THE art historian Ernst Gombrich once argued that 15th-century “Dutch Primitive” art’s unique fascination springs from the fleeting co-existence of medieval imagination (populated by devils and angels) with “modern” tools of realistic depiction: space, human anatomy, material textures, and atmospheric lighting.
Gombrich was right, but, as “Between Hell and Paradise” asserts, when it comes to Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516), allure stems also from the sophistication of his theological vision and his psychological sensitivity.
Both the man and his art have long been mysteries. We know almost nothing about Bosch beyond the bare co-ordinates of location, guild membership, and death. The dates, and sequencing, of his major works are pure conjecture. Limits to his corpus are insecure: several pieces exhibited here and credited to “followers” have at other times been confidently attributed to the Master.
According to the exhibition curator, Bernadett Tóth, the central question addressed by Bosch’s art “was nothing less than how Evil came into the world, and how it influenced human existence and human actions”. Bosch’s exploration was resourced by St Augustine’s City of God and the visual “drollery” traditions of monstrosity figures in contemporary manuscripts.
This exhibition’s jewel is the Last Judgement (1515), teeming with inventive detail. We are stuck first by the “surface horror” of the giant fish-man chewing one sinner whole whole while another is slowly split asunder on an oversized knife. A deeper look reveals that hell’s terror lies more, though, in acts that Bosch leaves our minds to complete — like the hammer aimed at the spine-base of the man stretched over the anvil immediately to the fish-man’s right.
The scene’s most ingenious motif is the blue bagpipe arrangement topping the pinkish tent on the centre panel’s right side. Metal teeth edging the supporting disk menace the dancers’ heels should they slip while negotiating the perilously slanted plane. Close juxtaposition of instruments of sound and torture hint at hell’s proverbial “infernal” din. Perhaps the spiked disk also recalls ironically Christ’s crown of thorns.
© Madrid, Patrimonio Nacional, Palacio RealBrussels manufacture after Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, c.1550-60, tapestry of gold, silver, silk and wool, on loan from the Palacio Real, Madrid
The commentary speculates that Bosch’s general tendency to fuse the heavenly expulsion of the rebel angels and the earthly creation/marriage of Adam and Eve in his depictions of Eden reflect the influence of Augustine’s Civitas Dei, Book XI, chapater 13, transmitted via the 14th-century devotional manual Speculum Humanae. Thereby, the catalogue asserts, Bosch emphasises that, before the fall, “Evil already existed in the Garden of Eden” and comes from outside of humanity made in the image of God.
A clearer link is established between Bosch’s depictions of hell and closely prior traditions of illustrating the Civitas Dei, Book XXI (detailing eternal torment) —manifest here in the 1450s manuscript attributed to Jean le Tavernier. From this MS, or another similar one, Bosch culled motifs such as his “forge of hell” and his bird-headed demons.
If Bosch offers any earthly solution for ordinary Christians assailed by evil’s presence, it is aesthetic contemplation of the ascetic: especially St Anthony of Egypt. Today, our reading of St Anthony may be intuitively coloured by Salvador Dalí’s eroticised treatment of his temptations (1946). Bosch’s source was different: the Passional, a middle-Dutch reworking of Jacobus de Voragine’s 13th-century Golden Legend, whose 12 printings between 1478 and 1517 saturated Low Country devotional culture. The Passional blends de Voragine’s text with material from diverse sources, including the Vitae Patrum and Athanasius’s Vita Anthoni.
The Passional was part of Bosch’s mental furniture, but not ours. The visual logic of several scenes in his Temptation of Anthony triptych — recalled here via a primary sketch and followers’ works — baffles us until we realise that we view Passional scenes glimpsed through the apparently absent Anthony’s own eyes.
© Berlin, bpk/Gemäldegalerie,SMB/Volker-H. SchneiderHieronymus Bosch, St John the Evangelist on Patmos, c.1495-1500; on the reverse: Scenes from the Passion of Christ, oil on oak panel. On loan from the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
This exhibition decodes much of Bosch’s world successfully, but some works resist interpretation — perhaps deliberately. Pre-eminently mysterious is The Garden of Earthly Delights (c.1498-1500), probably commissioned for Count Engelbert II of Nassau (1451-1504), Governor of the Netherlands, for his viceregal palace. It is represented here through three near-exact 16th-century copies of its famed central panel.
Bosch’s triptych format, recalling an altarpiece, appears incongruous, given the sensuous subject matter of its main section (and the domestic context of its original display). Uncertainty in “reading” becomes stronger, the longer one looks, given ambiguities in the execution. Tangled limbs create visual confusion whose unpicking yields comic results.
Yet, there is something darker besides: the compositional arrangement echoes contemporary Last Judgements. Correspondences with a hellish wing scene in the Bosch original suggest that the energetic young people are partying their way to damnation, not manifesting the joy of creation or prefiguring heavenly bliss —alternative readings based on the subject matter of the triptych’s left-hand and cover scenes. Copyists’ preference for the centre panel alone may itself be an interpretative choice.
The commentary speculates that The Garden’s opacity bespeaks use as an occasional conversation piece. It would usually be kept closed, but be opened to entertain and assist interaction between guests at great social events in the official residence. Watching the animated conversations in front of it between today’s exhibition visitors lends that hypothesis attractive plausibility.
Bosch’s works abound with small armies of figures among whose antics viewers lose themselves for hours. This exhibition, the largest Bosch show ever in Central Europe, is also well populated (79 pieces), which is about half Bosch’s small surviving oeuvre, complemented by works that elucidate his sources and influence. Many visitors will find the excellent supporting catalogue indispensable.
“Between Hell and Paradise: The Enigmatic World of Hieronymus Bosch” is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Heroes Square, Budapest, until 17 July. www.mfab.hu