The first picture that you see when you enter the exhibition, Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of Genius, at Noordbrabants Museum in the painter’s home town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch depicts a careworn traveller making his way through the kind of landscape you can still see if you step beyond the town’s medieval battlements.
This is The Wayfarer (study it in detail here on Google Art Project), one of four fragments of a triptych that were later scattered around the world, but are reunited in this ambitious exhibition. In it, Bosch presents a man (sometimes mistakenly identified as a pedlar) making his way through life as a kind of pilgrimage. He’s an Everyman, passing by on a journey full of temptations and pitfalls, looking over his shoulder towards the worldly temptations of the crumbling brothel where whores wait at the windows, his onward route blocked by the closed gate ahead.
The image (which Bosch repeated in The Path of Life panel on the exterior of The Haywain triptych) represents a concentration of the artist’s essential message to his contemporaries. The world is a dangerous and immoral place for a man trying to follow the path of Christian teaching. There is no choice but to forge ahead, choosing between good and evil every day.
I came to the picturesque Dutch town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch to see the remarkable exhibition which the director of its small museum has managed to assemble to mark the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death. Improbably, he has convinced major museums around the world to lend nearly all of the 50 or so surviving paintings and drawings by the artist, at the same time attracting money from the Getty Foundation to pay for research and restoration work.
Coming of age in the 1960s, my introduction to Bosch reflected the times. His work was often hailed as prefiguring the decade’s preoccupation with sexual liberation and hallucinatory imagery. The invariable example of this being The Garden of Earthly Delights which isn’t in the exhibition, but which can be explored here in incredible detail. In the age of Aquarius, his dream-like visions seemed to foreshadow surrealist imagery and mid-20th century obsessions: perfect for LP covers and for getting stoned. We loved the excess, shivered at the monstrous visions of tortured souls in Hell, but ignored the artist’s true message.
You can see the same approach in the way that Bosch 500 is being marketed around the town. The banners hung across the cobbled streets, and the postcards, T-shirts, mugs and all the usual souvenirs for sale in the shops each feature one of those weird creatures – part human, part animal, part monster – that populate his paintings: the rat swallowing a man, the couple riding through the air on a fish, the half-bird, half-man messenger with a dog’s floppy ears and a funnel on his head.
This is all great fun, but these details, lifted from their context in the paintings, obscure the actual message of Bosch’s paintings. But what was that message?
Writing anything at all about Hieronymus Bosch is like going to sea in a leaky boat.
– Peter S Beagle, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1982
Before setting off for ‘s-Hertogenbosch I had tried to improve my knowledge of Bosch, but after reading several books about the artist I finished more confused and perplexed than before I began. Apart from a few spare entries in the town records, little is known about Bosch that might explain what was going on in his head when he filled his paintings with such strange imagery. The result has been books full of speculation – some of it wild and improbable. Was he a heretic? Or a devout and respected local citizen? Did he practise alchemy? Was he a member of the Adamites who endorsed a pre-lapsarian, guiltless sexuality? Were his apocalyptic visions and fantastical creatures drug-induced?
The Adamite theory dates back well beyond the 1960s – to 1947, when Wilhelm Fraenger argued in The Millennium of Hieronymus Bosch that the centre panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych portrays the joyous world awaiting humanity following a rebirth of the innocence enjoyed by Adam and Eve before their fall. He asserted that Bosch was a member of the radical sect, active in the Rhineland and the Netherlands, whose members sought to regain the innocent sexuality of the Garden of Eden, spiritually free from sin and the taint of lust. These days, few art historians regard Fraenger’s case as credible.
I felt I’d gone down another blind alley after reading Laura Dixon’s Phaidon paperback on Bosch, published in 2003, which attributes much of the imagery in Bosch’s painting to the influence of alchemical texts with their symbolic images and diagrams of furnaces and flasks. She even hints that Bosch may have practised alchemy in his own workshop.
