Once upon a time there was a Dutch painter named Jheronimus Bosch (1450-1516). Born Jheronimus van Aken, he adopted his artist name after his hometown, the southern Dutch city of ’s-Hertogenbosch. His artworks depicted the most incredible fantasy figures and gruesome scenes that must have sprung from either a very troubled or intoxicated mind. Both his fame and works expanded across the international cultural landscape. Over the last hundreds of years he has influenced other world-famous painters, Hollywood film directors and fashion designers. This year ‘s-Hertogenbosch celebrates the 500th anniversary of ‘their most famous son’s’ death. Although none of his works remain in the Netherlands, the city has managed to briefly bring back the majority of his remaining works back to their place of birth for the very special retrospective ‘Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of Genius’ at the Noordbrabants Museum. I was one of the first visitors when it opened last February and started writing this post back then already, but it remained in my drafts folder due to my blogger’s block. Now the exhibition has reached its final weekend, but I still wanted to share this post with you as Bosch deserves it and also because there are still many Jeroen Bosch related events coming up later this year you can visit!
The man behind the works
I can be brief about this as there isn’t much known about the private life of Jheronimus Bosch. His family was originally from Aachen in Germany, hence the artist’s official surname Aken. There are many variations on his first name: Hieronymus/Hiëronymus, Joen, Jeroen (popular name in Dutch) and El Bosco in Spanish. Jeroen was born in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, also called Den Bosch, into a family of painters. However, none of their artworks survived. Knowing the city’s contemporary lay-out, I find it quite amusing that he grew up on one side of the city market square (Markt), but moved to another side – the more prestigious side – after he married to Aleid van de Meervenne, who came from a well-to-do family. In the photo above you can see his former home, the green building behind the statue. (Shortly after I took this photo, the building on the left collapsed and is no longer there.)
At the time of Bosch, Den Bosch was a flourishing commercial city and the fourth capital of the Duchy of Brabant (after Antwerp, Brussels and Leuven), but not particularly famed for its artistic scene. This is what makes Bosch’ works even more exceptional: his mind was unique and progressive and his talent opened the doors to the city’s elite. Unlike many other painters whose talents are sadly only discovered after their death, Bosch was a respected artist during his life. He received prestigious commissions including from patrons abroad. Although his paintings often portray the most gruesome scenes of afterlife and hell, Bosch was a religious man and his works include many Christian motifs. Bosch belonged to the Brotherhood of Our Lady (Lieve Vrouwe Broederschap) and was a respected member. His funeral even took place in the recently completed St John’s Church (St Janskerk). Bosch had seen this late gothic church come to a completion during his lifetime and even worked on some altar pieces. Especially for the Bosch500 year you can access the top and see the fantastic sculptures in the cathedral’s gutters and see the 96 stone flying buttress sculptures. Here are some pics I took last month when I did the climb.
Inspiration for centuries to come
Although Jeroen Bosch was an exceptional artist whose works were worlds apart from his predecessors or any of his contemporaries, he’s internationally not as well-known as other Dutch painters such as Vincent van Gogh or Rembrandt van Rijn. Despite that I grew up practically next to Bosch’ hometown, I admit that I hadn’t heard of him either till my early twenties when a friend of mine showed me some pictures of Bosch’ works. The fantastic and hellish landscapes immediately appealed to my adolescent mind and I could see how Bosch’ works had influenced H.R. Giger whose macabre drawings I really loved at the time (and still of course!).
Bosch’ works have inspired many artists for many centuries. The clearest examples are Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569) who followed Bosch’ style and themes, and Spanish Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). The funny video below explains (in Dutch) how Dalí studied Bosch’ paintings in the Prado museum in Madrid and was inspired by his fantasy creatures and surrealist landscapes. It’s no surprise that Jeroen Bosch is dubbed as the first Surrealist painter.
In the same video series ‘Bosch in a minute’ you can see how the album cover of Michael Jackson‘s Dangerous bears direct references to Jeroen Bosch’ works, how fashion designer Dior took inspiration from the painter and finally how George Lucas took creatures directly from Bosch paintings and transported them into space in the Star Wars films. Don’t you think as well that the helmet creature below resembles Darth Vader? If you watch the video, you’ll see far more examples of Bosch’ influence on Lucas.
Animals and absurd creatures take centre stage in Bosch’ works. You can read dozens of essays and books about the animals in his works. Below is a little collage I made of a few of these creatures. Bear in mind that these figures are just mere details in immense paintings. It will takes, if not weeks, for one person to study all the creatures and scenes in one particular painting.
Some of my favourite works
The Garden of Earthly Delights (1495-1505)
This is the most popular work by Jeroen Bosch and hangs proudly in the Prado museum in Madrid. I can’t describe how happy I felt when I finally saw this truly immense and elaborate triptych in real life a few years ago! Prado didn’t loan out this item for the exhibition in the Netherlands so the only chance for anyone to see the real deal is to go Madrid.
