Hieronymus Bosch (Nils Büttner) 2012
[Verlag C.H. Beck, Munich, 2012, 128 pages]
[Dutch translation: Nils Büttner, Jeroen Bosch - De schilder van visioenen en nachtmerries. Meulenhoff, Amsterdam, 2016, 160 pages]
This monograph, intended as an introduction to the life and work of Hieronymus Bosch, was written by the German art historian Nils Büttner, professor at the Staatlichen Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart.
1 Im Anfang
Bosch was strongly influenced by artists from the Southern Netherlands and in that same region he was imitated a lot (see the numerous copies and imitations). Currently only some two dozen paintings are attributed to Bosch himself, and in contrast with the imitations they don’t focus on hell scenes but on traditional Christian motifs. Since the times of Karel van Mander we have come to know a lot more about the life of Bosch. Although the numerous material witnesses and preserved documents are still insufficient to decide what can and may be said about Bosch’s biography, in many cases they do tell us what can nót be said about Bosch.
2 Ein Maler in Den Bosch
Büttner offers a survey of what can be derived about Bosch’s life from more than 50 archival documents. He was born between 1450 and 1455, was called Hieronymus van Aken but called himself Jheronimus Bosch, belonged to a family of painters and in his youth he probably attented the Latin school. His father possessed a house at the Market in ’s-Hertogenbosch. After the father’s death it was inherited by Bosch’s older brother Goessen. Probably in 1480 Bosch married Aleid van de Meervenne, a well-to-do bourgeois girl and because of this marriage he could live a luxurious life in a house at the Market that was inherited by Aleid. Around 1500 Bosch belonged to the financial top layer of ’s-Hertogenbosch, as is proven by – among other things – the taxes he paid. No doubt his paintings will also have provided him with a lot of money, all the more so because he could count on the sympathy of noble patrons. The Fraternity of Our Lady, of which he became a member in 1486/87, probably functioned as an important network resulting in contacts with the worldly and religious higher circles.
Probably Bosch was influenced by the devotio moderna and knew the works of Thomas à Kempis and Dionysius van Rijckel. Perhaps he once met Erasmus, who studied in ’s-Hertogenbosch between 1484 and 1487. We are not sure what Bosch looked like. As a sworn brother of the Fraternity of Our Lady he was a cleric who had received one of the four lower ordinations: he wore a tonsure but was not bound by celibacy. His works point at a profound knowledge of contemporary religious literature. He died in 1516, perhaps due to an epidemic of pleurisy.
This chapter makes a good impression. Büttner does not tell anything new but he writes what can and may be said about Bosch’s life, shying away from far-fetched hypotheses.
3 Geistliche Stiftungen
Some (smaller) commissions that have been preserved show that Bosch had close contacts with the catholic institutions of his hometown. On some of his paintings donors appear (some of whom were overpainted later), signalling that these works functioned as memorial panels. Büttner then discusses the St. John at Patmos (Berlin) and John the Baptist in the wilderness (Madrid), two panels that were claimed to have been parts of the St. Mary altarpiece of the Fraternity of Our Lady in 2001. Büttner doubts this: in 1488 Bosch was indeed ordered to paint two panels for the altarpiece, but dendrochronological research has shown that the felling dates of the wood of both panels are years apart and the tree delivering the wood for the Berlin panel was felled in 1487 at the earliest, so that the wood could only be painted on around 1495, which is late for a commission dating from 1488. Büttner also discusses the Crucifixion (Brussels) and the Ecce Homo (Frankfurt).
Büttner correctly signals that the strange huge plant on the Madrid John the Baptist panel is the overpainting of a donor. His statement that this overpainting was probably already executed in Bosch’s workshop, is based on nothing, though. Furthermore he says that it is striking how the saint ignores this plant (according to Büttner a metaphor for the sinful world). Of course this is an error of reasoning, because originally there was no plant, but the figure of a donor.
4 Von Weihnachten bis Ostern
The birth and suffering of Christ take up a central position in the work of Bosch. On the left and right inner wings of the Adoration of the Magi (Prado) the Antwerp commissioners Peter Scheyfve and Agnes de Gramme are depicted. Büttner points out some typological details in which scenes from the Old Testament anticipate the Sacrifice of the Mass. To call this method of thinking in symbolical analogies disguised symbolism is misleading, because although it asks for a certain amount of foreknowledge, it was traditional in the Middle Ages and in no way disguised or hidden. In the background a number of smaller motifs signal the presence of Evil. The mysterious Fourth King in the stable is the Antichrist. The following observations by Büttner are new: when the triptych is closed, the figure of pope Gregory on the closed wings covers almost exactly the figure of the Antichrist, the cross at the top of the closed wings overlaps the joint between the wings and covers the Star of Bethlehem on the central panel, and when the triptych is opened the bodies of the Man of Sorrows and of the Crucified One open as well in order to show the Incarnation on the central panel.
