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The Garden of Delights (central panel), between 1494 and 1505, oil on wood, 220 x 389 cm. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado.

A creator of monsters and infernal visions, Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) was not, however, a heretic or an outsider. Trained in his family's workshop in Bois-le-Duc, he joined the influential brotherhood of Notre-Dame, dedicated to the cult of the Virgin. A painter of humanist culture, in tune with the urban elite of his time, he worked for an aristocratic and even princely clientele.

Jheronimus van Aken was born around 1450 in 's-Hertogenbosch. The Akens had been painters for several generations. The grandfather left Nijmegen in 1426 to settle in 's-Hertogenbosch. In 1462, the father, Anthonius, bought a house called In Sint Thoenis (At Saint Anthony's), located on the Grote Markt. Anthonissen is also the middle name of our painter, in whose work this patron saint will be very present. Like his ancestors, who had chosen the name of their home town (Aken: Aachen) as their patronymic, Jheronimus adopted the name of his home town, or at least the ending that is sufficient to identify it: 'bosch', the wood.

Den Bosch: an artistic crossroads

S-Hertogenbosch, literally 'the duke's wood', was founded in 1185 by the dukes of Brabant on the site of their hunting forest. In 1430, the duchy became part of the House of Burgundy, with Brussels as its capital. In 1477, following the marriage of Maximilian I to Mary of Burgundy, the duchy and the whole of the Netherlands passed to the Habsburgs. At the end of the Middle Ages, 's-Hertogenbosch was one of the most prosperous cities in Brabant, along with Brussels, Antwerp and Leuven. Many craftsmen worked there, particularly in the service of religious establishments, churches, convents, beguinages and confraternities, mainly under the Franciscans and Dominicans. In the first half of the 16th century, there were about thirty churches. The collegiate church of St. John the Evangelist, which houses a miraculous image of the Virgin (the Zoete Moeder, the Gentle Mother), became the most important place of pilgrimage in the Netherlands.

The Escamander, ca. 1510-30, oil on wood, 53.6 x 65.3 cm, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Musée municipal.

Spiritual renewal and acute awareness of sin

Religious life was strongly influenced by the Devotio moderna (Modern Devotion), promoted by the preacher Geert Grote (1340-1384), disseminated by the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, and through a work that was to be published in many languages: The Imitation of Jesus Christ by Thomas a Kempis.

The Hay Cart Triptych (central panel), 1510-16, oil on wood, 133 x 100 cm, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado.

This climate of heightened religiosity and these themes are reflected in Bosch's work, which is permeated by the notion of sin. But for the painter, as for Sebastian Brant - the author of the book The Ship of Fools - religious morality is coupled with social morality, and sins are follies that are harmful both to the individual - who is thus running to his or her ruin - and to the community - which must repress them in order to preserve the social order. The Brothers of the Common Life were established in 1425 in Bois-le-Duc and were very involved in the Latin School of Bois-le-Duc, where the young painter studied while training in the family workshop. Bosch's first name, Jheronimus (Jerome in French), testifies to a strong family link with these brothers, whose patron saint was Saint Jerome and who were also called Hieronymites.

An art born in the heart of a humanist home

This school, where Erasmus spent several years in the next generation, helped to create a humanist centre that was also supported by the various printers established in the city. In 1484, Gerard van der Leempt published a strange work, The Vision of Tundal, written by the Irish monk Marcus de Cashel (12th-13th centuries), an account of a journey into the afterlife, many passages of which are reflected in the painter's works. These printers published devotional texts and letters of indulgence as well as classical and humanist writers. Erasmus' great work, In Praise of Madness, was not published until after the painter's death, but The Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant, one of Erasmus' models, was published in Dutch as early as 1500, and the painting of the same name in the Louvre refers explicitly to it.

Hieronymus Bosch and workshop work

We do not know how Bosch's workshop functioned, but there is every reason to believe that he continued the family tradition, working with his father, his uncles, his elder brother Goessen and his nephew Anthonius Goessens, all painters. Archival documents also mention apprentices. The underlying design of the panels, revealed by modern techniques, betrays the intervention of several hands on some of his works. "The collaboration on an equal footing of masters who were clearly not equal in talent must have been part of the daily practice of Bosch's family workshop," writes Bernard Vermet (in Jérôme Bosch, l'œuvre complet, éditions Ludion/Flammarion, 2002).

The Excision of the Stone of Madness, ca. 1510-20, oil on wood, 48.8 x 34.6 cm, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado.

Phantom commissioners

Who did the master work for? It is known that the church of San Juan housed several altarpieces painted by him, including the one for the Confraternity of Our Lady, of which only two small panels remain. The Saint John the Baptist (now in Madrid) had a portrait of the commissioner under the gigantic plant that later covered it: this was probably Jan van Vladeracken, sworn brother and provost in 1488-89. This "ghostly" patron is not the only one in Bosch's work: others have been found, under the repaints, in the Last Judgement in Vienna, the Crucified Martyrdom in Venice, or the Ecce Homo in Frankfurt.

The reason for these disappearances remains unknown. Were they caused by the painter himself - but for what reasons? Were they due to the politico-religious evolution of a region that became Calvinist with its attachment to the United Provinces in the 17th century? Or to commercial reasons? For Bosch's immense success, from his lifetime and throughout Europe, led to the dismantling of certain altarpieces and the transformation of the panels into autonomous pieces, on which the figure of the donor became superfluous...

Source: Manuel Jover Art Knowledge

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