On the left you see Adam and Eve in Paradise before the Fall. On the central panel you see both humans and animals indulge in many sinful acts which lead to Hell, which is depicted on the right.
The Haywain Triptych (1510-1516)
Similar to the triptych above we see the Garden of Eden on the left panel and Hell on the right panel. In the centre we see a band of devils pulling a haywain which is surrounded by humans from all ages and ranks. They all try to get a share of the hay, which in itself is worthless. Bosch’ message with this work was that they who pursue earthly possessions will end up in Hell.
Saint Wilgefortis Triptych (c. 1495-1505)
Here we see the crucifixion of martyr Saint Wilgefortis. The dominant colour in the centre panel is red, the colour of martyrdom. For over 350 years there had been discussions whether this was a depiction of a female of male martyr. When the painting was recently restored, they discovered Bosch had painted a little subtle beard on the woman’s chin. I thought this was such a great and remarkable discovery!
More Jeroen Bosch related events
Bosch500 has a varied programme with special events celebrating the year of Jeroen Bosch, include music and dance performances. In February the dance production Fresas by the Dutch National Ballet premiered in Den Bosch. Choreographer Juanjo Arqués took inspiration from The Garden of Earthly Delights and the score was written by my hubby. You can read the making-of that score in ‘Interview with Scanner in the Garden of Sonic Delights’.
For a complete list of events for Bosch500, go to their website. Here are some highlights:
A Wondrous Climb (April-October 2016 in Den Bosch): this year the general public gets exclusive access to the roof of St. John’s Cathedral, the city’s Gothic cathedral between 1370 and 1529. From 25 metres above the ground you not only have an extraordinary view over the city, but can also see the remarkable stone sculptures in the cathedral’s figures which seem to be inspired by Bosch’ curious creatures. Order your ticket here (via the button ‘Bestel tickets’).
Heaven and Hell tour: this is another unique way to explore the city of Den Bosch, this time not from the top of the cathedral, but from the water. The Binnendieze is a centuries-old system of watercourses within the city walls. Travel through heaven and hell and explore the old city of Jeroen Bosch whilst you encounter 3D sculptures of Bosch’ creatures.
Jheronimus Bosch Art Center (permanent)
This art centre is located in a former church and is dedicated to Jeroen Bosch and his works. Here you can see high-quality photo reproductions of all his works all year round. You can also see 3D figures from his artworks, a reproduction of his studio and there are also various special exhibitions for Jeroen Bosch year. More info here.
Masterpieces from Romania (18 June-9 October 2016)
After they’ve cleared out the last visitors of the Jeroen Bosch exhibition, the Noordbrabants Museum will get ready for their next show featuring forty works by Flemish and Dutch painters, who together with Jeroen Bosch, raised the art of painting in the Low Countries to the highest standard. More info here.
Visiting Den Bosch? Here are some tips
Den Bosch Central Station is a well-connected train station. From Schiphol Airport take the direct train to Den Bosch. Trains depart twice an hour from platform 1-2 and travel time is just over an hour.
The Best Western Hotel is just a few minutes walk from St. John’s Cathedral, and Noordbrabants Museum.
There are many restaurants in Den Bosch to match any budget for any cuisine. The street Korte Putstraat near the cathedral has a big concentration of restaurants and brasseries.
Here are some other tips: DIT is a cosy modern restaurant that serves smaller dishes, perfect for sharing. Go there for their delicious cheesecake!
Japanese restaurant Shiro is truly exquisite! The cosy restaurant is located in the loft space of a handsome building. This is a pricier restaurant, but you will have some of the best traditional Japanese food here and going out for dinner here is an at least 2-hr experience. It’s recommended to make a reservation and request sushi beforehand as that’s not standard on the menu. Find their contact details here.
Flemish brasserie Het Groote Genoegen serves good pub grub and has a good selection of Belgian beers. You have to try their scrumptious chips!
You cannot leave Den Bosch without having tried the local specialty, the Bossche bol. These cream-filled dough balls covered in chocolate are absolute divine! Make sure you have one from specialty baker’s Jan de Groot, located near the train station.
There are dozens of good pubs in Den Bosch, it’s impossible to even try to list them here! Try one of the many pubs on Markt (the market), Uilenburg, Korte Putstraat and Parade.
Arthouse cinema and restaurant Verkadefabriek, located in a former biscuit factory.
Catch a concert or club night at pop venue W2, a former cigar factory.
At Theater aan de Parade you can see a dance, music or theatre performance. Watch the latest film releases in their cinema.
Catch the latest film screenings at modern 5-screen cinema Vue. Tip: films are subtitled in the Netherlands, not dubbed (children’s films excepted).
Many apologies for the 3-month delay in writing this post! I hope this still inspired you to explore the works of one of this incredible painters. There are so many great books out there about Jeroen Bosch, but it’s definitely worth to look out for the exhibition catalogue as the Bosch Research Centre did extensive research into the artist which led to many new great findings.