Büttner also discusses the Vienna Carrying of the Cross (the child on the outside of the wing is probably Jesus because the oblique angle of the cross and the positioning of Christ’s legs on the inside correspond with the angle of the whirligig and the positioning of the child’s legs), the Escorial Carrying of the Cross, the London Crowning with Thorns and the Ghent Carrying of the Cross. He also spends some thoughts on the issues of dating and attribution. Dendrochronology, infrared reflectography and the study of details such as ears and eyes play a role in this but are rarely decisive. A meticulous analysis of Bosch’s style (for instance of his typical use of colours) can often signal differences between Bosch’s own works and those of his followers.
5 Fromme Exempel
Bosch’s depictions of saints concur with a late-medieval theological trend which stimulates to see the saints as examples for pious behaviour and not to adore them as protectors. In this way these paintings recommend spiritual meditation and the imitation of Christ. Büttner then discusses the St. Christopher panel (Rotterdam) (the broken pitcher may refer to gluttony or to the loss of innocence and unchastity, but Bosch’s contemporaries probably understood such details as easily as modern audiences understand a hint at Osama bin Laden in a music video of the rapper Eminem), the Ghent St. Hieronymus (with a small observational error: the cock next to the sleeping fox in the bottom left corner is not picking, he is dead), the Triptych with a Crucified Female Martyr (Venice), the Flood panels (Rotterdam) (the tondos on the outer wings are claimed to refer to the Book of Job) and the Hermits triptych (Venice). The St. Anthony triptych (Lisbon) can perhaps be identified with the work that was given by Philip the Fair to his father in 1505. The Lisbon triptych had a lot of influence and does not show any traces of heresy at all.
6 Kunst der Erfindung und Erfindung der Kunst
According to late-medieval art-theoretical and theologian thinking images and texts had a similar function: to entertain, to teach and to stimulate morally and ethically correct behaviour. In other words images had to transport a message. Büttner then discusses a number of Bosch drawings which can be considered independent works of art: The field has eyes, the wood has ears (Berlin) (again a minor error here: the cock underneath the dead tree is not walking towards the fox, he is dead), The Tree-Man (Vienna) and Death of a Miser (Paris), this last drawing a draft according to Büttner. The Latin phrase at the top of The field has eyes signals that Bosch was aware of the contemporary art-theoretical idea according to which the creation of an image runs through three phases: inventio (the search for a theme and motifs), dispositio (the selection and arrangement of motifs), elocutio (the presentation of the subject matter in an entertaining form). Probably Bosch sold these drawings to noblemen and high-class patricians, a public that admired his ingenuity and considered his works to be art. Because Bosch was financially independent, thanks to the fortune of his wife, he was able to give free rein to his artistic imagination.
7 Todsünden und Weltgericht
Büttner dates the Tabletop with the Seven Deadly Sins (Madrid) between 1505 and 1510, without any further arguments, though. Mankind insulting Christ because of its sinful behaviour was a popular theme of sermons and edifying literature in Bosch’s days. According to Büttner Dionysius van Rijckel (among others) has written a lot about the Capital Sins and the Four Last Things (but unfortunately Büttner does not refer to a source here). Today it is generally accepted that Bosch’s assistents executed parts of the Tabletop but that Bosch himself was responsible for the general concept. The same is true for other Bosch paintings.
In the Last Judgment triptych (Vienna) it strikes the spectator that Bosch focused more on devils and hell than on heaven. This agrees with contemporary art theory and theology according to which the highest spiritual things are difficult to describe or to paint. In the Visions of the Hereafter wings (Venice) this motif is dealt with by Bosch: through a tunnel of light souls ascend into heaven.
8 Heuwagen und Garten der Lüste
Both versions of the Haywain we know (Escorial / Prado) are more than probably copies but the original design can be attributed to Bosch. The pedlar on the closed wings is a homo viator, an image of man as the pilgrim of life. Bosch painted a similar figure on the outer wings of another triptych which has partially been lost. The inner panels of the Haywain depict sinful man’s greed, the hay being a symbol for all earthly vanities.
