The “Epiphany” in this book’s title may be read effectively in at least three ways. It refers most directly to Hieronymus Bosch’s great Adoration of the Magi triptych (c.1495) in Madrid, widely known as the Prado Epiphany, which is the focus of Debra Strickland’s deeply illuminating and beautifully presented study. Beyond the biblical subject of that work, the “Epiphany of Hieronymus Bosch” can refer as well to other things that Bosch made manifest – to the first owners and observers of the triptych, as one would expect; but also to its viewers in other times and places whom Bosch could never have known. These further-flung observers emerge as key protagonists, but only gradually – partly because they occupy the later chapters, and partly because they are nameless and innumerable. This dimension of the study, a speculative account of varied reception rather than programmed meaning, leads to a third sense of The Epiphany of Hieronymus Bosch: as a new way of seeing the artist himself – something revealed about him rather than by him. The author might not have intended this sense of “epiphany,” but the book’s embrace of unforeseen interpretations gives welcome license to propose it.
Its publication coincided with the quincentennial of Bosch’s death in 1516. 2016 brought, along with many other publications, two unprecedented exhibitions: the first in his home town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch; and the second in Madrid, where the Prado holds the premier collection of the master’s paintings. Abundant recent scholarship, much of it involving technical examination, has enriched and complicated what has always been a shifting story of Bosch attributions. But one anchor for these efforts is the Prado Epiphany triptych, which is signed, occupied by identifiable patrons, well preserved, and brilliantly executed in ways that make it a foundation for comparative analysis. Recently conserved, the triptych was a magnetic centerpiece of the Prado show, often holding crowds longer than any other work, with the possible exception of The Garden of Earthly Delights. This might not have been predicted for a biblical scene in the company of his more famously original and lurid subjects, but it has always been clear that this is an Adoration of the Magi like no other.
Following the cues of Bosch’s painting, Strickland introduces the event not as a canonical Infancy episode, but as “the first Christian/non-Christian encounter.” The foreign rulers’ obeisance to Christ is regarded as having been used to authorize a long history of subjugation – of Jews, Muslims, and Blacks, among others – accomplished by many means. Given the endless scope of this history and a possible concentration of its most toxic ideas in Bosch’s triptych, Strickland has written a study that looks as much outward toward actual demonization as it does inward to the painting itself. The theological, political, and cultural networks of suspicion, calumny, and brutality in which she situates the work are informed equally by late medieval and early modern perceptions of the gospel past and eschatological future.
Cultivating the layers of anachronism in this approach, and drawing judiciously on recent work by (among others) Caroline Bynum, Joseph Koerner, Keith Moxey, Alexander Nagel, and Christopher Wood, Strickland’s book is also a meditation on the life of time itself within and around a single work of art. An introduction within that framework is followed by six chapters that proceed from the past of the painting through its present and future.
Chapter One parses Bosch’s assertively eccentric staging of the event in light of theological and political implications of the magi in the Middle Ages. This faceted perspective is valuable not only because it illuminates his singular invention, but also because the surging popularity of the Adoration of the Magi in fifteenth-century Europe included an array of expensive, prestigious works by leading artists for powerful patrons – and often for relatively public sites. Chapter Two examines eschatological dimensions of Bosch’s scene. Foremost among congregating omens is the pale, lurking figure watching at center. Having previously argued persuasively (following Lotte Brand Philip and others) for his identification as Antichrist, Strickland here regards his identity as more capacious, given her focus on shifting reception of the work. Sure to have been the anticipated Antichrist for many observers, this pale, diseased, eager menace would – like the idea of Antichrist itself – have also accommodated other perceived enemies in one’s own time. His centrality becomes operative: “rather than try to match the aberrant figure to the Epiphany scene, I aim to match the Epiphany scene to the aberrant figure.” (71)
Chapter Three considers the work in light of contemporary devotion. Emphasizing the Devotio Moderna view of rampant worldly corruption, Strickland develops a view of the pale figure’s festering sore in terms of ways in which disease (plague, syphilis, leprosy) was associated with Jews and other perceived enemies of the faith. The fourth chapter focuses chiefly on the Mass of St. Gregory on the triptych exterior – startling conception of a familiar subject. Here the emphasis is on temporally elastic (including eschatological) relationships among the Arma Christi, the sacrificed body, and the threatening body on the triptych interior. The last two chapters survey specific enmities that would have colored views of Bosch’s image: in chapter five toward the Pope (in the eyes of Luther and other reformers) and the Turks; and above all, in chapter six, the Jews. From these “future” views of the triptych in the concluding chapters, an epilogue reflects back upon it by considering a selection of copies and adaptations.
Is it possible to see too much in a single work of art? The risk is highest when the goal of interpretation, conscious or not, is recovery of what was intended by the artist and understood by early observers. Strickland’s decision to step beyond this limit and into a longer scope and wider sphere of reception is not a bid to lower that risk – to allow for ‘anything goes’ in a sea of imagined response. The perspectives she frames are fully informed by her years of rigorous work on a wider history of demonization, above all in Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton, 2003). Readers will resist some of the specific associations she proposes, but will find it difficult to dismiss their viability for many sixteenth-century minds.
And some will be taken aback by the Bosch – or dimension of Bosch – that emerges. No one who knows his images of sin and hell will be surprised by an emphasis on trouble in this Gospel scene. But the prospect of its virulent agency in the eyes and minds of generations of viewers will be new to many. If the triptych’s painter looks a little less like a beloved, fearlessly imaginative proto-modern Artist, and more like a shrewd designer of aggressive Christian propaganda, let the conversations begin. They are not new, but art history needs more of them – especially about the the work of masters we hold most dear. In our own time of rising alarm about xenophobia, religious war, nationalist paranoia, and the wholesale manufacture of facts and enemies, Strickland’s book arrives as an old master monograph that feels urgent.