Hieronymus Bosch

Summary

Jheronimus van Aken (Bolduque, c. 1450-1516), familiarly called Joen and known as Jheronimus Bosch or Hieronymus Bosch, was a painter born in the north of the Duchy of Brabant, in the present-day Netherlands, author of an exceptional work both for the extraordinary inventiveness of his figurations and the subjects treated and for his technique, whom Erwin Panofsky described as a “distant and inaccessible” artist within the tradition of Flemish painting to which he belongs.

Bosch did not date any of his paintings and relatively few bear a signature that can be considered non-apocryphal. What is known of his life and family comes from the few references that appear in the municipal archives of Bolduque and, in particular, in the account books of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, of which he was a sworn member. Of his artistic activity there are only documented some minor works that have not been preserved and the commission of a Last Judgment that in 1504 Philip the Handsome made to him. None of the works currently attributed to him have been documented during the painter”s lifetime, and the characteristics of his unique style have been established only from a small number of works mentioned in literary sources, all of them after the painter”s death and, in some cases, of doubtful reliability, since the genuine works of Bosch could not be distinguished from those of his imitators from very early on. Bosch acquired fame even during his lifetime as an inventor of marvelous figures and images full of fantasy, and it did not take him long to find followers and forgers who would turn his themes and imaginations into a true artistic genre, also disseminated through tapestries embroidered in Brussels and prints, many of them signed by Hieronymus Cock.

Philip II, among the first and most distinguished collectors of his works, was able to gather an important number of them in the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial and the palace of El Pardo. The first critics and interpreters of Bosch”s work also emerged in his environment. Friar José de Sigüenza, historian of the foundation of El Escorial, summarized the reasons for this preference in the uniqueness and depth of the painter, characteristics that made him different from any other, because, he said:

the difference between this man”s paintings and those of the others is that the others tried to paint the man as he appears on the outside; this one only dared to paint him as he is on the inside.

Jheronimus van Aken, a member of a family of painters, was born around 1450 in the Dutch town of ”s-Hertogenbosch (ducal forest, in Spanish something unusual Bolduque, in French Bois-le-Duc), the northern capital of the Duchy of Brabant in the present-day Netherlands. From ”s-Hertogenbosch, commonly called Den Bosch, he took the name with which he was to sign some of his works.

With just over seventeen thousand inhabitants in 1496, Bolduque was the second largest city in North Holland, behind only Utrecht, and one of the largest cities in the Duchy of Brabant, after Antwerp and Brussels. Bosch”s grandfather, Jan van Aken (ca. 1380-1454) settled in Bolduque from Nijmegen, in the Duchy of Gelderland, where his great-grandfather, Thomas van Aken, had acquired citizenship in 1404. If, as it is thought, the Van Aken surname corresponds to a place name of origin, the family must have come from the German Aachen. Anthonius (ca. 1420-1478), Bosch”s father, like his three older brothers, was also a painter. It is recorded that in 1461 he was commissioned to paint the doors of the altarpiece of the Confraternity of Our Lady in her chapel in the church of St. John, which he did not complete. A year later he acquired a house on the eastern side of the Market Square, the house called “In Sint Thoenis” where he installed his workshop, damaged in the fire that devastated the city in June 1463. Married to Aleid van der Mynnen, the couple had three sons painters: Goessen (ca. 1444-1498), Jan or Johannes (ca. 1448-1499) and Jheronimus, the youngest, as well as two daughters named Katharina and Herbertke.

We do not have certain data of the first years of Bosch”s life. The first documentary news is of April 5, 1474 when in union with his father and his older brothers he testified in favor of his sister Katharina in the mortgage of a house. Acting together with his father in a second document of July 26 of the same year, it is presumed that on that date he had not yet reached the legal age of twenty-four years that would have allowed him to act independently, which has served as a starting point to fix the year of his birth around 1450. His artistic training must have taken place in his father”s workshop, where, according to the tax records, after the death of his father (1478), his two older brothers continued to live with his mother and later also his sister-in-law and nephews, Goessen”s sons: Johannes, painter and sculptor, and Anthonis, painter, who kept the workshop open until at least 1523. Since there are no known documented works attributable to the other members of the Van Aken family, it is not possible to know what teachings he received, although it can be assumed that they were those of a local and provincial workshop. Only a mural painting of the Calvary with donors in the choir of the church of San Juan, painted around 1453 but still Gothic and alien to the Flemish novelties, has been related to the grandfather, and some details, such as the thin silhouette of the body of Christ, are also found in the Christ crucified with donor (Brussels, Musées royaux des Beaux-Artes de Belgique), painted by Bosch around 1485, while the scale and disposition of the donors is similar to that of another of Bosch”s earliest works: Ecce Homo in Frankfurt, before being hidden under repainting.

The following news are already from 1481. On January 3, “Joen the painter” sold to his older brother the quarter that corresponded to him of the family house in the Market Square. Months later, on June 5, he appears in a document as husband of Aleid van de Meervenne, owner of the house called “Inden salvatoer” in which the marriage was established, located in the most elitist northern façade of the same Market Square. Aleid, born in 1453, was the daughter of a wealthy merchant family with properties in houses and lands in Bolduque and its surroundings, which were to be increased when her brother Goyart van de Meervenne died in 1484 and a little later, in 1492, also her sister Geertrud, established in Tiel. Her eldest son, Paulus Wijnants, lived for some time with Bosch and Aleid, who had no descendants. Although the couple must have signed some kind of prenuptial contract by which Aleid retained his property on Bosch”s death and could pass it on to his nephew Paulus, heir to his fief in Oirschot, Bosch acted in some economic transactions on behalf of his wife and his large income allowed him to lead a comfortable life, which has been related on occasion to the freedom he would have enjoyed in choosing his subjects and his artistic orientation.

