Celebrating the 500th anniversary of death of Hieronymus Bosch the Prado presents a mega-exhibition, which brings together as many of the works by the master as never before. The most comprehensive exhibition that has ever been organized about Hieronymus Bosch and most likely for ever will be, comprises forty paintings, altarpieces and drawings, representing three quarters of his preserved oeuvre. Twenty more works by followers and contemporaries complete the show.
The Prado, owning the worldwide largest collection of works by Hieronymus Bosch with six paintings, titles the exhibition of the century simply “El Bosco”. Bosch has decisively influenced the history of the collection of the Prado, Philipp II was an enthusiastic collector of his oeuvre and had all paintings available throughout Europe confiscated and brought to Spain after his death. Therefore Bosch respectively “El Bosco” is considered as a Spanish painter in Madrid and the Prado as his actual home, just like Velazquez and Goya.
The exhibition at the Prado was already preceded by the show at the Noordbrabants Museum in s’Hertogenbosch a the beginning of the year, where a similarly big number of loaned works were brought together, as the museum in Bosch’s hometown doesn’t own any works by him. Only the “Garden of Earthly Delights”, which is looked after by the Prado like a treasure and is never on loan, was missing in s’Hertogenbosch and was replaced by a copy. At least the Noordbrabants Museum succeeded in obtaining the “Haywain” as a loan from Madrid. The loan was preceded by a fierce dispute between the Prado and the “Hieronymus Bosch Research and Conservation Project” because of various paintings being written off.
The Dutch scientists, who are working on a comprehensive inventory and restoration of the oeuvre by Hieronymus Bosch, declared three of the six pictures that are owned by the Prado, amongst them the tondo “The Seven Deadly Sins”, to be not authentic. The panel already hung in the private rooms of Philipp II, before he had it moved to the Escorial in 1574. The verdict by the “Hieronymus Bosch Research and Conservation Project” is countered by the direction of the Prado by a scientific and dendrological analysis of their own, for being annoyed they retracted two more loans to the Noordbrabants Museum.
Hieronymus Bosch was the first humanistic artist, who turned towards life.
The curators of the Prado have build an exhibition course, that guides the visitors in seven sections through the mysterious imagery of “El Bosco”. The first stop “Bosch and s’Hertogenbosch” illuminates the environment and the hometown of Hieronymus Bosch including a contemporary illustration of the cloth market at the central marketplace, where Bosch lived and worked. The other stops are arranged by his motifs: the Nativity and teaching of Jesus Christ, the saints, paradise and hell, the “Garden of Earthly Delights”, the world and the people, and the Passion of Jesus Christ.
The sumptuous Bosch collection of the Prado with the “Garden of Earthly Delights” as essential masterpiece of the show is enriched by loans amongst others from the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the London National Gallery with “Christ Crowned with Thorns” and “The Temptation of St. Anthony” from the Lisbon Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga.
Hieronymus Bosch was the first artist of the Middle Ages on the cusp of the Renaissance, who didn’t turn his attention to the hereafter and the sublime, but to this world and the lows of human life with all its everyday cruelties. In doing so he always pushed the limits of what the dogma of the clergy with their determined code of imagery still permitted, in a bold balancing act he satisfied both the expectations of the fathers of the church and the voyeuristic tendencies of his secular commissioners. His pictures are based on a moralizing humanism, which he encrypted so cleverly by a secret pictorial language, that the reach of the inquisition couldn’t harm him. There is only scarce information about the life of Hieronymus Bosch and his character.
He was born around 1450 as Jheronimus van Aken, his family was from Aachen, as the name indicates. The painting craft he presumably learnt in his father’s workshop, which had been run by his family for generations. Hieronymus Bosch adopted the name of his hometown s’Hertogenbosch as artist name and was one of the first artists who signed their works, which testifies to his self-perception as an ambitious painter who wanted to emancipate himself from the mere craft of painting. About his learning years there is nothing we know, in 1487 Bosch is mentioned for the first time in the documents as an “approved painter”, although he might have received his admission to practice the craft of painting already much earlier.
