A celebratory exhibition in Hieronymus Bosch’s hometown doubles as a major art-historical achievement.
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Demons, ungodly beasts, and perverted, malformed humanoid beings—all over 500 years old—will assemble in a small town in the Netherlands this month. Their bodies huddled, shouting, being consumed, contorted, or tortured, they will be hung about the village for visitors from far and wide to see. These creatures, hatched from both heaven and hell, are neither plot twists from a network sci-fi drama nor the predictions of some medieval soothsayer. They are the characters that dot the canvases of the Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch (or Jheronimus Bosch). They come together in unprecedented number, not for a religious rite or cosplay convention but for a celebratory exhibition in Bosch’s hometown of ’s-Hertogenbosch (or Den Bosch, as it is often called). There, the largest retrospective of Bosch’s work in history—20 paintings, 19 drawings, and a number of panels and triptychs—will be on view, bringing together the macabre, the absurd, and the unthinkably beautiful.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death. The highly imaginative work of Bosch, creator of his own unique visual language, somehow appeals equally to highbrow art fans and outré weirdos. One look at The Garden of Earthly Delights, a circa 1460–1510 oil on oak triptych widely considered the artist’s masterpiece, and it’s easy to see why: expertly rendered biblical motifs and nude figures challenge the eye and art historical analysis, while odd creations like a mobile blade propped between two ears navigating the torturous landscape of hell look like something straight out of an underground comic book. The exhibition “Vision of Genius” will run at the Noordbrabants Museum in ’s-Hertogenbosch through May 8. Simultaneously, the town will stage tours and events—a parade, light show, canal cruise, 3-D presentation, musical and theatrical performances, etc.—and will likely have something to please any type of Bosch fan there is.
Curiously, the idea for “Vision of Genius” came to ’s-Hertogenbosch’s mayor, Tom Rombouts, 15 years ago. After seeing “Jheronimus Bosch,” a 2001 exhibition at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam that also included immersive, festive Bosch-related programming, Rombouts wanted to bring the party to the artist’s hometown. Having no works by Bosch at the Noordbrabants Museum to loan when negotiating with other museums, the institution’s director, Charles de Mooij, and Bosch scholar Jos Koldeweij proposed a focused program of scholarship and conservation to the City Council in 2007. The Bosch Research and Conversation Program (BRCP) was thus established and did well not only to conserve and study the artist’s oeuvre but also to entice prominent museums around the world to loan works to “Vision of Genius.” Haywain, from the Museo Nacional del Prado, joins four Afterlife Panels from the Gallerie dell’Accademia, the Ship of Fools from the Musée du Louvre, and works from the Met, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Gemäldengalerie, and others.
The research conducted by the BRCP was “mainly technical,” says de Mooij, and included photography conducted in visible daylight, microphotography, infrared, and X-rays. “One of the important results is that it makes clear what was the hand of Bosch,” says de Mooij. The artist, who ran a successful studio and often received commissions from abroad, counted Pieter Bruegel the Elder among his followers—a fruitful situation for Bosch but not necessarily for scholars five centuries later. The team behind BRCP created a vast database of their photos of Bosch’s work. “By comparing all those photos and details, it became possible to distinguish the hand of the master,” says de Mooij. “I think that’s one of the most important results of their investigation.” These results have been published on the BRCP’s website, making it “possible for the public to compare for themselves and find their own conclusions,” says de Mooij. A print publication also accompanies the exhibition and research. A two-part monograph comprises a catalogue raisonné, which features all the works in the exhibition in text and image, and a volume published by the research team featuring all of BRCP’s technical studies, photographs, and results, giving readers the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the way Bosch’s paintings were created. Says de Mooij, “it’s cliché to say it’s richly illustrated.”
