by Roderick Conway Morris

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Accademia, Venice
Visions of the Hereafter by Heironymous Bosch, c.1505-15

Bringing Bosch Back Home

By Roderick Conway Morris
'S-HERTOGENBOSCH, The Netherlands 3 March 2016


'Poor is the mind that uses the invention of others and invents nothing itself,' wrote Hieronymous Bosch on one of his drawings. He himself was one the most original of artists of his and, indeed, of any other era. Now most famous for his fantastical, weird and nightmarish creatures, combining human, animal and inanimate everyday elements, he was also responsible for many other idiosyncratic compositional innovations.

The artist spent his entire life in 's-Hertogenbosch, famous for its magnificent cathedral and then the third most important city in the Duchy of Brabant (the town's name translates as 'The Duke's Wood'), now in the southern Netherlands. But the export of many of his works during Bosch's lifetime and the removal from the town's catholic churches of religious images (and their subsequent dispersal) after it was annexed by the Protestant Dutch Republic in the 17th century has left present-day 's-Hertogenbosch without any autograph works by their greatest artist.

But thanks to the ambitious Bosch Research and Conservation Project initiated here in 2001, the city has managed to borrow 17 polyptychs and paintings of the 24 the Project deemed to be by the artist's own hand; 19 of the 20 known autograph drawings; and six works executed by Bosch's own workshop on the town's main square. They are assembled at the Noordbrabants Museum in a spectacular exhibition, 'Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of Genius' exhibition, curated by Matthijs Ilsink, Jos Koldeweij and Charles de Mooij.

Not all the project's attributions have met with universal agreement. The Prado in Madrid was so irked to have two of its pictures that had been promised to the show - 'The Cure of Folly' and a 'Temptation of St. Anthony' - declared not to be by the master himself that they cancelled the loan of them. Nonetheless, the absence of these has not been a major loss.

Hieronymus was born in around 1450 into the van Aken family, which had produced artists for at least three generations. He was one of the first Netherlandish painters to sign his works and his adoption of 'Bosch' as a second name seems to have been an advertizing strategy to enable potential clients further afield to locate his studio. While following in the footsteps of precursors like Jan van Eyck, Roger van der Weyden and Dirk Bouts, Bosch initiated new themes and visionary landscapes, building up a complex repertoire of symbols and a bizzare and tumultous menagerie of monstrous manifestations.

His marriage in 1481 to the daughter of a local magnate effectively relieved him of the need to make a living from painting and the fact that 's-Hertogenbosch was not a major artistic centre perhaps also contributed to the freedom with which he pursued his own compositional ideas.

Bosch's innovations are centre stage in a side-by-side display of the 'Wayfarer' and 'Haywain' triptychs in the opening section of the exhibition. The central panel of 'The Wayfarer' (from the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam) shows a solitary figure passing through a bleak landscape, casting backward glance at a dilapidated brothel. The work is here reunited with its side panels. The left panel was sawed into two unequal parts in the late 18th or early 19th century: the top section, 'The Ship of Fools' ending up at the Louvre, the smaller lower part, 'Gluttony and Lust,' at Yale. Completing the happy reunion, the right-hand panel, 'Death and the Miser' is on loan from the National Gallery in Washington. The subject matter and complex symbolic content of both these triptych works were unprecedented.

The central panel of 'The Wayfarer' (from Rotterdam) shows a solitary figure passing through a bleak landscape, casting a backward glance at a dilapidated brothel. It is here reunited with its side-panels. The left side panel was sawn into two unequal parts in the late 18th or early 19th century: the top section, 'The Ship of Fools' ending up at the Louvre, the smaller lower part, 'Gluttony and Lust', at Yale. To complete the happy re-union the right-hand panel, 'Death and the Miser' is on loan from Washington.

'The Haywain' triptych, on loan from the Prado in Madrid, depicts a crowd of people, high and low, following a glowing golden mass on wheels (in reality composed of worthless straw) drawn by diabolical, hybrid beasts. On the left panel is shown the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man, and on the right a characteristic Boschian vision of Hell - towards which the deluded fools following the haywain are inexorably traveling.

No less stylistically unmistakable is Bosch's treatment of the figures and landscapes in the next altarpiece, which brings together two images of St. John of Patmos (from the Staatliche Museen in Berlin) and St. John the Baptist (from the Museo Fundaciòn Lázaro Galdiano in Madrid). These were made for a chapel in the city's enormous cathedral dedicated to St John the Evangelist, and were commissioned by the powerful lay Brotherhood of Our Lady, of which Bosch was a member.

In 1487-88 he became part of this fellowship's inner elite, the only artist to achieve the honour of being a 'sworn brother'. The social status and networking possibilities afforded by this accolade could only have been advantageous in smoothing the way for future commissions and the prominent place that Bosch came to occupy in the collections of an increasingly long list of aristocratic and noble patrons, from Philip the Fair,, Duke of Burgundy; Isabella I, Queen of Castille; the Habsburg Margaret of Austria, twice regent of the Netherlands; the Venetian cardinal Domenico Grimani; and the most assiduous royal collector, Philip II, King of Spain. I

An exceptional number of Bosch's drawings survive from a period when virtually none have come down to us from other Netherlandish artists (who tended to regard drawings as primarily preparatory tools). The presentation here of almost the entire corpus of those so far identified, along with others by his followers, in a section entitled 'Bosch as Draughtsman', offer palpable evidence of his acute observation of his fellow humans and of animals - he clearly records, for example, the differences between long-eared, little and barn owls - and give us a fascinating glimpse into the gestation of some of his monsters as he sketches them on the page.

Also on display for the first time is the most detailed drawing discovered yet of an infernal landscape (auctioned in 2003 and now in a private collection), elements of which later appeared in several paintings, including the 'Bruges Triptych' at the end of the show. This 'Last Judgment' altarpiece was in Cardinal Domenico Grimani's collection in Venice in the early 16th century, eventually making its way back after a long sojourn in Spain to the Low Countries in 1906, when its divided panels were permanently reunited.

Bosch painted a surprisingly limited number of saints, totaling only ten (including other biblical figures). He seems to have had a particular affinity with reclusive ones and depicted them in a highly original manner. His 'Hermit Saints Triptych', from the Accademia in Venice, shows SS Jerome, Anthony and Giles in their desert refuges in strikingly novel and intriguing landscapes, accompanied to varying degrees by the artist's signature monsters. Several of these freakish creations feature in the Nelson-Atkin's Museum of Kansas City's 'Temptation of St. Anthony', persuasively attributed to the artist's own hand in the current exhibition.

The exhibition closes with the four panels of the 'Visions of the Hereafter' from Palazzo Grimani in Venice, a late sequence of paired pictures, called 'The Way to Heaven' and 'The Way to Hell', that depict the prospect of eternal bliss for the saved and the gruesome alternatives that await sinners. Although they would have powerfully conveyed Bosch's didactic message to his contemporaries, even the infernal scenes - to our eyes, at least - with their shadowy figures and extreme contrasts of fire and darkness, have a strange, disquieting beauty of their own.

Hieronymus: Visions of Genius; Het Noordbrabants Museum, 's-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands; 13 February - 8 May 2016

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023