Through the marriage with Aleyt Goyaert van de Mervenne, the daughter of a patrician, who brought amongst other things an estate into the marriage, Bosch became one of the biggest tax payers of his town. His financial independence also made him less vulnerable to the church. In 1486 he joined the “Illustre Lieve Vrouve Broederschaft”, the brotherhood of Our Lady, which represented a network of commissioners for him. The brotherhood of Our Lady, which was founded in 1318 by noblemen, clerics and citizens, was dedicated to charity and folk education. Hieronymus Bosch was a member of the society until his death in 1516. The register of the Notables, the leading celebrities of s’Hertogenbosch, mention that he gave a banquet in 1488, during which a swan was eaten. A swan is also carried in the coat of arms of the society, on holidays, especially the Lady Day, the brothers were obligated to church service. In Sint Jan the brotherhood had a chapel of their own.
The nobility loved the pictures by Hieronymus Bosch, although they deliberately broke the rules of the Catholic imagery.
Commissions by the church were highly important for the reputation and safety of Hieronymus Bosch, he designed glass windows, crucifixes and altar shrines. His fame as an artist, however, he owed aristocratic circles outside of his hometown, which he presumably never left. In his lifetime the Netherlands were governed by alternating rulers. After the death of Mary, the daughter of Charles the Bold, the regency was taken over by her husband, the Habsburg Maximilian, who was elected Emperor of Germany and handed over the crown to his son Philipp. When he died in 1506, his sister, archduchess Margaret of Austria, who owned several works by Bosch, became governor of the Netherlands. Also the mother-in-law of Philipp’s, Isabella the Catholic, and the cardinal Domenico Grimani in Venice were collectors of the pictures by Bosch.
But Hieronymus Bosch didn’t allow to be corrupted by his success and his wealth, his world view was shaped by humanistic ethics beyond the doctrine of the clergy. He observed the shortcomings of all those around him and always brought up the painful subject of social deficiencies. The righteous seldom can be found in his paintings, only a few ascetics and hermits, who have turned away from the hustle and bustle of the people in disgust and eke out a miserable existence in their struggle with themselves, are among the positive characters. For the majority of his fellow citizens he feels nothing than disgust, he caricatures them unsparingly in their hotbed of sin and leaves no doubt that they are turning society into hell on earth. The hell of the hereafter isn’t a punishment for them anymore, there they continue to pursue their mean criminal business with all its inhuman cruelty left unperturbed.
The people of the Middle Ages were characterized by a deep religiousness, that reached far beyond celebrating Mass on Sunday and regimented every corner of private and public life, as it can be witnessed today only in the Islamic societies in the Middle East. Free and independent thinking was persecuted, the fear of sinfulness was stoked instead in order to support the striving for power and profit seeking of the clergy. The Roman Catholic Church demanded exorbitant payments in their sphere of control and was engaged in a roaring trade with cardinal’s hats, bishop’s sees and letters of indulgence. A quote by Luther says: “The closer Rome, the more evil the Christian!”
The moral decline of the late Middle Ages resulted in social tensions in a society, that was shaken by war and violence.
In many monasteries there was alcoholism, gluttony and promiscuity. Erasmus of Rotterdam judged: “Many monasteries and convents aren’t much different from public brothels.” The morale of the secular potentates and the populace wasn’t any better. Preaching wayfarers denounced the deficiencies and described the torments of hell, the sinners were doomed to expect, in all details, when they questioned the status quo of the secular rulers, however, they were chased out of town. The populace vegetated and suffered from exploitation, war, hunger and pestilence, while the nobility and the clergy were busy with initiating legal proceedings against competitors, inheritance disputes, greed and vengeance. The people were helplessly at the mercy of the intrigues of the ruling class and let off steam through brutality and mystic ecstasy.
Huge cathedrals towered over the centres of the cramped towns, with supplicatory and gratitude processions constantly squeezing through the dirty alleys, and wealth, poverty, mutilations and vices being displayed with ostentation. Penitent sinners were allowed to seek shelter within the church, however, if someone revolted against the power of the clergy, he was burnt at the stake, not having been tortured before to the amusement of the people. At the time of Hieronymus Bosch death was omnipresent, while daily needs were taken care of at the market, executions took place in the immediate vicinity. In the Ptolemaic world view Earth was in the center of the universe, with sun, moon and the planets revolving around it. It was populated not only by man and animals, but since the fall of the apostate angels into hell is was also contaminated by demons, devils and impure ghosts, they were blamed for disease, sin and misery. In 1484 the papal bull “Summis desiderantes affectibus” by Pope Innocent VIII marked the beginning of the witch hunting era, shortly afterwards the Dominicans Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer published the “Malleus Maleficarum”, an instruction for the identification and elimination of witches and wizards.
