Stuart Forster looks at the life and artistic legacy of Hieronymus Bosch in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands.
Grotesque demons and visions of paradise feature in artworks by Hieronymus Bosch.
The surname by which we know him is drawn from the city in the south of the country; Dutch people refer to the place informally as Den Bosch. The artist was a member of an established family of painters. He spent most of his life in the city, working in a studio on the market square. Even today, an age of malls, the square fills with stalls and bustles with shoppers every Saturday.
Hieronymus Bosch in ‘s-Hertogenbosch
Throughout 2016 a series of events was held in the Netherlands to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death. Many of the events in the multi-faceted Jheronimus Bosch 500 programme took place in the province of North Brabant. Bosch was born in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the provincial capital, in the middle of the fifteenth century.
The Groot Tuighuis, ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s free-to-visit city archive, holds exhibits focusing on archaeology and urban history. The City of Bosch exhibition recreated how ‘s-Hertogenbosch looked during the artist’s lifetime.
It takes a little over an hour to travel by train from the railway station at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to ‘s-Hertogenbosch. People in this part of the Netherlands pride themselves on their outgoing manner and passion for good food and drink. They term themselves gezellig, a word that defies precise translation but implies being sociable and warm.
Nights out in Den Bosch tend to have those qualities. The city centre is peppered with restaurants and café-bars that remain open long after midnight. For the duration of 2016 there’s another reason to experience an evening out; the free-to-view Bosch by Night light and sound show.
The 12-minute display features colourful, high-definition images and conveys Hieronymus Bosch’s oeuvre, work that encompasses grotesque imaginary creatures and innocent faced nudes. The images will be projected onto the facades of buildings on the market square.
Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius
You can view original works by Hieronymus Bosch within Het Noordbrabants Museum. As part of the commemorations of the 500th anniversary of his death the museum held the largest ever exhibition of Bosch’s works. Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius included masterpieces loaned from galleries in Berlin and Vienna, plus the Adoration of the Magi from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Notably, The Haywain has returned to the Netherlands for the first time since 1570, when Spain’s King Phillip II acquired it for his art collection. Normally it can be seen in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.
Like several other Bosch works, The Haywain is a triptych, a three-part altarpiece. Such works were designed to be folded in on themselves, for ease of transport in an era when royals and nobles often had several houses but limited furnishings and fresh food was tricky to move efficiently; they transported their belongings between properties.
Bosch was a respected citizen of Den Bosch and a member of an influential confraternity, the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady. His funeral mass was held on 9 August 1516 within city’s St John’s Cathedral, a building that was under construction for the duration of the artist’s life.
Interpreting Hieronymus Bosch’s art
A number of scholars assume his paintings depict the fears and hopes of people of his time. Some suggest he was being critical of society and the priesthood.
In the era of mass illiteracy more than half a millennium ago, paintings were deciphered and ‘read’ to unveil moralising stories. They often drew upon widely recognised Biblical themes. Bosch’s paintings also have scurrilous elements that would have engaged and entertained onlookers. As a precursor of artists such as Rembrandt painting themselves into great works such as The Night Watch, Bosch recorded his own thin face in the bottom corner of Saint John on Patmos, which he painted for his confraternity.
Vincent van Gogh, a much later Dutch artist, left a vast body of letters that help us understand his creative thought process and tortured mind. Other than the words Jheronimus Bosch which Bosch signed on just seven of his paintings, nothing penned by Bosch survives. Inevitably, this has led experts to question the provenance of a number of the works attributed to him and to ask whether some were merely painted in his style, by other artists working within in his workshop.
To coincide with the 500th anniversary of his death, the Bosch Research and Conservation Project was established. Ultra-high resolution digital macrophotography, digital X-radiography and infrared reflectograph were employed for state-of-the-art analysis of Bosch’s paintings.
An important discovery
In 2016 research resulted in the Temptation of Saint Anthony — from the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri — being attributed as a work by Bosch himself. It’s also revealed concealed aspects within his works, resulting in a greater understanding of the artist’s techniques.
Bosch was described as the “inventor of monsters and chimeras” in 1560 by Felipe de Guevara in his book on art, Comments on Painting. Several of the grotesque creatures that Bosch painted take on a 3D form by the banks of the city’s Binnendieze river, which you can tour in an open-topped boat. More can be viewed on foot following The Garden of Earthly Delights sculpture trail, named and inspired by one of Bosch’s most influential triptychs.
Copies of all of those works plus a recreation of the artist’s studio are displayed within the former church that’s now the Jheronimus Bosch Art Center. The tower provides fine views over the city and a place to pause and reflect on Bosch’s creations.
See the Holland website for ideas on things to do and see in the Netherlands.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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