In the academic year 1486-1487 he joined the Illustre Lieve Vrouwe Broederschap (Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Lady) dedicated to the cult of the Virgin and governed by a strict religious rule. The confraternity had in 1500 about fifteen thousand external members and a much smaller number of sworn brothers, about sixty, initially only clerics, and a small number of swan brothers, members of the urban elites and responsible for providing the birds consumed at the annual banquets held by the confraternity around the Christmas holidays. “Jeroen the painter” presumably already attended the New Year”s banquet of 1488 as a sworn brother, as recorded in the minutes of the meeting. Apart from the Swan banquet, the institutional brothers held eight to ten banquets a year in rotation in the private homes of their members. Bosco was responsible for organizing the one held in July 1488, which was attended by the secretary of the King of Romans, the future Emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg. In 1498 he was in charge of the Swan banquet, this time at the headquarters of the brotherhood, and on March 10, 1509 he again received the sworn brothers at his house. It was a special gathering, held in Lent, at which only fish, paid for by Bosco, and fruit and wine were consumed at the expense of the widow of Jan Back, who had been burgomaster of Bolduque, in whose memory the banquet was held. After attending a mass in the chapel of the confraternity, as recorded by the secretary in the account book, the sworn brothers paraded two by two to the house of brother “Jheronimi van Aken the painter who spells himself Jheronimus Bosch”.

In May 1498 he signed a power of attorney in favor of the city council so that it could conclude business on his behalf, which, together with the absence of documentary news for the years immediately after, has served to support a trip to Venice around 1500 for which there is no proof. In fact, the documentary gaps are constant in the biography of Bosch, but nothing indicates that he was absent for a long time from his native city, according to a local chronicler, Bolduque was in Bosch”s lifetime a “pious and pleasant city”. As a local chronicler described it, Bolduque was in Bosch”s lifetime a “pious and pleasant town”. Although ecclesiastically dependent on the bishopric of Liège – until 1560 it had neither bishop nor cathedral – at the beginning of the 16th century it had about thirty religious buildings, served in 1526 by 930 religious and 160 beguines. In its vicinity there were also ten other abbeys. Erasmus of Rotterdam himself had studied classical languages there when he was about seventeen years old, between 1485 and 1487, although his memory of the time he had spent in Bolduque residing in a convent of the Brothers of the Common Life was very negative: “wasted time” as we read in the Compendium Vitae, perhaps written by Erasmus himself, although almost on his own he had had occasion to read some good books.

Moreover, religious institutions were not the only clients of the painters. Well-to-do citizens and guilds also commissioned works from artists. Goldsmiths, bell ringers and wood carvers were powerful artisan groups in the city, as were the guilds of embroiderers and glassmakers, responsible for providing stained glass for churches and monasteries. Some of Bosch”s few documented works are related to them. Thus, in the accounting year 1481-1482, when the Confraternity of Our Lady commissioned a new stained glass window for its chapel from the local glazier Willem Lombart, the contract stipulated that in its execution he should take as a model the sketch provided by “Joen the painter”, for which he had charged a certain amount intended for the linen paper used for the drawing. For the embroiderers he also provided models, as evidenced by a payment noted in the course 1511-1512 for the “sketch of the cross” for a blue brocade chasuble. From the coats of arms on the side panels of the Museo del Prado”s Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi, together with the donors and their patron saints, there is evidence that the triptych was commissioned by Peeter Scheyfve, dean of the Antwerp draper”s guild, and his second wife, Agneese de Gramme. High officials and members of the local bourgeoisie, as their coats of arms reveal, were also the commissioners of the Ecce Homo triptych (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts) and the Lamentations of Job (Bruges, Groeningemuseum), both considered works of the workshop.

The most important commission received by Bosch of which there is documentary evidence is that of a large Last Judgment for which in September 1504 he received thirty-six pounds as an advance payment from the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Handsome. That same winter the Duke and his father, Emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg, visited Bolduque, but there is no record of any other commissions and it is not even possible to know if the Last Judgment was finished. Other documented commissions are of a very minor nature; for example, in 1487 the Table of the Holy Spirit, a charitable institution, commissioned him to paint “a new cloth in the entrance hall and a stag”s horn”, and in 1491 the Brotherhood of Our Lady paid him 18 stuivers for lengthening and rewriting the panel with the names of the sworn brothers, the painter having donated the same amount for his work.

Bosch died in the first days of August 1516, perhaps as a result of an epidemic, apparently of cholera, declared in the city that summer. On the 9th of that month funeral services were held for the painter in the chapel of Our Lady in the church of San Juan, belonging to the brotherhood, whose members, as usual, bore part of the expenses, carefully noted in the book of accounts of the brotherhood. In addition to the dean, the deacon and the subdeacon, officiants of the solemn funeral mass, the cantors, organist, bell ringer, the poor gathered in front of the chapel and the gravediggers and pallbearers received various amounts for their participation in the funeral, as would correspond to a funeral corpore insepulto. The year of death is also confirmed by a list of the deceased brothers of the confraternity, drawn up between 1567 and 1575, in which, among the deaths of the year 1516, it is noted: “(Obitus fratrum) Aº 1516: Jheronimus Aquen(sis) alias Bosch, insignis pictor”. Years later, in 1742, on folio 76 recto of the heraldic album of the confraternity, and under an empty coat of arms – Bosch as a craftsman lacked a noble coat of arms – a simple legend explained: “Hieronimus Aquens alias Bosch, seer vermaerd Schilder. Obiit 1516” (“Hieronymus Aachen, known as Bosch, very famous painter, died 1516”).

“As the Italian traveler Ludovico Guicciardini wrote in 1567 in his Descrittione di tutti i Paesi Bassi, altrimenti detti Germania inferiore, Bosch put his satirical vein at the service of a moral discourse based on the traditional doctrine of the Catholic Church, with frequent allusions to sin, the transitoriness of life and the folly of man who does not follow the example of the saints in his “imitation of Christ”, as taught by the Brothers of the Common Life, very influential in Bosch”s environment, without implying a translation to images of the texts of Geert Grote or Thomas of Kempis.

