Bosch in detail (Till-Holger Borchert) 2016
[Ludion, Antwerp, 2016, 320 pages]
[English translation: Till-Holger Borchert, Bosch in detail. Ludion, Antwerp, 2016, 320 pages]
[French translation: Till-Holger Borchert, Bosch par le détail. Editions Hazan, Vanves Cedex, 2016, 320 pages]
The big plus of this publication are the large illustrations of details from the oeuvre of Hieronymus Bosch, offering the reader the opportunity to scrutinise some parts of the paintings closer and longer than would be possible in a museum or at an exhibition. If the book is purchased, the reader will also gain access to a digital version of some of the photographs through a personal code. The comments were written by Till-Holger Borchert, chief curator of the Musea Brugge [Bruges Museums]. In the introduction he announces that this publication does not pretend to be a scholarly monograph on the artist.
The book has three parts: a biography of Bosch, a short survey of his works and – by far the largest part – details from his paintings and drawings, classified by theme. These themes are: landscapes, architecture, faces, grisailles, heaven & hell, music & noise, monsters & mythical beasts, and the four elements. It could be remarked that in spite of this structure the way in which the details are presented is rather arbitrary.
In the biography [pp. 9-11] the author sometimes shows a singular imagination. We read that the house of Bosch’s father was destroyed by the great fire of 1463 and that afterwards the house was rebuilt by this same father himself. We also read that after Bosch passed away the family workshop was led by one of the painter’s nephews. Both claims are based on nothing. We are also informed that in contemporary documents the painter was called ‘Jheroen’ or ‘Joen’. The archives do mention ‘Joen’ en ‘Jeroen’, but never ‘Jheroen’. Grandfather Jan van Aken is said to have moved from Nijmegen to ’s-Hertogenbosch ‘in 1426’, as if that is a standing fact. Van Dijck 2001a: 15, gives ‘short before 1427’. We further read that Bosch died from the plague (Bosch possibly died from pleurisy, compare Van Dijck 2001a: 49). That the Berlin St John on Patmos panel and the Madrid St John the Baptist panel were painted for the altarpiece of the Confraternity of Our Lady, is not introduced as an hypothesis (which it still is) but as a certainty (the same on pages 16-17).
In the survey of Bosch paintings [pp. 13-41] the author sometimes, but not always, follows the insights of the Bosch Research and Conservation Project. The most conspicuous examples of this are when the Ghent Carrying of the Cross (p. 35) is dated circa 1520 and attributed to a follower of Bosch and when the Prado Tabletop (p. 40) is attributed to Bosch’s workshop or to a follower. But the Bruges Last Judgment (pp. 30-31) is said to have been painted by Bosch ànd his workshop (which is more careful than the BRCP) whereas the Vienna Carrying of the Cross wing (p. 23) is situated circa 1500-1505 (which is less careful than the BRCP, which dates ‘circa 1490-150’). This part also has some inaccuracies. It is not true that the Lisbon St Anthony triptych is the only original Bosch painting from which Bruegel borrowed certain motifs for his engravings (p. 28): Bruegel also borrowed motifs from the Garden of Delights. When the author writes about the Prado Cutting of the Stone he claims that Lubbert Das was a fictitious jester figure from late medieval Dutch texts (p. 34). This claim is based on nothing.
When commenting the numerous details from Bosch paintings and drawings [pp. 42-315] the author regularly provides information that may be interesting for the general reader, often regarding the painter’s style and technique. Some examples of this.
- Thanks to his connections with the Burgundian court Bosch was probably familiar with the illustrations of war machines in Bellifortis manuscripts (p. 102, influence of Falkenburg 2011).
- Painting portraits was not Bosch’s forte (p. 111).
- Bosch clearly had a nice sense of humour and wanted to entertain his intended viewers (p. 130, on pp. 182-183 a very relevant example of this from the Madrid Adoration of the Magi).
- The little devil in the lower right corner of the Berlin St John on Patmos panel is planning to steal the saint’s inkwell (p. 244).
- The red devil between the musicians in the hell of the Garden of Delights is dressed in old-fashioned Burgundian style, a detail that won’t have escaped Bosch’s intended viewers at the Burgundian court (p. 264, influence of Falkenburg 2011).
- In the central panel of the Garden of Delights Bosch seems to be influenced by the festivities at the Burgundian court (p. 287, influence of Falkenburg 2011).
- When painting animals Bosch was very likely influenced by illustrations in medieval bestiaries (p. 288).
- The Lisbon St Anthony triptych is dominated by fish that are situated outside their natural biotope (water) (p. 295).
Unfortunately this part also has quite a number of passages that are inaccurate or questionable. Some examples.
