Hieronymus Bosch, The Last Judgment, c. 1495-1505. Bruges, Stad Brugge, Groeningemuseum.
Photo Rik Klein Gotink and image processing Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project.
Visions of Genius
At Het Noordbrabants Museum,
‘s-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands
By Floriana Piqué
Mesmerizing: the whole experience is just that. The exhibition Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius is a unique, rare opportunity to see, 500 years after the artist’s death, the entire body of his work – paintings and drawings – in the town where they were created.
‘s-Hertogenbosch, a small town of the Brabant region in the South of The Netherlands, retains the atmosphere, light, landscape and architectural layout of narrow streets, squares, churches and canals of the Medieval Age.
Heironymus Bosch, An Allegory of Intemperance, c. 1495–1500. Yale University Art Gallery. Photo Rik Klein Gotink and image processing Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project.
For these reasons one approaches the exhibition imbued with emotional suggestions that demand we lose ourselves in the artist’s figurative world.
The exhibition, based on loans from important European and American Museums, was made possible by the creation and consequent studies and work of the Bosch Research and Conservative Project (BRCP).
The research team of experts worked for six years on the definitive attribution of 24 paintings and 20 drawings. On its advice, nine paintings have been restored with the financial support of the Gieskes-Strijbis and the Getty Foundation.
Heironymous Bosch, The Wayfarer (wings of the Hay Wain triptych, 1510-16. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado. With the special collaboration of The Museo Nacional del Prado. Photo: Rik Klein Gotink and image processing Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project.
Jheronimus van Aken, who became Jheronimus Bosch in 1488 when he started signing his paintings with the surname borrowed from his native town, was born circa 1450 into a family of painters. His grandfather, Jan van Aken (Jan from The Hague, Germany), his father Anthonius, and his uncles and cousins were all active in the atelier in Sint Thoenis house, a house still standing today on the east side of Market Square.
In 1487-88 Bosch became a member of an elitist religious association, the Confraternity of Our Lady. Private, public and religious commissions demonstrate how well established an artist he was. An entry in the account of the Brotherhood of Our Lady documents the death of the artist in August 1516. At the end of the Sixteenth Century, many of his paintings were acquired by and entered the collection of Philip II King of Spain.
The exhibition is organized and articulated in themes: The Pilgrimage of Life, Bosch in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, The Life of Christ, Bosch as Draughtsman, Saints, and The End Times.
Most of Bosch’s works are triptychs where the artist’s figurative world is theatrically staged, allowing the unfolding of a complex narrative.
Every panel of a triptych is part of the narrative, an element of an extraordinarily rich story. While the central panel is the fulcrum of the composition, the laterals and the closed wings are also essential elements of the story, not just decoration.
The narrative is developed on horizontal planes; some diagonal elements in the landscape – such as trees – give a sense of depth of focus, alluring the viewer along a mental perspective.
The narrative, the unfolding of a story, anchors the author to reality. It is this unique, peculiar realism that allows Bosch complete freedom of invention.
Heironymous Bosch, Death and The Miser, c.1500-10.
Washington, National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection.
Photo Rik Klein Gotink and image processing Robert G. Erdmann
for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project.
The central panel of The Haywain Triptych, 1510-16, is dominated by a huge hay cart, hay glowing and alluring like a huge block of gold; on top of it, a peaceful, Arcadian scene with angels and musicians; on the lowest section of the painting, scenes of ordinary life. While weird and demonic creatures push the cart towards Hell depicted on the right panel, different people – that at first impression seem ordinary but in the franticness of the actions show the madness of a crowd - try to reach the hay/gold, risking their life under the cart wheels; others, in the effort to be the first to grab a handful of ephemeral gold, assault, hit and even stab the ones already near the cart.
With subtle observation and description of minute details of human behavior, Bosch both represents the universal condition of mankind and, as a man of his time, hints at changes and transformations to come as the Medieval period ruled by tradition gave way to a new era ruled by commerce and money.
We find the same anxiety for an uncertain future in Death and the Miser, c1500-1510, one of the four surviving fragments of The Wayfarer Triptych, in which an old man sitting on his deathbed is tempted by a demon offering a pouch full of coins. In the foreground a man, probably the same man at an earlier age, accumulates and secures in a trunk gold coins and money with the assistance of other demons.