Nine of the paintings in the retrospective have been restored, six as a result of the BRCP’ efforts. Says de Mooij, this is “very remarkable, given the fact that the oeuvre of Bosch is so small.” With the restoration process came, of course, new discoveries and interpretations. “In several paintings,” says de Mooij, “there were more owls than before, after the restoration.” According to de Mooij, the presence of owls is closely aligned with Bosch’s fascination with the ever-looming possibility of damnation. “The owl is not only a bird of night and personification of evil, but it also means the devil is looking at us,” says de Mooij. “An owl is looking at an owl and also looking at us!”
The detection of an underdrawing in Death and the Miser (circa 1494 or later) was another breakthrough during the restoration process. The underdrawing features a man on his deathbed in the midst of a monetary exchange with the personification of death—he is either giving death money in exchange for more life, or receiving money from death. In the painting that Bosch ultimately painted, the one we know today, the dying miser’s actions are more ambiguous: as death looms through a doorway in the miser’s bedroom, the miser considers a sack of money being offered by a demon, while an angel, with his hand on the miser’s shoulder, points to a crucifix emitting a single beam of light. This is an example of what de Mooij considers Bosch’s optimistic nature. “The emphasis lies on the evil,” says de Mooij, “but there’s always the possibility to do the good.” A recurring theme of Bosch’s work is that the artist, who had a highly religious, humanistic upbringing, “always depicts man as a pilgrim going through life to the inevitable death,” says de Mooij. “There are all sorts of temptations, but in the end one can go to heaven instead of going to hell.”
Death and the Miser is not just notable for its restoration. The painting, which is on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is the inside right panel of the divided “Wayfarer Triptych.” The triptych’s side panels, long ago torn apart, are each in separate museums around the world—the Ship of Fools at the Louvre and the Allegory of Gluttony and Lust at the Yale University Art Gallery. While the central panel of the triptych was lost, the backs and fronts of the side wings were divided, with the outside of the wings forming the octagonal “Wayfarer painting” now at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. In “Vision of Genius,” the Wayfarer Triptych will be reunited with its other fragments for the first time since their separation, and the Ship of Fools and the Allegory of Gluttony and Lust will be able to be seen together as a single image. Pieces of the altarpiece of the Brotherhood of Our Lady from St. John’s Cathedral in ’s-Hertogenbosch will be brought from three countries to form another rare reunion.
But every painting in “Vision of Genius” will be having a long-awaited homecoming. Bosch, who was born in ’s-Hertogenbosch around 1450, worked and lived in and around his hometown his whole life. His father, Jan van Aken, was a painter, and his two brothers were trained as painters, as well. It is thought that Bosch, who rarely dated his paintings, painted at least 16 triptychs, of which eight are still intact and five are fragmented. A highly religious man, Bosch became a “sworn member” of the Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, an arch-conservative religious group with a limited number (some 40) of influential local citizens that held meetings at a private chapel at St. John’s Cathedral. It would be an understatement to acknowledge the influence Bosch’s religion had on his painting—not solely in his biblical motifs or blatantly Christian imagery, but also in his hellish monsters and creatures.
A sixth of the inhabitants of his town were clergy; there were monasteries with scriptoria, and printing presses: in short, Bosch was aware of the artwork and religious content that came before him. “He knew much more than we formerly assumed, so there were sources of inspirations,” says de Mooij. “He wasn’t the first to paint or draw a monster.” Still, this is not to take away from Bosch’s unnervingly innovative and at times bizarre creations. Surrealism took centuries to drink Bosch’s Kool-Aid. Yet, the surreal qualities of his inventions shouldn’t come at the expense of realizing his talents as a realist painter. “He was a master of realistic painting,” says de Mooij, “look at the birds he painted.”
Though “Vision of Genius” seemingly has a bit of everything, museum-goers should be warned that they won’t see The Garden of Earthly Delights in Den Bosch. Philip II of Spain acquired a group of Bosch’s paintings, including the triptych, in the late 16th century, which explains the ample collection of Bosch’s work at the Prado. Says de Mooij, “I didn’t even ask the Prado to lend it to us. In terms of fragility, it’s in remarkable condition, but it’s too important.” Let’s hope the aforementioned ear demon doesn’t feel too left out.
By Sarah E. Fensom