Bosch”s painting is ambiguously inscribed in the Flemish tradition from which he subtly departs in imagery and technique. Already Karel van Mander, fascinated by his painting, observed that he used such thin layers of paint that he often allowed the backgrounds to show through. In some respects his technique lacked the refinement of the Dutch primitives, but this new technique, which was not unique to Bosch, allowed the painter to work faster, as the thin layers of color dried faster, and at lower cost. On a preparation based on chalk white applied to the support, Bosch drew with a brush and with a dark material with some charcoal in its composition. Infrared reflectography makes it possible to study the underlying drawing which, broadly speaking, can be grouped into two types. The first group is made up of works that start from schematic drawings with hardly any modeling, in which only the main lines and folds of the garments are indicated. In them the changes on the initial idea are made in the phase of application of the color, of which the Saint John the Evangelist in Patmos of Berlin is an example. A second group, less numerous, to which belong the panels of the dismantled triptych of the Way of Life (The Ship of Fools in Paris, the Allegory of Intemperance in New Haven, Death and the Miser in Washington and the Peddler in Rotterdam) and the Table of the Deadly Sins (Museo del Prado), present a more finished drawing, modeled with long strokes and in some areas parallel. After the drawing, sometimes executed in several phases, the application of color was carried out in very thin layers and often only one. Finally, with precise touches and a fine brush, he emphasized details and highlights.

The main novelty of Bosch”s painting, the “new path” that, according to Fray José de Sigüenza, he would have chosen to follow, lies in the use of burlesque and jocular elements, “placing in the midst of those mockeries many primors and strangenesses”. However, neither the introduction of moral concepts through satire nor the creation of fantastic images were truly absolute novelties. Some iconic sources in engravings and drôleries have been pointed out to explain minor details of his figurations. One of these iconographic sources may be the one used for the giraffe that appears in the panel of paradise in the Garden of Earthly Delights (Museo del Prado), taken from the same prototype that was used to illustrate the Italian manuscript of Ciriaco de Ancona”s voyage to Egypt, written in 1443. Also in the Garden of Earthly Delights it has been noted the presence, behind the figure of Adam, of a canary dragon tree, which Bosch could have taken from an engraving of the Flight into Egypt by Martin Schongauer; furthermore, in the monochrome figure of God the Father painted on the exterior doors of the same triptych, the possible influence of a woodcut by Michael Wolgemut for the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel published in Nuremberg in 1493 has been seen, which would establish a terminus post quem for his painting. The dendrochronological dating of the panel, however, would allow us to put that date back to 1480 or even earlier, making the Garden triptych one of Bosch”s earliest works, when traditionally it had been believed, on the contrary, to be from his last period, which illustrates the enormous difficulties that arise when it comes to ordering Bosch”s work chronologically. In short, the radical originality of Bosch lies not so much in the creation of fantastic images as in having taken up a tradition typical of the marginal arts and applied it to panel painting, typical of altarpieces.

The interest in landscape is also a characteristic common to all his production, as it is to Jan van Eyck. A work such as the Adoration of the Magi in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, may demonstrate this. This panel, dated around 1475, is one of the painter”s earliest works, but Charles de Tolnay called it pastiche precisely because he found the abundance of gold and the fitting of the archaic figures into a landscape of a very modern conception, typical of the most advanced stage, incoherent. It is this importance of landscape in Bosch”s work that has led Bernard Vermet to propose a chronological order of Bosch”s production according to its evolution. At the extremes would be placed, on the one hand, the “flat landscape, without perspective” and with the “clichéd saplings” of the Garden of Earthly Delights and, on the other, the “exquisitely modern” landscapes of the Hay Cart (Prado Museum) and The Temptation of St. Anthony of the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon. Considering the modernity of the landscape -and the Renaissance conception of the table leg- the Extraction of the Stone of Folly could not be placed among the painter”s early works either, as has usually been considered, although, as Vermet also admits, taking the painting of the Garden of Earthly Delights to an early date, around 1480, is equivalent to assuming a notable precocity in the painter. A prominent role is played by the landscape in The Temptations of St. Anthony Abbot in the Museo del Prado, which seems to have undergone some changes since its original conception, when the treetops were less leafy and the sky was more developed. The elevation of the horizon line dwarfs the figure of the saint and anticipates what Joachim Patinir would do some years later. The dendrochronological dating of the panel indicates, however, that it could have been used as early as 1464, like the panels of the Garden of Earthly Delights, and the pictorial technique based on very light layers of color is typical of Bosch, although his autograph has been questioned.

The gaps in the documentation mean that no work can be attributed to Bosch with absolute certainty. A certain consensus has been reached, however, in attributing between twenty-five and thirty paintings to him, taking as a starting point what the written sources coincide in attributing to him: the creation of a world of fantastic beings and infernal scenes. But the early success of those scenes, turned into a genre by copyists and imitators, together with the absence of data on the operation of the workshop, makes it difficult to distinguish the autograph works from what are replicas of the workshop or copies, perhaps, of lost originals. The posthumous fame of Jheronimus Bosch spread, more than in his native city, where none of his works are preserved, to the southern Netherlands, Italy and, above all, Spain, where a painting of the Magdalene or Mary Egyptian attributed to him was already in the collection of Queen Isabella the Catholic. Described in the post mortem inventory of 1505 as “another smaller panel that has in the middle a naked woman with long hair, her hands together and in the lower part of the golden frame a sign with letters that say jeronimus”, it could be a gift from Juana I of Castile, daughter of Isabella and wife of Philip the Handsome, to her sister Isabella of Aragon. Also in Spain flourished two of the first critics and interpreters of his works, of which they provided interesting news: Felipe de Guevara and fray José de Sigüenza.

Felipe de Guevara, owner of several works by Bosch possibly inherited from his father, Diego de Guevara, who had been the chief butler of Philip the Handsome, wrote around 1560 a series of commentaries on painting addressed to Philip II. In them, dealing with the creations of Bosch, which he included in the genre of what he called “ethical” paintings, which “show the customs and affections of the minds of men”, he charged against the numerous copyists and forgers who had come out in Flanders, lacking his prudence and decorum and with no other wit than knowing how to make his paintings age in the smoke of the chimneys to pass them off as old, so that there were already infinite, he said, those falsely signed with his name:

… And since Hieronymus Bosch has placed himself before us, it will be reason to disabuse the vulgar, and others more than the vulgar of an error that they have conceived of his paintings, and that is, that any monstrosity, and out of order of nature that they see, they then attribute it to Hieronymus Bosch, making him the inventor of monsters and chimeras. I do not deny that he did not paint strange effigies of things, but that was only for a purpose that was dealing with hell, in which matter, wanting to depict devils, he imagined compositions of admirable things. What Hieronymus Bosch did with prudence and decorum, others have done and do without discretion and judgment; because having seen in Flanders how acceptable was that kind of painting of Hieronymus Bosch, they agreed to imitate him, painting monsters and wild imaginations, giving to understand that in this alone consisted the imitation of Bosch. Thus come to be infinite paintings of this genre, sealed with the name of Hieronymus Bosch, falsely inscribed, in which he never thought of putting his hands, but the smoke and short wit, smoking them to the chimneys to give them greater authority and antiquity.