The closed wings of The Haywain Triptych are dominated by The Pilgrim, The Wayfarer, a character symbolizing the human journey through life. This figure, which appears also in The Wayfarer, synthesizes the spiritual reality of the time: masses of beggars in search of food, work or at least charit; pilgrims looking for salvation or terrified by dark prophecies and visions of Apocalypse. The Wayfarer is staring backwards; in his gaze, we see the suffused, dissipated melancholy of a human being who knows what he has left behind and is anguished by what is waiting for him at the end of the journey.
Bosch depicts mankind from the inside; he goes deep into the souls. This is an artist able to paint emotions and analyze the psychology of human beings with a timeless and universal language.
From the madness of the crowd in The Haywain to the joyful unconsciousness of the revelers in The Ship of Fools, c1500-1510, completely oblivious to the sinking vessel, to the angry crowd in Ecce Homo, c1475-1485, to the malevolent mob in Christ Carrying the Cross, c1490-1510, every individual is described with great realism conveyed in oval shaped toothless mouths, dazed faces, angry gazes. At the end, compassion prevails; it is the unifying element distinctive of this artist.
Heironymous Bosch, The Hay Wain, 1510-16, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado. With the special collaboration of The Museo Nacional del Prado. Photo Rik Klein Gotink and image processing Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project.
Monsters and demons were deep-rooted in the collective imagination and culture of Sixteenth Century Northern Europe. The sculptures on the flying buttresses of Saint John’s Cathedral in ‘s-Hertogenbosch are even today an amazing, revealing example: Devil with trumpet, Monster with bird’s head, Devil with book, two-headed Monster, Monster with a ram’s head, Jockey on a sphinx, Whining monster, Winged dragon, Monster with beard….These characters are mixed with sculptures of ordinary people busy with their everyday activities: Man with milk churn, Man with cymbal, Brick layer, Fiddler, Flute player, Stone mason, Architect with ruler, Draftsman with compass, Painter….
In Bosch’s world, men and women, real human beings and imaginary figures, monsters and demons coexist in the same universe. He hoards up wonders to create plausible, impeccable beings; with his assemblage of parts he makes believable the absurd.
Half Human-half animal bodies, beak-headed creatures, rodent-like men, human hands on swan-like bodies, funnels as hats on numerous heads, all inhabit both the real world and the ideational worlds of Hell – in The Last Judgment, c1495-1505, or Heaven – in The Garden of Earthly Delights, c1495-1505, which is too fragile to leave the Prado Museum in Madrid but of which a life size reproduction is in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, standing on the west bank of the river Dommel.
Heironymous Bosch, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (fragment), c. 1500-10. Kansas City, Missouri, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, purchase William Rockhill Nelson Trust. Photo Rik Klein Gotink and image processing Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project.
The presence of imaginary creatures even in paintings of religious content, like the ones about the devotion of Saints – The Temptation of Saint Anthony, c1500-1510 and Hermit Saints Triptych, c1495-1505, emphasizes once more the uniqueness of Bosch.
The same nature is modified in order to generate more imaginary effects. Magnificent flowers morph into object-beings belonging to the animal kingdom; woods are drawn with giant ears; owls materialize from inside a tree.
Bosch’s drawings assert the preparatory work he did to create all his imaginary forms. 19 of the 21 drawings attributed to him are in the dedicated section of the exhibition, stressing the importance of this medium in disclosing the artist’s soul.
Beautiful, calm landscapes reassure the viewer from the background of most works, while, in the same works, disquieting, dark, scary visions of doom terrified Bosch’s contemporaries.
In his figurative, traditional way of combining moral discourse with an explosion of imagination, Hieronymus Bosch represents the anxieties and uncertainties of an era of change and transition; his message is modern and universal; it and appeals to us now, in times of crisis and change.
Floriana Piqué is an art critic and independent curator. She lives and works in London.
Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of Genius was on exhibit at Het Noordbrabants Museum, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands, from 13 February - 8 May 2016.