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Christ Carrying the Cross by Bosch in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent

The Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) was established in 2010 with the goal of a comprehensive study of the entire oeuvre of Jheronimus Bosch (ca. 1450-1516). With the most advanced techniques, in standardised manners and comparative conditions, the majority of the works by Bosch were investigated. Six years of research resulted in two voluminous scientific publications: Jheronimus Bosch, schilder en tekenaar. Catalogue raisonné and Hieronymus Bosch, painter and draughtsman. Technical Studies. As well as bringing about the exhibition, Jheronimus Bosch: Visions of a genius in the Noordbrabants Museum in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

The BRCP rejected the authorship of a few works, while others were then indeed attributed to the artist. As such, the researchers of the BRCP are in agreement that Christ Carrying the Cross, an icon of the collection in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent (MSK), is not a work by the hand of Bosch. The MSK mollified the announcement and continues to exhibit Christ Carrying the Cross as a work by the hand of the painter.

On February 17, the MSK invited Jos Koldeweij (BRCP), Griet Steyaert (independent art historian and conservator), Maximiliaan Martens (Professor at the University of Ghent) and Paul Vandenbroeck (academic researcher at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp) for a public debate. We line up the arguments of all of the speakers below and end with the conclusion of the MSK.

Jos Koldeweij and the BRCP argue that Christ Carrying the Cross is possibly a copy after a prototype by Bosch. It dates from circa 1530-1540, some time after the death of Bosch. The BRCP formulated more than ten criteria.

  • The underdrawing (studied via infrared reflectography) is not comparable with those of the other works attributed to Bosch. Moreover, no differences were found between underdrawing and painting. With other works, the differences are frequently present. 
  • A comparative study of morphological details of figures (such as the portrayal of ears, hands, facial expressions) indicates that it deals with another artist. 
  • Given that no accumulation of paint on the edges of the pictorial layer was detected, it was concluded that the panel was placed in a frame directly after painting. With paintings framed in advance, the standard procedure of 15th-century paintings, there is an accumulation of paint on the edges present.
  • Lacunae in the research: there was no dendrochronology (natural science method by which the rings of the wood of the panelling are used to approximate dating) carried out on Christ Carrying the Cross. Due to the condition of the work, this was not possible.

Griet Steyaert refuted some of the arguments by the BRCP:

  • It is true that gradually people in the 16th Century converted from framed to non-framed panels. However, the evidence that Christ Carrying the Cross was intended for a loose panel cannot be firmly provided according to Steyaert. With the restoration in 1956-57 by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, wooden slats were added to the edges in order to frame the panel. One cannot rule it out that the painting originally had an unpainted border (with an accumulation of paint). No more can one confirm that the work is painted in a frame. 
  • With the comparison of details such as ears, one must take into account the actual mutual relationships and the restoration history of the works.
  • Steyaert asserted that the brush technique (the appropriate examination of the painter or his handwriting) of Christ Carrying the Cross and Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns) (National Gallery, London) are quite in line with each other. The manner in which the ears, inter alia, are painted (wet-on-wet, highlights), lead Steyaert to conclude that it deals with one and the same hand.
  • Steyaert restored The Last Judgement from the collection of the Groeninge Museum in Bruges. The painting was proclaimed by the BRCP as being a work by the hand of Bosch. Steyaert maintains that the same hand is recognised as in Christ Carrying the Cross.

Maximiliaan Martens refuted a few arguments of the BRCP:

  • Martens posits that art history is not an exact science. Rather, it is a confrontation of opinions that one tries to document as well as possible. Art history is an attempt to predict the past. (a citation from John Oliver Hand, Conservator at the Washington Gallery of Art). Natural science research methods have had little effect on that. Research results must still be interpreted, and as such, subjectivity can never be completely excluded. 
  • In 2009, Martens himself also made infrared reflectograms of both works in Ghent. From this, it appears that the style of the underdrawing is clearly different. Christ Carrying the Cross has a linear underdrawing and is only visible in the parts that deviate from the painting. This indicates the usage of a design drawing. Saint Jerome has a free underdrawing, by which it suggests a creative process during the painting process itself. In Death and the Miser (National Gallery of Art, Washington), a third type of underdrawing is considered, with crowded crosshatches and several modifications. Martens demonstrates how people at the end of the 1980's gained the insight that one must take into account the function of the underdrawing. The person who executes the underdrawing is not necessarily the painter of the work. It is not exceptional that artists, in the capacity of studio practice, use different styles of underdrawing. Martens points to three different styles of underdrawing in the work of Raphael (1483-1520), works with which the authorship is in no dispute. Also with Pieter Bruegel I (ca. 1525/30-1569), one encounters the same manner of working. In an exceptionally small oeuvre such as that of Bosch, this is according to Martens no viable reason for refuting an attribution.
  • According to the BRCP, compositions with a close-up during the time of Bosch would seldom be encountered. Nonetheless, various prior, 15th-century examples exist. Among others, Martens points to the book illustrator Simon Marmion (1420/25-1489) and to some 40 copies of the lost Lamentation of Christ by Hugo van der Goes (1440-1482). Bosch, moreover, even applied the dramatic close-up to Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns), a work attributed to him according to the BRCP.
  • Martens compares both works and points to the identical manner in which beard and moustache hairs are applied with white lead. However, he also points to the serenity of the heads of Christ and other similar details. Martens concedes a time difference between both works (Christ Carrying the Cross came later in Bosch's career according to him), however, he sees the same hand in both.

Paul van den Broeck refutes a few arguments of the BRCP:

  • According to Van den Broeck, Bosch is ‘incompatible with himself'. He thus refers to the enormous variation with the oeuvre of Bosch and compares him in this way with a modern artist who acts freely according to his will. Bosch makes idiosyncratic works. In a certain fashion he seems to remove himself from the governing conventions of images of his time. 
  • Van den Broeck also calls Bosch a paradoxical artist. The values and norms that lay at the foundation of his work contrast with the manner in which he brings the image to light. Bosch frequently uses so-called exempla contraria; he shows how it should not be.
  • Even within the same work, such as The Garden of Earthly Delights (Museo del Prado, Madrid), there are stylistic discrepancies amongst the three different panels (open side).
  • Vandenbroeck also finds that the limited number of surviving works and the enormous variation within the oeuvre speak to the difficulties of authorship. Because only a fraction of his entire production has survived, we cannot know Bosch exhaustively.

Conclusion of the MSK:

It is the merit of the BRCP that the paintings and drawings that are traditionally attributed to Jheronimus Bosch or his environs, were each being investigated separately. Moreover, the most recent research results are available to everyone online. In addition, with the means of the project, the Saint Jerome was wonderfully restored.

It is not the first time that the authorship of Christ Carrying the Cross is put into question; that already happened more than four decades ago. On the basis of available literature on Christ Carrying the Cross, and taking into account the findings during the debate, the management of the museum will emphasise that the painting will more than ever and no less must be viewed as one of the most hallucinate creations from the Western history of art.

The BRCP regards Christ Carrying the Cross as possibly a copy after a prototype of Bosch, dating it circa 1530-1540. For the other experts at the debate and for the museum management, there remain equally sufficient arguments to view Christ Carrying the Cross as being by the hand of Bosch. The conclusion of the Director of the museum, Catherine de Zegher is: ‘On our wall text it remains that this is a work of Bosch'. At the same time, the museum plans for offering a future conservation and restoration treatment with respect to the recent insights. In other words: the debate over Christ Carrying the Cross is yet to be over.

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