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Dendrochronology and

the Bosch Revolution of Rotterdam 2001

 

.The hard, documented details of Hieronymus Bosch's life, 1450-1516, are quickly told: He was born Jeroen van Aken in s'Hertogenbosch. His father, Anthonius van Aken, two uncles, and two brothers were painters working in the Aken family shop, which Jeroen headed after his father's death in 1482. His mother was Aleit van Mynnen. In 1478 Bosch married Aleit van de Mervenne, whose extensive property in s'Hertogenbosch secured his financial independence throughout his working life. By 1500 he was one of the wealthiest men in s'Hertogenbosch, allowing him an unusual degree of freedom of choice in selecting his subjects. In 1486 Bosch became a member of the prestigious Confraternity of Our Lady in Hertogenbosch. In 1504 Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy and Brabant, ordered a large Last Judgment from Bosch, which apparently was never painted or paid for. Bosch died, a financially ruined man, in August 1516.

He dated none of his paintings and only signed a few selected pieces with jheronymus bosch, in large, formal, Gothic letters. His artistic surname Bosch signifies his place of origin, also known as Den Bosch. The same toponym was also used by other artists.

Dating and assigning his paintings following art-historical or stylistic considerations has remained the haphazard preoccupation of the professional experts. For example, the Garden of Earthly Delights, his most famous painting, had been considered his mature masterpiece, dated to around 1500. Using dendrochronological techniques [Kuniholm] this triptych has now become Bosch's first major painting (1467/68)! Bosch was eighteen when he painted it.

During the 1980s the Rotterdam Museum engaged Paul Klein, a dendrochronology expert at the University of Hamburg, in an analysis of the wood of their Bosch holdings. By 2002 Klein's analyses had encompassed all but two of the paintings attributed to Bosch. Klein's results have precipitated a Bosch revolution. He showed that more than half of the Bosch holdings were painted long after his death, i.e., they are either late copies or not by him. Klein also demonstrated that the conventional, established chronological order of the remaining panels was in error. The art-historical experts are in a quandary. An officially accepted, corrected chronology of Bosch's paintings is still unpublished.

Based on Klein's data (private communication 2005) I arranged Bosch's paintings in a chronological sequence presented in Table 1. The dates of a painting were obtained by uniformly adding 9 years for drying and curing to Klein's earliest dates. Kuniholm, in the article cited above, quotes that in the 15th century painters of the Lower-Rhineish school dried their wood planks approximately 10 years. There is one Bosch painting, St. John the Evangelist on Patmos, the delivery of which is documented in the Winter of 1496/97 in the books of the Hertogenbosch Confraternity of our Lady. Klein's earliest date of the St. John on Patmos panel is 1487, i.e., 9 years earlier. This should justify my procedure in most cases.

From Table 1 I discovered that the dates of Bosch's paintings are in surprising agreement with the known dates of his life and with history. His paintings can be read like a diary of his life and times. This pictorial diary forms the basis of my fictional account, a historical novel.

Wherever possible I have tried to demystify Bosch's life and work. Bosch was an intelligent man with an unsurpassed imagination, but he was not a learned scholar. He could not have painted the Garden of Earthly Delights by himself at eighteen, nor the Temptation of St. Anthony triptych in Lisbon at fifty-four! In writing this story I chose to restrict my self to simple, "biographical" explanations of the complex details of his paintings and not to attempt another deciphering of his symbolism. To aid those who need to separate facts from fiction, I attach an annotated time-line of the novel and a postscript detailing my contributions to this new examination of Bosch's paintings..


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