Jheronimus Bosch worked in ’s-Hertogenbosch. With his imaginative visual language awash with devils and monsters, he developed a movement that was highly dominant throughout north-western Europe in the 16th century. The Last Judgement, part of which was completed by Bosch alone, depicts a hellish landscape populated with imaginary creatures.
Pieter Pourbus painted the Last Judgement for the Tribunal of the Liberty of Bruges, an independent administrative area around the city, with its headquarters on the Burg square. With the monumental nudes, he illustrates his knowledge of the Italian Renaissance. In addition, he was influenced – whether consciously or unconsciously – by Bosch’s imaginary creatures.
His father-in-law, Lancelot Blondeel, a homo universalis, occupied an exceptional position in the creative world of Bruges. He often worked as a designer and principal contractor. Executing paintings was just one of his many tasks. With Saint Luke Painting the Madonna, encased in a gold painted frame, he demonstrates the illusionistic possibilities that painting offers.
In the central panel, Christ appears to a sinful world, populated with grotesque characters and naked figures that misbehave or are tortured. As is often the case with the idiosyncratic Bosch, vice and sin play a central role. On the side panels we see the end of the Last Judgement: to the left, pious believers are admitted to a paradisiacal heaven, whilst to the right sinners are sent to the fires of hell.
Gazing at a panel by Jheronimus Bosch is a never-ending joy. His colourful imagination and love of absurdity seem boundless. In the central panel of this triptych, take a look at the grotesque characters, the naked figures that are misbehaving or being tortured, the surrealistically enlarged objects, and the crazy combinations. You’ll keep on finding new and amusing details.
But appearances can be deceptive. In the centre, at the top, Christ appears to this sinful world. He is surrounded by saints and angels with trumpets. The end of time and the Last Judgement have arrived! This is the moment at which people who have led righteous lives will be rewarded. And vice-versa: sinners will be punished.
To the left and right we see the consequences: on the left, pious believers are admitted to a paradisiacal heaven; and on the right, sinners are cast into a burning hell. In depictions of the Last Judgement such as this, it is customary for the dead to also rise up from their graves. But not with the idiosyncratic Jheronimus Bosch. As is often the case with his work, vices and sinfulness play a central role.
This painting has recently been restored and is positively glowing again. Take your time to appreciate Bosch’s unique visual language. This brought him – and continues to bring him – great success!
This triptych is devoted to three saints who had retreated from the world in the hope of resisting diabolical temptations. The central panel shows Job, who remained faithful to God despite the severe trials by the devil. On the left-hand panel, Saint Anthony repels the diabolical attacks through prayer. On the right-hand side, Saint Jerome chastises himself with a stone before a crucifix.
The powerful Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus, who formed the first triumvirate, or trio, with Julius Caesar and Gaius Pompeius, was known for his avarice. When he was taken prisoner during a battle with the Parthians, they poured molten gold into his mouth. Blondeel situates the gruesome scene in a landscape with ruins, for which the artist was famous amongst his contemporaries.
The painted frame commands our attention and its exuberant ornamentation is typical of Blondeel, who signed with the initials LAB and a trowel. He was commissioned to paint this scene by Saint Luke’s Guild in Bruges, whose coat of arms appears twice. Luke is said to have been the first to paint Mary and he therefore became the patron saint of painters. Blondeel affords us a glimpse of an artist’s studio, with an apprentice rubbing pigments in the background.
Painted in 1545, Lancelot Blondeel depicted an important theme, of which the museum is also in possession of a famous version by Rogier van der Weyden: Saint Luke creating a portrait of Mary and the baby Jesus. In Rogier’s work, Luke is drawing. Here, however, he is shown painting at an easel. In any case, this legendary tale led to Luke being hailed as the patron saint of painters.
But of course, your gaze is immediately arrested by the extravagant gilt frame. The story of this decorative element begins in Rome. This is because the bizarre ornaments are inspired by the murals that decorated the vast palace of… the Roman Emperor Nero, the Domus Aurea. These so-called ‘grotesques’ were uncovered in Blondeel’s time. Renaissance artists imitated them eagerly, and Lancelot Blondeel was no exception. They drew their inspiration from Greco-Roman antiquity. Moreover, Blondeel was a true homo universalis: in addition to working as a painter, he was also an architect and cartographer. And he signed his work as a self-confident humanist: ‘LAB’ is inscribed at the bottom, Lancelot Blondeel.
Now let us return to Luke and his Madonna in the painter’s studio, who are also framed, as it were, by the grotesques. In the studio on the right, an apprentice is grinding pigments. The coat of arms above his head is that of the Bruges painters’ guild. You can see it repeated at the bottom. Blondeel was probably commissioned by the guild to create this work. Was it an altarpiece? Or did guild members carry this painting as a banner in processions? Unfortunately, we do not know.
