Hieronymus BOSCH


1450-1516

 

 
 


 
   
Renaissance Art Map
 
   
   
Hieronymus Bosch  Between Heaven And Hell
 
 
    Introduction
 
   
    Life and Milieu
 
   
    Artistic Origins and Early Biblical Scenes
 
   
    The Mirror of Man
 
   
    The Last Judgement
 
   
    The Triumph of Sin
 
   
    The Pilgrimage of Life
 
   
    The Imitation of Christ
 
   
    The Triumph of the Saint    
         

 

 

 
 

 

 
Between Heaven And Hell
      

 
 
 
 


The Imitation of Christ
 

 

   

 

(Adoration of the Magi)

Although Bosch contributed many new themes to Netherlandish painting, it must be remembered that well over half of his pictures are devoted to traditional Christian subjects: the lives of the saints and the life of Christ, especially episodes of the Passion. As might be expected, many of his Christological scenes are fairly conventional, conforming to types which had been current in Northern Europe for several generations. They offer nothing new beyond, perhaps, an increased intensity of expression. This is true, as we have seen, of such early works as the Philadelphia »Epiphany« and the Frankfurt »Ecce Homo«. In representing Christ carrying the Cross, he occasionally depicted the good thief confessing to a friar or priest, but this anachronism was only a natural development of the late medieval tendency to clothe sacred history in contemporary modes and manners. Several paintings show his knowledge of the Flemish schools to the south. His »Nativity«, now lost but represented by a good copy in Cologne, reflects the compositions of Hugo van der Goes, whose influence is to be seen also in several Passion scenes discussed below. Likewise, the influence of Dirk Bouts and his followers can be discerned in a votive picture in Brussels, the »Christ on the Cross with Donors and Saints« (left), although Bosch has characteristically transformed the conventional distant view of Jerusalem into the homely forms of a simple Dutch town, perhaps 's-Hertogenbosch itself, veiled in atmospheric greys and lavenders.
In a number of important instances, however, Bosch transcended the limits of the biblical narrative to present a more universal image of the conflict between good and evil. This has already been observed in the devil-haunted tavern which serves as a setting for the early »Marriage Feast at Cana«, and Van Mander describes a »Flight into Egypt«, now lost, whose landscape contained an inn similarly possessed by demons. This idea also inspired one of Bosch's most enigmatic works, the »Epiphany« triptych in the Prado.

 

           


Epiphany. Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi
The Donor with St Peter and St Joseph
(left wing)
The Virgin and Child and the Three Magi (central panel)
The Donor with St Agnes (right wing)
c. 1510
Oil on wood, 138 x 72 cm (central), 138 x 34 cm (each wings)
Museo del Prado, Madrid

 

 

The Epiphany, also known as the Adoration of the Magi, is an early work dating before 1480. The painting depicts the presentation of the child Christ by Mary to the three wise men from the East, who bring gold, frankincense and myrrh to the stable in which he was born. Joseph is watching, and two other figures and animals may be seen in the stable. The highly personal inventive imagination of Bosch's later work is not evident here, but this loving treatment of the landscape of the Lowlands is seen in many of his later works.

 

 


Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi (detail)
c. 1510
Oil on wood, 138 x 72 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

 

 

 


Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi (detail)
c. 1510
Oil on wood, 138 x 72 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

 

 

 


Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi (detail)
c. 1510
Oil on wood, 138 x 72 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

 

 

 


Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi (detail)
c. 1510
Oil on wood, 138 x 72 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

 

 

 


Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi (detail)
c. 1510
Oil on wood, 138 x 72 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

 

 

 


Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi (closed)
c. 1510
Oil on wood, 138 x 72 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

 

 

 