However, Dixon does reject any notion that this would make Bosch a heretic. In his time, she argues, the devout practice of alchemy was regarded as being compatible with religious doctrine, since its goal was the transmutation of matter into a pure form, paralleling the quest for spiritual purity. Indeed, the most convincing part of Dixon’s book is the opening chapter in which she presents Bosch as an artist of his times, a wealthy and pious man, active in the religious life of his town.
Then I remembered a book I had on my shelves at home – Peter Beagle’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, a beautifully-produced and lavishly-illustrated A4-size Picador paperback published in 1982 (you can pick up second-hand copies on Amazon for a penny). It turned out to be a comprehensive study of all Bosch’s work, and – for me, at least – the most informative and credible assessment of the artist’s work.
Beagle is best-known, apparently, as a writer of fantasy novels, and as he admits on the first page of this book, ‘it will be the only art book I will ever write’. He comes, he says, from a family of painters, but cannot draw anything. He discovered Bosch through images on the covers of science fiction books and magazines that he read omnivorously as a boy, and was drawn by the immediacy of Bosch’s imagery. This might not suggest that Beagle as likely to be the most reliable witness to the meaning of Bosch’s paintings. But his book is sensitive, knowledgeable, and is full of perceptive insights into Bosch’s world and his art. He carefully assesses the various conflicting interpretations of Bosch’s work and speculations about his beliefs in a book that is also beautifully designed, with text and images integrated on pages laid out stunningly.
Beagle gets to the nub of what Bosch is about – and the reason why he found in the painter’s late-medieval visions something that chimed with our own times – when he writes:
I was growing up in the years just after World War II, in the time when the Holocaust had no name because the fact of what had happened to the Jews of Europe was still too much for language to absorb. That fact was joined by another, this one almost nothing but a name, learned with my own: Hiroshima. … It is hard for me to remember a time when I did not know … that there is nothing – nothing – that human beings will not do to one another, for the pure pleasure of it, and that their evil will neither be prevented in this world nor punished in the next.
In Bosch’s world, however, people were consumed by fear – fear of the Devil, and fear of eternal damnation in the fires of Hell for their sins in this world. As Johan Huizinga, the historian of the late Middle Ages wrote of the period in which Bosch painted:
A general feeling of impending calamity hangs over all. Perpetual danger prevails everywhere … The feeling of general insecurity which was caused by the chronic forms wars were apt to take … the mistrust of justice, was further aggravated by the obsession of the coming end of the world, and by the fear of hell, of sorcerers and of devils. … Everywhere the flames of hatred arise and injustice reigns. Satan covers a gloomy earth with his sombre wings.
– ‘The Waning of the Middle Ages’
Writing in the 1980s, Peter Beagle sees parallels between the violence and fears of his own times and those of Hieronymus Bosch. In the second decade of the 21st century he might make the comparison even more sharply.
Entering the Bosch exhibition at the Noordbrabants Museum, we are plunged immediately into Bosch’s vision of the world as a place of danger and temptation. The first section, titled ‘The Pilgrimage of Life’, pinpoints this as being Bosch’s essential message, revealed in two of his most celebrated triptychs – The Wayfarer and The Haywain.
Both are theatrical designs, the equivalent, perhaps, of a widescreen cinema presentation today. The story begins on the closed wings and is then developed in the opened interior. A feature of the exhibition is the use of monitors to display high resolution images of unfolding details of certain paintings, and on the first one we can see how the four separated fragments of The Wayfarer triptych were originally joined, and follow the story that they told.
The painting we now know as The Wayfarer is formed from the two outer wings of a triptych, now joined and cut down to form an octagonal painting. As he makes his life’s pilgrimage the wayfarer must choose between good and evil, symbolised in the images which surround him (for example, the owl in the tree behind him would have been recognised at the time as a symbol of evil).