Guevara, however, and alluding to Bosch”s nervous technique and lack of finish, distinguished one of those followers, better than all the others, who signed with the name of the master and imitated him in everything, except in the patient finish:

…but it is fair to give notice that among these imitators of Hieronymus Bosch, there is one who was his disciple, who by devotion to his master, or to credit his works, inscribed on his paintings the name of Bosch, and not his own. This, although it is so, they are very valuable paintings, and whoever has them should have them in much, because in the inventions and moralities, he was tracing after his master, and in the work he was more diligent and patient than Bosch, not departing from the air and gallantry, and the coloring of his master. An example of this type of painting is a table that V.M. has, on which in a circle are painted the seven deadly sins, shown in figures and examples….

Shortly after the death of Felipe de Guevara (1563), King Philip II offered his widow and his son Ladrón de Guevara, heir to the entailed estate, the purchase of some houses and lots in Madrid, next to the Puerta de la Vega, and several paintings from his collection for a total value of 14,000 ducats or 5,250,000 maravedies. Among the paintings that interested the king were several canvases with mythological subjects with no author”s name, four panels with landscapes by Joachim Patinir and “A panel two rods and two thirds high, with two doors, which is three rods wide when opened, and is the Hay Chariot, by Geronimo Bosch, by his own hand”. The lot also included five other canvases attributed to Bosch:

– A canvas three rods wide and a rod and a third high, which are two blind men guiding each other, and behind a blind woman, another canvas two rods wide and one high, which is a Flanders style dance, another canvas two rods and two thirds wide and a rod and a third high, which is a dance in the style of Flanders, another canvas two rods and two thirds wide and a rod and a third high, which is a dance in the style of Flanders, another canvas two rods and a third high, which is a dance in the style of Flanders, another canvas two rods and a third wide and a rod and a third high, which is a dance in the style of Flanders.

The Triptych of the hay cart was again described in detail in the inventory of the first delivery of artistic works to the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, in 1574:

A painting board with two doors, on which is painted in pinzel a hay cart that takes from all the states, denoting the vanity after which it walks; and above the hay a figure of the guardian angel and the devil and other figures; and at the top of the table God the Father; and on the right hand table the creation of Adam and other figures of the same story; and on the left hand table the Hell and the penalties of mortal sins, which is five feet high and four feet wide, without the doors: Is by Geronimo Bosqui.

This Carro de heno de Guevara was the second to be incorporated into the royal collection, in whose possession was another copy cited by Ambrosio de Morales. It is likely that Guevara”s copy is the one still preserved in El Escorial, ostentatiously signed on the right panel and, despite what is indicated in the inventory, a copy of the original version, the one currently kept in the Museo del Prado. Although the dendrochronological dating of the Escorial copy, between 1498 and 1504 as the earliest dates on which the wood could have been used -1510-1516 for the Prado version- together with the quality of its execution and other minor details, such as the jug on the table on which the monk is seated in the central panel, which in the autograph version was left without color, indicate that it could have been a replica made in Bosch”s own workshop and not a late copy.

Other works assigned to Bosch in the document of the first delivery of works to the monastery of El Escorial were three versions of the Temptations of St. Anthony, of which only the version now preserved in the Museo del Prado has been identified, the triptych of the Adoration of the Magi (Museo del Prado), which was arranged in the lower priory cell, the Table of the Deadly Sins (Museo del Prado), kept in the chambers of Philip II, and the Way of Calvary or Christ with the Cross on His Back (El Escorial Monastery), destined for the vicarial chapter, a work considered to be a secure autograph after some doubts had been expressed and of which another larger and more ornate version is known, although with smaller figures, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna.

The canvases described among the Guevara”s possessions acquired by the crown have not been located, but their subjects denote the genre of painting, between satire and social criticism, with which Bosch”s painting was related. Well known is the theme of the Extraction of the Stone of Madness, an illustration of the incurability of human stupidity. Described again in the inventory of the old Alcázar of Madrid in 1600 as “A canvas by the hand of Hieronymus Bosch, battered, painted in tempera, in which there is a Surujano who is curing a man”s head”, it cannot be the panel now in the Museo del Prado and apparently owned, before 1529, by Bishop Philip of Burgundy. The popularity of the subject, also very present in Dutch literature as an emblem of madness, is illustrated by the abundance of versions and replicas directly or indirectly related to Boschian models.

Two Blind Men Leading Each Other, an illustration of the Gospel parable (Matthew 15:14: “and if one blind man leads another blind man, both will fall into the pit”), belongs with the Extraction of the Stone of Folly to the same genre that Paul Vandenbroeck has called “literature of folly”. Although the original is lost, the Bosch composition may presumably be known from an engraving by Pieter van der Heyden according to Bosch. Intellectual rather than physical blindness, represented in the print by two wandering musicians with the staff of Santiago pilgrims, is thus associated with begging and rootlessness, which for Bosch, interpreter of the nascent Dutch bourgeoisie, who identified wisdom and virtue, was equivalent to the exhibition – and condemnation – of vicious, ethically reprehensible behavior. It is the same mode of expression, through an inverse symbolization, found in Sebastian Brant”s The Ship of Fools, another commonplace of the literature of folly illustrated by Bosch in one of the panels of the dismantled Triptych of the Way of Life (Paris, Musée du Louvre).