The inner wings of this altarpiece are occupied by the kneeling figures of the donors, husband and wife, attended by their patron saints Peter and Agnes. The coats of arms behind them identify the couple as members of the Bronckhorst and Bosshuyse families, but nothing is known of these names which would help determine the date of the work or its original destination.
The central panel displays the adoration of the Christ Child by the three Kings or Magi. Many details of the composition, including the ruined stable and the sumptuous dress of the Magi, bring to mind Bosch's »Epiphany« in Philadelphia, but the casual mood of the earlier version has completely disappeard. Instead of reaching out impulsively towards the Magi, the Infant Christ now sits solemnly enthroned on his mother's lap. The Virgin, too, has acquired a new dignity and amplitude of form, perhaps inspired by Jan van Eyck's »Madonna of Chancellor Rolin« (Paris, Louvre). Set apart from the other figures by the projecting roof of the stable, the Virgin and Child resemble a cult statue beneath its baldachin, and the Magi approach with all the gravity of priests in a religious ceremony. The splendid crimson mantle of the kneeling King echoes the monumental figure of the Virgin. That Bosch intended to show a parallel between the homage of the Magi and the celebration of the Mass is clearly indicated by the gift which the oldest King has placed at the feet of the Virgin: it is a small sculptured image of the Sacrifice of Isaac, a prefigu-ration of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. Other Old Testament episodes appear on the elaborate collar of the second King, representing the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, and on the Moorish King's silver orb, depicting Abner offering homage to David (not David's reception of the three heroes, as commonly assumed). In the »Biblia Pauperum«, a popular religious picture book of the period, both scenes prefigure the Epiphany.
A group of peasants have gathered around the stable at the right. They peer from behind the wall with lively curiosity and scramble up to the roof in order to get a better view of the exotic strangers. The Shepherds had seen Christ on Christmas Eve, but they frequently reappear as spectators in fifteenth-century Epiphany scenes. Generally, however, they display much more reverence than do Bosch's peasants, whose boisterous behaviour contrasts strongly witht the dignified bearing of the Magi. This difference is significant, for the Shepherds were frequently identified with the Jews who rejected Christ, while the Magi represent the Gentiles who accepted him as the true Messiah.
The most curious detail of Bosch's »Epiphany« is the man standing just inside the stable behind the Magi. Naked except for a thin shirt and a crimson robe gathered around his loins, he wears a bulbous crown; a gold bracelet encircles one arm, and a transparent cylinder covers a sore on his ankle. He regards the Christ Child with an ambiguous smile, but the faces of several of his companions appear distinctly hostile.
Because they stand within the dilapidated stable, time-honoured symbol of the Synagogue, these grotesque figures have been identified as Herod and his spies, or Antichrist and his counsellors. Although neither identification is quite convincing, the association of the chief figure with the powers of darkness is clearly suggested by the demons embroidered on the strip of cloth hanging between his legs. A row of similar forms can be seen on the large object which he holds in one hand; surprisingly, this can only be the helmet of the second King, and still other monsters decorate the robes of the Moorish King and his servant. These demonic elements undoubtedly refer to the pagan past of the Magi, recalling the medieval belief, echoed in the »Golden Legend«, that they had practised sorcery before their conversion to Christ.
In an unpublished paper, Charles Scillia has plausibly suggested that the mysterious figure in the stable represents still another pagan sorcerer, Balaam, who was instructed by God to announce: »l shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel.« (Numbers 24:17.)Traditionally interpreted as referring to the Star of Bethlehem and the coming of Christ, this prophecy was thought to have inspired the perpetual watch for the Star which centuries later resulted in the journey of the Magi. If this identification is correct, the crystal-encased wound on the leg of Bosch-'s figure may allude to the injured foot which Balaam suffered in the Old Testament episode, and his companions are perhaps the Moabite ambassadors sent to him by King Balak.
But if Balaam thus appears as a precursor of the Magi, he also possesses a more unfavourable significance in the Prado »Epiphany«. Although he refused Balak's request to curse the Israelites, he seems later to have conspired with the Moabites to seduce them away from the Lord into idolatry (Numbers 31:16). To the Middle Ages, therefore, he was not only a prophet but also typified the false preacher, the teacher of heresy. This latter aspect would account for his presence within the stable, whose sinister nature is indicated by the owl and lizard half hidden in the caves; and it is surely no accident that this thorny crown closely resembles the headdress of the blue devil serenading the lovers in the »Haywain«. Through Balaam, perverter of the Jews, Bosch once more reminds us of the antithesis between Church and the Synagogue.
