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MADRID — Commemorating the fifth centenary of the death of Hieronymus Bosch, Madrid’s El Museo del Prado has arranged an exhibition that, according to its catalogue, displays “the greatest number of Bosch’s works ever to be assembled.” Thanks to king Philip II’s love for the painter, Spain already had an impressive collection of paintings by Bosch. These are here joined by paintings, drawings, engravings, and documents that come from Lisbon’s Museu de Arte Antiga, London’s National Gallery, or Vienna’s Albertina. In this pleasurable and fascinating exhibition one feels like one is entering a Wunderkammer.
Curated by Pilar Silva, head of El Museo del Prado’s Department of Spanish Painting, Bosch: The 5th Centenary Exhibition is organized in seven thematic sections: “Bosch and ’s-Hertogenbosch”; “The Childhood and Ministry of Christ”; “The Saints; From Paradise to Hell”; “The Garden of Earthly Delights”; “The World and Men: Mortal Sins and non-religious works”; and “The Passion of Christ.” However, curatorship is relatively discreet, with Bosch’s oeuvre presenting a world of the artist’s making.
Immediately visitors enter a worldview where the forces of good and of evil seem to engage in a nonstop battle. This can be seen in unusual iconographies, such as in “The Adoration of the Magi Triptych” (c. 1494) where the figure of the Antichrist is present in the very building where baby Jesus is born; looming from behind, an evil cohort haunts the holy scene.
Bosch’s animal hybrids and anthropomorphous fantasies have a more ambiguous role. They populate the space of masterworks such as the “Last Judgement Triptych” (c. 1505–15) or the “Saint Anthony Triptych” (c. 1500–1505), and some of them are repeated in multiple paintings. Both scary and hilarious, these creatures are present in the amazing “Haywain Triptych” (1512–15) where the hay in the middle panel represents the temptations of life, constituting an exempla contraria or what not to do. The procession of people fighting to access a cart heads toward the right panel, where devils are building a tower within a phantasmagoric hell. These depictions are quite different from the beautiful fragments of the “Visions of the Hereafter” (1505–15), which appear to be more conventional but convey an impressive poetic quality. A stunning image is the ascent to heaven, where the saved souls rise to a round tunnel of light. A more ironic depiction of daily customs is seen in the famous trepanation scene of “Extracting the Stone of Madness” (1501–05), on display near the end of the show.
The exhibition has an unavoidable highpoint: Bosch’s enigmatic masterpiece, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (1490–1500). In reality, we do not know what its original title was — the name we now give it was first used in the 19th century, and alludes to the seductive garden of the middle panel, which remains a point of attraction and controversy.
When closed, the exterior of the triptych displays a grisaille image of an empty world on the third day of creation, during which God separated oceans and seas from the earth and plants. This was the moment when God created paradise, which was still unpopulated, and still dark. God appears as a small, luminous human figure, with the Latin inscription: “Ipse dixit et facta sunt. Ipse mandavit et creata sunt” (“He said it and it was made. He ordered it and everything was created”). Wonder must have been great when the doors of the triptych were opened and the colorful interior exposed for the first time.
The relationship among the three scenes in the inner panels is not clear. The left and right ones represent paradise and hell in similar, typical iconography seen in Bosch’s other works, such as the “Haywain.” In the “Garden of Earthly Delights,” however, there is no representation of the original sin. Bosch shows God in paradise, introducing Adam to a recently created Eve. Their lush background is full of exotic and strange animals and a lake, circled by pink structures, that may represent the fountain of paradise. Some elements, however, remain sinister in this beautiful setting: a cat eats a mouse in the foreground, some other animals kill each other further back, and an inky pond full of dark creatures seems to prefigure the presence of evil in paradise. In the middle of Bosch’s fountain, an owl contemplates the scene.
The densely populated landscape of the central panel has enabled the dreamiest contemplation, and the wildest interpretations. The catalogue of the Prado exhibition refers to the scene as a “false paradise,” and many have seen the painting as a condemnation of sin. Other art historians, however, disagree.
In his book about the painting, Hans Belting notably reads the “Garden of Earthly Delights” as a utopia. He believes that the painting represents the world that would have developed without the original sin, showing life in a paradise where Adam and Eve would have followed God’s biblical order: “as for you, be ye fruitful and multiply.”
Using a metaphor from comic books, art historian Juan Antonio Ramírez saw the central panel as a speech bubble coming out of the paradisiacal scene in the left panel: Standing before Adam and Eve, God narrates his promised future for humankind.
Following these theories, the “Garden of Earthly Delights” would represent the world we could have lived in, God’s truncated plan for humanity. If the orgiastic character of the scene has posed many problems regarding its Christian context, Belting explains that “in the Latin text of the Vulgate, approved by the church, God created a paradisum voluptatis, or “paradise of lust.” The crowded garden is full of naked couples and groups, delighting themselves with sensory pleasures, eating gigantic fruits, and engaging in forms sexual play which include individuals, couples, groups, animals, and even plants. There is no work, no illness, no elder age, no childhood. The profusion of scenes of hedonistic youth in a place of eternal spring invites the viewer to get lost in the painting.
However, in the right panel, that same landscape becomes a hell of explosions, demonic creatures, and sophisticated means of torture — some of them musical. “Uneasy painter: / your palette ascends to the skies, / but on a horn your paintrush flies / To Hell,” Rafael Alberti aptly writes in his poem, “Bosch.” The so-called Tree-Man — a figure composed of two arboreal “legs” — has been read as a self-portrait of the artist: in the exhibition, it also appears in a beautiful drawing by Bosch that comes from Vienna’s Albertina museum.
In his article “Eternal Carnival,” Guillermo Solana, director of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, highlights the carnivalesque meaning of a world which is turned upside-down, a place “where everything is inverted, where men and beast, king and beggar, mouth and anus exchange their roles.” ‘S-Hertogenbosch, the birthplace of the artist, notably held religious parades with a strong presence of grotesque and humorous disguises. For Solana, the work of Bosch corresponds to “what St. Augustine called concupiscentia oculorum, the disordered desire to see what nobody has seen, to see it all.” We thus see paradise and hell, the past and the future, and even those promised worlds that humanity will never live in.
Towards the end of the show, contemporary artist Álvaro Perdices and filmmaker Andrés Sanz have their audio-visual installation, “Infinite Garden,” where the wondrous and terrifying details of Bosch’s “Garden” are projected and amplified on the walls and on each face of a giant cube.
“Delight” is a notion that could well summarize this small and fascinating exhibition. If the Flemish painter’s canvases seem surprisingly modern, at the same time they evoke a long-gone universe of medieval fantasy, described for our pleasure in minute and grotesque detail. The dreamy and playful character of the works leaves the visitor with the desire to return to the paintings: Perhaps Bosch’s worlds were never real, but once and again we want to come back to live in them for a while, through the eyes of our imagination.
Bosch: The 5th Centenary Exhibition continues at the Museo del Prado (Paseo del Prado, s/n, 28014 Madrid) through September 25.