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Hieronymus Bosch

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Gothic and Early Renaissance
 
 
 
Hieronymus Bosch
 
 
 
 
The Imitation of Christ
 
 

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

 
 
 
 
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.

 
 
 

Christ Crowned with Thorns
Oil on panel, 165 x 195 cm
Monasterio de San Lorenzo, El Escorial




Christ Carrying the Cross
Oil on panel, 150 x 94 cm
Palacio Real, Madrid


Crucifixion with a Donor
1480-85
Oil on oak, 74,7 x 61 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

 
 
 

 
 
 
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