Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius, Het Noord-Brabants Museum, s’ Hertogenbosch, until 8 May 2016

Five hundred years on from his death, the town that spawned an unclassifiable artistic visionary and lent him its name has, through a miracle of curation and international cooperation, gathered together the larger part of Bosch’s remaining works from galleries across the world. It took the organisers ten years to bring their dream to fruition. The result is of course a European ‘hit’ show, which has entered the mainstream and caught the public imagination across the continent. Needless to say the Bosch exhibition sold out and on the week day I visited was heaving with European art pilgrims anxious to get close to Bosch flagships The Haywain, The Last Judgement or The Garden of Earthy Delights plus a plethora of lesser known works.

We are used to popular London exhibitions resembling processing factories, as a seemingly unlimited number of bodies are funnelled in. We think it a necessary sufferance to shuffle through cramped rooms pressed against each other, muttering apologies for personal space infractions, each individual straining to maintain a private dialogue with the artworks. The Bosch exhibition unfortunately suffered the same problem. However, despite the crowds, the atmosphere was hushed and reverential. The tone of the lighting in the velvety dark interior of the museum was so brilliantly executed that it endowed the works with even greater gravitas and spiritual aura, so one had a real sense of something special occurring here, a unique moment which would not be repeated, like the Grünewald exhibition which miraculously occurred in Colmar and Karlsruhe in 2010. Furthermore, the religious tenor of Bosch’s work enhanced the sanctified air, as if one were moving through the darkness of a cathedral crypt to the next chapel containing its candlelit wonder.

Bosch was a true maverick of his time, both an innovator and a loner, standing resolutely apart from the general trends of the artistic world of around 1500. What most people will not realise is just how radical Bosch was for this period and that paintings such as The Haywain or The Wayfarer, with their cryptic moralistic storyline, had never appeared in western art before. Bosch also signed his paintings – another new development; this was ‘personal’ art, an artist saying ‘I am Bosch, this is what I think and believe, read my metaphorical message and examine your own conscience.’ These paintings are all mirrors held up to the viewer so they can see themselves better, see how they too stumble through life, making wrong decisions based on lust and greed instead of offering themselves to God almighty and hence spiritual contentment. This striking message was informed by the Devotio Moderna movement, whose aim was to communicate the Christian message with the greatest intensity.

Facts on Bosch’s life are scanty. It is thought he died around the age of sixty-five and lived a comfortable life in the merchant town of s’Hertegenbosch, the latter part of which the painter adopted as his family name, denoting he was an important figure there, a somebody. He was born Joen van Aken, ‘Aken’ meaning ‘Aachen’. But Bosch was never in Aachen, only s’Hertegenbsoch – where he worked quite apart from the main artistic world of Flanders of Ghent, Bruges, Brussels or Antwerp. Yet Bosch’s name soon spread and patrons came to seek him out. The twenty five panels and same number of drawings which have survived the last five centuries are just a fraction of his total output. While Bosch continued the tradition of his predecessors such as Flemish masters Dirk Bouts or Rogier van der Weyden, he also broke with these forebears in style and technique.

The first major work one encounters is The Wayfarer, 1500-10, a round image which shows a lone traveller on his way through a rural district, we know not where. The painting was originally part of a triptych that also contained The Ship of Fools and Death and the Miser, both of which are also displayed here. This wayfarer symbolises the human on his journey through life, he is as the catalogue states ‘Everyman’ and we can only be sure that his ultimate destination is death. But it is what state he is in during life, in religious terms, that interests Bosch. This sense of the ever twisting road to death infects the painting. The self-contained traveller carrying his worldly goods on his back, ragged, patched up, well worn with greying hair, beyond the mid-point of life, looks backwards and is thus unaware he will soon come up against a closed gate (death). At his heels an unfriendly dog growls and behind the dog stands a decrepit ‘house of ill repute’, whose incumbents show him scant interest. His existence is completely irrelevant to the herd who seek idle pleasures, (we see a man casually urinate against the wall and another striking a deal with a whore), all are oblivious to his presence as an individual. This man is completely alone in the world, so without faith, Bosch suggests, life is a meaningless road punctuated only by moments of ultimately futile carnal satisfaction. Will the traveller pass through the gate steadfast and purified of base desires or will he turn back and enter the den of vice, forfeiting a greater meaning to his existence?

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Hieronymus Bosch, Allegory of gluttony, called Ship of Fools, ca. 1500-10, Oil on oak panel, 58.1 × 32.5 cm, Paris, Musée du Louvre
9b. NA Kruisdraging_Carrying of the Cross_Wien, Gem+ñldegalerie_HR
Carrying of the Cross, ca. 1490-1510, Wien, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie

