The Wayfarer

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The exhibition space was in half-darkness, lit only by lozenges of golden light disposed along the walls or else, free-standing, in the centre of the one or other of the several rooms: these were in fact light-boxes, designed especially for the show, within which the paintings were at once exhibited, illumined and protected. The place was full of people, a murmuring, indistinct crowd, like pilgrims, passing reverently from lozenge to lozenge. They were well-dressed, well-heeled, middle-class, middle-aged or older; some in wheelchairs.

It was both intimate and estranging; you had to wait until a gap opened up into which you could insert your head, as it were, and thereby feast your eyes upon a painting. And you didn’t have long, either, because other bodies, other heads, were crowding in behind you, awaiting their turn. Sometimes the faces around me, with their bulbous eyes, their intent gazes, their unmistakeably Dutch caste, resembled those in the crowd scenes of the late medieval paintings we were looking at. I would glance from painting to spectators and back again, feeling five hundred or more years collapse in that simple act.

The first painting I saw, and the first in the show, was a small round work on a wooden panel showing a whey-faced man looking back as he walked away from a ramshackle building. I cannot improve upon Ingrid D Rowland’s description: Clad in rags and mismatched shoes, the peddler bows under the weight of his pack, a wooden spoon and a catskin hanging from a loop, perhaps to advertise the wares he has to offer. His left hand clutches a traveler’s hat with a spool and bodkin stuck into it—he can double as a tailor if need be. With his right hand, he wards off a yapping dog with a cudgel-like walking stick; his bandaged left leg suggests that he has already been bitten.

The road ahead is blocked by a wooden gate; opening it represents some kind of deliberate choice. The dilapidated house behind him is evidently a brothel, with its long johns hanging in a window to dry, its symbolic broken clay pot on a pole, its pigs feasting at the trough, and its sign ‘The Swan’ (male swans are rare among fowl for having penises). A woman in the door of the Swan is being fondled by a mercenary soldier who has left his long pike leaning against the run-down façade, while another customer urinates against an outside wall. Another woman gazes out from an upstairs window. Has the peddler just left her company or did he pass her by? Did she buy something from him? Did he buy something from her? In the spindly tree above the peddler’s hooded head, an owl eyes a titmouse; just behind the gate, an ox and a magpie stand guard.

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Some people think the eponymous Wayfarer in this painting—a thin man with bright intelligent eyes—is a self-portrait of its maker, Joen van Aken, better known to the world as Hieronymus Bosch. He was a member of a family of painters who moved from Aachen (= Aken) to Den Bosch in the 1420s and established themselves as artists and artisans there. Joen probably lived his whole life (1450-1516) in the town from which he took his professional name. When he was a child he saw a wildfire, which seems to have formed a memory trace, or image, that stayed with him and recurs often in his work: the conflagrations of Hell. Aged about thirty, he married a woman of property, Aleid van de Meervenne, and they moved into a large house (still there) on the north side of Market Square, where he set up a studio.

Subsequently, like his father and his grandfather before him, he joined The Brotherhood of Our Lady, signing its books in 1487. The next year he became a sworn brother, one of an elite of eighty, a role which obliged him from time to time to feast the whole fraternity. In 1489 he bought twenty-four pounds of beef, presumably for a banquet of this kind. His wife continued to deal in real estate and, childless, their wealth and status continued to grow. Joen pre-deceased Aleid, dying of plague in 1616; she followed six years later. This, then, is some of the little we know about the burgher, artisan and upstanding citizen who created the astonishing visions of the painter Hieronymus Bosch.

The exhibition at the Noordbrabants gathered together nineteen of the twenty-five known drawings, and twenty of the twenty-five attested paintings, for a show commemorating the five hundredth anniversary of the death of the artist. There were also some works by the School of Bosch: imitations or copies or formerly misattributed paintings. All the big ones were there save The Garden of Earthly Delights, which the Prado in Madrid would not allow to travel because it is too fragile (they sent The Hay Wain instead); and The Temptation of Saint Anthony, in Lisbon, which the Portuguese declined to lend, apparently because it is such a major tourist attraction.

It’s not my intention to attempt a review of the exhibition, just to make a few points. The first is that you can only understand the quality of a truly great painter by seeing their actual works: nothing could have prepared me for the sheer sensuous delight there was to be had in looking at these paintings, which have a glitter and a glow, an active scintillation of light, built in to their very material: some of it accomplished by a superb and judicious use of white highlights. These spirited, swarming surfaces were to me more enticing, and even more remarkable, than the paintings’ famed and splendid grotesquery.

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A second, related point, is that Bosch was a magnificent colourist. When I think back on that show now, a year later, I see particularly the pinkish red he was so fond of using, which seemed to migrate from painting to painting, so that it was as if swathed around us in the half-dark. It is the pink of the curtains in Death and the Miser; of the dress worn by Saint Julia (and the colour of the robes of her mourners and tormentors) in the picture of her crucifixion; of the clothes of God no less than the outré palaces and fountains in The Garden of Earthly Delights. (There was a replica of the left panel of this in the show, its ornate pink urn in the pond like an eerie prefiguration of the Mandelbrot Set.)

The third point relates to the drawings: among them were some sheets of fairly obsessive studies of people Joen apparently encountered on the streets of Den Bosch. Among them were cripples, beggars, soldiers wounded or maimed in war, old women whose hard lives had turned them into semblances of witches or crones. These were realistic drawings which nevertheless inclined vertiginously towards the fantastic and made me wonder if the extraordinary composite and often distorted beings we see in a typical Bosch painting were not simply exaggerations of tendencies he had observed in the lives going on around him? In a similar fashion, his observation of birds and animals—both domestic and wild—was acute to an almost hallucinatory degree; and, again, his habit of combining the human and the animal in the one being seemed more like the elaboration of an affinity—don’t we all resemble some bird or dog or fish or pig?—than the inventions of diabolism or intoxication.

One last remark: of all my many responses to this wonderful show—full of works you could look and look and look at, and never exhaust—the strongest, and the least predictable, was the tremendous feeling of uplift, of grace abounding, that came when I saw the four last works, pictures of heaven and hell, and especially the last one of all, which shows human souls at the ends of their earthly lives entering into eternity. To quote Ms Rowland again: we are destined to move through life as weary, wounded wayfarers, a few of whom, in another of Bosch’s indelible visions, will be led by angels through a luminous heavenly tunnel before we leap naked into a burst of absolute light. 

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