“Baldass was right. The Chronology of the Paintings of Jheronimus Bosch” (Bernard M. Vermet) 2010
[in: Eric De Bruyn / Jos Koldeweij (eds.), Jheronimus Bosch. His Sources. 2nd International Jheronimus Bosch Conference, May 22-25, 2007, Jheronimus Bosch Art Center, ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. Jheronimus Bosch Art Center, ’s-Hertogenbosch, 2010, pp. 296-319]
In 1917 Ludwig von Baldass claimed that the Garden of Delights was a work from Bosch’s early period but later, under the influence of Charles de Tolnay, he changed his opinion. Through the recent dendrochronological research by Peter Klein (the earliest possible dating of the triptych is 1460) De Tolnay’s view can be questioned, which is what Vermet tries to do in this contribution. First he gives the arguments that speak in favour of an early dating. The treatment of space is old-fashioned, simple, symmetrical and flat and the general composition is archaic. Here Vermet notices the influence of Simon Marmion’s miniatures. The individual figures are rather primitive. Vermet notices parallels with Hans Memling and the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book. Vermet also sees some parallels between the New York Epiphany (according to him an early Bosch and not a later pastiche) and the Garden and refers to Hans Janssen who wrote that typological characteristics of knives and ceramics from the period 1490-1510 are not present in the materials depicted on Bosch’s large triptychs.
Next Vermet tries to contradict the arguments in favour of a later dating of the Garden. According to Herman Colenbrander it was Henry III of Nassau who, after a journey to Spain, was responsible for the introduction of the madroño symbolism (the madroño or strawberry tree only grew in Southern Europe and Ireland), but his uncle, Engelbrecht II of Nassau, also visited Southern Europe and maybe Bosch did so as well, or perhaps there was a third party, an ‘auctor intellectualis’ involved. Gerd Unverfehrt signalled that on the central panel a seed-capsule of the Ibicella Lutea can be seen, a South American plant that was not known in Europa before 1500, but according to Vermet what we see has nothing to do with a realistic plant. Hans Belting linked the Garden to the climate of the great discoveries and interest for the exotic after 1492, but according to Vermet Bosch’s dragon tree, griffon, giraffe and black men show that it was the discovery of Africa (mid-fifteenth century) that inspired Bosch, not the discovery of America. Belting also saw the Garden as the possible result of the rivalry between Philip the Fair and Henry III of Nassau. Henry was a great maecenas and his way of life was rather dissolute. But this can also be said about Henry’s predecessor Engelbrecht II of Nassau (+1504). Engelbrecht was a great lover of illuminated books and his way of life was even more dissolute than Henry’s. Several authors noticed the resemblance between the Garden and the Vienna Last Judgment. Vermet agrees with them but if Bax was right and the Saint Bavo on the closed wings is a portrait of Philip the Fair, it must be a portrait of the young Philip the Fair, around 1496. The Vienna triptych could have been commissioned by Philip on the occasion of his inauguration as Duke of Brabant in ’s-Hertogenbosch in 1496. Finally Frédéric Elsig wrote about the presumed likeness of the world representation on the closed wings of the Garden with the globes that seem to develop only in this form from 1510 onwards, but according to Vermet these globes have nothing to do with Bosch’s world perspective on a disc, which rather shows parallels with fifteenth-century paintings.
Vermet concludes that Bosch painted his Garden for Engelbrecht II of Nassau. Perhaps Engelbrecht commissioned the triptych in 1481, when he attended the Chapter of the Knights of the Golden Fleece in ’s-Hertogenbosch. Therefore Vermet dates the Garden shortly after 1481, but he doesn’t exclude the possibility that it was made or initiated even earlier. Vermet then presents a general chronology of Bosch’s works and compares his suggestion with those of Fritz Koreny and Frédéric Elsig. Vermet’s chronology is based on the recent dating of the Prado Epiphany around 1495 by Xavier Duquenne (who was able to identify the donors of the triptych as Peeter Scheyve and Agnes de Schramme). Based on the stylistic analysis of Bosch’s underdrawings Vermet agrees with Koreny that the works of Bosch can be divided into two groups. The three keyworks of the first group are the Garden, the Vienna Last Judgment and the Prado Epiphany. The second group includes the Lisbon St. Anthony, the Pedlar/Ship of Fools/Death of the Miser triptych and the Haywain. But because Koreny dates the first group too late, he has to introduce a young pupil who worked in Bosch’s workshop from about 1500 until after Bosch’s death for the second group. Because Vermet dates the first group before 1500, he can date the second group after 1500 without any problems. He attributes the differences in style between the two groups to the fact that Bosch developed his own style during his lifetime, with the period around 1500 as turning point.
Vermet’s contribution, written in his own enthusiastic style, deals with a highly interesting and important issue: is the Garden of Delights an early or a later work and was it commissioned by Engelbrecht II of Nassau or Henry III of Nassau? In spite of Vermet’s appealing argument one has to admit that for the time being he can only offer assumptions and hypotheses, proving nothing in the end. And yet, the ideas that the Garden is an early work and that it was commissioned by Engelbrecht II of Nassau certainly deserve further researching. In order to compare his general chronology with those of Koreny and Elsig Vermet also offers some tables and diagrams, but to understand these correctly, one has to be a Master of Statistics. For our wit it was too high, unfortunately.
[explicit 5th August 2012]