Behind the Scenes with Bosch: Curators in Conversation November 28, 2016

Five hundred years after his death, Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1450­–1516) still inspires viewers with fantastical paintings that were the subject of a recent exhibition in his hometown of 's-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands. A new documentary on the exhibition, “Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil”—which screens at the MFAH on December 3 & 4—relates to a painting on view in the MFAH galleries: “Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child Through a Sinful World” by a circle of Bosch followers.

Film curator Marian Luntz joined James Clifton, curator of Renaissance and Baroque painting and head of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, to discuss the complementary film and painting.

Marian Luntz Art historians are not known for drama, but that’s what you see in Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil. The film has a lot of questions and mysteries, and an adventure you go on with the staff at the Noordbrabants Museum as they organize the exhibition and authenticate works of art.

James Clifton That would be interesting for museum visitors who might have little idea of what is involved in putting on exhibitions. People may not know that paintings are often fragile or in not very good condition, or that there are often controversies about the attribution of artworks. In in our own exhibitions, such as our 2015–16 show on Joachim Wtewael, we try to highlight conservation issues and investigations of paintings using technologies such as x-radiology and infrared photography. I’m fascinated by it, and I suspect a lot of visitors might be fascinated by it too.

ML In the film, there are amazing, up-close scenes of artworks as experts observe them and check for authenticity. You also hear art historians talking about the symbolism in Bosch’s paintings—of which there is a lot.

JC Bosch was extraordinarily creative in making weird creatures and hybrid elements, most of which are funny, scary, or both. Often they’re meant to be hellish, like our Saint Christopher painting.

Circle of Bosch
Circle of Hieronymus Bosch, Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child through a Sinful World, early 16th century, oil on panel, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston.

The fire in the background may relate to hell, or more specifically, the tragedy of the world. In the legend of Saint Christopher, he is carrying an infant across a river, and the child seems to be getting heavier and heavier as they cross. Ultimately, Christopher finds out that he is not only carrying the infant Christ (Christopher means “Christ bearer”), but also the burdens of the world. In the painting, the horrific things in world around him are what’s scary, not the river itself.

A lot of Bosch or Bosch-inspired pictures are filled with motifs that you think must be metaphorical, but pinning down the specific meanings of them is very, very difficult. Even the great scholar Erwin Panofsky, who wrote a definitive history of early Netherlandish painting, got to Bosch and said, “No thanks, don’t know what to say about this.”

ML The film really is a celebration and a commemoration of Bosch’s singular vision.

JC I suspect one of the things people will get out of the film is that Bosch paintings have a wealth of extraordinary details. Pictures like Saint Christopher repay long, close looking, because there are lots of little tiny things going on.

See the documentary on December 3 & 4, and visit the Circle of Bosch painting, located on the second level of the Beck Building in gallery 215.