Nelson curators prepare "The Temptation of St. Anthony" for the spotlight
When you’re about to display a rare 500-year-old painting recently confirmed as one of only a couple of dozen works of a master, you don’t want to ruin the whole thing by picking the wrong frame.
Should the frame be ornate or plain? Do you go frameless? Should the piece go behind glass? How else can you prevent nincompoops from trying to touch it?
(Yes, dear readers, there are some visitors to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art who touch the paintings, even those works created around the same time Christopher Columbus got lost on his way to Asia.)
“There’s something about paint that people really want to understand it and feel it,” said Rima Girnius, associate curator of European painting and sculpture.
“The Temptation of St. Anthony” by Hieronymus Bosch is set to go back on display Friday at the Nelson for the first time in more than a decade.
For a long time, the iPad-sized wood panel painting was thought to have been produced by a Bosch workshop or an imitator.
Bosch’s paintings of fantastic beasts and freaky religioscapes were very popular in his time — he died in 1516 — and surged in popularity well into the 16th century. And twas ever thus: Where a buck can be made on artwork, workshops, schools, homages, imitators and copycats will crop up.
“There are large quantities of paintings that are Bosch-like because everyone wanted one of his little monsters,” Girnius said.
The creepy beasties in the Nelson’s painting tempt the monastic St. Anthony with food, booze and gruesome thoughts. The piece looks like it was dreamed up by a Pixar animator with a bath-salts habit. A fanged fish crawls about on bird legs. A tin funnel sprouts arms to brandish a sword. Foxes and turtles emerge from a stream where St. Anthony gathers water.
As we were looking at the painting in the conservation department the other day, Girnius pointed to an amphibious head poking out of the painting’s waterway.
“This frog appears in a lot of his works and is often associated with evil and pestilence,” she said. “In some of Bosch’s other paintings he has a frog suckling at a woman’s breast. It’s all about tempting St. Anthony and pulling him from a life of virtue.”
The piece was thought to be a Bosch when the museum acquired it in the 1930s. In time, however, scholars questioned that attribution. Keep in mind, these scholars had never seen the painting in person, only in photographs.
Eventually, enough skepticism forced the Nelson to downgrade the painting’s attribution from the artist himself to “the workshop of Bosch.”
“Temptation” fell so far out of favor that officials eventually put it in storage.
In 2014, an amateur art historian who saw an image of the painting emailed officials at the Nelson and the Bosch Research and Conservation Project about the peculiar straight waterline surrounding St. Anthony’s pitcher. Some time later, the Bosch group — readying a 500-year-anniversary exhibit in the artist’s hometown of Den Bosch, Netherlands — requested high-resolution and infrared images of the painting.
A subsequent visit to KC by the committee yielded positive results after a high-tech examination. “The Temptation of St. Anthony” would be reattributed to Bosch. The examination and reattribution of the painting are vital parts of the documentary “Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil.” (The Star gave the movie 2 1/2 stars.)
In February 2016, Scott Heffley, senior conservator for paintings, took “The Temptation of St. Anthony” to the Netherlands with museum director Julian Zugazagoitia. Officials with the Het Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch hosted a big news conference to present the painting, revealing the results of their “discovery” in an hourlong presentation that ended with the unveiling of the Kansas City painting.
Heffley had already opened the crate and examined the painting to see that it had arrived safely from KC, but officials at the Netherlands museum had him pack it all back up so they could stage an unveiling for the media.
“I lifted the painting out of the box, and the cameras were clicking like crazy,” he said. “There were five film crews and 50 people and there was all this noise. I had this strange grin on my face because it was so surprising but exciting. People wanted to see it. I had to kind of walk around and show it off.”
Friday, “The Temptation of St. Anthony” will go on view again for Kansas City audiences. It will hang adjacent to Albrecht Bouts’ “Christ Crowned With Thorns” in a new exhibit called “What Lies Beneath: Rediscovering Hieronymous Bosch and Albrecht Bouts.” The two paintings will be on display in a plum-colored room just off the southwest corner of the Plaza level (near the knight in armor on horseback).
Which brings us back around to the frames.
In the 1930s, “The Temptation” hung in a frame that reflected the aesthetic of the time: wood frame with black velvet.
“I don’t know where that aesthetic came from,” Heffley said.
After the painting was downgraded to the workshop of Bosch, a curator framed it in a simple $150 frame purchased locally. But now that nearly all are convinced the Bosch is the real deal, the frame also received an upgrade: a thick, dark wooden period reproduction created by a framemaker in London. Girnius said the frame was chosen by senior curator of European art Aimee Marcereau DeGalan and herself.
“Temptation” is most likely a fragment of a painting cut down from a larger piece, so officials had to decide how big and ornate the frame should be, Girnius said. Other images would have had something more bold. Maybe a different-colored wood.
“We really wanted something simple that would highlight and emphasize the painting without taking away from it,” she said. “You don’t want the frame to be on display.”
Heffley calls the piece “modest” by Bosch standards. The painter’s famous triptych “Garden of Earthly Delights,” for example, is 7-by-12 feet. Nonetheless, “Temptation” has everything you want in a Bosch.
“It has the little curious critters, they’re doing odd things and it helps tell a religious story,” he said. “It has all this strange inventive curiosity.”
Regardless of the painting’s size, this is the work’s moment.
“There are only about 25 works that have been attributed to Bosch, this one being only the fifth in the United States,” Girnius said. “It’s a really big deal.”
Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Temptation of St. Anthony” will go on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art on June 30. It will be shown with “Christ Crowned With Thorns,” an early Netherlandish painting recently confirmed as an autograph work by Albrecht Bouts. nelson-atkins.org