Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delight

Sándor Balázs Papp: The Garden of Earthly Delight, study copy


            Hieronymus Bosch was the son of a painter called Anthonius van Aken. As the family name "van Aken" suggests, the father came from the city of Aachen. Hieronymus Bosch was born around 1450 in 's-Hertogenbosch, in the province of Brabant, and died in the same city in 1516. He was a well-off, respected citizen of the city and his wife also came from a well-to-do family. From 1486 onward Bosch worked continuously for the Confraternity of Our Lady at the Cathedral of Saint John and – probably – also received commissions from the eminent citizens of Aachen. In 1504 Philip the Handsome, Duke of Burgundy (and a member of the Habsburg dynasty) commissioned a painting depicting the Last Judgement from him.

            His art – which was undoubtedly unparalleled at the time – cannot simply be explained by the development of early Dutch painting. Myriads of interpretations have attempted to decipher the themes and fantastic motifs of his bizarre and enigmatic works. The explanations thus produced turn out to be completely unscientific most of the time.

            One thing is sure: he cannot have been the member of any secret sects. His works were greatly admired in the 16th century and imitated on a large scale by numerous painters. So much so, that varying the motifs created by him became a real trend. In later years his works became forgotten and were not re-discovered until the 20th century. Most of his paintings ended up in the hands of Spanish monarchs following the Spanish conquest of the Netherlands.

            One of his masterpieces in the triptych entitled The Garden of Earthly Delights, also known as The Earthly Paradise (Museo del Prado, Madrid). The date of its creation is much debated: some researchers consider it to be one of Bosch's early paintings, although most believe it belongs to his mature works. In 1517 the painting decorated the Brussels palace of Henry III of Nassau, prince of Orange and there it remained until 1568, when it was confiscated and taken to Spain by Spanish noblemen. In 1591 it hung in the Escorial, in the private chambers of Philip II, the "Most Catholic King".

            The triptych, which was painted on oak panels, is in its original frame. The size of the panels is as follows: central panel: 190x175 cm, wings: 187.5x76.5 cm. The work was preserved in a considerably damaged state. Its restoration was completed in 2000. The same year the painting was exhibited in the Prado, together with several old copies. The earliest of these copies might have been produced in Bosch's atelier. It is a painting on canvas, and forms part of the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. Although the work is incomplete and rather fragmented, it is a true copy. The other copies can be dated back to the second half of the 16th century.

            Bosch exerted a significant influence on the art of the 20th century. This was among others demonstrated in 1969, when the first Bosch exhibition was held. At the "Hommage á Bosch" in the Dutch city of 's–Hertogenbosch the painter's lasting influence was illustrated primarily with the help of surrealist and pop-art quotations and paraphrases, in accordance with the dominant art forms of the period.

            I find Sándor Balázs Papp's experiment an interesting endeavour; this young Hungarian painter worked for a decade to create a full-size copy of The Garden Of Earthly Delights, without a commission, for himself, so to say. He did not even get to Vienna, let alone Madrid, therefore he produced a copy based on the reproductions available to him at the time. When creating a copy for a museum, the work needs to meet certain requirements: it has to be of a different size than the original and a clear indication at the back of the painting (copy, Kopies) has to indicate that it is a copy. In general, a copy is smaller than the original. In this case, however, the copy exceeds in size the Bosch painting. While the latter was painted in oil distemper on oak, the copy was prepared with the use of distemper and acril paint only. Therefore the artist applied a different painting technique, which resulted in a different style. The work thus created is not a mechanic, photographic copy; Sándor Balázs Papp's manner of painting is more drawing-like and drier. The copy reflects the age in which it was created. It can by no way be classified as a fashionable "museum copy" – it is more of an interpretation of the original work of art.

            His creator considers the painting a study-copy. In older times young disciples learnt the tricks of the trade by copying works in the master's workshop. Papp confesses to have regarded the painting as a college study, some sort of "academy". His identification with this work from a distant era must have been extremely educational for him. His painting obviously differs substantially from the original, yet it is very illuminating for the viewers as well. On the one hand it provides an authentic interpretation of Bosch's painting, recalling the artist's extraordinary world in – at times – surprisingly fresh colours. On the other hand it holds a 20th-century mirror to the original.

            In the history of Hungarian art many artists have been inspired by old masterpieces. In 2004 the highly successful exhibition organised by the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts entitled "Original Copy – Copies of Nineteenth–Century Hungarian Masters based on the Masterpieces of the Renaissance and the Baroque" was an interesting experiment to re-evaluate this genre.

            As time goes by viewers will increasingly see Sándor Balázs Papp's Bosch copy as a reflection on the time it was created in. It is essential to protect and display this work, which documents a unique artistic experiment.


February 2006


Dr Zsuzsa Urbach

Art historian