Opening up the outer wings would have revealed The Ship of Fools, now in the Louvre. In a small, overloaded boat a group of people blithely enjoy life with music, drink, good food, and sex. Bosch condemns their sinful behaviour as they drift towards their doom.
The panel containing The Ship of Fools was originally larger, but was later sawn in two, probably in the 19th century. This portion, now in the Yale University collection and called Allegory of Gluttony and Lust, once formed the lower foreground of the The Ship of Fools. The message is reinforced.
An outstanding feature of the exhibition is the way in which the curators have placed Bosch’s work in context, exploring his influences and sources of inspiration. So in this section we find an image of a fool and other characters in a boat from a Book of Hours made for the Spanish wife of Duke Philip the Fair, the Hapsburg ruler of the Low Countries (who commissioned a painting of the Last Judgement from Bosch). Also displayed is a copy of the Dutch translation of the popular poem Ship of Fools by the French author Sebastian Brant, first published in 1500. Like Bosch’s painting, the poem employed the metaphor of a ship and its foolish passengers drifting aimlessly towards hell as a condemnation of sin and idleness.
All of this reinforces the point made by Johan Huizinga in The Waning of the Middle Ages about the importance in people’s lives of religion and imagery at the time:
Towards the end of the Middle Ages two factors dominate religious life: the extreme saturation of the religious atmosphere, and a marked tendency of thought to embody itself in images.
There’s another wayfarer painted on the outside of what is probably the greatest coup of the exhibition, The Haywain. I had seen this once before – in the room in the Prado in Madrid which also houses The Garden of Earthly Delights. For me, this is the most appealing of Bosch’s paintings, and the one – or at least the central panel – most relevant relevant to our own times.
At the Noordbrabants Museum they have displayed The Haywain in a free-standing glass cabinet so that you can walk around the back and see the Wayfarer painted on the outside of the triptych. The open triptych shows Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden, while in the centre panel a cart trundles its way to damnation – the scenes of hell in the right panel.
A wagon piled high with hay is being pulled by demons from the underworld. It is surrounded by men and women trying to snatch some of the hay and fighting over it, while some fall under the wheels of the juggernaut. Riding behind are an entourage of the high-ranking in medieval society – the Duke of Burgundy (recognisable by his banner), the Emperor, and the Pope himself with his bishops. The cart’s direction of travel is clear: everyone is going straight to hell.
Bosch was a devout Catholic, but according to the exhibition guide his work shows the influence of the Modern Devotion, a religious movement of the time especially prominent in towns of the Low Countries such as ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The Modern Devotion wanted to bring Christianity closer to the people by making Christian teaching accessible to all through texts in the vernacular instead of Latin, and by employing provocative images and laughter from popular culture to reinforce the message. Their aim was to encourage a direct personal relationship between the individual and their God.
As a well-established and wealthy man and member of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, Bosch would have come into contact with humanist intellectuals who made ‘s-Hertogenbosch one of the main centres of the movement. He was, for example, a close friend of Simon van Couderberch, a prominent member of the Brothers of the Common Life, one of the principal groups espousing the Modern Devotion. He was dean of the city’s Latin School where Erasmus studied – a reflection of the close links between Renaissance Humanism and Christianity.
One object displayed in in the exhibition is a copy of Thomas a Kempis’ book The Imitation of Christ which emphasised just such a personal relationship between the individual Christian and God. The book on display was printed in 1505 in Utrecht, just 30 miles from Hertogenbosch. It is open at a page where the decorated margin shows a man with a basket on his back, life’s pilgrim, beset by threatening monsters.
At the lower right of The Haywain, we see an abbot ordering nuns to fill his sacks with hay. In The Imitation of Christ a Kempis challenged a church riddled with corruption, arguing that the origin of sin lies in man’s attachment to the earthly realm, and that appears to be the central subject of The Haywain -if not all of Bosch’s paintings.
