An Enduring Fascination
Hieronymus Bosch and / or workshop, The Conjurer. c. 1502. Panel, 53 × 65 cm. Musée Municipal, Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
that resurfaces here dates back to 1987, when Vandenbroeck also published an impressive Bosch monograph; Marijnissen and Vandenbroeck then reviewed each other's books and did not mince their words in the process. Vandenbroeck called into question Marijnissen's assertion that Bosch's oeuvre is fundamentally religious. In a new French monograph published in 2001, Marijnissen repeats that Bosch's oeuvre consists chiefly of triptychs and that these served as cult objects, i.e. as retables, in the Low Countries of the late Middle Ages.
In the past Vandenbroeck, Curator of the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp and of the exhibition in Rotterdam, has referred more than once to the existence of profane late-medieval triptychs (albeit smaller in size). He believes that Bosch did paint such profane works, but that they have gone missing and we only know of them from copies or references to them in old inventories.
In no fewer than twenty places in his catalogue text Vandenbroeck discusses representations believed to go back to lost compositions by Bosch. To my mind, this is a weak element in his argument. How, in the year 2001, is it possible to determine beyond all doubt whether a work from the sixteenth-century Bosch school is in fact a Bosch original and whether the authors of sixteenth-century inventories really were in a position to distinguish an original Bosch from a copy? Yet Vandenbroeck does have a point with his emphasis on the profane content of Bosch's oeuvre, because while it is difficult to deny that the authentic Bosch works contain what is in essence a religious theme, panels such as The Conjurer and The Cure of Folly (whose authenticity is in any case doubtful) nevertheless seem to suggest that Bosch sometimes made profane themes the main subject of a painting. This is corroborated by the clear presence of profane themes within Bosch's religious triptychs (think for example of the eroticism in the Garden of Earthly Delights).
If one reads Vandenbroeck's contribution to the catalogue very carefully, his views about Bosch and those of Marijnissen prove to be considerably less far apart than they at first appear. According to Vandenbroeck some Bosch triptychs, such as The Temptations of St Anthony in Lisbon and The Adoration of the Magi in the Prado, were indeed altar retables, but the Garden of Earthly Delights and The Haywain were not. In the case of the two latter works, Vandenbroeck speaks of profane triptychs, which is a very unfortunate and confusing choice of words. What he actually means is that these triptychs never stood on an altar. They do indeed contain a religious message, but - in a way that was unique for its time - Bosch used this religious frame of reference to air his views on mankind, the world and society. Vandenbroeck's quite strongly developed basic proposition is that this view was very much part of the late-medieval urban-bourgeois mentality, which on the one hand condemned intemperance, sexual passions, aggression, social unrest, idleness, squandering and greed and on the other considered a zest for work and a well-ordered family life of paramount importance.
These findings certainly do not resolve the differences in opinion between Marijnissen and Vandenbroeck, but if we also read the two other contributions to the Rotterdam catalogue, written by Jos Koldeweij and Bernard Vermet, we note that this is not the only occasion when opinions about Bosch are divided. Even
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail of central panel). 1480-1490. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
in the introduction, Koldeweij points out that the threeman exhibition research team sometimes held differing views and that no attempt was made to narrow the gap. This might sound like an admission of defeat, but anyone familiar with the Bosch exegesis will know that this is not a one-off occurrence. It must nevertheless be rather confusing for the interested layman to read in Koldeweij's article that Bosch's oeuvre reflects the influence of the Modern Devotion movement and that the main figure on the outside panels of the Haywain triptych is not a pedlar, while in his article Vandenbroeck claims precisely the opposite.
Koldeweij is at his best when he shows Bosch's work in its cultural-historical context (i.e. that of 's-Hertogenbosch around 1500). Furthermore, he presents with verve the interesting hypothesis that Bosch painted the St John the Baptist (Madrid) and the St John on Patmos (Berlin) shortly after 1489 at the request of Jan van Vladeracken as part of the Our Lady Brotherhood retable in the Church of St John in 's-Hertogenbosch. Vermet elaborates on the results of the dendrochronological research carried out by the German Peter Klein (who explains his method of determining the age of wooden panels in Hieronymus Bosch. New Insights into his Life and Work, a collection of scientific essays).
