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
 

 

 

 

The concept of the Way of the Cross, the Imitation of Christ, was further developed by Bosch in a group of half-length Passion scenes. The earliest example most probably is the »Christ Crowned with Thorns« (London, National Gallery). The large, firmly modelled figures are composed against the plain, grey-blue background with the utmost simplicity, the white-robed Christ surrounded by his four tormentors. One soldier holds a crown of thorns above his head, another tugs at his robe, and a third touches his hand with a mocking gesture. Their actions, however, seem curiously ineffectual and, as in the Madrid »Christ Carrying the Cross«, Christ ignores his persecutors to look calmly, even gently, at the spectator.
The half-length format and the tendency to crowd the figures against the picture plane with little indication of space, are characteristics which reflect a Flemish devotional type popularized by Hugo van der Goes and Hans Memling. Like its Flemish models, the London »Christ Crowned with Thoms« presents the sacred scene not in its historical actuality but in its timeless aspect, in this instance, as a prototype for the Christian virtues in the midst of adversity.
Bosch's interpretation of the Imitation of Christ must have appealed to his contemporaries, for he reworked the London composition into a second version of the subject. Although the original painting is lost, it survives in no less than seven copies, a testimony to its popularity.
This second composition, in turn, seems to have inspired the large, imposing »Christ Crowned with Thoms« in the Escorial, in which the figures have been adjusted to a circular field and placed against a gold ground (right). Christ sits on a ledge in the immediate foreground, and, as before, his eyes engage the viewer. This time, however, his furrowed brow clearly expresses his suffering, and the static gestures of his captors in the earlier versions have been transformed into violent actions. A snarling rat-faced man rips off Christ's robe with a mailed fist; his smirking companion has placed one foot on the ledge in order to push the crown of thorns more tightly on his head, while a third man watches intently from behind the other two. In contrast, the two spectators on the left look on with cool detachment. This torment of Christ is given cosmic meaning in the grisaille border, where angels and devils are locked in unending conflict.

 

 

 


Christ Mocked. Crowning with Thorns
1495-1500
Oil on wood, 73 x 59 cm
National Gallery, London

 

 

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, written in the early 15th century has been one of the most influential and widely read books of Christian guidance. As its name suggests, it outlines how the Christian should imitate the life of Christ, especially in the calm acceptance of ills that are received from others. The scenes of Christ's Passion include the placing of the crown of thorns on his head and the taunting of' the King of the Jews'. In this portrayal of the scene Bosch shows Christ, surrounded by four tormentors to whom he is paying little attention, gazing quietly, almost reflectively directly at the viewer as if confirming the unimportance of his physical torments. Bosch would have reached manhood as a Kempis's book became popular and it has been claimed that this painting is a direct expression of the book's message. Like Bosch's Christ Carrying the Cross, this painting contains little depth, the figures being crowded towards the picture plane achieving maximum pictorial impact. As in most of Bosch's paintings, as well as those of his contemporaries, the figures are in the dress of the day.

 

 


Christ Mocked. Crowning with Thorns (detail)
1495-1500
National Gallery, London

 

 

Christ Mocked. Crowning with Thorns (detail)
1495-1500
National Gallery, London

 

     

 

The malice of Christ's enemies reaches a hysterical pitch in Bosch's last Passion scene, the »Christ Carrying the Cross« in Ghent. This time Christ is accompanied by St Veronica, an apocryphal figure not mentioned in the Bible, who supposedly wiped the sweat from her Saviour's face as he struggled beneath the Cross and thereby obtained a miraculous image of his features on her handkerchief. The two thieves appear at the right. Around these four figures surge a howling mob who scowl, leer and roll their eyes at their victims, their twisted and deformed faces glowing with an unearthly light against the dark ground. These are not men but demons, perfect incarnations of all the lusts and passions that ever stained the soul. Bosch never rendered human physiognomies with a more intense ugliness, and it has been thought that he was inspired here by Leonardo's drawings of grotesque heads. It is just as likely, however, that he turned to the German artists who for generations had endowed the tormentors of Christ with monstrously deformed features.
In this maelstrom of evil, the heads of Christ and Veronica appear oddly calm and aloof. Eyes closed, they appear to respond to some inner vision rather than to the tumult around them; Veronica's lips even curve in a slight smile. Paradoxically, it is Christ's image imprinted on her veil which looks out to us beseechingly. The contrast between Christ himself and the two thieves could not be greater. The bad thief, at lower right, snarls back at his taunting captors; the good thief above appears about to collapse in terror at the words of his diabolic confessor. They are carnal men, still immersed in the troubles of this world, but Christ has withdrawn to a higher sphere where his persecutors cannot reach him. In the midst of suffering he is victorious. And to all who take up his Cross and follow him, Christ promises the same victory over the World and the Flesh: this was the message which Bosch's half-length Passion scenes presented to his contemporaries.