Bosch’s imagery here is rooted in popular culture (and it’s in this sense that Bruegel follows in his footsteps, though with more humanity and less preaching). Carnival parades in the Low Countries often featured a real-life hay wagon driven around the city, illustrative of the Netherlandish proverb, ‘The world is a haystack, and everyone takes from it as much as they can grab’. Most people would have been familiar with the symbolic meaning of hay from Biblical texts, such as Psalm 37 (‘Don’t worry about the wicked … for like grass they will soon fade away’) or Isaiah 40, verse 6:
All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall … but the word of our God stands forever.
In The Imitation of Christ Thomas a Kempis wrote:
Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone. This is the greatest wisdom – to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world. It is vanity, therefore, to seek and trust in riches that perish. It is vanity also to court honour and to be puffed up with pride. It is vanity to follow the lusts of the body and to desire things for which severe punishment later must come. It is vanity to wish for long life and to care little about a well-spent life. It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and not to make provision for things to come. It is vanity to love what passes quickly and not to look ahead where eternal joy abides.
A quack dentist performs an operation on a female patient whose gaping mouth suggests sexual connotations. His purse is stuffed with hay, while the red heart on his banner suggests that he has sexual designs on the young woman. Next to them a nun offers a handful of hay to a musician (Bosch condemned sin of all kinds, including the playing of musical instruments – just ceheck out the right-hand panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights to see the hellish tortures Bosch gleefully imagined as punishment for musicians and those who sinfully enjoyed music) while catching a sausage attached to a string, an allusion to fishing for sex that his contemporaries would have picked up readily. Greed leads to envy, violence and even murder: one man cuts another’s throat on the ground.
In many of his paintings, lust is depicted as the root of all sins. Riding on top of the hay we see a troubadour serenading a young couple on his lute. In the bushes behind, lovers embrace while a peeping Tom spies on them. An angel prays for the souls of these pleasure-seekers, while a jolly devil celebrates victory by piping a tune through his snout.
The second section of the exhibition focusses on Bosch in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, with exhibits that provide a rich contextual understanding of the period in the late 15th century when the town experienced economic prosperity and Bosch emerged as an exceptional artist who thought and painted differently to those who preceded him. It was a period in which the great church of St John was under construction, and when the arts flourished in the town: silversmiths, book illustrators and printers were all active. Artworks were bought or commissioned by local monasteries, chapels and guilds, as well as the city council.
It’s here that we can see the only known depiction of the town in the 16th century – the anonymous painting of the Cloth Market in which the home in which Bosch lived after his marriage can be seen (it’s featured in my previous post). There are examples of local silverware, and books printed in the town (including a translation in Dutch of a Latin religious text, produced for followers of the Modern Devotion by a local printer).
Perhaps the most fascinating objects are three account books of the Brotherhood of Our Lady to which Bosch was admitted in 1487, making him a member of a select religious elite in the town (see the previous post for details). There’s a record of the banquet given for the members of the Brotherhood at the home of ‘Jheronimus the painter’ in 1498, and another in 1507. Finally, there’s a record of the funeral of ‘Jheronimus van Aken the painter’ on 9 August 1516.
Here, too, are the two panels depicting Saint John the Baptist which Bosch made for the altarpiece of the Brotherhood in St John’s church. They were subsequently dispersed, one ending up in Madrid, the other in Berlin (again, see the previous post for details).
The next section of the exhibition explores the influence of the Modern Devotion, with its desire to bring the Christian faith closer to the individual, on Bosch’s paintings. As the exhibition guide puts it:
He communicated the essence of religious scenes in a direct and moving way … He took episodes that were extremely familiar and gave them back their dramatic tension.
One of the ways in which he achieved this was to place such scenes in contemporary Flemish settings – something that in later decades Bruegel would also do. Perhaps the most remarkable example of this is an image of stark simplicity painted on a small oak panel of Christ as a baby. It’s a fragment, probably painted on the outside of a triptych panel the rest of which is now lost. Bosch has imagined Jesus as a baby pushing along a 15th century-style walking frame and carrying a toy windmill in his right hand. It’s strange but curiously moving, and must be unique among representations of Christ. The exhibition guide adds this comment:
The parallel between the toddler, still unsteady on his feet, and Christ stumbling towards his execution is deliberate: his fate was predestined at birth.
