'I find it touching that, in this picture, Bosch leaves behind his often nightmarish world of demons and monsters, presenting us with a blissful, but many-layered dreamscape.'

The Adoration of the Magi, 1470–75, by Hieronymus Bosch (about 1450–1516), 28in by 221⁄4in, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bridgeman Images.

John Rutter says:
‘Just about everything in this lovely Epiphany scene is symbolic. The Madonna and Child are in a ruined castle (God’s kingdom on Earth). In the distance, we see a city (the new Jerusalem), two lovers crossing a bridge and a cross. The two kings on the right have retained their royal headgear and only the aged king kneels in submission, together with the figure presumed to be Joseph. The subtle message is that Mary and Jesus alone hold the keys to God’s kingdom, which they will give to those who are truly humble. It’s nothing like what the Epiphany must have been (look at that rich gold rug under the holy pair), but it combines complex symbolism with simple, serene beauty. I find it touching that, in this picture, Bosch leaves behind his often nightmarish world of demons and monsters, presenting us with a blissful, but many-layered dreamscape.’

John Rutter, composer and conductor, is best known for his choral music. His retrospective album The John Rutter Songbook is newly released.

John McEwen comments:
Until recently, this painting was classified school of Bosch. now, the under-drawing, tunnel perspective and ‘rather wooden figures’, with nonetheless ‘sensitively’ rendered faces, conclusively restore it to the canon as among the first of his pictures. The cloth held by angels like a curtain suggests the composition derives from the religious plays that were popular in his hometown of ’s-Hertogenbosch, one of the four principal cities of the duchy of Brabant. Today, the three other Brabantine cities—Brussels, Antwerp and Leuven—are in Belgium, whereas ’s-Hertogenbosch is in Holland.

The city from which Bosch takes his name was a thriving commercial centre, noted not least for its cloth industry, with trade connections as far south as Italy. It had no university or bishopric, but many convents and monasteries. Of special importance was a Dutch brotherhood, the Devotio Moderna, who exemplified the Imitation of Christ, the devotional treatise attributed to thomas a Kempis. the moral authority of the medieval Church, soon to be challenged by the Protestant Reformation, still prevailed. Even 10 years after Bosch’s death, 5% of the city’s population was in religious orders, the highest proportion recorded in the Low Countries.

Biographical details of Bosch’s life are confined to a few records. He married an heiress older than himself, but there is no evidence that he ever left ’s-Hertogenbosch. In 1486–87, he is listed as a member of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, one of many to venerate the Virgin. The fantastic allegories for which he is famous lie ahead.

This article was originally published in Country Life, December 17, 2014

More from the My Favourite Painting Series