In this unusual Last Supper, Pourbus paints the dramatic moment when Judas runs out of the room, straight into the arms of the devil. He probably painted this panel for the Holy Spirit Chamber of Rhetoric. Every year, the Bruges rhetoricians would re-enact the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday. Poems would be written in honour of the occasion. The figure on the left, who wears contemporaneous clothes and holds a sheet of paper, alludes to this event.
The Last Supper, which Pieter Pourbus painted in 1548, is tumultuous to say the least. You can see the date above the doorframe. Pourbus has opted to portray a moment of high drama: Jesus has just announced that his disciple Judas will betray him. The red-haired man who is seen running out of the room in anger is Judas; he knocks over a chair in the process. In his left hand, he is holding his purse with silver pieces. He will walk straight into the diabolical arms of death.
To the left, one of the twelve apostles is looking at a piece of paper. He is wearing what is known as a Phrygian cap. This is not a scene typically associated with depictions of the Last Supper.
What lay behind these unusual decisions? Pourbus created this panel for the Holy Ghost chamber of rhetoric in Bruges. Rhetoricians were citizens who came together to read poetry and perform plays. They staged literary performances, as we would put it these days. Every year, the Bruges chamber of rhetoric would stage the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday as a kind of re-enactment. Members would also compose occasional verses for the event. Hence the man with the piece of paper, and the dramatic scene that Pourbus has chosen to depict. It feels as though we are watching a play.
The scenes from the life of Christ on the wings and central panel – the Carrying of the Cross, the Descent from the Cross, the Entombment and the Resurrection – originally formed a single piece, painted on canvas. The small paintings below, the so-called predella, which depict the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Circumcision, were painted on a single canvas. A few decades after completion, both canvases were cut up and placed on an existing wooden altarpiece.
Pourbus painted this Last Judgement for the courtroom of the Liberty of Bruges, a wide administrative area around the city. Christ is surrounded by saints while the graves on earth burst open and the dead rise again. He sends the chosen ones to heaven and the sinners to hell. The muscular figures are reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, with which Pourbus was familiar from prints.
On 15 August 1551, the painter Pieter Pourbus delivers this Last Judgement painting. He then receives his final payment, and for his magnificent achievement the satisfied client gives him an additional tip. This customer is, in fact, the aldermen of the Liberty of Bruges, a large administrative area surrounding the city. This monumental work by Pourbus was intended for their courtroom. The Last Judgement served as a permanent reminder to the aldermen, who were also judges, of the moment at which God – the supreme judge – would decide their fate. With this in mind, they would be well advised to deliver fair judgements…
What do we see? A traditional yet innovative presentation of the Last Judgement. At the top, the dynamic figure of Christ is surrounded by saints. He delivers his judgement, ushering pious believers into heaven with his right hand, whilst sending sinners to the fires of hell with his left. The result is immediately visible on earth: graves open up and, to the right, chaos and panic ensue. To the left, the lucky ones ascend to heaven, helped by angels. To the right, devils are at work. Pourbus drew inspiration from figures such as Jan Provoost, who twenty-six years earlier had also painted a Last Judgement for the town hall of Bruges. This earlier work is also part of the museum’s collection.
We have described the depiction as traditional yet innovative. Yet anyone familiar with Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel will probably recognise the grand gestures and sturdy, muscular figures at the bottom, such as the man who climbs out of his grave by placing one foot on the ground. In 1551, Michelangelo’s work was just ten years old. Pourbus would probably have been familiar with the monumental Roman fresco from prints.
These are the outer wings of a triptych which was commissioned by abbot Antoine Wydoit from the Abbey of the Dunes, and of which the central panel has been lost. They are painted in grisaille, or shades of grey, which creates the illusion that they are sculptures. They show the Lactatio Bernardi, the legend in which milk from Mary’s breast whetted the lips of Saint Bernard.
On these inner wings, saint Antony stands to the left in a monk’s robe with his attributes, a pig and a book. In the background we see the diabolic torments to which he was subjected and his meeting with Paul. To the right is the commissioner of the altarpiece, seen in prayer: the Cistercian abbot, Antoine Wydoit, from the Abbey of the Dunes.
In a gilded Renaissance decor, three saints stand on semicircular pedestals: James with pilgrim's staff and book, Bavo with sword and falcon and Willibrord of Echternach as a bishop with a book on which sits a naked child. Below, we get a view of rural activities: in addition to plowing, harrowing and sowing peasants, we see a shepherd, a hunter and a woman milking a cow.