That piece came from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and from The Metropolitan Museum in New York comes The Adoration of the Magi which portrays the Virgin Mary seated in a ruined medieval castle with Jesus on her lap. The setting is contemporary – in the background ordinary people are getting on with quotidian activities. Bosch has used an awful lot of gold leaf in this painting and the figures are rather wooden, but the most striking aspect for me is the superb portrayal of the three wise men, particularly the dignified African magus who holds a pelican-topped vessel containing frankincense (the motif of the pelican understood at the time as symbolizing Christ’s sacrifice and redemption of mankind).
In Ecce Homo, Pontius Pilate says to the jeering crowd, ‘Behold the man’, presenting Christ to the people before sentencing him to be crucified. Once again, Bosch sets the scene in a Flanders town, its people, streets and buildings visible in the distance. The family that commissioned the work was originally included in the foreground, but later their figures were scraped away and overpainted.
This section also includes two panels from The Garden of Earthly Delights. Not, however, the Prado version (which can never travel), but versions by followers of Bosch. The left panel depicts Adam and Eve in Paradise. But evil has already entered the world: a cat has a mouse in its jaws, while a lion devours a deer. Then there’s the central panel (a 16th century copy from a private collection) about which there has been endless speculation. The exhibition guide sums up crisply:
Is it a lyrical hymn to happiness and innocence … or does it illustrate humanity’s decadence? Bosch depicted how sensuality and sin lead straight to hell.
A major revelation of the exhibition is its definitive collection of drawings by Bosch which reveal his skill as a draughtsman, and which form the next section of the show. Until recently only 11 drawings were ascribed to Bosch, but as a result of the research project which preceded the exhibition, the curators now believe the total to be 21 – meaning that Bosch is the first Netherlands artist by whom a body of drawings has survived. Nineteen of these sheets are included, and the highlight is a recently discovered Bosch drawing from a private collection which has never been shown in public before (above).
The drawing is of a scene from hell, featuring fantastic monsters and a tower, where a net scoops up lost human souls toward a water wheel, which protrudes from a monstrous creature’s gaping jaws. Human bodies hang inside a giant bell on the creature’s back, as if the people were its clappers. Beyond the tower, a dragon spews other doomed souls into a large cauldron. Research determined that the handwriting and the style of certain figures indicated that Bosch was the artist.
The exhibition has, in fact, been over a decade in preparation, and is the culmination of six years of work by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, in which experts have analysed Bosch paintings in minute detail. As a result, 24 paintings have been defined as being by Bosch (rather than followers or members of his workshop), and 17 of these are on display, alongside the 19 drawings – making this the largest exhibition of his work ever mounted. It is extraordinary that the director of a small provincial museum which owns no Bosch pictures of its own managed to convince museums in Madrid, New York, Vienna and elsewhere to lend their works.
The sketches became one of the keys to the research project’s aim to authenticate -or not- works in collections around the world that have been attributed to Bosch. Meticulously, comparing depictions of hands, ears and owls; studying brush strokes and the use of colour; and comparing drawings and paintings the researchers were able to determine with new precision what was by Bosch, what came out of his workshop, and what was simply by a later follower.
One unexpected result of this work was the authentication of a painting of Saint Anthony that had been kept in storage for decades at a museum in Kansas City, since it was considered to be the work of a pupil or follower of Bosch. The research team agreed that it should be attributed to Bosch himself.
The painting appears in the next section of the exhibition which brings together various representations of saints by Bosch. He painted at a time when veneration of the saints was particularly intense, and these works are very much a continuation of the existing visual tradition, though with his own personal and creative interpretation. Most were commissioned by clients who would want to be able to recognise the saints if they were to pray to them.
