Grisly death scenes. Bizarre debauchery. The end of the world and a fair amount of butts. It’s no wonder Hieronymus Bosch, who lived more than 500 years ago, still speaks to people who live in a whole different millennium. Bosch’s lasting influence is remarkable considering there are only about 25 known paintings—a number that just jumped up by one, with confirmation that a panel of experts has authenticated a new Bosch work called The Temptation of St. Anthony.
A new Bosch is news—but the way this painting was discovered is fascinating. The 15-inch-high work is owned by Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum, which bought the painting all back in 1935. Amazingly, the piece hadn’t even been exhibited since 2003, yet a tip from an amateur historian turned experts onto its existence, according to The New York Times. A panel of experts, known as the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, announced its verdict of authenticity yesterday.
Authenticating any 500-year-old painting almost always depends on the word of experts—but increasingly, technology is giving those experts a bit more actual evidence to lean on, as was the case here. The decision rested mainly upon a tell-tale sign of Bosch known as "underdrawing." He would typically "sketch an underdrawing over the ground layer of his oak panels using a coarse brush with thin paint," the curators at Nelson-Atkins wrote yesterday. While the museum's 1935 acquisition was definitely done on an oak panel, it took more effort to figure out what was underneath the finished painting.
The piece was sent for more analysis by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project in the Netherlands. That's where a type of camera called Osiris came in. The camera uses a technique called Infrared reflectography, which was actually invented by—yep—a Dutch physicist in the 1960s who developed it specifically to be able to see "through" paintings. The technology uses long-wavelength imaging to see how infrared light is absorbed by different layers of paint, according to Opus Instruments, which makes the cameras.
"The degree of penetration depends on the thickness of the paint, the type of paint used, and the wavelength of infrared radiation," the company writes. "Infrared reflectography is especially valuable for studying underdrawing, cracks, pentimenti, hidden signatures, etc., or the initial laying out of a composition with charcoal or graphite."
That was exactly what the Bosch investigators were looking for. Rima Girnius, associate curator of European paintings and sculpture at Nelson Atkins, told Co.Design that infrared reflectography was probably the most important tool—it revealed that Bosch had changed some elements of the painting, including the shape of the saint's jar—while X-Ray images and other photography techniques bolstered the findings.
Bosch only painted about 25 pieces, but this wasn't the only time he painted St. Anthony; he appears at least twice in the painter's known work. If you're not familiar with the saint's plight—I sure wasn't—Anthony was an ascetic monk who wandered through Egypt and was tempted with all manner of weird lures, from gold to demons. He comes up again and again in art and literature, probably because his second-century struggles are still pretty much on par with our own in 2016, if you replace the gold coins and demons with, well, with gold coins and demons.
Bosch, too, seemed to relate to this unlikely Egyptian monk, even in the 15th century: Each time he painted him, he depicted a ragged, tortured man, plagued by visions and bizarre, nonsensical demons. In some ways, the newly discovered work might be a bit of a self-portrait.