 

 


Christ Carrying the Cross
1515-16
Oil on panel, 74 x 81 cm
Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent

 

In what is close in character to a cinematic close-up, Bosch has produced here a remarkably dramatic evocation of turmoil on the road to Calvary as well as introducing the powerful effect of caricature. The only two heads treated with simple dignity, noticeably at variance with all the others, are those of Christ and St Veronica. The variety of expression on the faces of the mob invests the painting with its power to evoke a great sympathy with the quiet submissivencss in the central head of Christ. The two thieves to be crucified with Christ arc included, the bad thief in the bottom right corner snarling viciously back at his tormentors; and. in the upper right corner, the anguished, repentant thief taunted by a hideous priest. The strength of the drawing and the sense of light in the painting indicate that this is a work from Bosch's last period.

 


Christ Carrying the Cross.
The Repentant Thief
(detail)
1515-16
Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent

 

The four most significant figures in this crowded panel are Christ, Saint Veronica and the two thieves who are to be crucified with Christ. They have appeared frequently in Bosch's depiction of the story of Christ's last days but here they are given particular significance. There is little depth in the painting, all the heads being apparently on the same plane, allowing Bosch to express the great variety of emotion, recognizable to all onlookers, in the faces of the participants. The repentant thief is apart from the viciousness, and with upturned eyes and anguished features, as becomes the penitent, pales as he contemplates his fate. This is being outlined in graphic detail, it seems, by the fiendish, repellent priest at his side while a stern self-righteous citizen urges him forward.

 


Christ Carrying the Cross.
The Head of Christ
(detail)
1515-16
Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent

 

In Bosch's crowded close-up Christ's head is emphasized by the cross itself, the only straight line form in the painting. It seems like beams of light rather than wood illuminating his head and provides the source of the light for the subtle and carefully drawn modelling. In the rest of the painting, except for the head of St Veronica, the modelling is coarse and the lighting inconsistent. In the bottom left corner there is another head of Christ, this time with open eyes and a strong feeling of compassionate life emanating from them. The contrast between the Christ accepting his fate and the everlasting life that St Veronica has captured on her veil is typical of the oblique manner in which many medieval paintings carry their messages.

 


Christ Carrying the Cross.
Taunting the Bad Thief
(detail)
1515-16
Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent

 

This close-up of one head reveals how effectively Bosch can represent the vile and brutal in a remarkably explicit form through the use of distortion. His demons and monsters are inventions that carry great visual authority. Here recognizable human features are presented at the limit of conviction by his acute observation of facial expression. This man is nose to nose with the defiant thief and sheer delight in hate shines from his staring eye while, deafeningly he shouts taunts and probably obscenities. Is it not also possible to discern the relief of 'There, but for the Grace of God, go I'?

 


Christ Carrying the Cross.
St Veronica
(detail)
1515-16
Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent

 

According to legend, the apocryphal figure of St Veronica met Christ carrying his cross on the way to Calvary and offered to wipe his brow with her yeil. As a result his features were transferred to the veil. This cloth was reputed to have been preserved in Rome from about AD 700 and was, indeed, exhibited in St Peter's in 1854. Since St Veronica did not appear to exist in the Bible and it has also been suggested that her name was corrupted from vera icon (true picture), the story has no longer any acceptance. Nevertheless, it was a popular myth, providing a relic similar to the Turin shroud. In Bosch's painting both Christ and St Veronica seem quietly withdrawn from the strident scene surrounding them. Her portrait is just above the cloth she is holding, which bears the picture of Christ, not a mere shadow.

   
 

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