The Netherlands is remarkable for many things – the full embrace of the bicycle as the most appropriate and sensible mode of transport, its ancient and unceasing battle against incoming tides, and the universal and unequivocal reverence of cheese as the perfect food all may come to mind. However, the most revelatory moment after living there for seven months for me was not, surprisingly, cheese based. While I had always appreciated, admired and maybe even come to understand the enormity of the Dutch’s contribution to the way art has evolved over the past centuries, it was the viewing of Hieronymus Bosch’s works in his home town of ’s Hertogenbosch this past summer that was perhaps the single most significant exhibit I have ever attended.
This exhibit, which marks 500 years since Bosch’s death, has been over a decade in the making, including over 6 years of restoration by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project. Of the 24 paintings known to be of Bosch, 17 are displayed at the Noord-Brabants museum where the exhibit is held, making it the largest exhibit of his works held to date. Ambitious loan requests were granted from large and typically possessive museums in New York, Madrid and Venice, significant for a small museum that holds no original Bosch pictures of their own.
Bosch’s The Haywain
While Bosch’s works have always been up for different interpretations, such as the notion that he belonged to a sexual sect to the idea that his paintings were inspired by psychedelic drugs, this exhibit is unusually free from commentary, leaving it up to the discerning attendee. However, it is clear that Bosch’s deep religious sensibilities were his largest influence – excluding a few, almost all of the works attributed to Bosch concerns the lives of saints, scenes of heaven, hell, and all the rest. Many of Bosch’s scenes are a scathing criticism of a society he perceived to be condemning themselves to an eternal hell.
In Death and the Miser, Death looms as the miser, unable to resist earthly temptations, reaches for a bag of gold supplied by a demon, while an angel points to crucifix from which a beam of light descends. In The Haywain, crowds of people, including nuns, grasp at a haystack as it is led into hell by fish headed demons, crushing those in its path. In these, Bosch’s works are rich and filled with detail, adding foundations of reality to otherwise fantastic scenes – in his Adoration of the Magi, man in the background, oblivious, warms his hands over the fire, and every day life continues. In contrast, his followers works are exhibited also for comparison. The comparison piece is stiff, without the enhancement of details and a skewed perspective. Bosch truly had a visionary frame of mind, which endures today – his works are still as evocative and complex as they were when first exhibited in s’ Hertogenbosch’s local churches.
Bosch’s Adoration of the Magi
Unfortunately, not all of his works are exhibited here. His most famous, the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, still hangs in Madrid’s Prado (The Haywain was sent instead), where it has been since the 16th century. Charles De Mooij, director of the Noord-Brabants museum, didn’t even put in the request. It would be like, he compared, to ringing up the Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and asking to borrow Rembrandt’s Night Watch. That is, completely out of the question. Nonetheless, this exhibit is a remarkable showing, and one that should be attended without hesitation, as anything on a similar scale is unlikely to occur any time soon. It was the most fantastic ending to my time there, and one that I feel proud and honoured.