- The strange plant in the Madrid St John the Baptist panel is said to represent the inner vision of the saint (p. 48). That this plant is a later addition intended to hide the original patron is not mentioned.
- In the right interior panel of the Madrid Adoration of the Magi two figures are said to be watching a stork’s nest, ‘probably a subtle allusion to the patrons’ wish to have children’ (p. 59). But it isn’t a stork’s nest, it is a wheel with the corpse of an executed person on it.
- A withered branch is said to be ‘a common allusion’ to impotence. I have not found this association in Middle Dutch texts, whereas in these texts withered branches are common allusions to ‘sinfulness’.
- In the Rotterdam Pedlar tondo the signboard is said to represent a goose and this points out that the clients of this inn are being ‘plucked like a goose’ (p. 105). But it isn’t a goose, it is a white swan.
- That the characters in the Gula scene of the Madrid Tabletop are beggars (p. 141) seems very improbable.
- That the woman with a book on top of her head in the Madrid Cutting of the Stone is the lover of the monk with a pitcher in his hand (p. 144) also seems hard to accept.
- On pages 146-147 there is a close up of the operation in the Madrid Cutting of the Stone. That the ‘doctor’ does not cut away a stone but a little flower is not mentioned.
- The grisaille on the ‘outside’ of the Berlin St John on Patmos panel is said to show the Passion ‘counterclockwise’ (p. 150). On the contrary, the scenes are shown clockwise.
- On page 156 we read that the Vienna Last Judgment triptych was painted for Philip the Fair. On page 210 we read that Bosch ‘probably’ painted this triptych for Philip the Fair.
- That the child with the apple in the right exterior panel of the Lisbon St Anthony triptych is the Christ Child and that the man next to It is loudly complaining about the ‘ironical masquerade’ that Bosch is setting up here (the Christ Child meeting the Christ from the Passion) (p. 176) is a rather far-fetched interpretation, to put it mildly.
- The man on the bovine animal in the lower right interior panel of the Haywain is said to be ‘a priest of the false religion’ because he is holding a chalice in his hand (p. 196). As this figure is wearing a helmet, isn’t it more logical that he is a soldier who has been robbing churches?
- In the Heaven tondo of the Madrid Tabletop, to the right, we see the apostles and beneath them the prophets (p. 202). This is wrong: the ‘apostles’ are female saints and beneath them are the male saints.
- The female sinner with a toad on her chest in the right interior panel of the Garden of Delights is said to be wearing a transparant dress (p. 206). This is not correct: her face and neck are burned, the rest of her body is white.
- The scene in the lower left interior panel of the Lisbon St Anthony triptych is interpreted as follows: the devils accuse St Anhtony of having committed sins during his youth (p. 250). Not a word about the crow on the ice that has been killed by an arrow.
- Page 224 is about the drawing The field has eyes, the wood has ears. The author refers to the (not very plausible) interpretation according to which Bosch is said to have drawn a rebus alluding to the name of his city, ’s-Hertogenbosch. That the drawing clearly represents a proverb is not mentioned.
- The author sees a woman in the figure with a little dragon in the central panel of the Lisbon St Anthony triptych and the horn of the dragon looks like a ladder (p. 258). This figure looks more like a man (with a moustache). The horn does not look like a ladder but is at the same time a ‘doornstokje’ (a stick with thorns), in the late Middle Ages the attribute of a judge or of a bailiff.
- Page 263 deals with the Treeman (Garden of Delights, right interior panel). A devil is climbing a ladder and heading towards the ‘aarsgat’ (anus) of the Treeman and this word is said to have also meant ‘the lower part of a cut tree’ (p. 263). Is this relevant, as the body of the Treeman is not a tree but an eggshell?
- The author can’t find the head of a monster in the Munich Last Judgment fragment (pp. 274-275). Nevertheless, the head can clearly be seen (lower left).
- That the owl in the Rotterdam Owl’s nest drawing is protecting its young from the light and in doing so (metaphorically) forbids them access to knowledge (p. 277) is a far-fetched, even very implausible interpretation.
- The unnaturally large bird with its red-white-black-coloured head in the central panel of the Lisbon St Anthony triptych is called a bullfinch with a beak that is too long (p. 298). One does not have to be an ornithologist to see that this a goldfinch (but probably the author was confused here, because in Dutch a bullfinch is called ‘goudvink’, which literally means ‘goldfinch’).
- The monstrous bird in the lower left interior panel of the Lisbon St Anthony triptych devouring its own young is said to devour a toad (p. 313). The unfortunate young bird and its mother have paws that are exactly the same.
Even though this is not a ‘scholarly monograph’ on Bosch, the list of more or less unfortunate passages is quite long. But it still is a book with very nice illustrations.
[explicit 3rd October 2016]