Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 10, 2017
Pilar Silva Maroto, ed. Bosch: The 5th Centenary Exhibition Exh. cat. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2016. 400 pp. Paper $45.00 (9780500970799)
Exhibition schedule: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. May 31–September 25, 2016
Installation view, Bosch: The 5th Centenary Exhibition, 2016 (photograph © 2016; provided by the Museo Nacional del Prado)

In summer 2016, on the five hundredth anniversary of Jheronimus Bosch’s death (ca. 1450–1516), the Museo Nacional del Prado staged an impressive, well-researched monographic exhibition on the highly original and imaginative Netherlandish artist. Curated by Pilar Silva Maroto, head of the departments of Flemish and early Spanish painting at the Prado, who also edited the hefty scholarly catalogue that accompanied the show, the exhibition provided a unique opportunity to view the majority of Bosch’s works together for the first time. Its emphasis on the works themselves, on their materiality and technique, provided a fresh insight into Bosch’s oeuvre, which has been for a long time focused mainly on the iconographic puzzles in many of his works. The Prado’s own exemplary collection of paintings by Bosch, six in total, came to Spain largely thanks to King Philip II’s affinity for the artist. Within the exhibition, the Prado’s strong core holdings of Bosch works were complemented by renowned paintings and drawings from collections worldwide.

The exhibition opened with a section titled “Bosch and ’s-Hertogenbosch,” which contextualized Bosch’s oeuvre within the Dutch city of ’s-Hertogenbosch where he spent his entire life. Featuring none of Bosch’s own work, this section was a counterintuitive, albeit highly effective, way to open the exhibition. Visitors were immediately able to put a face to the name with Cornelis Cort’s printed portrait of Bosch, while the Noordbrabants Museum’s cityscape of the Cloth Market in ’s-Hertogenbosch (Anonymous; ca. 1530) helped locate Bosch topographically in the city where he lived and worked. Objects in this room also introduced visitors to Bosch’s patrons, which included members of a respectable circle of ’s-Hertogenbosch dignitaries. Bosch’s immediate fame for unusual and bizarre imagery, which sparked a substantial following during his lifetime, was exemplified through prints by Alart du Hameel, a contemporary working in ’s-Hertogenbosch who was greatly inspired by Bosch. Insightful early commentaries on the artist were also included as were two woodcarvings that exemplified the types of objects that Bosch’s own family members produced, giving visitors an idea of the types of artworks Bosch would have been exposed to within his immediate circle.

In the six subsequent sections of the exhibition, Bosch’s works were grouped thematically according to the types of subjects he most often represented. These include scenes from the childhood and early ministry of Christ, representations of the saints, images of paradise and hell, non-religious works, and scenes from Christ’s Passion. As Silva Maroto noted, a chronological hang (more common for a monographic exhibition) would have been problematic as Bosch neither signed nor dated his works, and the scarcity of documents prohibit the precise dating of his paintings. Scholars’ inability to concretely date Bosch’s works, coupled with the lack of an easily identifiable stylistic progression in the artist’s handling, has led to much confusion and debate over the chronology of his oeuvre and the attribution of some of his works. Approaching Bosch from the point of view of subject matter was an effective choice given his highly inventive iconography and stylistic treatment of both common and new subjects.

Each of the six thematic sections was thoughtfully anchored around one of Bosch’s great masterpieces (usually a triptych), which was centrally positioned within the space so as to highlight the given theme and enable visitors to view it from all sides. For example, the Prado’s The Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1494) triptych was displayed at eye level in the center of the second section entitled, “The Childhood and Ministry of Christ.” Visitors could admire up-close Bosch’s virtuosic manual skill and his fascinating enrichment of the Biblical narrative with the inclusion of unique typological references. Here, for instance, Bosch illustrated the gift of gold of the eldest, kneeling Magus in the form of an intricately carved table ornament decorated with pearls. The ornament represents the Sacrifice of Isaac, an Old Testament prefiguration to Christ’s own sacrifice. In a similar manner, Bosch illustrated the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon in grisaille on the armor of the standing, bearded Magus, which prefigures the Magi’s visit to Christ. Bosch’s inclusion of a mysterious bearded figure in the doorway of the stable adds further complexity to this common subject. In keeping with previous scholarship, the exhibition catalogue accepts this figure as an image of the Antichrist, furthering the ongoing debate regarding the unprecedented presence of such a figure in scenes of Christ’s Adoration.

