The Bosch Project at Petworth

Image showing the Petworth copy of ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ by Hieronymus Bosch.

Over the winter months our Conservation Team carry out checks and deep-cleaning of the interiors and collection at Petworth. In March 2018 as part of this conservation work 'The Adoration of the Magi' by Bosch in the Petworth House collection was examined under controlled conditions by a team of Dutch forensic art scientists from the Bosch Project.

Please be aware this painting is now on loan and will return to Petworth at a later date.

Hieronymus Bosch's 'The Adoration of the Magi' depicts the adoration of the Christ child by the Three Kings Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. It is believed that the Antichrist is also present in the guise of a fourth king, semi naked with an unusual headpiece. The image currently on display in the Somerset Room is a one of several variants of the central panel of the ‘Epiphany’ triptych in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

As part of the ongoing conservation work the painting was removed from its frame and carefully secured before undergoing various tests, including infra-red and x-ray scans, and extremely high definition photographs. These tests highlighted several interesting elements within the Petworth copy.

The Owl and Mouse

In the top left corner of the stable, placed within a hole in the wall, is an owl with a dead mouse. Bosch liked to include owls in a large number of his works. What is interesting is that though the North Star, a central feature in the story of the birth of Christ, is not in all the copies, the owl is. During the mid to late 1400s when the painting was completed, owls were considered to be an ill omen, representing tombs, Satan and dark places. However, owls are thought to be a lighthearted touch and considered to be a signature motif within Bosch's works.

Close up of the bearded partially robed figure in the barn door frame considered most likely to be the Antichrist in Bosch’s ‘The Adoration of the Magi’.

The Antichrist

The bearded, partially robed priest figure visible in the left hand door frame is considered to most likely be the Antichrist. He wears an unusual headpiece consisting of a glass containing a blue flower within a crown of thorns, and in his hands he holds the outer covering that would encase the rest of the headpiece. This crown of thorns is considered to be a possible allusion to the future crucifixition of Christ.

Close up showing a slightly darker patch of wall behind the figure Mary. Which x-rays revealed to be a larger image of Mary that was later painted over and replaced with the current figure.

Mary

A slightly darker patch is visible on the wall behind Mary which appears to be a shadow or darker area of wall. This was infact revealed during the x-rays the painting underwent to be a larger image of Mary, similar to that contained in the original image in Madrid, which has been painted over and replaced with the current smaller Mary. This was likely to improve the proportions of the image and balance out the composition in the absense of the two side panels seen in the Madrid triptych.

Close up showing the North Star within ‘The Adoration of the Magi’. Petworth’s copy is the only one to contain the North Star as seen in the original.

The North Star

The Petworth copy of the painting is the only one that contains the North Star like the one seen in the original. The reason for this is unknown and subject to speculation, however it has been suggested that it may have been due to variation in the length and shape of the canvas and wood used in the different variations.