The people suffered from the crimial activities of the powerful, while they were harassed by bandits, tax collectors and troupes of mercenaries. The so-called “Black Troops”, a terrorist militia led by Condottiere Albrecht of Saxony, the horror of the Netherlands, marauded murdering and plundering through rebellious provinces by order of Emperor Maximilian. Apocalyptic prophecies were booming, the Last Judgement was expected to be imminent, mentally unstable persons sought refuge in Black Masses.
The gothic cathedral Sint Jan with its sculptures was the breeding ground for the monsters and demons by Hieronymus Bosch.
The provincial location of s’Hertogenbosch, which didn’t have any bishop’s see or university, met the spiritual independence and thus the artistic development of Hieronymus Bosch. Through the fabric industry the town with its 3000 families prospered and maintained trade relations and cultural ties to Northern Europe and Italy. The gothic cathedral Sint Jan from the 14th century represented the center of s’Hertogenbosch. The facades and flying buttresses of Sint Jan are studded with sculptures, especially demons. The monstrous building consists almost solely of corners and niches, which are ideal hide-outs for demons and devils, they can be found anywhere, even there where they are not supposed to. Sint Jan may have made a lasting impression on Hieronymus Bosch, who grew up only hundred meters away from at the cloth market. Another childhood experience surely has burnt indelibly in the memory of the painter: the fire that raged in s’Hertogenbosch in 1463. The inferno reduced 4000 houses to ashes and claimed innumerable victims. In his hell panels Hieronymus Bosch probably depicts the blazes so minutely detailed and in impressive colors, because he had witnessed them himself.
Only one year after the death of Bosch the Reformation and the uprising of the peasants shook the Christian world. The reformatory iconoclasts didn’t spare Brabant, the home of Hieronymus Bosch. As a result not a single one of his pictures has survived in the Netherlands, depressing is the idea, which treasures of the master have been destroyed or gone lost over the centuries. From this point of view the Spanish king Philipp II and his passion for collecting was a stroke of luck for art history, without him also the “Garden of Earthly Delights” certainly would have fallen prey to iconoclasm.
The “Garden of Earthly Delights” is one of the most complex picture puzzles in art history and its commissioner remains shrouded in mystery.
The triptych “Garden of Earthly Delights” is the highlight of the exhibition, it is showcased free-standing in order to enable the visitors to view also the shutters painted in grisaille, which are normally hidden. Like in a glass sphere the creation of the world together with its creator is displayed on them. Just as many people are crowding in front of the cult picture as can be seen on the main panel. The presentation of the “Garden of Earthly Delights” is complemented by a large-sized documentation of spectral analytical examinations, which uncovers the separate layers of paint and the working process by Bosch down to the smallest detail.
As most of the pictures by Hieronymus Bosch also the “Garden of Earthly Delights” eludes any clear interpretation. Bosch is working with encoded symbols, which could be understood only by insiders even in the late Middle Ages. All the more difficult is it today to reconstruct their levels of meaning. Besides Christian attempts at an interpretation art historians keep believing in recognizing Jewish, alchemical and astrological ideas. Even encrypted messages of a late medieval secret doctrine are popular to be read into the pictures by Bosch. The interpretations of the “Garden of Earthly Delights” range from condemnable libertinage to the utopia of a love paradise, the meditation picture of a freethinking sect.
The medieval world view was strongly influenced by Pope Gregory I, born in Rome in 540, who condemned the immorality corrupting the monasteries and preached abstinence instead. For him woman was an instrument of the devil and his omnipresent demons. Nudity was devilish as well, that’s why he stigmatized any earthly joy as sinful and threatened the sinners with eternal torments in hell. The horror of nudity persisted until the late Middle ages, therefore no representative of the clergy could think of the “Garden of Earthly Delights” to be a glorification of free love. Philipp II of Spain, who acquired the work, was considered as an orthodox proponent of the Catholic doctrine of the faith, persecuting any aberration brutally with torture and the stake. The high esteem of the conservative king for the “Garden of Earthly Delights” is seen as evidence that the triptych was considered to be an orthodox work in accordance with the doctrine of the church.
With the “Garden of Earthly Delights” Hieronymus Bosch commits himself to the ecological balance of nature.
On the shutters the world is shown as a sphere of glass at the third day of Creation with a flat Earth floating in it. God has separated the water from the earth and created the first plants. In between there are mysterious crystalline objects that suggest alchemical experiments and thus possibly a secular commissioner.
