The Extraordinary Imagination of Hieronymus Bosch

A new blockbuster exhibition in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Holland reunites the bulk of the works created by the city’s most famous son. Peter Morrell pays a visit and is stunned by the artist’s vision and skill

The North Brabant Museum

The North Brabant Museum

Visions of the Hereafter, ca. 1505-15 Venezia, Museo di Palazzo Grimani 1 2 Photo Rik Klein Gotink and image processing Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project.

Visions of the Hereafter, ca. 1505-15 Venezia, Museo di Palazzo Grimani 1 2 Photo Rik Klein Gotink and image processing Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project.

Heronimus-Bosch-Haywain-triptych-open-ca.1515-panel-133-x-100cm-center-147-x-56-cm-sides.-Collection-Madrid-Museo-Nacional-del-Prado

Heronimus-Bosch-Haywain-triptych-open-ca.1515-panel-133-x-100cm-center-147-x-56-cm-sides.-Collection-Madrid-Museo-Nacional-del-Prado

P02052 001

Heronimus Bosch, The Pedlar, Haywain-triptych (closed), ca.1515, panel, 147 x 112 cm. Collection: Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Heronimus-Bosch-The-Pedlar-c.-1500.-Panel-710-x-706-cm.-Collection-Museum-Boijmans-Van-Beuningen-Rotterdam

Heronimus-Bosch-The-Pedlar-c.-1500.-Panel-710-x-706-cm.-Collection-Museum-Boijmans-Van-Beuningen-Rotterdam

Bosch's Workshop - now De Kleine Winst

Bosch's Workshop - now De Kleine Winst

Hieeronymus Bosch Statue in the Market Square

Hieeronymus Bosch Statue in the Market Square

St. John's Cathedral

St. John's Cathedral

Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady - Coat of Arms

Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady - Coat of Arms

Canal tour, Binnendieze

Canal tour, Binnendieze

A Bosch Character on the Binnendieze

A Bosch Character on the Binnendieze

Nanine Linning, Hieronymus B

Nanine Linning's, Hieronymus B

Korte Putstraat

Korte Putstraat

The Bossche Bol

The Bossche Bol

In today’s media rich world our imagination is fed from internet images, newsreels and artists like Dali, Magritte and Picasso. However in medieval times there were no such stimuli for Hieronymus Bosch who spent his entire life in the the Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, From within his own mind he created images that even by modern standards are shocking and surreal, ranging from huge birds devouring humans to men impaled on harp strings.

This year is the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death and the Noordbrabants Museum in the artist’s home city has performed a miracle by gathering together the bulk of his surviving paintings and drawings and staging a stunning exhibition, Visions of Genius.

The sheer draughtsmanship of the works is breathtaking but add into it vignettes of scenes depicting the full spectrum of human folly from drunkenness to lechery and stupidity to criminality, you get a visual feast. In The Conjurer for example we see a gullible onlooker being distracted by a trick while the magician’s assistant steals the man’s money. While in Cutting the Stone, a quack doctor slices a patient’s head open and removes ‘stupidity’ from the wound, in reality a pebble produced by sleight of hand.

These relatively simple messages are a precursor to some of the larger works. One example is The Haywain, on loan from the Prado in Madrid and back in the Netherlands after 450 years. Painted on three wooden panels the left one tells the story of Adam and Eve and on the right it shows hell, where Bosch gives full vent to his psychedelic imagination. The centre panel is a pot pourri of activity from stealing the hay to a mugging, a tooth extraction, boozing bishops and child snatchers. Atop the cart is a courting couple being protected by an angel on the left and tempted by a devil on the right.

When The Haywain panels are closed they show a wayfarer defending himself from a dog, the same model has been used in a another painting called The Pedlar on loan from the Boijmans in Rotterdam. In this second painting the man has passed a brothel suggesting he is on the path to righteousness, he has a bandage round his leg so probably the dog finally bit him.

The Haywain in only surpassed by Bosch’s most famous work The Garden of Earthly Delights. As it is too fragile to move from the Prado, the exhibition is displaying a well executed copy. In the same vein as The Haywain, Adam and Eve are to the left and hell is on the right. The centre panel is a riot of writhing nudes, strange structures and morphing creatures.

Although the exhibition is the main attraction, the entire city has embraced the spirit of Bosch to showcase it’s heritage and history. The medieval layout of the central area is still intact and it’s easy to imagine Bosch walking across the market square with the sound of carillon bells in the air. The house where he lived with his wealthy wife and his workshop opposite still exist. The only thing that would surprise him would be his statue erected in 1929.

A narrow cobbled street from the square leads to the gothic cathedral of St John, the largest catholic church in the Netherlands. This year a temporary external staircase has been built allowing visitors to get a close up view of both the celestial and grotesque statues on the flying buttresses, could these carvings have been part of Bosch’s inspiration? Recent renovations have seen some of the statues being replaced and updated. For example one of the winged angels is dressed in jeans and is talking on a mobile phone, you can even ring her, the premium rate call charge contributes to the restoration fund.

The green in front of the church was originally the graveyard and is almost certainly the final resting place of Bosch but the exact location is frustratingly undocumented. Hieronymus Bosch was a member of the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, founded in 1318, its members are drawn from the great and the good of the city. The society still exists and its headquarters are just across the street from the cathedral, it has a small museum which includes a document detailing the disbursements paid for Bosch’s funeral.

One of the highlights for visitors this year will be the Heaven and Hell cruise around the Binnendieze waterway. Not only does the boat trip give a unique view of the medieval city but models of characters from the works and special effects in the tunnels, designed in conjunction with the Efteling theme park, will create the experience of actually being in a Bosch painting.

The immersive experience was also brought vividly to life the night before I visited the exhibition. I went to the Theatre on the Parade for a performance of Hieronymus B, choreographed by Nanine Linning. I was one of a group who went on stage to be surrounded by elaborate sets and dancers in Bosch themed costumes.

Bodies writhed as if impaled on stakes, a lithe performer appeared from within a massive human ear and a cackling, boat bedecked jester represented the Bosch painting, Ship of Fools. The combination of the dancing and the specially commissioned music was sensory overload that Bosch would have thoroughly endorsed.

All of this excitement and activity had made me hungry and a short walk away from the theatre is the city’s best known street for restaurants, Korte Putstraat. I chose the Bistro Allerlei and was soon settled in, the red brick walls gave it a cosy feel as I tucked in to a very tender rare steak washed down with a strong abbaye style beer.

While still on the subject of food the speciality of the city is the Bossche Bol, This is a tennis ball sized profiterole with a choux pastry base, lashings of cream and a chocolate coating. Locals advised me that however you eat it you will end up in mess, albeit a delicious one.

My hotel, The Duke was equidistant between the market square and the cathedral. It was a charming boutique property decorated in industrial chic style and very convenient for all the main attractions.

The Bosch exhibition is an unmissable opportunity to see the sheer genius of this artist. Once there ‘s-Hertogenbosch offers the visitor a vast array of additional attractions to explore and enjoy. I regard my visit as one of my best ever cultural experiences.

Getting to the city is easy, take one of the many flights from the UK to Schiphol. From the railway station under the arrivals concourse of the airport there are regular direct trains to ‘s-Hertogenbosch with a journey time of an hour.

Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius until 8th May 2016
Het Noordbrabants Museum
Verwersstraat 41
’s-Hertogenbosch
The Netherlands
www.hetnoordbrabantsmuseum.nl/english

Information about all the events connected with the exhibition in ’s-Hertogenbosch can be found at
www.bosch500.nl/en

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