The blind, the object of cruel entertainment, were once again the protagonists of the canvas described as Some Blind Men are hunting a wild boar. In this case the original Boschian has also been lost although its composition can be recognized in a drawing by Jan Verbeeck, a painter from Mechelen, conserved in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The knowledge in Spain of the composition drawn by Verbeeck is well accredited by the existence of a copy of the same model painted in grisaille on one of the walls of a noble house located in the Plaza de San Facundo in Segovia, which was owned by Ana de Miramontes y Zuazola, wife of Jerónimo de Villafañe, warden of the Reales Alcázares in 1565. The pastime, known as “beating the pig”, related to the feast of St. Martin, is also represented in another lost composition by Bosch, known only by St. Martin and the poor, one of the tapestries of the series called Disparates del Bosco, originally embroidered for the king of France Francis I (Patrimonio Nacional, Monasterio de El Escorial).

In his Description of the Forest and Royal House of the Prado (1582) Gonzalo Argote de Molina noted the presence in that Royal Site of eight panels by Bosch, “painter of Flanders, famous for the absurdities of his painting”, among them some Temptations of Saint Anthony and the painting of a “strange boy” born in Germany who, three days after his birth, appeared to be seven years old, “who, aided by his very ugly waist and gesture, is a figure of much admiration”. In 1593 new paintings by Bosch were incorporated into the monastery of El Escorial, the most important of them The Garden of Earthly Delights, now on deposit at the Prado Museum, which the document of delivery described as “a painting on oil panel, with two doors of the variety of the world, encrypted with various nonsense of Hieronymus Bosch, who called “Del Madroño”, by one of the fruits that appear in it. With the famous triptych came to the monastery some new temptations of St. Anthony, a Juycio encrypted in nonsense and Diverse nonsense of Hieronymus Bosch unidentified, in addition to the Coronation of thorns with five sayons, acquired along with the Garden of Delights in the auction of Fernando de Toledo, natural son of the grand duke of Alba. José de Sigüenza could rightly write in his history of the foundation of the monastery of El Escorial, published in 1605 in his History of the Order of St. Jerome, that “among the paintings of these Germans and Flemish, which, as I say, are many, are scattered throughout the House many of a Hieronymus Bosch”.

Rejecting the vulgar opinion, which only finds in Bosch”s paintings whimsical extravagances, Father Sigüenza classified his paintings into three genres, authentic “books of prudence and artifice”: the devout paintings, with motifs taken from the life of Jesus, as were the themes of the Adoration of the Magi and Christ with the cross on his shoulders, where “no monstrosity or nonsense is seen”, but the humble spirit of the wise men of the East and the rabid envy of the Pharisees contrasted with the innocence manifested in the face of Christ; a second group of paintings that act as mirrors for the Christian, formed by the various versions of the temptations of St. Anthony, which gave Bosch the opportunity to “discover strange effects” by representing the saint with a serene and contemplative face, “full of peace of soul”, among fantastic and monstrous beings, “and all this to show that a soul, aided by divine grace (. .. ) although in the fantasy and to the eyes from outside and inside the enemy represents what can move to laughter or vain delight, or anger and other disordered passions, they will not be part to overthrow him or move him from his purpose”; to which also belonged the Table of the Deadly Sins, with the sacraments painted in the corners as remedies for sin, although what is represented there are in reality the aftermath; and a group of paintings of a more macaronic appearance, in last place, but “of very great ingenuity, and of no less profit”, to which belonged the triptychs of the hay cart, based on Isaiah 40:6: All flesh is hay and all its glory as a flower of the field, and The garden of delights, whose center is a strawberry or strawberry tree, “which in some parts they call mayotas, something that is hardly liked when it is finished”. Fray José de Sigüenza”s interpretation of the Garden of Earthly Delights, more than two centuries before the triptych began to be known by that name, is certainly the first and fully valid of the interpretations that have been given for a work considered one of the most enigmatic in the history of painting. The lack of knowledge of the circumstances in which the commission took place and the dates of its execution, as well as the personality of the client and its original destination, make it difficult to understand the images that are presumed to be symbolic. It has been thought that it may have been commissioned around 1495 by Henry III of Nassau or, more probably, by his uncle, Engelbrecht II, advisor to Duke Philip the Fair, for his palace of Coudenberg in Brussels, as Antonio de Beatis, secretary to Cardinal Louis of Aragon, would have seen it there on July 30, 1517, during his visit to the Netherlands. The description left by De Beatis of the garden, if it was about him, is, in any case, rather vague and as if made from memory, giving priority to the playful character of what he said he had seen in his tour, without naming its author and between mythological “bellisime picture”, were:

some paintings of diverse and extravagant things, representing seas, skies, forests, fields and many other things, some coming out of a sea mussel, others being defecated by cranes, black and white women and men in various actions and postures, birds and animals of all kinds and with great naturalness, things so pleasant and fantastic that it is not possible to describe them for those who have no knowledge of them.

In May 1568 the Garden was confiscated by the Duke of Alba from William of Orange, descendant of the Nassau family and leader of the Protestant rebellion in the Netherlands. To this may be due the defense of his orthodoxy made by Fray José de Sigüenza, an orthodoxy that has only been questioned later by Wilhelm Fraenger, who made Bosch a follower of the sect of the Adamites, and some other advocate of “alternative” approaches, to which critics have lent little credibility.

The relationship of the Nassau family with the painting of Bosch is also proven through Mencía de Mendoza (1508-1554), Marquise of Zenete and third wife of Enrique III de Nassau. A rich and cultured woman, close to Erasmism, at the age of fifteen she was married to Henry of Nassau, with whom she lived in Flanders between 1530 and 1533 and between 1535 and 1539. Jan Gossaert and Bernard van Orley, who in 1532 painted a complete gallery of portraits commissioned by Mencia, among others, worked in her palace in Breda. Widowed, in 1541 she remarried the Duke of Calabria and settled with him in Valencia, from where she kept in touch with Flanders through Gylles de Brusleyden, founder of the trilingual college of Louvain, who was also her artistic advisor, and Juan Luis Vives. Doña Mencía gathered an important collection of works of art, among which tapestries stood out, but also a good number of paintings, many of them sold at public auction in Valencia six years after her death. Three of them, according to the inventory made in 1548, were attributed to “Jerónimo Bosque”:

yten another painting by jerónimo bosque of an old man and an old woman with a wooden harness around the old man with a basket of eggs in his hand.

