The fantastical world of Bosch is the Prado’s exhibition of the year

‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ is the high point of this celebration of the Dutch master in Madrid

A visitor examines the ‘Adoration of the Magi.’
A visitor examines the ‘Adoration of the Magi.’CARLOS ROSILLO

Few works of art have fascinated and enthralled over the centuries as much as Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. One of the highlights of Madrid’s Prado art museum, it is a fantastical depiction of medieval sexuality awash with tiny characters swarming across the two-meter-high triptych. Such is the depth and scope of the detail that weeks of careful scrutiny would be needed to discover and fully appreciate its myriad elements. Naked men and women are depicted fornicating, drinking and fighting: the masterpiece portrays a world of sin and the inevitable damnation that awaits them. It is an extraordinary painting filled with elusive allegories, retaining the power to inspire many of the 20th century Surrealists and today, some say, even the TV series Game of Thrones.

A contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, Bosch’s work was also revolutionary, depicting humanity’s deepest desires and fears in graphic detail

Entitled El Bosco, an exhibition at the Prado commemorating the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death offers new insight into the work of the Dutch master, curated by Pilar Silva Maroto with the help of the Brabante de Hertogenbosch Museum in Den Bosch, the painter’s birthplace.

Set to run until September 31, the exhibition is one of the most ambitious to date of Bosch’s work, much of which was long considered too scandalous to be shown. Among the 50 paintings, some of them lent by other museums for the occasion, is The Temptation of St Anthony from Lisbon’s National Museum of Ancient Art. Others are from the Prado’s own collection and include The Adoration of the Magi and another triptych, The Haywain.

Exploring humanity’s fears and desires

Bosch, who lived between 1450 and 1516, never traveled far beyond his hometown, though this did not limit either his imagination or his influence on the international art scene. A contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, Bosch’s work was also revolutionary, depicting humanity’s deepest desires and fears in graphic detail. Spanish historian Francisco Calvo Serraller explains that the key to understanding the artist is to put him in the context of events happening in the late 15th and early 16th century, one of the most turbulent periods of Western history.

Bosch was already aged 42 when Columbus arrived in the Americas, an extraordinary event that undoubtedly changed his perception of reality. “The feeling that the planet was being mapped out anew, the sudden appearance of a new world, of new flora and fauna and an unknown race of people really shook Europe up in the wake of the print revolution, which allowed these discoveries to be quickly broadcast, ushering in the winds of reform,” says Calvo Serraller.

Bosch was able to depict concepts and narratives using iconography infused with imagination, earning him acclaim far and wide. In Spain, the first art connoisseur to collect his work was Felipe de Guevara, a member of the court of Charles V. Guevara defined Bosch’s work as “a very instructive world of chimeras and fantasies.”

‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ portrays a world of sin and the inevitable damnation that awaits

Later, Phillip II acquired a number of his paintings, which he reportedly treasured for the way they depicted the human soul. In fact, it is thanks to his popularity among the Spanish monarchy that the Prado and the monastery in Phillip’s monastery at El Escorial now hold so many of his works.

Uncertain of the chronological order in which Bosch produced his work, the Prado has organized the exhibition into five categories: The New Testament, The World and its Final Moments, The Profane Works, The Saints and The Drawings. Additionally, some of the technical work produced by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, which has used methods such as infrared reflectography to study the condition of his paintings in depth, can also be seen.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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