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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Informing Contexts – Hieronymus Bosch and Venice


Figure 1: Sutherst 2017

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the ‘JHERONIMUS BOSCH AND VENICE’ exhibition at the Doge’s Palace in Venice.


Figure 2: Sutherst 2017

Walking up the grand staircase of the Doge’s Palace, I was struck by the beauty of the venue for this exhibition.  The exhibition is housed in the Doge’s apartment.

The exhibition is themed around Bosch’s relationship with Venice. The display is arranged through 7 rooms in the apartment and includes work by Bosch’s followers and contemporaries.

Figures 3 and 4: Sutherst 2017

Curated by Bernard Aikema, the exhibition has been sponsored by the University of Verona and co-produced by the Civic Museums Foundation and the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.  The exhibition centres around 3 of Bosch’s paintings which have been recently restored.

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Figure 5: Sutherst 2017

Rooms 1 and 2 – Bosch’s works in Venice

Room 1 contains the 2 triptychs -‘The martyrdom of Saint Uncumber’ and the ‘Three hermit saints’.

Figures 6, 7, 8 and 9: Sutherst 2017 – The Three Hermit Saints Triptych

Figures 10, 11, 12 and 13: Sutherst 2017 – The martyrdom of Saint Uncumber Triptych

These meticulously restored paintings appear jewel-like in the darkened room.  Lit from above, I felt like I was viewing the works in a theatre where I was looking down on the scene.  I feel powerful and supreme – I wonder if this was the intent of the curator?  This effect is striking and all encompassing.  I am sure that Bosch would have approved of this approach.  His work is both astonishing to the viewer, yet baffling at the same time.  The lighting and positioning of work adds to this feeling.

Room 2 contains the set of four panel paintings -‘Paradise and Hell (Visions of the Afterworld)’

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Figure 14: Sutherst ‘Paradise and Hell (Visions of the Afterworld)’ 2017

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Figure 15: Sutherst Reverse 2017

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Figure 16: Sutherst 2017

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Figure 17: Sutherst Fall of the Damned 2017

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Figure 18: Sutherst Hell 2017

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Figure 19: Sutherst Earthly Paradise 2017

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Figure 20: Sutherst Ascent into Heaven 2017

This work is placed in the middle of the room on a grey plinth so that the viewer can walk around the paintings.  The backs of the paintings are marble-like in appearance.

Again the room is darkened and the paintings are lit from above. The detail in the paintings is remarkable.  I have included some images below.

Figures 21, 22, 23 and 24: Sutherst 2017

These 3 restored works are remarkable and worth the entry fee on their own.  Unlike many viewers, I do not find the work scary or filled with horror and monsters.  I could stare at the paintings for hours and still not see all the wonder and detail in them.

Room 3 – Cardinal Domenico Grimani

This room contains some of Cardinal Grimani’s collection of ancient Greek sculpture and the famous Grimani Breviary, a masterpiece of Flemish miniaturist art. Cardinal Grimani was highly educated and enjoyed many passions such as sculpture, Leonardo da Vinci’s works and art from Flanders.  The 3 Bosch works are also believed to have come from his collection.

Figures 25 and 26: Sutherst 2017

Room 4 – The Grimani collection of antique sculpture

The Cardinal bequeathed his collection of artwork to the Republic of Venice. Among the sculptures on display, there are also three precious marbles which were placed in the ‘Sala delle Teste’ of the Doge’s Palace after his death in 1523.

Room 5 – Dreams and monsters in the Renaissance imagination

Marcantonio Michiel described the works of Bosch in the Grimani collection as depictions of ‘dreams’, ‘monsters’ and ‘fires’. These concepts were not new the the Venetians.  There was a fascination around 1500, in Italy, with the world of dreams. This room displays paintings from around this period.

Figures 27 and 28: Sutherst 2017

Figures 29 and 30: Sutherst 2017

Figures 31 and 32: Sutherst 2017

The painting above held my gaze for some time.  The use of the coloured wings and the faces of the characters I found mesmerising.  A closer look at some aspects of the work are below.

Figures 33, 34 and 35: Sutherst 2017

Room 6 – Bosch’s followers and contemporaries in Venice

This exhibition also considers the large number of followers that Bosch had.  I was particularly struck by how many of the works were by anonymous artists.  I found this surprising, but wonder if it had anything to do with how the images were perceived at the time.

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Figure 36: Sutherst 2017

The spread of Bosch like motifs such as deformed heads, grotesque characters, unreal images and hellish landscapes are clear in the paintings in this room.

Figures 38 and 39: Sutherst 2017

Figures 40 and 41: Sutherst 2017

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Figure 42: Sutherst Pieter Van Der Heyden – one of 7 engravings in the “manner of Bosch” 2017

Again, I have considered the detail in the paintings as they are compelling and intriguing to me.  What exactly was going on in the heads of the artists?  They, like Bosch, have created fantastical characters without any form of technology or modern day stimuli.  I wonder what kind of work they would be producing today, with all we have available to us.

Figures 43, 44, 45 and 46: Sutherst 2017


Room 7 – The apotheosis of Bosch in the seventeenth century

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Figure 47: Sutherst 2017

The interest in the horror filled grotesque paintings appears to have waned towards the end of the 16th century.  There were, however, some who continued the work.

Figures 48 and 49: Sutherst 2017

Detail from the painting:-

Figures 50, 51 and 52: Sutherst 2017

The exhibition

The rooms of the exhibit are dark with grey walls.  The paintings are lit from above which adds to the dramatic content of the work.  The rooms are spacious with high ceilings and stone-like floors, through which you can feel the other visitors walking.

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Figure 53: Sutherst 2017

There are large information panels in each room.  These have white text printed onto dark grey boards.  At the side of each painting is a small grey plaque with white writing.  It details the name of the artist, the year (or approximation) the work was produced, the name of the work (if known) and the medium on which the work was produced.

The work is centred around Bosch and his relationship with Venice.  The work is stunningly presented in a simple, yet dramatically lit environment.  Once inside the exhibit, I totally forgot I was in the Doge’s Palace – I could have been anywhere. There is mystery in Bosch’s work.  Many interpretations exist for these exceptional works.  I believe it is this uncertainty of Bosch’s intent that attracts the viewers. This was certainly true for me.

I feel privileged to have seen these works in the flesh.  If you are in Venice before 4th June 2017, I would highly recommend that you visit this.

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