In his funeral chapel of the old convent of Santo Domingo, for which he had commissioned a series of eight tapestries called of the deaths on designs by Van Orley, his heir, Luis de Requesens, had the Triptych with scenes of the Passion of Christ or of the Improperia, with the Coronation of thorns in the central panel, the work of a disciple or follower of Bosch (Museum of Fine Arts of Valencia).

Only a year before the publication of the History of the Order of Saint Geronimo of Sigüenza, Karel van Mander published the life of Ieronimus Bos written by Karel van Mander, collected with the other lives of Italian and Flemish painters in his Schilder-boeck. Van Mander, who admitted ignorance of the dates of Bosch”s birth and death, but considered him to be truly ancient, gave an accurate description of his technique, notably different from that practiced by his contemporaries, since he used light and transparent inks applied, as he explained, in compact patches and “often with the first brushstroke of oil, which did not prevent his works from being very beautiful”. As for the subjects treated, he quoted the verses of Dominicus Lampsonius and abounded in the presence in his painting of “spectres and infernal monsters whose contemplation turns out to be much more terrifying than pleasant”. However, with what is currently known of Bosch”s painting, it is not possible to know which of his paintings Van Mander saw. Neither the Flight into Egypt with a dancing bear, which he apparently saw in Amsterdam, nor the Holy Monk arguing with heretics which he found in the house of an amateur in Haarlem, presumably the “trial by fire” with St. Dominic of Guzman confronting the Albigensian preachers, nor the Inferno with the descent of Christ into Limbo, can be related to any of the works now known, and the Christ with the cross on his back, in which “we are presented with a more serious painter than is usual for him”, is a theme that recurs both in Bosch”s production (El Escorial, Vienna) and in that of his followers (Ghent, Museum voor Schone Kunsten).

Late descriptions of the interior of the church of San Juan de Bolduque, with its many altarpieces “worthy of comparison with the sculpture of Praxiteles and the painting of Apelles”, suggest that some of them may have been painted by Bosch, although the surviving documentation mentions only his father, Anthonius, and his older brother, Goossen, and only in connection with the unfinished high altar. In 1548 the then Prince Philip II visited the church. The chronicler of the very happy trip, Juan Calvete de Estrella, reports that there the prince admired its forty altars but only describes a clock that had, next to an Adoration of the magi, a Last Judgment, with a heaven and a hell “that is something to admire and puts religion and fear in the spirits”. If on that occasion no mention was made of any work by Bosch, before the city was occupied by the Dutch Protestants in 1629, a local chronicle said of the altars of the choir and the chapel of the Brotherhood of Our Lady that they were adorned “with scenes made according to the extraordinary art of Hyeronimus Bosch”. What was painted was, in the first of the two altars mentioned, the creation of the world in six days, for Koldeweij possibly a copy of the Garden of Delights in the Prado, and in the wings of the second Abigail with David and Bathsheba and Solomon, which in reality seem to have been painted between 1522 and 1523 by Gielis Panhedel, a painter from Brussels. In addition, the doors of the altarpiece of St. Michael, with the stories of Esther and Judith, could also be by Bosch, according to the aforementioned chronicle, along with an Adoration of the kings in the chapel of the miraculous image. Efforts to identify some of these paintings have been inconclusive. The most elaborate attempt to relate some of the works currently preserved with those mentioned in the church of San Juan is the interpretation formulated by Jos Koldeweij of the primitive composition of the main altarpiece of the brotherhood. According to this interpretation, and although the documentation does not mention its subjects, the altarpiece would have included the St. John the Baptist from the Lazaro Galdiano Museum in Madrid and the St. John on Patmos from the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, interior faces of the doors of a box with sculptures that would be located in the upper body or attic of the sculpture altarpiece. The thesis, accepted by the members of the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP), has been vigorously contested by Stephan Kemperdick, curator of the Berlin museum, for chronological reasons – the Berlin panel could not have been painted before 1495 – and iconographic reasons. The reverse painted with scenes of the Passion in faux grisaille inside a translucent sphere, like a globe, similar to that found on the exterior doors of the Garden of Earthly Delights but, unlike the latter, with the complete sphere on a single panel, makes a second similar sphere unlikely on the reverse of the panel in the Museo Lázaro Galdiano, which, on the other hand, shows no signs of ever having been painted.

The presence of Bosch”s works in Italy -two triptychs and a polyptych, all in Venice- is very old, but the written testimonies they have left are extremely scarce. Related to the painter”s hypothetical trip to Italy, some of them may have been in the possession of Cardinal Domenico Grimani as early as 1521, when the humanist Marcantonio Michiel visited his valuable collection. Among other Flemish paintings described in his Notizia d”opere di disegno Michiel found three works attributed to Ieronimo Bosch interesting for their soft oil painting: “La tela dell”Inferno, con la gran diversità de monstri”, the “tela delli Sogni” and the one of Fortuna with the whale that swallowed Jonah.

Although Michiel spoke of canvases and not panels, the first two – Dream and Hell – have been related to the four panels with chimeras and scenes of witchcraft cited by Antonio Maria Zanetti in his Descrizione di tutte le pubbliche pitture della cità di Venezia of 1733, located in the passage to the Council Hall of the Palazzo Ducale, although Zanetti attributed them to the Civetta, as Herri met de Bles was known in Italy. These, in turn, are identified with the four shutters now known as Visions of the Beyond: The Earthly Paradise, The Ascent to the Empyrean, The Fall of the Damned and The Inferno (Venice, Gallerie dell”Accademia, on deposit in the Palazzo Grimani). We also owe to Zanetti the first news of the Triptych of the Hermit Saints, located in 1733 as the other Venetian works of Bosch in a corridor of the Doge”s Palace. With it was the Triptych of St. Wilgefortis (Venice, Gallerie dell”Accademia), to which Marco Boschini had already alluded in Le ricche minere della pittvra veneziana, 1664, as a martyrdom of a saint on the cross with many figures, stopping in particular at a fainting figure at the foot of the cross, which he attributed to a certain Girolamo Basi. The identification of the crucified martyr with Saint Wilgefortis, whose beard, according to the legend, grew, is credited by the doubts of Zanetti, who in 1733 doubly rectified Boschini by maintaining that it was a crowned saint, not a saint, and not Girolamo Basi but “Girolamo Bolch, como vedesi scritto in lettere Tedeschi bianche”, to be rectified again in the second edition of his guide of 1771, when he understood that what was represented was “la crocefissione d”un Santo o Santa martire”.