The stable and its inhabitants seem to be the source of the malevolent influences contaminating almost every part of the majestic landscape which unfolds in the background of all three panels. Demons haunt the ruined portal in the left wing, where Joseph sits hunched over a fire. The crumbling walls around him are the remains of King David's palace, near which the Nativity was popularly supposed to have occurred; like the stable, it represents the Synagogue, the Old Law collapsing at the advent of the New. In the field beyond, peasants dance to the sound of bagpipes, a familiar symbol of the carnal life. On the right wing, wolves attack a man and a woman on a desolate road. Behind the stable in the centre, the followers of two of the Magi rush towards each other like opposing armies; the host of the third King appears beyond the sand dunes. The gently rolling countryside contains, in addition, an abandoned tavern and a pagan idol. Even the distant grey-blue walls of Jerusalem, one of Bosch's most evocative renderings of the Holy City, appear vaguely sinister. A little roadside cross leans precariously to one side at the left, and the two watch-towers are architecturally similar to the demonic city which Bosch depicted in the »St Anthony« triptych in Lisbon.
The Epiphany had for centuries been closely associated with the Mass. Just as the incarnate Christ appeared to the Shepherds and the Magi, so does he continue to appear to the faithful in the form of the bread and wine. In the Philadelphia »Epiphany«, Bosch had alluded to the Eucharist by depicting the Gathering of Manna, a prefiguration of the Last Supper, on the sleeve of the Moorish King. The relationship between Epiphany and Eucharist, however, is more explicitly stated on the outer wings of the Prado triptych, which, when closed, display the Mass of St Gregory (left). The tall, narrow panels are painted in a greyish-brown monochrome, except for the two male donors who appear in natural colour. They may represent father and son, but neither can be identified with the husband on the left inner wing.
The legend of the Mass of St Gregory concerns a eucharistic miracle which attached itself rather late in the Middle Ages to the name of Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604). One day, when Gregory was celebrating Mass, an assistant doubted the true presence of Christ in the host. At the earnest prayer of the Pope for some sign from Heaven to refute the unbeliever, Christ himself appeared suddenly on the altar, displaying his wounds and surrounded by the instruments of his Passion. Bosch represents this miracle in the form of a spiritual dialogue between the kneeling Pope and the Man of Sorrows emerging from the sarcophagus above, unnoticed by the spectators behind the altar, and sensed, but not actually seen, by the acolyte and the two donors.
The basic elements of this composition, the frontal placement of the altar and the prominence of the sarcophagus and the great arch behind, were probably inspired by an engraving which Israhel van Meckenem made in the 1480s. Bosch, however, achieved a monumentality absent in his model by lowering the viewpoint and by increasing the distance between Gregory and his vision; in addition, he exchanged the usual instruments of the Passion for the biblical episodes which they symbolize. Beginning with the Agony in the Garden and the Betrayal, these scenes are presented as pictures painted on the lower part of the arch whose upper part becomes a mountain from which the Crucifixion emerges into the space of the church itself. Gregory's vision, in fact, fills the entire church; instead of vaults, we see a cloudy night sky from which an angel descends to receive the soul of the good thief. The crucifixion of the bad thief, however, has been replaced by the suicide of Judas Iscariot whose limp figure dangles from a tree on the right-hand slope, his soul borne away by a black devil. In this detail, Bosch alludes once again to the conflict between Church and Synagogue, reminding us that it was Judas's treachery which precipitated the events of the Passion and death of Christ.
By comparison with the Prado »Epiphany«, whose iconographical complexities are exceeded only by the »Garden of Earthly Delights« and the Lisbon »St Anthony«, the Passion scenes which Bosch painted during his middle and later years are simpler, their imagery more easily grasped by the viewer. One such work is the »Christ Carrying the Cross« in the Palacio Real, Madrid. Christ dominates the foreground, almost crushed beneath the heavy Cross which the elderly Simon of Cyrene struggles to lift from his back. The ugly heads of his executioners rise steeply in a mass towards the left; in the distance, the sorrowing Virgin collapses into the arms of John the Evangelist. Whereas Bosch's earlier composition of this subject in Vienna had been diffuse and primarily narrative, the Madrid version is concentrated, and the way that Christ ignores his captors to look directly at the spectator gives it the quality of a timeless devotional image.
Perhaps, as some critics claim, Bosch equated the historical tormentors of Christ with mankind at large, whose daily wickedness continues to torture Christ even after his Resurrection. This notion of the »Perpetual Passion« was not uncommon in Bosch's day. In the Madrid picture, however, Christ's gaze is not so much an accusation as an appeal, as if to say, in the words of Matthew 16:24: »lf any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.« Simon of Cyrene had been compelled by the soldiers to take up the Cross of Christ, but for centuries the Cross had been willingly embraced by pious Christians who sought to emulate the Saviour in their own lives. To imitate Christ was to submit to the assaults of this world with the same patience and humility displayed by Christ himself during his Passion; for temporal affliction, as the mystics and moralizers never tired of telling their audience, purifies the soul just as fire tempers steel and refines gold. This religious ideal is well known to us through Thomas a Kempis's famous book, but a more succinct expression of it can be found in a prayer attached to a fifteenth-century German woodcut representing Christ Carrying the Cross: »O dear Lod Jesus Christ, as thou hast carried thy cross, so grant me, dear Lord, that I also patiently bear all adversity and sorrows which may befall me, that I therewith lay low all villainy and temptation of the body and of the battle over the evil spirit.«

 

         

 


Adoration of the Child
Oil on wood, 66 x 43 cm
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

   
 

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