Jheronimus Bosch (Peter Ruyffelaere) 2001
[Ludion, Ghent-Amsterdam, 2001, 48 pages]
This thin booklet, containing a number of high-quality colour illustrations (often full-page and concerning details), is a joint edition of the Ghent-Amsterdam publishing company Ludion and Beaux Arts magazine on the occasion of the 2001 Rotterdam Bosch Exhibition (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, 1st September – 11th November 2001). Its author, the historian Peter Ruyffelaere who collaborated on two books about Bosch by Roger Marijnissen (1987 and 2001), offers a very compact general introduction to the figure of Bosch and his oeuvre. His views on the painter closely follow in the wake of Marijnissen. Rightaway it is stressed that Bosch mainly painted triptychs and triptychs, being altarpieces, generally had a liturgical function. Ruyffelaere also signals that ‘alternative’ approaches portraying Bosch as a heretic, an alchemist or a lunatic are no longer taken seriously and that modern research is characterized by a focus on the technical study of Bosch’s panels and on a closer reading of the textual and iconographic sources that inspired Bosch.
Ruyfellaere portrays Bosch as a moralist who painted satires on sinful and foolish humanity and at the same time showed the good example by means of Christ and the saints. To illustrate this point of view he focuses on the Haywain triptych, the Garden of Delights triptych, the triptych of which according to recent research the Rotterdam Pedlar is said to have formed the exterior wings, the Lisbon St. Anthony triptych and the panels with St. John the Baptist and St. John on Patmos that – also according to recent research – are said to have been part of the late-fifteenth-century Holy Virgin altarpiece in the ’s-Hertogenbosch St. John’s. Themes such as the Passion and the pilgrimage of life point at an affinity with the Modern Devotion but this seems to be contradicted by Bosch’s pessimistic emphasis on the sinfulness of man. Ruyffelaere also briefly discusses Peter Bruegel the Elder who was seen as a second Bosch in the sixteenth century. But Bruegel’s view on man was milder and Bruegel’s humorous streaks are completely absent in the work of Bosch.
Only in very rare instances Ruyffelaere commits small errors: he dates the Garden of Delights 1460-66 [p. 3] (a wrong interpretation of the dendrochronological findings of Peter Klein, published on the occasion of the Rotterdam exhibition), the exterior wings of the Haywain are said to be monochrome [p. 5] (they are painted in full colour). Further his statement that the Christ figure in the central panel of the Haywain shows His wounds in a gesture of despair is very disputable (Christ showing His wounds to humanity in order to remind people of His death at the cross is a topical motif of late-medieval Last Judgment iconography) and the jester at the bottom of the same panel, trading a sausage for hay with a nun, is obviously not a jester but a street musician [p. 8].
All in all this publication aiming at a general reading public is a sound, though rather superficial first introduction to the brilliant painter from ’s-Hertogenbosch, hopefully inspiring the reader to reach for further information.