Also from Venice could come the Triptych of the Last Judgment of Bruges, presumably located in 1845 in the collection assembled in Raixa (Mallorca) by Cardinal Despuig, a collection formed largely in Italy. Auctioned by his heirs in Paris in 1900, the triptych was disassembled and the side doors were glued on a single panel, according to the Noticia histórico-artística de los Museos del eminentísimo señor cardenal Despuig existentes en Mallorca by Joaquín María Rover, where the panels entitled El infierno and El infierno y el mundo were collected with the numbers 111 and 123, attributed to “Bosch”, of whom Rover said that, “although his surname was Mallorcan, he was born in Bois-le-Duc, in Holland, in the middle of the 15th century: He spent a great part of his life in Spain, where it is believed he died”. Some details of the description provided by Joaquín María Rover, such as the “original ship of mysterious figure, on whose prow some angels lined up, confusing the tips of their wings, play long trumpets”, as seen on the left door of the Bruges triptych, would allow confirming that provenance and the presence of Boschian elements taken from this triptych in the work of Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo, active in Venice since 1521.

In Portugal the first news of Bosch”s works appear in connection with the humanist Damião de Goes and his inquisitorial process. When he was just over twenty years old, in 1523, he arrived in Flanders as a scribe of the Portuguese commercial factory and met Erasmus, who in 1534 hosted him in his house in Freiburg for four months. Settled in Antwerp, he traveled through northern Europe, fulfilling a commission from the Portuguese Crown, and in 1531 he met Luther and Melanchthon in Wittenberg. He studied at the universities of Santiago de Compostela, Padua and Louvain, where in 1542 he was taken prisoner by the French, attackers of the city, and freed by the mediation of King John III of Portugal. He returned to Portugal in 1545 and in September of that same year, in Évora, he was denounced before the tribunal of the Inquisition by Simão Rodrigues, one of the founders of the Society of Jesus, whom he had met in Padua. However, it was not until 1571 that he was arrested and prosecuted, being condemned on December 16, 1572 for having sought to meet Luther and Melanchton and, as a Lutheran, having doubted the value of indulgences and auricular confession, although he later repented of this.

In his defense, ten months after his arrest, with the protests of a good Catholic, Goes presented to the inquisitors a paper in which he recalled some things that he had given to the churches of the kingdom from 1526 onwards, and among them, highlighting their high price but also the novelty of his invention, he cited “a panel on which is painted the crown of Our Lord Jesus Christ, piece that is worth a lot of money, for the perfection, novelty and invention of the work, made by Hieronimo Bosch”, which he had donated to the church of Nuestra Señora de Várzea de Alenquer, where he wanted to be buried, to which he had also donated a valuable triptych with the Crucifixion that he attributed to Quentin Massys.

As, however, on May 30 the prosecutor said he had new evidence that would demonstrate the little veneration that the defendant had for the sacred images, he protested that he was very devoted to them, of which in his desk he had many and that the kings themselves had gone to see them, in addition to the fact that the queen, Joan of Austria, had also given him two altarpieces, to which he added, in the brief of exoneration that he presented on June 16, two other panels, one of the temptations of Job and the other with the temptations of St. Anthony, which he had given to the “nuncio Monte Polusano”, later Cardinal Giovanni Ricci de Montepulciano, nuncio in Portugal from 1545 to 1550, “who had ordered me to make them for João Lousado and João Quinoso to sell them to him. Both the Coronation of Thorns (London, National Gallery and El Escorial) and the Temptations of Job (Bruges, Groeningemuseum) are well known themes from the production of Bosch and his followers, although the trace of the panels that belonged to Goes has been lost and could not be directly related to any of those preserved. Similarly, it does not seem that the panel of the Temptations of St. Anthony given to the nuncio in Rome can be identified with the triptych now in the Museu de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, one of the most copied and imitated pieces of Bosch”s production of which, however, However, there is no news prior to 1882, when Carl Justi was able to see it in the Ajuda Palace, in the collection of Louis I, from which it passed to the Palace of Necessities, residence of Charles I and, after the proclamation of the Republic, to the Lisbon museum, where it entered in 1913.

Like Guicciardini or Lampsonius, Marcus van Vaernewijck, author of a history of Ghent, considered Bosch to be a “creator of demons”. It is precisely this aspect of his painting that focused the interest of his copyists and followers. They popularized and vulgarized the infernal scenes inhabited by the extravagant figures that from the first moment were related to Bosch”s work, as Felipe de Guevara warned, although Bosch himself -he said- never made those monstrous figures without purpose and restraint. This was not the understanding of Francisco Pacheco, who in El arte de la pintura (The Art of Painting), whose first edition dates from 1649, even though he was aware of Philip II”s taste, corrected Father Sigüenza”s enthusiasm for the Flemish artist”s work. For Velázquez”s teacher, painters should mainly deal with the “greater and more difficult things, which are the figures”, and flee from diversions, always despised by the great masters but sought after by Bosch,

with the variety of stews that he made of the demons, whose invention our King Felipo II liked, as manifested by the many things he gathered of this kind; but, in my opinion, Father Fray Josefe de Cigüenza honored him too much by making mysteries of those licentious fantasies to which we do not invite the Painters.

Another Baroque treatise writer and, like Pacheco, a painter himself, Jusepe Martínez, in his later Discursos practicables del arte de la pintura, argued that Bosch, whom he considered a native of Toledo although trained in Flanders, had merited “great admiration” for his unique way of painting the torments of hell and other extravagances charged with morality, “and many agree that our Don Francisco Quevedo, in his Sueños, made use of the paintings of this ingenious man”. Mentions of Bosch are frequent in the Spanish literature of the Golden Age. Remembered as a painter of infernal scenes and ugly monsters, without delving into his morality and often in comic situations, he is quoted, among others, in the verses of Alonso de Castillo Solórzano and Lope de Vega or in the prose of Jerónimo de Salas Barbadillo and Baltasar Gracián. Also, although with a different intention, he remembers the Flemish painter Francisco de Quevedo, who, among other insults, called Góngora “Bosco de los poetas”. What he meant by this is explained by another allusion to the painter found in El alguacil endemoniado, precisely one of those Sueños that Jusepe Martínez considered inspired by Bosch”s paintings. Giving the word to a devil, Quevedo wrote in it:

But leaving this aside, I want to tell you that we are very sorry for the potations that you make of us, painting us with claws without being avechuchos; with tails, having devils with tails, with horns, not being married; and always badly bearded, having devils of us that can be hermits and corregidores. Remedy this, that a little while ago Hieronymus Bosco went there and when asked why he had made so much of us in his dreams, he said that it was because he had never believed that there were real devils.

