“There’s so much in him ….” Him being Hieronymus Bosch. True.
Here’s Waldemar Januszczak being interviewed by the brilliant Janina Ramirez, as part of her Art Detective podcast series, on the subject of Bosch’s so-called Earthly Delights (1480s or 1490s; Prado, Madrid). Worth a listen; it does well, on the whole, to avoid, if not rubbish, some of the nonsense that people have had to say about Bosch, and this particular picture, in the past (including the “crazy idea” that this picture had something to do with Adamites!). It does a good job too to emphasise the basic religious significance of this picture, despite what you might think when you look at it for the first time.
There are some problems, though. It’s not all that exceptional, for instance, that Bosch ended up in the Brotherhood of Our Lady, as this was family tradition. (Though it might be exceptional that Bosch, as a painter, achieved such a senior position: he rapidly rose to the status of sworn brother, a promotion from “ordinary member,” and artists didn’t tend to occupy such an elevated position.) Most problematic, though, is the idea, rehearsed here, that the triptych was an altarpiece ( “… of course it was,” says Januszczak), which was set up in the Brotherhood of Our Lady’s chapel. OK, so a copy — they say here — might later have sat on the altar there ( … though I can’t remember what the evidence is for this? is there any? don’t think there is); and it is a triptych. But neither of those things mean that the original was an altarpiece.
For a start, not all triptychs were altarpieces; that’s the kind of assumption that led to the bonkers Adamites theory. (Put simply, that theory arose because if the triptych is assumed to have been an altarpiece, then it follows that it can’t really have sat on a Christian altar, can it? Sorry: the imagery just doesn’t fit there, for this image bears no sensible correlation with what actually goes on at a Christian altar …. So people went scurrying about to find alternative “altars”. Cue: the Adamites, whose altar, adorned with Bosch’s picture, presided over all the orgiastic sex. Err ….)
Any anyway, more compellingly, all the evidence — and when we’re dealing with Bosch, evidence is a rare commodity so should be seized upon whenever it’s available — suggests that the triptych was commissioned by a “local noble” for a domestic, albeit very grand, setting. That noble was Count Engelbrecht II of Nassau.
The triptych is first documented in the Nassau Palace of Coudenberg in Brussels in 1517: it was seen there by Antonio de Beatis (see, if you can, Gombrich, ‘The Earliest Description of Bosch’s Garden of Delight,’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 30 (1967); Steppe, ‘Jheronimus Bosch. Bijdrage tot de historische … ,’ in Steppe (ed.), Jheronimus Bosch … (1967) ). At that time, in 1517, the triptych was in the possession of Count Henry III of Nassau-Breda, Engelbrecht’s nephew (the latter died in 1504 without direct legitimate heirs, so his property went to Henry). Current thinking is that Engelbrecht commissioned the triptych in the 1480s or 1490s (though disagreement reigns over which decade it was). Neatly, we do know that Engelbrecht visited ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 1481, to attend the 14th Chapter of the Order of the Golden Fleece; and coincidentally, the first time that we find Bosch mentioned as a painter in his own right in the surviving documentation comes from that very year, when “Joen the Painter” sold shares in the Bosch family house at ‘s-Hertogenbosch to his older brother Goessen. Engelbrecht visited again in 1496, in the entourage of Philip the Fair. (The latter, we know as a matter of fact, was a patron of Bosch’s: in 1504, presumably with Engelbrecht once more in tow, Philip the Fair was in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and asked Bosch to produce a large triptych for him showing the Last Judgement. Inevitably — though not necessarily — this leads to speculation that Engelbrecht might have suggested to Philip that Bosch was an artist to be aware of!) And given that the Nassau owned a property nearby at Breda, we can guess that Engelbrecht, as well as Henry, actually visited ‘s-Hertogenbosch quite regularly, for business as well as pleasure.
The Prado endorses this view concerning Engelbrecht’s likely patronage, as did the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP Catalogue Raisonné, 2016). Not least this is because the triptych’s provenance can be traced from Engelbrecht-Henry Nassau into the possession of Phillip II of Spain, and, by extension, from there into the Prado in 1933. (Incidentally, it’s worth noting that when Phillip sent the triptych to the monastery of El Escorial, in 1593, it was not placed in a religious setting there either … it was placed instead in the royal apartments, in the Gallery of the Infanta.)
Januszczak surely knows this story about the triptych’s provenance: after all, displayed in the very same room as the Earthly Delights in the 2016 Prado exhibition was a portrait of the triptych’s likely patron, Engelbrecht, done in the 1480s by the so-called Master of the Princely Portraits. (You can just about make this out in photograph above, in the display cabinet.)
So, good and interesting podcast. But let’s not forget the evidence.
** Shameful plug, and tenuous link, alert: the podcast mentions Bruegel, and in case you’re interested, I’m giving a lecture about Bruegel at the Holburn Museum in Bath on March 22, to coincide with their exhibition Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty. More here.