Exhibition visitors were also able to get a rare, close-up view of the back of The Adoration of the Magi triptych, the shutters of which depict the Mass of Saint Gregory in grisaille with the kneeling donors painted in color. When the shutters were closed, the entire scene of Gregory’s mass would have been visible, which the museum cleverly reproduced on the back of the central panel, enabling visitors to visualize the closed triptych.

A similar approach was taken in the exhibition’s fourth section, titled “From Paradise to Hell,” which centered on the Prado’s Haywain Triptych (ca. 1512–15). The exterior shutters of this work illustrate The Pilgrimage of Life, which the museum reconstructed on the back of the triptych’s central panel to recreate the original effect of the closed triptych. This work, the first to depict a haywain in the center of a triptych, exemplifies how Bosch employed the standard, tripartite altarpiece format, but imbued it with new and highly innovative subject matter that transformed its function. The haywain being pulled at by people of all social classes, including the clergy, functions as a mirror that reflects or models the sin of the world and instructs the viewer on what humans should avoid. The catalogue provides an especially interesting discussion of Bosch’s technique in this work. The painting’s underdrawing, executed with the brush in a very liquid medium, is visible in several areas due to Bosch’s characteristically thin application of paint, and reflects several minor changes made by the artist in the final work. For example, the naked eye can discern that Bosch initially sketched a jug on the table at which the hefty monk is seated in the right foreground, but then omitted this detail in the final painting.

Wonderful drawings complemented the paintings throughout the exhibition and illustrated how Bosch gave free reign to his imagination in his preparatory studies. The fascinating sheet that includes Studies for the Temptation of Saint Anthony (ca. 1495–1505) on the recto and Monsters with Mounted Lancer on the verso was displayed in a case that allowed visitors to appreciate it in its entirety. The recto of the drawing illustrates Bosch’s rethinking of the position of Saint Anthony for the Temptation of Saint Anthony Triptych (ca. 1500–5) displayed nearby. Both sides of the drawing illustrate Bosch’s fascinating conceptualization of various hybrid monsters, which he developed carefully prior to representing them in painting.

The occasion of the exhibition provided the Prado with the opportunity to undertake serious technical studies on its Bosch paintings using the most current technology. The results of this important recent work are cited and illustrated throughout the catalogue, and were also featured at appropriate intervals throughout the exhibition itself. In conjunction with Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (ca. 1490–1500) triptych, for example, large photographs of new infrared reflectographs and X-radiography, displayed to the left of the painting, enabled visitors to better appreciate the creative process behind this monumental work. For the first time, such technical images illustrated the numerous changes Bosch made to the triptych during the underdrawing phase, making viewers aware of the immense planning and thinking behind this great work of art.

While highlighting the breadth and complexity of Bosch’s oeuvre, the Prado’s comprehensive exhibition also called attention to the many questions that remain unanswered about this elusive artist. The Madrid exhibition followed the Noordbrabants Museum’s 2016 exhibition Jheronimus Bosch: Visions of Genius, which staged the results of the nine-year Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP). The near-simultaneous staging of the two shows prompted significant disagreement between scholars from the BRCP and the Prado about the attribution of several works, including the Prado’s Tabletop of Seven Deadly Sins (ca. 1505–10) and Extracting the Stone of Madness (1501–5), which the BRCP argues are not authentic Bosch paintings. The two exhibitions, therefore, differed notably in content, with the Prado securing more paintings for its exhibition, including the National Gallery London’s Christ Mocked (ca. 1510) and the Temptation of Saint Anthony Triptych from Lisbon.

Despite the fact that he lived and worked more than five hundred years ago, Bosch continues to fascinate contemporary audiences. Bosch: The 5th Centenary Exhibition celebrated the remarkable oeuvre of this unique artist by assembling an extraordinary body of his most iconic works. The success of the exhibition was such that it was extended by two weeks. Still, as the debate ignited by the Prado and Noordbrabants exhibitions affirms, even with the aid of the most advanced technologies, aspects of Bosch’s oeuvre remain obscure. Reaffirming Bosch’s status as one of the most original and intriguing artists of all time, while also contributing significantly to the existing state of Bosch scholarship, the Prado’s momentous exhibition foretold the great future Bosch is yet to enjoy.

Lelia Packer
Acting Curator of Paintings, Watercolours, Miniatures and Manuscripts, Wallace Collection, London

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