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Hieronymus Bosch and The Adoration of the Magi Return to Holland

November 30, 2018
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

One of the best known medieval painters in the entire (Western) art history is undoubtedly Hieronymus Bosch. This ingenious, yet mysterious master introduced a specific and highly conceptual aesthetic which disrupted the existing art canons of the time. Furthermore, looking from contemporary stance, it can be said that the artist presented the sentiment and zeitgeist of the Middle Ages in the best possible manner – the beliefs, symbols, and yearnings of the society framed by the Christian paradigm of Redemption.

Bosch is best known for his complex, multilayered, ghoulish and ludacris triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights made between 1490 and 1510; however, there are several other famous works of his and one of them is The Adoration of the Magi from 1475. The interpretation of this popular Biblical theme was managed differently by Bosch, since the scene is placed in a contemporary setting where the wealth of the Magi is contrasted with the poverty of the peasants and shepherds.

Het Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch, the artist’s lifelong residence, decided to pay special attention to the mentioned work by loaning it from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York by for the purposes of the upcoming exhibition From Bosch’s Stable. Hieronymus Bosch and The Adoration of the Magi.

Hieronymus Bosch - The Adoration of the Magi detail - photomicrograph of youngest magus
Hieronymus Bosch – The Adoration of the Magi detail – photomicrograph of youngest magus

The Historical Context Of The Painting

Hieronymus Bosch composition, The Adoration of the Magi is centered on the seated Virgin, holding the Christ Child, on a cushion on a wooden floor covered with a golden cloth. Both Joseph and the Child are looking at the lavishly dressed three magi while they are offering gifts; the oldest, kneeling one offers a pearl-and-gem-decorated, golden ewer and basin, an object symbolizing Christ’s kingly status, the second, crowned and turbaned magus brings a magnificent Gothic ciborium holding myrrh indication of Christ’s death, while the African magus holds a spherical ciborium of frankincense with a large golden bird on top symbolizing Christ’s sacrifice and redemption of mankind.

The scene is taking place within the ruins of a late medieval castle, and the space is well planned since the other figures, such as a peasant peeking through a window at the left, shepherds warming themselves by the fire at the right, an ox, and a dog, are positioned properly along with a curtain held aloft by angels.

Here is important to underline the importance of the Epiphany – or Three Kings’ Day – a religious festival that was extremely popular in visual arts in the Middle Ages. The period produced a great number of depictions of the festival; full of exotic figures in lavish costumes and with luxuriant attributes.

Hieronymus Bosch - The Adoration of the Magi
Hieronymus Bosch – The Adoration of the Magi, ca.1475. Oil and gold on oak, 28 x 22 ¼ in. (71.1 x 56.5 cm).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art / John Stewart Kennedy Fund, New York

The Dating of Adoration of The Magi

Initially, the painting located at The Metropolitan Museum was considered autograph and among the earliest of Bosch’s works. However, Charles de Tolnay, a Hungarian art historian (who wrote a Ph.D. thesis on Hieronymus Bosch), suggested that the painting is a pastiche since the figures are stylistically archaic while the landscape fits the artists’ mature style. For many years, it was believed that it was created after Bosch, with the use of workshop patterns, which was enforced by the fact that the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch were extremely popular during the artist’s lifetime and well into the sixteenth century. The other reason for this was found in a copy of the Met’s painting (attributed to the studio of Hieronymus Bosch and dated around 1550) located at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam.

During the early 2000s, the reexamination of the artist’s oeuvre happened as an effect of several investigations conducted for the purposes of grand retrospectives. Recent investigations of Bosch’s oeuvre performed for the 500th anniversary year of his death in 2016 brought new insights, so by employing infrared technology scholars revealed that the underdrawing of The Met’s Adoration was executed with brush, a tool Bosch frequently used for the preliminary layout of the compositions on a panel.

Finally, it turned out that MET’s Adoration of the Magi is one of among Bosch’s earliest works, along with the Garden of Earthly Delights which explains certain similarities (the Adoration’s Virgin Mary with the head of the Garden’s Eve).

Hieronymus Bosch - The Adoration of the Magi detail - photomicrograph of background figure’s hand
Hieronymus Bosch – The Adoration of the Magi detail – photomicrograph of background figure’s hand

Hieronymus Bosch at Het Noordbrabants Museum

There were different propositions by the scholars such as the suggestion that The Adoration of Three Mages together with the panel Ecce Homo from 1475 – 85 formed part of a cycle of the Life of Christ or that this work was an altarpiece in the chapel of the Confraternity of Our Lady according to the historical documents of the city s-Hertogenbosch, better known as Den Bosch.

However, although it is hard to determine its specific function,  this particular panel which was unusually for Bosch painted in gold was definitely an important commission. It reveals as well how well Bosch’s was acquainted with crafts (rendering of the extraordinary golden gifts for the Christ Child), as well as with architecture, which is an effect of his friendship with other city masters such as Alart Duhameel, a master builder, sculptor, and engraver who oversaw the late-Gothic construction of Saint John’s Church, and Michiel van Gemert, a goldsmith and engraver of knives and other metal objects.

Therefore, this masterpiece reflects Hieronymus Bosch’s unique approach, his immense craftsmanship and wit, as well as the artist’s understanding of the power of narrating. The director of Het Noordbrabants Museum, Charles de Mooij, expressed his excitement for the upcoming exhibition:

Following the phenomenal success of the Bosch exhibition in 2016, we made the commitment to continue researching Bosch, and to regularly bring the art of Hieronymus Bosch back to his hometown, Hertogenbosch. There is still so much to be discovered about Bosch and his workshop. This exhibition – From Bosch’s Stable – is the first in a series of exhibitions that will demonstrate the master’s influence on both his pupils and imitators through autograph pieces.

From Bosch’s Stable. Hieronymus Bosch and The Adoration of the Magi will be on display at Het Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch from 1 December 2018 until 10 March 2019.

triptych panel saint prado madrid left right triptych saint prado madrid Editors’ Tip: The Epiphany of Hieronymus Bosch: Imagining Antichrist and Others from the Middle Ages to the Reformation

This study examines medieval Christian views of non-Christians and their changing political and theological significance as revealed in late-medieval and early-modern visual culture. Taking as her point of departure Hieronymus Bosch’s famous Epiphany triptych housed in the Prado Museum in Madrid, the author analyzes how representations of Jews, Saracens (later Turks), ‘Ethiopians’, and Mongols for centuries shaped western Christian attitudes towards salvation history, contemporary political conflicts, and the declining status of the Roman Church. She argues that Bosch’s innovative pictorial warning of the coming of Antichrist and the threat posed by non-Christians gained its power and authority through intervisual references to the medieval past.

Featured image: Hieronymus Bosch – The Adoration of the Magi, ca.1475. Oil and gold on oak, 28 x 22 1/4 in. (71.1 x 56.5 cm). All images courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art / John Stewart Kennedy Fund, New York.