Hieronymus Bosch: odd man out

Published 9 February 2016

Hieronymus Bosch’s home town celebrates the artist’s 500th anniversary with a spectacular retrospective, says Martin Oldham.

  • From the Winter 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    A phantasmagorical world teeming with bizarre animals, cavorting devils and macabre creations: this is the realm of Hieronymus Bosch, the Netherlandish artist who within his own lifetime became famous for his depictions of the supernatural, the grotesque and the absurd. His paintings were so unlike anything that had gone before that it has been tempting to see them as the output of a deviant mind. Indeed, insanity or drug-use have at various times been proposed as explanations for his over-fertile imagination, and political dissidence, religious heresy or the occult detected in his cryptic imagery.

    The little we know about Bosch’s life, however, is enough to show he was far from being an eccentric outsider. Quite the opposite: the evidence indicates he was a respected member of the civic community in ’s-Hertogenbosch, colloquially known as Den Bosch – the town where he was born (probably around 1450), lived and worked, and from where he took his name. He also appears to have been remarkably well connected, selling his paintings to princely and international patrons, which partly accounts for why his works are now widely distributed in major collections mostly outside the Netherlands.

    In 2016, Bosch’s art is coming back to Den Bosch, to form the largest retrospective of his work ever mounted. ‘Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of a Genius’ at the Noordbrabants Museum is the centrepiece of a year-long festival of Bosch- themed events in the city marking the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death in 1516. The exhibition will bring together 20 of his paintings and 19 drawings, representing around 80 per cent of the works reliably attributed to his hand. These are shown alongside 70 or so contextual pieces of fine and decorative art that place the artist in the urban milieu of late-medieval Den Bosch.

    Negotiating the loans of so many rare and fragile objects is an extraordinary achievement for the Noordbrabants Museum and its Director, Charles de Mooij. He freely acknowledges that the museum is not in the same league as most of the lending institutions and has no comparable works with which to reciprocate.

    Highlights include Bosch’s masterpiece triptych The Haywain from the Prado (detail left), which has not left Madrid in over 400 years, and The Hermit Saints from the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. The Pedlar (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam), Allegory of Gluttony and Lust (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven), Death and the Miser (National Gallery of Art, Washington) and The Ship of Fools (Musée du Louvre, Paris) – all formerly side panels of another triptych, the central panel of which is now lost – are reunited in the exhibition.

  • Hieronymus Bosch, “The–Haywain”, the central panel from The Haywain

    Hieronymus Bosch, “The–Haywain”, the central panel from The Haywain, c.1515.

    Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

  • The exhibition is the culmination of six years of intensive investigation into the artist’s oeuvre: the Bosch Research and Conservation Project. Many important discoveries are being revealed in 2016; for example, new light is shed on the notoriously difficult dating of Bosch’s work, and the meaning behind some of his most puzzling symbolism is unlocked. Twelve of the paintings on show have been newly conserved and are being unveiled in their restored state, including The Last Judgement (Groeningemuseum, Bruges) and The Ship of Fools, in its near original condition.

    By bringing Bosch back to his home town, the exhibition aims to strip away some of the more fanciful interpretations that have attached to the artist over the years, showing him instead to be a man of his place and time. De Mooij emphasises that Den Bosch was a pious city, and Bosch’s art was deeply rooted in religious life and medieval morality. But Bosch’s mischievous eye looked to the periphery of this culture, to the comic designs inhabiting the margins of illuminated manuscripts, for example. His innovation was to introduce this unorthodox imagery into prestigious panel painting.

    “Bosch’s art caused a sensation,” explains De Mooij. Widely acclaimed during and after the artist’s lifetime, it inspired a generation of copyists and imitators, notably Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who was known as “the second Bosch”. Cryptic meanings and visual puzzles in Bosch’s work appealed to the sophisticated intellectual tastes of his elite clients, and it is thought he was influenced by new humanist ideas circulating at the time. He painted traditional sacred subjects, but he approached them with an independence of vision and a disregard for artistic conventions that was novel. An artist working on the brink of the profound cultural transformations of the Renaissance and the Reformation, his use of irony and ambiguity in his art can be seen as a response to the uncertainties of his age.

    De Mooij does not expect this exhibition to be the last word on Bosch: “Each new discovery raises new questions,” he says. He promises to bring us closer to “the real Bosch”, but recognises that mysteries will always remain about this visionary and enigmatic artist.

    Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of a Genius is at Het Noordbrabants Museum, den Bosch, The Netherlands, from 13 Feb until 8 May.

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