Hieronymous Bosch belongs to the rare breed of timeworn painters who delight and confound both the public and art historians alike. Given that so little is known about Bosch 500 years after his life, we are continually mystified by the artist's idiosyncratically weird work. Ingrid D. Rowland writes about the mystery of Bosch as so many catalogs have been published celebrating his fifth centenary. Read Rowland in partial below, or in full via New York Review of Books.
Because the records regarding Bosch are so scant and the surviving works are so few and so strange, every aspect of his career is debated and debatable. The curators of the Prado and the Noordbrabants Museum do not entirely agree on what is by Bosch and what is not, or on when he created the drawings and paintings they have put on display, or for whom, let alone what they mean. On one point, though, everyone is delighted to concur, from scholars and curators to the visitors who have come to Den Bosch and Madrid in droves. Jheronimus Bosch is a master.
The Noordbrabants Museum, which owns no works by Bosch, nonetheless managed to assemble an impressive array of them: nineteen of twenty-five known drawings, including The Wood Has Ears, the Field Has Eyes and The Owl’s Nest, as well as most of the panel paintings: twenty of the twenty-five autograph works accepted by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project. The Prado, which boasts the largest collection of Bosch paintings in the world, is displaying its treasures until September on cleverly designed curving platforms that allow viewers all-around views of triptychs like its own Garden of Earthly Delights, The Haywain, and The Temptations of Saint Anthony from Lisbon, as well as choice drawings like Tree-man from Vienna’s Albertina and, once again, The Owl’s Nest.
The wild, imaginative detail of Bosch calls for close inspection, but an implacable logic governs the phantasmagoria. Bosch’s visions of Hell, with their minutely observed flames and slimy, mephitic pools, are more chaotic than Dante’s, but a similarly stern moral sense ensures that every crime receives its own excruciating punishment. By exposing the consequences of bad conduct, Bosch urges his viewers to behave themselves, and they do: in Den Bosch and Madrid, expectant crowds waited patiently for a moment of intimate scrutiny, a forest of pointing fingers suggesting how many of them were rewarded in the end by some secret insight.
Both museums issued their own catalogs, and several other excellent books have appeared in this centenary year to introduce Bosch and his work to the general public. Nils Büttner’s Hieronymus Bosch: Visions and Nightmares is an attractive little hardbound book with good color illustrations providing an inviting, judicious overview of Bosch in his historical environment. In a larger format with lavish illustrations, Jheronimus Bosch: The Road to Heaven and Hell by Gary Schwartz devotes a two-page spread to each of Bosch’s major panels, allowing the reader, guided by Schwartz’s sensible suggestions, to develop a personal interpretation of the great artist’s painted puzzles.
Both volumes are ideal companions to Bosch. The catalog for the Noordbrabants Museum’s exhibition also addresses the general reader engagingly. Specialists will want to consult the two dense, beautifully illustrated volumes published by the members of the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, presenting the results of their scientific analyses and their conclusions about the dating and attribution of the artist’s works. (For example, because Bosch painted on panels of Baltic oak, analyzing the sequence of tree rings allows them to determine when the individual trees were felled, sometimes connecting particular paintings to a single tree, sometimes showing that a panel could only have been painted after Bosch’s death.) The Prado catalog is twice as large as the Noordbrabants’s, with more detailed entries on the individual works, but it also has wonderful essays for the general reader.
In preparation for the centenary year of 2016, a Dutch documentary team followed the Conservation Project’s art historians and scientists as they moved around Europe. Released in 2015, the film Jheronimus Bosch: Touched by the Devil records some memorable moments in Venice and some lively meetings at the Prado and the Escorial with Pilar Silva Maroto, the formidable curator of the Prado’s exhibition, and former deputy director Gabriele Finaldi, who became head of London’s National Gallery shortly after filming. The encounter between the earnest young Dutch team and the mighty museum is not quite the auto-da-fé scene from Verdi’s Don Carlo, but at five hundred years’ remove we can still sense the contrast between the courtly culture of imperial Spain and the merchant culture of a trading town in the Low Countries. “After all, we have the paintings,” Silva Maroto says matter-of-factly, and of course the Prado also has an in-house conservation department fully worthy of the museum’s stature in the world.
We can also imagine the sparks of excitement that flew when the fantastic imagery of a middle-class painter from ’s-Hertogenbosch entered the ethereal haunts of the Hapsburgs at the turn of the sixteenth century, two societies inhabiting the same times and the same places, maintaining entirely distinct modes of dress and behavior, but united in their fascination with this strange genius. Silva Maroto confides to the film crew that her own house caught fire when she was a child. She knows all about how the flames that devoured ’s-Hertogenbosch in 1463 might have etched their way into the memory of young Joen van Aken.
The exhibition in Den Bosch emphasized Bosch as a local artist, albeit an artist of rare accomplishment. The Prado emphasized the remarkable history of its collection, created by King Philip II, who loved the weird Netherlandish painter as much as he loved Titian. Philip also warmed to the uptight Christian morality of a northern painter who conveniently died the year before Martin Luther unleashed the Protestant Reformation. The courtly patronage of this decidedly bourgeois artist therefore emerged as a dominant theme in the Spanish venue, along with the two stern varieties of Christian faith that linked the aristocracy with the middle class.