In my student days I was fascinated by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Printed copies of his paintings were good, but the originals were in the Prado museum, Madrid, and I was in London. Forty years later, and I’m finally standing in the Prado. I didn’t rush straight to the Bosch paintings, but spent a fascinating half hour on the formal portraits by Moro, Coello and sisters Sofonisba & Lucia Anguissola, both respected painters in the 1500s.
Kings, queens, the occasional infanta and there, in the middle of all those Hapsburgs (no reading of the label required, just check the lip) was Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII. Not flattering, and probably, therefore, an honest portrait, you can clearly see echoes of her father. The standout portrait in the room was that of Perejon, court jester of the duke of Alba, a painting by Moro so lifelike that it is virtually photographic.
And so to Bosch; his paintings of the temptations of St. Anthony are not to be admired for their realistic representation of any one person but are to be viewed for content and meaning. Anthony, with heavy-lidded eyes, almost blindly contemplates the world, while surrounded by Bosch’s trademark demons and phantasmagoria.
After the paintings of St. Anthony, unexciting to modern eyes, it’s the first of the Bosch classics: the Haywain. Brighter and fresher than you expect, the level of detail is astounding, but there is no attempt at realism even among the good and righteous.
Displayed between Bosch’s Haywain and his Adoration of the Magi is Pieter Breughel the Elder’s Triumph of Death. The work has strong echoes of Bosch but is clearly by another painter (post-dating Bosch by around 50 years), without his predecessor’s inventive demons, just an army of skeletons.
Bosch’s Adoration is a quieter, more restrained painting with excellent facial depictions. If his other classics are good, Bosch’s Adoration is superb.
Apart from the quality of rendition, it’s the detail you notice, the tiny figures in the background: the man attacked by one wolf, the woman pursued by another; the distant opposing armies, the bagpiper and dancing couple in a field and, as in every Bosch painting, that other staple: the single bird on a leafless branch (the ‘bird of death’).
But whatever you have seen already, nothing prepares you for what comes next: the Garden of Earthly Delights. Everyone knows this painting from posters on the walls of a thousand student bedsits. The left hand panel with contemporary representations of the known menagerie; the larger central panel with its parade of humans mixed with a strange, but relatively unthreatening, parade of wildlife. Centre left, note the highly realistic group of oversized birds – goldfinch, mallard, kingfisher and hoopoe – all easily recognisable, but why so large?
Strangely out of place in a painting from 1500 are the glass spheres and tubes which appear dotted throughout the central panel; and talking of the date, when folded shut, the outer surface of the triptych shows the third day of creation: a circular earth in a circular heaven. Circular, in 1500?
The right hand panel depicting punishment in the hereafter for gluttony, licentiousness, greed, etc. is the best candidate for the student bedsit. More inventive demons than would have appeared in one of Richard Dadd’s nightmares; more inventive punishments than the Inquisition ever dreamt of. Musical instruments feature strongly, since music was considered an adjunct to immorality. To modern eyes this panel is fantastic; for the post-medieval viewer it must have invoked pure terror.
Possibly I’m being unreasonable and perhaps I shouldn’t expect everyone to understand the message behind the three panels of Garden of Earthly Delights, but I was surprised by the number of people who neither knew the name of the work nor spent more than 30 seconds to study it. I couldn’t begin to tell them what they were missing in 30 seconds…
Time for a wind-down with a few additional Moros: dark, single-figure portraits with all the visual subtexts which would have been obvious to a contemporary viewer, but for which we now need to read the notes. Worth the wait to see the Bosch originals? Oh, yes.