Theologies of Despair and Indifference:
Theological Themes in the Paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Theologies of Despair PowerPoint

The paintings of the Flemish masters Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516) and Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1526-1569) bridge both the Late Middle Ages and the Northern Renaissance and the confessional fault lines of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. If Bosch can be seen as the last great painter of the Middle Ages, then Bruegel is the first truly modern and secular artist. None of his works were painted for the Church. While Bruegel was clearly influenced by Bosch, his art is informed by the ideals of humanism and the Renaissance. Both are incomparable artists of mimetic contagion and desire, of showing what happens when human desire is not focused on God. In what can be termed their “theologies of despair,” both artists’ pessimistic view of humankind reveals the seismic cultural and theological rifts of their time. There is little that is redemptive about the work of both artists. Bosch is essentially an infernal artist, while Brueghel is the artist of indifference. Both were artist moralists. While Bosch’s religious art is explicit, Bruegel’s is subtler: his is a hidden theology. Both share common themes. In this paper, Dr. O’Hara will focus on select works of both artists to illustrate and further explore their theological themes using the mimetic theory of René Girard.

Dr. Alexander O’Hara, Harvard University

Dr. Alexander O’Hara is a Fulbright Fellow in the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University and Honorary Fellow in the Faculty of Theology at St Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth. A graduate in Medieval History of the University of St Andrews and Oxford University, he has held Research Fellowships at Trinity College Dublin, the Institute of Medieval Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. He is the author of Jonas of Bobbio and the Legacy of Columbanus (Oxford University Press, 2018), editor of Columbanus and the Peoples of Post-Roman Europe (Oxford University Press, 2018), and translator of Jonas of Bobbio: Life of Columbanus, Life of John, and Life of Vedast (Liverpool University Press, 2017). He is co-editor of St Sunniva: Irish Queen, Norwegian Patron Saint (Bergen, 2021), and his current book project concerns the cultural perception of Ireland and the Irish from Antiquity to the Anglo-Norman Conquest of Ireland.


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