Thanks to the opening of more and more space for storage and display, the Hermitage has been able to get many works out of store and take a fresh look at them. After profound study and carefully considered conservation, two paintings proved to be fascinating and important additions to our knowledge of the history of art.
First came the identification of a large Crucifixion formerly said to be a copy as an original work by Rubens, left unfinished and thought lost. The second work is a very rare mid-sixteenth century copy of the central panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights, the best known work by Hieronymus Bosch.
Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)
The Crucifixion. c. 1610
Oil on canvas; 482.5 x 277.5 cm
In 2011 this vast canvas was removed from storage, where it had been kept on a roll, unseen since 1951. The painting had been acquired by Catherine the Great and send to the Alexander Nevsky Monstery, but when it returned to the Hermitage in the twentieth century it was seen as a copy. Conservation revealed the quality of the painting and documentary research made it possible to identify it with anunfinished picture on canvas recorded in the October 1642 posthumous inventory of the property of Antwerp merchant and artist Herman de Neyt. Although the image relates to the smaller central panel of the Moretus Triptych in Antwerp Cathedral (1612), it clearly predates it and should be dated c. 1610.
This is a major addition to the corpus of works by Rubens.
Follower of Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516)
The Garden of Earthly Delights. 1556–1568 (?)
Oil on panel
Relatively few original works by Hieronymus Bosch are known today – just a couple of dozen paintings and a handful of drawings – but they are enough to confirm his incredible imagination and skill. The newly restored Hermitage painting repeats the central panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503–15; Prado, Madrid). In the triptych this scene is set between depictions of Paradise and The Last Judgment, the artist warning the viewer that when life on earth comes to an end, everyone will be equal at the Day of Judgment. But the Hermitage picture is not just a copy, since it reflects changes in style that occurred in the forty years since the death of Bosch: figures have a greater sense of mass and volume, the manner is more painterly, contrasting with the drier quality of Bosch’s own work. Most importantly, the painting demonstrates the enduring power of Bosch’s inventive images.