Though - as Klein and Vermet are keen to emphasise - the findings of the dendrochronology should be treated with the greatest caution, there seems little doubt that the (nevertheless magnificent) Christ Crowned with Thorns, now in the Escorial, can only have been painted some fifteen years after the death of Bosch and that the Rotterdam Pedlar tondo formed the outside panels of a triptych with the Ship of Fools (Paris) and the Death of a Miser (Washington) on the inside. A particularly fascinating and plausible hypothesis (to be further investigated in future technical research) is that much of Bosch's oeuvre is the product of cooperation between Bosch and his studio, which was staffed not only by pupils and assistants, but also by close family members.
It is a pity that the Rotterdam catalogue is not really a catalogue, in other words a book in which all the objects on show were included systematically and provided with detailed, expert commentary. There is a concise exhibition appendix at the back of the catalogue listing all the works of art and objects shown in Rotterdam, but, for example, the work of modern artists influenced by Bosch is illustrated only by tiny black and white photographs. There are plenty of fine colour illustrations of the work of Bosch and his followers, but perhaps it would have been better to include the separate contributions by Koldeweij, Vermet and Vandenbroeck (which, there is no denying, are worthwhile) in the volume of essays referred to above.
The World of Bosch (De Wereld van Bosch), which accompanied the exhibition of the same name in the North Brabant Museum in 's-Hertogenbosch, is not really a catalogue either. Once again it is a beautifully illustrated and, in terms of style, very accessible publication, in which five historians and one art-historian (Koldeweij) restore Bosch's oeuvre to its most immediate cultural-historical context: the city of 's-Hertogenbosch in the late Middle Ages. Here you will find no original new insights into Bosch or revelatory points of view, but a large quantity of material known to us from elsewhere, brought together in an attractive and well-ordered fashion. The last chapter in particular (by Jan van Oudheusden), about the rather lukewarm way in which 's-Hertogenbosch has treated its most famous son over the last five hundred years, leaves us wanting more and longing for a history of how Bosch has been received through the centuries, and not only in his birthplace.
The scholarly monograph In search of Jheronimus of Aachen alias Bosch (Op zoek naar Jheronimus van Aken alias Bosch) by the 's-Hertogenbosch historian G.C.M. van Dijck is a more in-depth work and a real asset to Bosch studies. After thirty years of research in the archives of Den Bosch and Nijmegen, Van Dijck sets out all the known historical facts about Bosch and his paintings in a well-ordered manner and adds a few new ones. These are not really revolutionary, but they nevertheless serve to fill a few gaps in the none too
abundant documentation about Bosch and his family. For example, it appears from the archives that Bosch's mother was born out of wedlock (nothing exceptional in those days), that several of his in-laws had studied at university, that he may have died during an epidemic in the city and that he left no great (financial) legacy. Another interesting discovery is that the Ecce Homo triptych from Boston (a work from the Bosch studio) was commissioned by the town secretary of 's-Hertogenbosch, Pieter van Os, and painted shortly after 1500.
In the three-day conference Jheronimus Bosch Revealed? The Painter and his World ('s-Hertogenbosch, 5-7 November 2001) Bosch specialists from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy and the United States exchanged views on the Rotterdam exhibition and its research findings, but above all on various iconographic and technical aspects of Bosch's oeuvre. As was only to be expected, agreement was not reached on all questions, but this makes the study of Bosch a phenomenon almost as fascinating and remarkable as the oeuvre itself.
eric de bruyn
Translated by Alison Mouthaan-Gwillim.
Michael Connelly, A Darkness More Than Night. New York: Little Brown & Company. 2001; 418 pp. isbn 03-16154-075.