When my wife and I visited Venice last October, our primary objective was to see Giorgione’s Tempest. It was most likely our final trip to Italy, and I wanted to see the famous painting one more time. In previous visits we had seen it hung somewhat inconspicuously in a small room or on a large wall replete with other paintings. This time we were pleased to see it given pride of place all by itself in a large gallery.
|Giorgione: Tempest on exhibition 2017 #|
Surprisingly, across the way was a small exhibition of paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, the Netherlandish painter well-known for his portrayal of seemingly fantastic and surreal subjects. Bosch was a generation older than Giorgione but did the Museum curators sense a connection between the two artists known for their seemingly mysterious and enigmatic subjects?
The Bosch paintings came from the collection of Cardinal Domenico Grimani, the Venetian churchman/patrician, who was renowned as an art collector. His collection, bequeathed to the city on his death in 1523, included the Bosch paintings in the Accademia exhibition. We know that Grimani was not the only Venetian patrician to collect works of art, especially sacred subjects, from the workshops of the Netherlands. The famous Grimani Breviary was a product of that northern region.
On returning home I decided to read Laurinda Dixon’s Bosch, a brilliantly researched interpretive study published in 2003. * The back cover of the book justly claims that Dixon challenges the popular conception of Bosch’s work as “the hallucinations of a madman or the secret language of an heretical sect.” On the contrary,
Dixon presents Bosch as an artist of his times, knowledgeable about the latest techniques of painting, active in the religious life of his community and conversant with the scientific developments of his day. She draws on popular culture, religious texts and contemporary medicine, astrology, and chemistry—especially alchemy, now discounted but then of interest to serious thinkers—to investigate the meaning of Bosch’s art. *
In Dixon’s book Bosch emerges primarily as a painter of “sacred subjects” who attempted to fit the latest developments in science and medicine into his work. Even his most famous and fantastic painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Dixon sees as an attempt to depict an earthly paradise envisioned by the alchemists in their search for the philosopher’s stone.
One thing seems certain: the religious devotion and strong community involvement of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, to whom both Bosch and the counts of Nassau belonged, argue definitively against any heretical content in The Garden of Earthly Delights, no matter how obscure its imagery. We must search for answers once again in the contemporary wisdom of the time, setting aside the biases and prejudices of our own era.* (228)
In this respect no chapters in Dixon’s book are more interesting than her discussion of the effects, often hallucinatory, of diseases like ergotism or “holy fire” that ravaged Bosch’s world. Not only does Bosch depict them in his paintings, but also the incredible cures attempted with often disastrous results. Paintings like the “Garden” are replete with images drawn from contemporary laboratories.
Although not as well-known as Bosch’s other work, the three paintings in the Accademia exhibit provided a good illustration of the various elements in his work. First, there was an unidentified young female martyr being crucified, a very unusual subject. There was a triptych featuring an ascetic St. Jerome in the wilderness replete with a number of odd details characteristic of Bosch’s work. Finally, there were four small panels depicting the hereafter, ranging from the descent into Hell to the ascent into the heavenly Paradise.
Dixon believed that efforts to identify the young female martyr are not as important as her real significance.
The only sure thing about Bosch’s suffering saint is that, whoever she is, she imitates Christ in her martyrdom, serving as a model of faith and forbearance.* (153)
This depiction of faith and forbearance comes right out of Bosch’s religious background. Dixon’s Bosch is not a heretic, or a proto-Protestant. Bosch was a member of a devout confraternity in his home town of s’ Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands. He, his patrons, and the other members of his confraternity were followers of the Modern Devotion that originated in the Netherlands in the early fifteenth century. It’s most famous manifestation was the Imitation of Christ, a little devotional treatise that became the world’s first best-seller after the invention of the printing press.
|Bosch: St. Jerome detail #|
This religious orthodoxy can also be seen in the triptych whose central panel features an image of the ascetic St. Jerome in his hermitage in the desert. According to Dixon saints like Jerome,
Reflect the Modern Devotion’s concern with the relinquishing of material things and renunciation of the world. Bosch’s holy hermits are also in keeping with a revival of interest in the rich life of the inner spirit, demonstrated in popular theology and humanist thought. * (155)
Finally, Dixon describes the four apocalyptic panels in the Accademia exhibition with special attention to the last, the Ascension of the Blessed, a depiction “unique in its view of the elect ascending to heaven.” In it are elements drawn from a combination of the Modern Devotion, as well as contemporary astrological thinking.
Presumably, a soul making its way towards God would have to transect each planetary circle on its way up. Scholars have connected Bosch’s tunnel of light with the tenets of the Modern Devotion. In fact, the group’s founder, Jan Ruysbroeck, used the metaphor of unification with the Light to describe the soul’s becoming one with the Creator….Bosch links the essence of God with light itself. * (307)
|Bosch: Ascension of the Blessed #|
Religious orthodoxy and the need for devotional images must have been one of the reasons for Cardinal Grimani’s interest in Bosch.
It has been suggested that Cardinal Grimani might have been a patron of Giorgione. In his Giorgione catalog, Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo speculated on a connection.Here we have a number of elements that would lead us to wonder whether behind this manifest connection between Cardinal Grimani’s interests and some of the themes developed by the artist there was an actual, if unrecorded, patron-artist relationship—which might have been at the root of the mix of cultures that defined the young artist.** (210-212)
If we follow Laurinda Dixon’s approach to Bosch, we should be able to imagine that similar motives inspired Venetian patrons who made Giorgione a favorite. Giorgione must be viewed through contemporary Venetian eyes, and not through modern bias and secular opinion.
Giorgione’s paintings remarkably differ from Bosch’s but like Bosch he stretched the envelope in depicting traditional subjects in striking new ways. If Bosch has been misunderstood, so too has Giorgione. Dixon argued that contemporaries of Bosch would have understood the mysterious details in his paintings and recognized them as sacred subjects.
I believe that Giorgione’s patrons would have seen him as a painter of sacred subjects. Vasari characterized him as a painter of Madonnas and portraits. If we could look through the eyes of Cardinal Grimani, would we see the Tempest as the Rest on the Flight into Egypt; the Three Philosophers as the Three Magi; and the Laura as the repentant Mary Magdalen?
*Laurinda Dixon, Bosch, Phaidon, 2003. Pages cited in parenthesis.
**Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo, Giorgione, Milan, 2009., pp. 210-212.
# Image by David and Helen Orme, our companions and guides on our visit to Venice.