There are two gaps in this section, where labels on the wall indicate a missing painting. This is the result of the experts downgrading three of the six paintings attributed to Bosch in the Prado. As a consequence the museum refused to lend two paintings for this section.
In Saint Christopher, a giant carries the Christ Child over a river in a strange landscape. From this moment on, the giant will be called Christopher (‘Christ-bearer’) and will be deemed the patron saint of travellers.
And here’s Jheronimus painting his namesake, Saint Jerome, the priest and writer who withdrew into solitude to dedicate himself to prayer and penance. His contemporaries would have recognised his attributes: his red priest’s hat and robe, his book, the lion from whose paw he removed a thorn, and the stone with which he chastised himself in the Syrian desert.
Finally, we encounter the End Times: the final section of the exhibition which brings together representations by Bosch of Judgement Day. There is a triptych of The Last Judgement from Bruges, restored in preparation for this exhibition. The righteous are admitted to heaven, while sinners are cast into hell.
Most striking of all is Four Visions of the Hereafter, on loan from Venice. The
panels are arranged so that we can see all four of them. It’s a visionary image of the end of the world, representing punishment and salvation. Blessed souls are en route to heaven, while the damned are heading straight to hell. There is something cinematic about the panel that depicts angels leading the righteous to the light through a spectacular tunnel. At the end, a welcoming angel is painted as a barely visible silhouette against intense back-lighting.
This final section is a reminder, if one were needed, that Hieronymus Bosch lived in unsettled and anxious times. The historian Johan Huizinga could almost be offering a commentary on these panels when he writes:
Is it surprising that the people could see their fate and that of the world only as an endless succession of evils? Bad government, exactions, the cupidity and violence of the great, wars and brigandage, scarcity, misery and pestilence – to this is contemporary history reduced in the eyes of the people. The feeling of general insecurity which was caused by the chronic form wars were apt to take, by the constant menace of the dangerous classes, by the mistrust of justice, was further aggravated by the obsession of the coming end of the world, and by the fear of hell, of sorcerers and of devils. The background of all life in the world seems black. Everywhere the flames of hatred arise and injustice reigns. Satan covers a gloomy earth with his sombre wings. In vain the militant Church battles, preachers deliver their sermons; the world remains unconverted.
The old medieval order imposed by the Church was straining and cracking as cities grew, trade expanded and capitalism spread. New lands were being discovered, and scientific investigation was developing as minds were growing curious, analytical, and adventurous. In Bosch’s lifetime, the Dutch humanist Erasmus wrote Praise of Folly, the Polish astronomer Copernicus proposed that the sun was at the centre of the solar system, and Columbus discovered the New World. In 1517, a year after Bosch died, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg.
I left this exhibition convinced that it was one of the best I have seen. My understanding of an artist who is far from being one of my favourites was enhanced, not only by seeing such a comprehensive array of his work, but also by the sensitive way in which the curators have assembled other objects to place Bosch in the context of his time. I was impressed by the organisation of the exhibition: one feature that ought to be copied by other popular, crowd-gathering exhibitions was the elimination of captions beside the paintings, replaced by a detailed booklet provided free of charge on entry.
Interpretations of Bosch’s paintings have varied enormously, but this 1980 BBC documentary presented by Nicholas Baum, remains one of the best discussions of his work:
- Hieronymus Bosch back in his old home town
- Jheronimus Bosch 500: website for the year-long celebration
- Art researchers uncover ‘lost’ Hieronymus Bosch – and sausage link
- Hieronymus Bosch review – a heavenly host of delights on the road to hell (Guardian)
- Hieronymus Bosch retrospective: An apocalyptic prophet, an explorer of the unconscious (Independent)
- Painter of our greatest fears (Economist)
- How Hieronymus Bosch defied the ideals of an age: exhibition review (New Statesman)