams they have had in the past. In additon, you may want students to interview their friends, especially to record scary dreams and nightmares.


Introduce Bosch – 20 minutes

1. Show print of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.

2. Brief impressions – Let the students tell some brief first-impressions using a word or phrase to describe the work of Bosch, a color word, and the name of an interesting symbol or scene.

  • List one-word reactions
  • List colors
  • List most impressive object or scene

Background information – 15 minutes – Since this lesson should be a component of a unit on Medieval art history, some of this will be a review. Try to build on facts they already know by adding new information pertinent to Bosch. If this lesson is being taught in isolation, you may want to spend more time on this part, or assign some additional reading for homework as part of the pre-activities.

  • Holland in late 15th century
  • Brief biography of Bosch
  • Role of church in controlling art
  • View of Heaven and Hell in Middle Ages

h4. Discussion of artwork

1. Death and the Miser – 30 minutes

Vocabulary – Ask the students “What is a miser?” One that they are all familiar with is Uncle Scrooge. “The Midas Touch” is a Greek myth that also describes a miser. Discuss briefly the moral judgement that society has of people who are miserly.

Sections – Point out that this painting tells a story in three sections. The top show the miser on his deathbed. Tell the students that you will discuss the middle and bottom soon.

Story line – Let students tell what they think is happening in the top.

Symbols – Let students help point out the symbols of the cross and the ray of light. They will also recognize the grim reaper at the door and the angels and demons as symbols of good and evil.

Middle – Then discuss the middle section. Here the miser is aided by demons as he hoards his money and swindles others with high-interest loans.

Bottom – Next, discuss the flashback at bottom. Here the armor, a symbol of goodness, has been discarded by the miser in his early life.

Theme of good vs. evil. This is an underlying theme in most Medieval artwork. Discuss the struggle between the forces of good (angels) and evil (demons) as the miser is on his deathbed.

2. Christ Carrying the Cross – 15 minutes

Composition -

Crowded/ zoom-in effect Notice the close-up, cropped format. It is impossible to ignore the good and evil in the faces.

Compare to di Giovanni – Benvenuto di Giovanni created a painting with the same title around the same time. Although the story is the same, the paintings are very different. Here the prettiness of the processional scene is most important. Point out the resurgance of perspective here as the Renaissance approaches. Note that the two paintings were done around the same time.

Diagonal – Point out the use of the strong diagonal to create excitement and drama. This is a good time to show other artwork using diagonals and the possibility for the students to use diagonals in their own artwork to create excitement.

Grotesque figures – Ask the students if they notice anything strange about most of the faces. Then let them give opinions about whether these people are good or bad. Discuss how Bosch put the evilness on the outside of these faces.

St. Anne – Her face is serene and good. Do the students notice the cloth with the image of Christ on it? His face also appears serene and good.

Theme of good vs. evil – This is all important in Medieval society and is based on the very strict morals of the Catholic Church. It would be good to discuss the roots of moral judgement in our society, especially the diversity of opinion about what is good and evil.

Temptation of St. Anthony – 30 minutes

Circular composition – Let students notice how Bosch brings our eye into the center and then leads us around with line, shape, and color.

Story line – Point out that St. Anthony is resisting the temptation of evil. This is not the case with others in the painting, who appear as all sorts of grotesque creatures created from a variety of human, animal, and inanimate parts.

Symbols – name and explain as many symbols as you have information about. The students may want to speculate on the meanings of some of the symbolism.

Theme of good vs. evil (as in all of Bosch’s work)

Closure – 20 minutes – Brief discussion to review and expand on the material learned

1. Similarities among Bosch’s paintings


The battle between good and evil

Mostly dark colors, especially reds

Good or evil showing up in outward appearances

A pervasive feeling of fear

2. Use of symbols to convey ideas

3. Understanding of Medieval mind through Bosch’s work

4. Look at more modern works that represent fear, such as “The Scream” by Munsch, “Guernica” by Picasso, and “Run Over” by Kathe Kollwitz.

Followup – 10 minutes to explain – 40 minutes to work on or present to class (Use additional class time and/or assign for homework.)

Students can choose from these activities to further investigate and build on the universal theme of fear.

Research paper – Students research dream symbolism both in popular books and in psychological readings, such as from Freud.

Fear collage – Students create a magazine collage combining parts of bodies and images as Bosch did.

Scary story – Students write a scary story, possibly based on a Bosch painting or a personal nightmare.

Fear painting – Create an original painting using colors and symbols that are personal representations of fear.

Book or movie review – Students will read a scary book such as one by Stephen King or watch a movie such as “Scream” and write a personal review. In the review, some comparison should be mentioned to the fear symbolism in a work of art by Bosch.


Students who are engaged in looking at the pictures and participating in discussions will learn most. Students responses throughout the discussion will be indications of how well they are understanding the objectives of the lesson. This will be especially apparant during the closure segment. Specific attention will be paid to the use of title names in student answers. Students should be able to give specific examples of uses of symbols and should be able to identify several aspects of Medieval life better understood through Bosch’s paintings. Followup activities can be assessed using a rubric or by simply reading or viewing them, possibly with some oral presentation.

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