The closed wings of the Garden of Delights (Madrid) show the world on the third day of creation. The strange plants that are bristling everywhere signal that the Fall of the Rebel Angels, causing Evil to enter the world, has already taken place. The central panel is filled with erotic scenes, and although pornography is not at stake, the context definitely refers to sin. Because the Fall of Man has not been painted on the left inner wing some scholars have interpreted the central panel in a positive way, but they forget that references to Evil are already present in the left wing. On the central panel details such as the figure standing on its head and the abnormal size of some fruits and animals refer to the theme of ‘the world upside down’. Most probably the noble spectators of this central panel will have interpreted it as an allegory on Unchastity. The right inner wings depicts one of the most impressive visions of hell in art history. The gruesomeness of this hell is the result of the fact that the proportions of common objects have been changed and their function has been perverted.
9 Die Torheit der Welt
In the Cutting of the Stone (Madrid), definitely not an authentic work but a copy, criticism on the foolish belief in quacks is combined with an attack on clerics. That the painting was meant for a noble public (Philip of Burgundy, a bastard son of Philip the Good, possessed a version) is made acceptable by the calligraphic inscription which is related to the insciptions in the escutcheons that Peter Coustens made for the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1481.
The Pedlar (Rotterdam), the Death of a Miser (Washington), the Ship of Fools (Paris) and the Allegory on Gluttony and Lust (Yale University) once were the wings of a triptych. That the now lost central panel could have been the Wedding at Cana (Rotterdam, a copy) is very improbable. Bosch’s Ship of Fools is closely related to the book by Sebastian Brant with the same name (1494): both Bosch and Brant aimed at entertainment combined with a message of wisdom and moral advice. Büttner also draws attention to Bosch’s strikingly spontaneous style of painting: according to him a thumbprint can still be seen on the thigh of the pedlar, right on the spot where the painter applied a correction with his thumb in the wet paint. Bosch also painted more profane subjects, as is proven by the Conjuror (St.-Germain-en-Laye), a painting that warns of all kinds of cheats and frauds.
Some works of Bosch we only know as copies, others (especially those on canvas) have long been lost. In the later sixteenth century his work was very popular, as is proven by the mentioning of his name in many inventories, although these are not always to be trusted. More than thirty copies were made after the St. Anthony triptych (Lisbon). Imitators signed their works with Bosch’s name.
Many of these imitators have remained anonymous, and rightly so: the quality offered by Peter Bruegel the Elder was an exception. Whereas Bosch himself painted a dark vision of the future for a sinful mankind, in most cases his followers tried to depict boschian monsters and hellscapes as entertaining as possible or they limited themselves to a superficial display of monsters and hell scenes, as in the Fragment of a Last Judgment (Munich). The world of Bosch imitation is an interesting field of study, though. The copper engravings by Alart du Hameel, who lived in the same time and city as Bosch, have certainly contributed to the spreading of his imagery. There is also the issue of the talented Bosch pupil, mentioned by Felipe de Guevara. Perhaps the Escorial Haywain was painted by him. To avoid the issue of authenticity and imitation recent art historians have turned to the idea of cooperation within a family workshop, but this brings nothing new: it has long been accepted that Bosch had assistents.
Some authors want to situate Bosch within an art-historical evolution. He is then claimed to belong to the third generation of Flemish Primitives, but these are artificial constructions invented by art historians. That Bosch hid alchemical, astrological or heretical messages in his paintings is contradicted by the historical sources that are available to us. Bosch’s oeuvre provoked and provokes many contradictory interpretations. Thé correct interpretation of Bosch probably does not exist, but it is certain that a lot of wrong interpretations of his work are circulating.
Büttner seems to be extremely well aware of the literature on Bosch and in spite of his sporadic shallowness and some minor errors, in general his monograph is a very reliable and sound introduction to the world of Bosch. It is remarkable that when he starts to interpret, Büttner quotes some interesting texts of Dionysius van Rijckel (Dionysius the Carthusian) several times, unfortunately without referring to a source (not even in the bibliography at the back of his book). The (Latin) works of this Dionysius van Rijckel, who was very near to Bosch in time and space, are worth to be studied closer.
Erwin Pokorny, in: Journal für Kunstgeschichte, 17 (2013), Heft 4, pp. 268-275.
Mark Beumer, in: Kleio-Historia, nr. 3 (2016), pp. 33-36.
[explicit 12th April 2014]