The mystery of Bosch

Art history professor analyzes artwork through layering

The mystery of Hieronymus Bosch and his bizarre artwork was unravelled in an insightful lecture by Ron Pronk.

Held at the Kingston Frontenac Public Library on Wednesday, “Looking Closer at Hieronymus Bosch” did just that — instead of analysing the Early Netherlandish painter’s work visually, Pronk looked to science to provide more meaning.

Pronk, an art history professor at Queen’s, specializes in employing scientific techniques to better understand art. One of these techniques is dendrochronology, which is used to date events based on patterns of growth rings in trees. The technique analyzes different layers beneath paintings, like the ground layer — where an underdrawing is executed. Each layer provides further context to the finished work.

Pronk discussed how the technique brings new meaning to “Garden of Early Delights”, arguably Bosch’s most famous painting.

“It’s a monumental painting, but we actually don’t know much at all,” Pronk said. “We don’t know for whom it was painted and we don’t know what it means, except of course we know there’s the scene of hell and the creation of Eve to the left.”

The underdrawing of a painting is the initial sketch an artist draws before painting over it. But they aren’t always as revealing as art historians hope — Pronk said Bosch might not have even done them himself.

“When you look at the underdrawing compared to the painting, these paintings can show quite dramatic differences and it often can seem like they don’t belong together at all,” Pronk said. “Technical examinations reveal a lot — the painting is a three-dimensional, complex object.” Moving on to the significance of “Death and the Miser”, Pronk pointed out the ways in which the painting deviated from its underdrawn counterpart.

“We see in the painting that the angel is looking up at a crucifix and Death steps in, and the miser, the person who’s going to die, is being offered a bag of money, probably.

“But in the underdrawing, you see something else — we see that the miser actually accepts this bag of money and offers this goblet in return,” Pronk said. “He seems to be bargaining with Death. This is important for art historians to understand the iconography of the painting.”

Pronk described another Bosch painting, “Ecce Homo”, which depicts a scene from the Bible. In the traditional painting, the city view is blocked by people, Pronk said, but in the underdrawing you see a clear view of the city landscape.

By looking at the structure and details of Bosch’s paintings as opposed to just the surface, details of the artist’s technique and painting intent are unveiled.

“Yes, Bosch was a completely strange and deviant artist in his themes and his focus, but at the same time he was very much rooted in his tradition, and that’s often overlooked,” Pronk said. “And what I tried to do today was show the more traditional side of Bosch.”


Art, Lecture

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