Since the extravagant devils of Bosch, in spite of Lampsonius and Karel van Mander, vulgarized and popularized, do not cause fear but mockery, the fault, Quevedo will say, lies with the irreligiousness of the painter. Who thought so was not only the gentleman from Torre de Juan Abad. The same argument was used, but now against him, in El tribunal de la justa venganza, a rather ingenious allegation against Quevedo attributed to Luis Pacheco de Narváez, to accuse the satirical poet of the same fault, who would have imagined his devils influenced by the atheist Hieronymus Bosch:

He makes some demons badly bearded; others, gray-haired, hairless, left-handed, corcovado, blunt, bald, mulattoes, zambos, lame and with chilblains … the judges… said that Don Francisco de Quevedo seemed to be an apprentice or second part of the atheist and painter Jerónimo Bosque, because everything he executed with the brush, making fun that they said that there were demons (and that if it was with the same intent as the other in the doubt about the immortality of the soul, they were suspicious, although they did not affirm it).

At the end of the nineteenth century there was a revival of interest in the work of Bosch. The first monograph dedicated to the painter, by Maurice Gossart, dates from 1907 and is titled, significantly, “Jeröme Bosch: Le “faizeur de Dyables” de Bois-le-Duc”. The growing interest in psychology together with the development of psychoanalysis and surrealism boosted the studies on Bosch”s work, although focusing on the explanation of his world of visionary and mysterious images. As if his works were loaded with hidden signs, they tried to unravel them by searching for astrological or alchemical symbols, if not the heretical messages of some obscure sect. The formulations that achieved the greatest repercussion in this order were those of Wilhelm Fraenger. His theses, published in 1947, the first to study the personality and work of Bosch from the point of view of the heresiarch, however, are described in the most current studies as “extravagant”. The problem, common to all these hypotheses of high speculative content and scarcely interested in differentiating the work of Bosch from that of his imitators, as Nils Büttner has pointed out, is the “lack of attention to the historical perspective has resulted in the frequent disregard of the existing sources”.

Greater attention to the scarce data provided by the documents, such as his well-known membership in the confraternity of Our Lady as a sworn member, which implied a certain approximation to ecclesiastical status -sworn members were required to wear tonsure and on important feast days participated in religious ceremonies wearing pluvial cloaks with liturgical colors-, his closeness to the urban elite, to which he belonged through his marriage, and what is known of his clientele, together with the perspective provided by an overall view of his painting, such as the one exhibited by Fray José de Sigüenza, in which time and again he admonishes the viewer against sins with promises of redemption, have led, according to Eric de Bruyn, the most recent studies to consider the painter, recovering Sigüenza”s explanations, as “a religious and satirical moralist whose works express a traditional Christian point of view”.

The members of the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) catalogued twenty-one panel paintings and twenty drawings as autographs. They also analyzed four works that they consider to be from the workshop, understood in a broad sense, seven that they attribute to the painter”s followers and two more (Extraction of the Stone of Madness and Table of the Deadly Sins, both in the Museo del Prado) about which doubts persist between assigning them to the workshop or to unspecific followers of the master. The order of the autograph paintings is not chronological but iconographic, grouped in four blocks: Saints, Life of Jesus, Last Judgment (Witches, Vienna and Visions of the Beyond in Venice) and Moralities, which include the dismembered triptych of the Way of Life or the Travelling Salesman and the triptychs of the Hay Cart and The Garden of Earthly Delights in the Prado. Stefan Fischer”s catalog, with a chronological arrangement, adds to the autograph works the Table of the Deadly Sins, The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, and the four poorly preserved panels of a triptych with the Universal Flood (Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen), which the members of the BRCP consider to be the work of the workshop. On the contrary, it does not consider the triptych of the Last Judgment in Bruges, Groeningenmuseum, which it attributes to the workshop or to a former collaborator of Bosch, perhaps, as it calls it, his main disciple, and it does not take into consideration the fragment of the Temptations of St. Anthony in Kansas City, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, of sure autography for the members of the BRCP, recovering an old attribution. The Museo del Prado, for its part, after the studies made in the museum”s own laboratory and its Technical Cabinet, maintains the autograph of the controversial Temptations of St. Anthony Abbot together with the Extraction of the Stone of Madness and the Table of the Deadly Sins, all three from its collection; and in the catalog of the V centenary exhibition, it includes as works by Bosch, according to the BRCP, the Temptations of Kansas City and the triptych of the Last Judgment of Bruges. In addition, the Adoration of the Magi in Philadelphia (Philadelphia Museum of Art), for the BRCP members a work of the workshop, could be, for the curators of the centenary exhibition, a work by the master with the participation of the workshop. For its part, the Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Ghent, owner of the Christ with the Cross on his back questioned by the members of the BRCP, also decided to maintain the attribution of the work to Bosch after further analysis and confrontation of the different points of view of the specialists at a round table, in which only Jos Koldeweij of the BRCP maintained the attribution to a copyist. The number of works currently considered autograph is, in any case, much lower than the seventy-three catalogued by Mia Cinotti as works by Bosch or attributed to him, or the seventy-one that were catalogued as such in 1981, some of them definitively excluded because the dendrochronological analyses made in the 1990s demonstrated the youth of the wood used as support, cut after the painter”s death. In this situation are the Coronation of Thorns at El Escorial, which could not have been painted before 1527, or the Wedding at Cana in Rotterdam and the Ecce Homo in Philadelphia, whose dates of execution must be put back to 1557 or later.

Bibliography

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  1. El Bosco
  2. Hieronymus Bosch