The paradise wing shows the creation of life. Here Eve appears without the attributes of the evil, the snake is playing only a minor role in the scenery of the picture, with Jesus of Nazareth holding her wrist instead of God the Father, as usually. At the same time Adam touches with his feet the ones of Jesus, the divine circle of life is closed. In the foreground there is a pond with animal life originating in all kinds of mythical creatures. In the center of the picture towers the fantastic structure of a fountain of life with cylindrical and drop-shaped forms, that also remind of alchemical instruments.
A subject recurring on many of the pictures by Hieronymus Bosch is the owl. In the Middle Ages owls were considered as the embodiment of the evil, as creatures of the night with their spookily piercing look. The owl in the “Garden of Earthly Delights”, however, which is peeking from the pedestal of the fountain exactly at the intersection of the diagonals of the picture, symbolizes wisdom and silence. Birds are circling around a bizarre rock, flying away and returning to a broken eggshell, symbol of the life cycle. The Garden of Eden on the left wing transitions into the landscape of the central panel of the triptych.
As there are missing any demons in the “Garden of Earthly Delights”, who could point to the deadly sin of lust, the essential message by Hieronymus Bosch is rather the physical and mental balance of man, who is living in harmony with Creation, freed from the stigma of sin, and has come to terms with himself. Lush fruit are presented in lavish abundance, only the fruit from the tree of knowledge is missing. Bosch is playing with sexual symbols, but doesn’t demonize the hustle and bustle of the nude people as sin.
The water in the center, with women bathing in it, reminds of a fountain of youth. Men riding on big animals and mythical creatures circle the shore, symbol of the eternal cycle of nature with its male and female dualism. Huge birds in and at the water symbolize fertility and and enter a symbiotic relationship in harmony with the bathers. Exactly in the center of the picture Hieronymus Bosch has placed an egg, which is balanced by a rider on his head, it stands for the origin of life and the entire Creation. The upper third of the picture with its raised horizon is dominated by bizarre fountains of life, which could be inspired by a biblical quotation, in 1. Moses 2,10 it reads: ”And there was a river flowing from Eden to water the garden, and then divided into four main waters.” These main waters are flowing past the four prominent rock formations or through them.
All sins receive their just punishment in Bosch’s hell, only lust is excepted.
On the hell wing the hell of his life is depicted, not the one of the hereafter. Towns set ablaze, war and violence were common in a society, that was shaken by immorality and tumbled towards the end of the world. In the hell by Hieronymus Bosch the sinners are tormented for their offences against the Commandments of God, amongst others for wrath, vanity, greed and gambling, which was frowned upon in the Middle Ages. Luxuria, after all one of the deadly sins, is excepted, which indicates a freethinking attitude of Bosch with regard to carnal lust.
The central figure of the hell panel ist the tree-man, the legs of whom merge into dead stumps with ramifications, which are standing on two boats on a frozen lake. He is condemned to motionlessness, in addition his head is weighted by a mill stone, with four figures dancing on it around a set of bagpipes, symbol of sexuality, but of garrulousness as well. They represent haughtiness, sarcasm, greed and wrath. The body of the tree-man is formed from a broken eggshell, with a drinking orgy taking place in its interior. Above the tree-man there is a huge knife, which comes crashing down upon the sinners between cut and pierced ears. One of the punishments common in the Middle Ages was to cut off the ears of criminals. The so-called “musical hell”, with people being tortured by musical instruments, is a satire of the self-satisfied pomp of church music. At the lower right edge of the picture a man is harassed by a pig carrying the cap of an abbess, while a monstrum in knight’s armor has brought along pen and ink. Here Bosch is pointing to the practice of churches and monasteries to extort property from intimidated faithful by signing it over.
Another main character of the panel is the demon with human body and head of a bird of prey, who is sitting on a throne-like toilet, devouring sinners and excreting them again. Hieronymus Bosch could have been inspired to this character by the chapbook “The Visions of the Knight Tondal”. The Dutch issue of the popular book of an anonymous Irish author was published in 1472, it describes the experiences of a knight, who went on a journey through hell like Dante: “…from a monstrous, round building, similar to a melting pot, flames are blazing, which torture the souls still in a distance of a thousand footsteps.
