Jheronimus Bosch: a painter for the 21st century
The paintings and drawings of the Netherlandish artist Jheronimus Bosch (ca. 1450-1516 CE) rank among the most creative works of art that mankind has produced. Bosch, working around 1500 in the city of ’s-Hertogenbosch, the northernmost more or less major city in the duchy of Brabant, challenges the minds of those who wish to gain some understanding of his creations. Others he just leaves in awe with his weird pictorial inventions. The most classical minds among us might feel uncomfortable when seeing the counter natural hellish scenes. When the work of Bosch is being discussed dispute is never far away. Bosch is fast, capricious, angry, scared, humorous. His work is old and rare; important heritage that was made in an age of transition, that confusing period around 1500, the age of discovery, church reform, world empires, urbanisation, capitalism.
The work of Bosch is relevant especially in times of uncertainty, anxiety and moral dilemmas. The Haywain, a painting that might better be called The Triumph of Greed, has an iconography that was single-handedly invented by Bosch. It is a brilliant visual emulation of Petrarch’s Trionfi (1351-1374). If Petrarch can be regarded as the inventor of humanism, Bosch can be viewed as his pupil. Bosch’s Wayfarer on the outside of the wings of the Triumph of Greed is another landmark in this respect. Instead of a saint, a grisaille imitating sculpture or something like that, Bosch depicts a vagabond, a nobody who is everyman at the same time. He is the pilgrim of life, bending to get through his earthly existence. This too is an innovative iconography in which no hero but an ordinary and inconsiderable man is been given center stage. Isn’t that a work for the 21st century? The pilgrimage of life in times of mass migration and The triumph of greed in the age of hypercapitalism.
Of course the analogies between a painting over 500 years old and modern times cannot but fail. Times have changed immensely and it takes hard and diligent work to understand only a little bit of those ancient times. And yet, when studied patiently our reward is that we feel a sense of connection with the people and their culture. That is the work of art historians and conservators: preserving our historical roots and making those roots visible and understandable, in both their familiarity and alterity. Through our publications and exhibitions we pull the past into the present. In addition to these classical means, online tools have begun to play an increasingly important role in this respect.
In the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, started in 2010, we try to combine and integrate these elements. In the first term of the project the aim was to document and analyse all the paintings that are more or less unanimously attributed to Bosch according to a standardised protocol. The idea behind this was that we want to try compare artworks as much as possible and not photographs. This is easier said than done and it requires the work of a professional photographer and a conservator with an interest in research. From a scientific point of view a standardised research set up is only natural but from a practical point of view this means trying to create similar circumstances in cultural environments that are not necessarily similar at all.
The reason why we went to great lengths to document Bosch’s paintings and drawings so extensively is that we realised that these artworks are really our primary sources and those documents could be disclosed at a much higher level than had been done so far. Instead of a ‘high resolution’ image of 5000 pixels we can also make an image of 50.000 pixels with relative ease. And we can do that not only for images in visible light but also in infrared and X-ray. However, in order to make these accessible, some arrangements have to be made. One needs an online tool with viewers to make this work. This, for now, became https://www.boschproject.org. It is currently the most extensive online data set for a single painter available for everyone with an internet connection.
Another aim of the BRCP is to help to keep the legacy of Jheronimus Bosch in good health. This means that the project funded several extensive restoration projects and provided advice during several other conservation treatments. The conservator on the team, Luuk Hoogstede from SRAL Maastricht, was a trainee in the Getty’s Panel Paintings Initiative, a project in which paintings conservators with a special interest for wood were trained specifically in the structural treatments of panels. The Panel Paintings Initiative awarded the BRCP a substantial grant for the structural treatment of the paintings by Bosch in Venice and Bruges as well.
In the period 2010-2016 no less than twelve paintings from a group of about twenty five were treated. Six out of those twelve restorations were made possible by the BRCP. All treatments were carried out at the initiative of and under the supervision of the institutions (i.e. museums) responsible for the paintings. A particular extensive collaboration existed with the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, where structural work on the panels was carried out by Roberto Saccuman and his trainees from the Panel Paintings Initiative, whereas Giulio Bono and his colleagues were responsible for the treatment of the painting surface. Under the supervision of chief restorer Chiara Maida this project was carried out between 2013 and 2016.
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