A Picture by Hieronymus Bosch
A PICTURE BY HIERONYMUS BOSCH
THE Adoration of the Kings by Hieronymus Bosch was bought at the auction of the Lippmann Collection in Berlin last November.1 The picture is not named in the catalogues of the artist’s works compiled by his historians, but is accepted by Friedländer and other German critics who have long been familiar with it. The condition of the panel is not all that could be desired. It has been cleaned since its purchase, however, and the preservation proves to be better than promised by its appearance beforehand. Besides the crack in the center, the damage of which is confined to a narrow space (about one sixteenth of an inch wide), the serious blemishes occur in the lower left-hand part of the composition, in Saint Joseph’s robe and in the wall and ground back of him. Some of these were repainted in a more or less satisfactory manner many years ago and have been retained. The restorations of a recent date, however, on account of their unnecessary abundance have been eliminated, and the damages which they covered retouched with the result which now shows. The beauty of the workmanship and the artist’s method are discernible. One can see that the panel was prepared with white, as was the custom, and that over a careful drawing the color was applied directly and very thinly, in places merely a scumble of paint. The thin pigment vitrified in the course of years allows the white ground to show through, so the effect is blond and translucent. There seems to have been but little retouching afterward or glazing. Its lightness of handling is a departure from the heavier methods of Bosch’s contemporaries.
The expression of our picture is unusually gracious, more lyrical than that of the universally recognized works. The drawing, though extremely sensitive, is not so vigorous as in the well-known examples. Also it has none of the satire or the wild imaginings and but little of the
1 The little triptych by Isenbrant shown since April in Gallery 34 comes also from this source.
THE ADORATION OF THE KINGS
exaggerations of character – the qualities which Bosch developed to their utmost in European painting and for which he is chiefly famous. It bears a closer analogy to the Adoration of the Kings in the Prado, which is also relatively contained in its appearance, than to any other known work by him. In his early time Bosch was content to treat the classic themes in a sentiment which was more or less traditional, always vivifying them, however, by his lively observation of nature. His artistic personality is made up of naturalism, the love of genre and of the fantastic, and an unsuppressible mockery, qualities inherent in his race, which had already interwoven familiar touches of everyday life with the saints and angels on the cathedrals, and had covered the margins of grave manuscripts with humorous or malicious inventions. At a later time these same qualities were embodied in the productions of Brouwer, Jan Steen, and the little masters of the seventeenth century.
Works like the Prado Adoration, with which our painting may be classed, show Bosch’s realistic tendencies – his love of the landscape of his own country with its humble or picturesque incidents and the appreciation of character in the life he was accustomed to. The pursuit of these things leads him away from the unified sacramental arrangements of his academic ancestors towards a system of composition where each group or figure calls for its special examination, and each part of the panel has an interest for its own sake alone. It is upon this principle that his characteristic pictures are designed – pictures like dreams, or nightmares rather, with the strangest, the most whimsical, the most monstrous ideas that western painting has ever attempted. Devils, amorphous creatures, hybrids, prodigies, and monsters crowd the Last Judgments, the Temptations of Saint Anthony, the moralities and theological pieces of his later time.
The germ of this development hardly shows in the Prado picture and even less in ours. The realism, however, leans toward caricature here and there. There is something in them that promises conceptions like the Ghent Carrying of the Cross or the Princeton Christ before Pilate, for instance, but nothing of the terrible is in either. Our Adoration, on the contrary, is altogether delightful and in an exquisite way rather frivolous. It has in it more of the fairy tale than of the solemnity of the Epiphany. One could almost fancy that it was painted for the pleasure of children, so full is it of diverting things that children love — a little white dog sitting in a prominent place, an owl hidden in an opening in the wall, a bird’s nest with an egg in it on a window sill, a bird in another window, and innumerable similar details.
The setting for the scene is the courtyard of a ruined castle, a part of which has been transformed into a stable. The ox and the ass are resting within the doorway of a tumble-down tower and from its top and that of a free-standing wall opposite, child angels are stretching a canopy of green drapery in honor of the ceremony. Mary, a demure Flemish girl with wavy blond hair falling over her shoulders, is beneath in the center of the courtyard, her full blue skirt disposed over the cloth of gold and the cushions she sits upon. The Christ-child, nude, is in her lap and at the right are the three wise kings. Melchior with his crown on the ground before him kneels in front and offers a golden ewer of elaborate workmanship on a golden platter. Next stands Balthasar, a very proud negro, gorgeous with barbaric golden ornaments over his white tunic, with Oriental weapons, and an aigrette in his crown. He holds a vase in the form of a globe surmounted by a bird. Beyond is Gaspar, wearing a turban and a brown brocade gown, and looking at the spectator. His gift is a gold vessel of elongated form which he holds in both hands.
At the left kneels Saint Joseph, a decrepit white-haired old man who supports himself with a cane. A stableman looks out of a window behind him and two shepherds are at another window in the ruined wall behind the Virgin and Child. All these are lowly people of familiar aspect in distinction to the fantastic kings whose inspiration seems to have come largely
from travelers’ stories of Africa or the East. The shepherds, indeed, are so real in type and attitude that losing sight of the holy character of the subject, one feels that curiosity of the extraordinary happening of a visit of kings to their neighborhood brings them hither. They are merely onlookers. There is a fire beneath the window within the court and one warms his hand over it. The other has an houlette the attribute of French and Netherlandish shepherds still in use in certain localities for the purpose of digging up clods of earth which are thrown before straying sheep to bring them back to the flock.
It is a pleasant task to describe the landscape. It is spring and the country is pale green. A winding road is at the right beyond a field by a little river where crows gather about the skeleton of a horse. The river is crossed by an arched bridge and on it shaded by willow trees walk two lovers, a dog following them. A meadow is in the center. A shepherd sleeps under a tree, his sheep grazing near and a sheep dog curled up beside him. Two peasants are awkwardly dancing on the grass, and two others walk side by side, their heads close together in the earnestness of their talk. The retinues of the kings wait in the open country. Heralds from one party stationed in a hollow between two fields hail the emissaries of another as they ride along the road with their dogs. The third company is farther away on the summit of a hill. All are gaily dressed and carry spears or banners and ride gallant horses.
Far away at the left is Jerusalem, a populous city with a great minster, tall churches, and countless houses with gabled roofs, surrounded by a wall with gates and turrets. In the other direction is a lake with two castles on its shores. Ridges of distant hills show one beyond another up to the horizon, and the sky, a luminous haze near the earth, merges into blue above with suggestions of faint clouds. High up is the star “which had gone before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.”
It is a picture to linger over, for its entertainments are various and of different sorts which require leisure and sympathy. A vision of the old world is in it. The artist is revealed as one with the fresh outlook of a child, who delights in all the animate things about him and at the same time lives an imaginative life apart fed by romance and the spirit of adventure. He has reconstructed a hackneyed story with capricious but convincing logic. And yet these traits, characteristic of youth, are disclosed by means of a craftsmanship that shows thorough schooling in the profound resources of a great tradition of painting.