Sunday, 19 December 2010

Hieronymus Bosch in Venice

The Ascent to the Empyrean
from the Vision of the Afterlife
Hieronymus Bosch
Palazzo Grimani (at Santa Maria Formosa), Venice
18th December 2010 - 20th March 2011

Continuing the exhibition of paintings from the Italian state collections in the Palazzo Grimani: three paintings by the most visionary painter in art history: Hieronymus Bosch.

After the great success of the exhibition dedicated to three famous works by Giorgione, The Old Woman, The Tempest and the Nude, which inaugurated the opening of the Palazzo Grimani as a permanent exhibition space in Venice, now this magnificent palazzo exhibits three more masterpieces which have not been seen in public for years.

The protagonist this time is the best known and most intriguing Flemish painter in art history: Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), whose Vision of the Afterlife (1500 - 1503), St Liberata Tryptych (1505) and Triptych of the Hermit Saints (1510), from the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, can now be admired.

The curator, Vittorio Sgarbi, has chosen to make available to the public these three extraordinary works by Bosch, two of them in storage for years at the Palazzo Ducale, as a tribute to the works of the sublime artist held in Venice, where he most likely stayed between 1499 and 1502.

A figure much discussed because of the strong emotional content, strangeness and inquietude of his paintings, Anthoniszoon Jeroen van Aken, who signed himself and became known as Bosch, comes from a family of Dutch painters and is distinguished by his fantastical works, created to illustrate the moral and religious concepts of his time. His fanciful imagination, not always easy to interpret, uses the medieval bestiary, and always at the heart of his paintings is humanity doomed to hell because of sin. Meditation on the lives of the saints and the Passion of Christ seem to be the only way to redeem mankind from universal sin.

Hell, from the Vision of the Afterlife
The three works on display at the Palazzo Grimani were part of the collection of Cardinal Domenico Grimani and became part of the collection of the Palazzo Ducale after the death of the prelate, through his bequest to the Serenissima. The Triptych of St. Liberata and the Triptych of the Hermit Saints were transferred for a period to Vienna, first in the imperial collections between 1838 and 1893, then to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, until 1919, when they returned to the Palazzo Ducale, where they are currently stored.

The Vision of the Afterlife consists of four panels painted in oil, possibly originally the wings of a triptych, depicting the Garden of Eden, the Ascent to the Empyrean, the Fall of the Damned and Hell. The work is dated to the early maturity (1500-3) of Bosch due to the great freedom of its spatial organisation, and its sophisticated and mysterious web of learned references which surpasses the simply anecdotal allegorical structure of its predecessors. Perhaps the artist was influenced by the mystical ideas current in Brabant during the  fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and in particular the climate of rigorist tension in the works of Jan van Ruysbroeck and the devotio moderna movement. A text by Ruysbroeck, the Ornament of the spiritual marriage, seems to lie behind the iconography of the paintings, as there is an abyss of light leading to God, identified here in the luminous magnetic pull of the tunnel toward which the blessed rise accompanied by the angels in the Ascent to the Empyrean. An image which has given rise to ample Gnostic interpretations of the picture, but is also frequently encountered in the memories of those who emerge from comas, or conversely in the regressive dreams which relive the act of being born. The conflict between light and dark, between ecstatic happiness and refined cruelty is described in these paintings, in rapid and scratchy brushwork, but also the rich tonal orchestration forming unexpected contrasts of light and shade, sudden flashes of heavenly light in the dense and dark atmosphere of hell, which presage the disturbing developments of the future Garden of Earthly Delights (Museo del Prado, Madrid) and Temptation of St. Anthony (Museu de Arte Antiga, Lisbon).
Triptych of the Martyrdom of St Liberata
The Triptych of St Liberata is composed of three paintings on panel, St Anthony, the Martyrdom of St Liberata and the Pilgrims and the Port (1505). The work does not present problems of attribution or reconstruction, but has raised many difficulties in the interpretation of its iconography. The most widely accepted view is that it represents St Liberata, the Virgo Fortis, who, according to legend, was condemned to the torture of the cross by her own father, the king of Portugal. This work is stylistically close to the Temptation of St. Anthony in Lisbon, and is also dated to the middle period of the Master's career. In the panel of St Anthony, the beautiful view of the northern city in the background is illuminated, but not devastated, by fire, and the temptation of the flesh is represented by a small cricket, which could be an allusion to monastic homosexuality. In the right-hand panel a pilgrim monk is accompanied by a disreputable-looking soldier. Behind them are miniature scenes of violence and in the background a monstrous ship, a symbol of the Church, armed with the tail of a scorpion and the claws of a crab, which seems to have massacred all the other boats docked in the waters of a peaceful harbour. The monk, indicating the central scene of the martyrdom of the saint, seems to urge the viewer to abandon a life of violence and embrace the path of virtue.
Triptych of the Hermit Saints
Finally, the Triptych of the Hermit Saints consists of three paintings on panel, depicting St Anthony, St Jerome and St Egidius. The triptych has undergone major repainting which for a long time obscured its merits. Its date is set in the mature third period, towards 1510, given the great importance of the landscape, such an extraordinarily lyrical contrast to the troubles of the holy hermits, personified in small scenes of violence and monstrosity, as in the contemporary Epiphany or the St. John the Baptist, both in Madrid (Museo del Prado and Lazaro Galdiano respectively). The small proportions and the subject suggest a small altar for private devotion. The crucifix, toward which the saint is turned, stands next to a pillar on which the Virgin has defeated the Unicorn, while in the next architectural feature Judith displays the head of Holofernes. St Egidius, in the right-hand panel, perhaps comforted in his solitude by the timid appearance of a deer, is pierced by an arrow, probably shot by the Devil, the mysterious figure who can be seen in a crack in the rocks. In the scene of the hermitage of St Anthony, his desire has taken the form of a female nude, sweet and reassuring in appearance, but standing next to a withered tree, according to the Kabbalah a symbol of Lilith, the anti-Eve. Indeed, below him is a haute couture parade from hell, with crickets brandishing tapers, their clothing decorated with ostrich feathers and masses of fine jewellery. The ephemeral thoughts which the hermits, seeking salvation, are trying to drive out of their souls, take exterior forms, in a world of beautiful preciosity and wickedness, among ruined buildings and mysterious idols, among skeletons and thorns.

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