In front of the gate, in the midst of the fire, satanic hangmen are standig with knives, sickles, drills, axes, hatchets, shovels and other tools, which they are using to maltreat, behead, pierce, quarter, dismember the souls of the gluttons, which they throw into the fire afterwards…Furthermore a beast is sitting there on a frozen swamp, more horrible than all the others, with two feet, two wings, long neck and a beak of iron, which spews an inextinguishable fire. This beast devours any soul, that comes too close, digests it and excretes it again as feces. Then this soul dung is falling onto the frozen swamp, where each soul will be reshaped in its earlier form…” Die earthly hell of Hieronymus Bosch was crowded, which hasn’t changed up to the 21st century.
In the “Haywain” triptych Hieronymus Bosch loses his faith in god, man is infected with the evil.
The work, the message of which can be deciphered the most easily and which hasn’t lost anything of its relevance, is the “Haywain” triptych. The picture sequence can be read like a comic strip, starting with the shutters, which are painted in colors and not, as usually, in grisaille. A wayfarer slightly bent over, looking behind, is walking through a wasteland, ahead of him lies an uncertain future symbolized by a dilapidated bridge.
Around him the misery and malice of the earthly vale of tears are depicted, bandits are making trouble, peasants are dancing to the sound of a set of bagpipes, which was considered as obscene, while in the background a delinquent is sent to the gallows. After opening the triptych, human tragedy already starts on the paradise wing, with God the Father being condemned to watch helplessly, how his creation is spoilt by the evil. Fallen angels are thrown down to Earth by the heavenly host, while they are mutating into demoniac black vermin. The invasion of devils takes possession of god’s creation, they contaminate the earth and the sea outside the Garden of Eden. At the same time the fall of man is taking place, Eve has already tried the forbidden fruit, which is passed on to Adam by the snake. The expulsion from paradise is depicted in the foreground of the picture, where Adam and Eve have to leave the Garden of Eden through a rock arch. Outside the devils are already waiting for them, now mankind is at the mercy of the evil without protection. The central motif of the main panel is a big haywain, which is pulled by demons. A Flemish old saw reads: “The world is a haystack, everyone takes from it, what he can snatch.”
The evanescence and worthlessness of the hay stands for the transience of earthly possessions. Around the cart people are battling for the hay, their greed even makes them take the risk of being rolled over by the cartwheels. Among the entourage of the procession are the Emperor and the Pope, surrounded by church and secular dignitaries, they all go directly to hell.
The greed of the people for evanescent possession makes them run blindly towards disaster.
Moralizing genre pictures are shown in the foreground of the main panel, magicians, clairvoyants, quack doctors and their naive victims indulge in deception and self-deception. Two persons, who have been identified as the prophet Isaiah and the preacher Amos, are warning about the ride into the abyss, but they don’t get any attention. Two lovers making music are sitting at the top of the haywain in an idyllic scene, with a demon and an angel competing for their attention. An owl is sitting above the shrubbery behind the idyll.
In heaven God the Father is sitting entroned, he has shrunk to the size of a miniature and is helplessly spreading his arms. His creation has slipped from his hands, the humans have turned away from him. While the greedy human society is snatching the hay together with the potentates and the lovers smugly making music, the cart is rolling unstoppably towards damnation. In hell every sinner gets the punishment he has deserved, the glutton is devoured, the envier is torn by dogs, and the genitals of the lecher are turned into a toad.
The distinct concept of vanitas, which has been formed by Hieronymus Bosch in the “Haywain” triptych, makes this work so timeless and directly transferable to the present time. The consuming frenzy of Western society, the greed of the economic elite, who drove the financial world into collapse, the inability of the politicians, who are only occupied with the protection of their claims to power, turn the “Haywain” into a contemporary satire of the 21st century and prove that the human species with its boundless stupidity hasn’t learnt anything since the Middle Ages and blindly risks its own downfall. Hieronymus Bosch remains one of the most mysterious artists in history, his work has outshone all fantasy images known so far and inspired many succeeding artist generations, from Pieter Bruegel to the Surrealists all artists, who have placed visionary thinking and the mystery of human existence at the center of their work, have referred to him. Only a fraction of his work has survived, but this is sufficient to fascinate us also in the future. His pictures give us an insight in the complexity of the medievil and modern world, as well as in the mind-set of Hieronymus Bosch as a human being, who has turned from a Christian moralist into a misanthrope in the course of his artistic career.
31.05. – 11.09.16 Museo del Prado Madrid