Paintings like The Ship of Fools and The Haywain show human behaviour in a world saturated with stupidity and mindless gluttony. The occupants of the ship are the same as those who, lured by gold and material riches, grasp pathetically at the great golden boulder of the haywain and fall under its rough wheels, lie in a drunken stupor or end up having their throats cut by a brigand. The futile non voyage of the ship with its doomed crew and the haywain procession are both a danse macabre. The haywain is drawn by determined demons, while the ship is crewed by thoughtless pleasure seekers, grinning with idiotic intent and notably a compromised monk, overladen and adrift in a desolate landscape, where the only port of call appears to be, you’ve guessed it, death. On top of the haywain – more a solid mass which resembles a giant Dutch cheese atop a tumbrel – an angel implores God, who looks down from his cloud arbour, arms raised in frustration at his wayward creation. Next to the angel a troubadour plays a lute to a seduced maiden, whilst a rather tubby cheeky demon stands in as impromptu flautist. The left side panel shows Adam and Eve in Eden facing a furious angel, whilst the right panel shows the lurid workshops of hell, in that supremely surreal and harrowing assemblage of images for which Bosch has become famous. But it’s the central panel which tells the painting’s true story, the moment of decision, when the ordinary folk and the gentry are lethally self absorbed in reality. In the foreground, a medieval dentist examines a woman’s gaping mouth, a pig’s head nesting in its seasoning roasts happily on a spit, a pregnant woman with one child clasped to her bosom, places a hand on her stomach and converses with a knowing friend. Another woman prepares to wash a child’s backside and peasants disinterestedly gather the harvest into sacks. Life goes on then while behind these blind sheep the great moral in the shape of the giant haywain looms unacknowledged. This moralistic pictorial collage is Bosch’s central preoccupation.

Of course everyone is familiar with Bosch and his demonic pleasure gardens, his enclosures of scampering souls, those pale legions trapped between heaven and hell on a kind of endlessly inventive phantasmagorical merry-go-round, messing about in boats, riding bareback in a carousel of wild beasts of different colours, or sticking their sharp little behinds out of hollow eggs and logs. Yet revisiting the central panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights we are struck anew by the sheer scale of this imaginary explosion, as if the viewer is plunged into a thousand different dreams all taking place at once within an all-encompassing governing dream. The right hand panel contains some of Bosch’s weirdest images, the blade of a knife held between a pair of human ears, and colossal musical instruments around which souls swarm, as if carrying them aloft like so many ants their booty. Everywhere in Bosch’s Hell scenes crowds of the doomed press in, forced through narrowing spaces, driven by the forks and clubs of devils over precipices or into hell’s rocky jaws. We have become used to them, but look again and observe closely, with a magnifying glass if necessary, the unmitigated horror etched on these sinner’s faces. These expressions could be equated with those in photographs taken in the genocidal twentieth century.

There is always a great sense of movement in Bosch’s art. In Christ Carrying the Cross (1500-35) Jesus is bearing the heavy cross on the road to Calvary, but the jam of people around him, the bristling ladders and spears above the crowd, seem to create an urgency in the picture and a sense of suffocation, as if Christ is already defeated by this mass, shrunk by it, almost bent double as he is and wedged beneath the cross. All are looking toward Calvary, keen to get on with the show, the fired up crowd in all their terror and invincibility, only Christ looks down, a mere plodding beast to carry the cross. Then aghast, we notice that as an added agony he must walk on boards studded with nails chained to his feet. In Ecco Homo, a tortured Christ is shown to the people, and here again it is the stance of Christ which makes the picture so moving. With his deep blue cloak held back by a guard, the physical suffering of Christ after scourging can be fully appreciated, recalling the famous luridly putrefying wound flecked Christ of Grünewald at Colmar. Staring emptily at the crowd haranguing him from below, his pain distorted body appears to be almost pitching forward, his helpless nakedness accentuated by the richly clothed bodies of those surrounding him. From his abused body Bosch has permitted just enough blood to drip to the floor and then you note just the one bloody footprint, the artist’s symbolic masterstroke.

For Bosch the owl is a symbol of evil and affliction, but this did not prevent him from sometimes drawing them as faithfully and beautifully as any ornithological artist. Bosch’s owls are often barely noticed hidden in a niche or a blackened branch above the action, silently surveying the maelstrom below from their infernal perch. Special mention should be made of the section in the exhibition entitled ‘The End of days’. Most are fragments, panels set adrift from their original triptych, or have suffered damage, yet they are stunning examples of religious art. Bosch’s most high-profile client was Duke Philip the Fair of Burgundy, who commissioned The Last Judgement with Heaven and Hell. As with previous major works of this kind, Bosch travels between the dawn and end of history. Evil is there in all the scenes, spreading its insidious poisons, for here the Garden of Eden on the left has already been infiltrated by strange forms upsetting the order of things and the angels drift into the distance and naked souls are abandoned to outlandish pursuits. In the central panel Bosch has created a delirious dream world of figures destined for all sorts of creative punishments and humiliations. A particularly painful one shows a naked man astride a huge sharp knife, as blood streams down the wall of the shining blade. In the distance, apocalypse reigns as cities burn, a conflagration which only inten¬sifies in the Hell panel to the right.

The two-sided paintings known as The Flood Panels, show a gloomy desolate landscape seemingly devoid of life. Each of the four scenes would have accompanied a main central panel now lost. The most impressive of these is After the Flood where a beached ark can be made out at the top of the panel with tiny ghostly figures seen at its rails. Lower down, and close up, a man is slumped in rocks and nearby a woman and child lie stricken. But between them and the ark snakes an intriguing road through hills and rocks, down which a cavalcade of animals passes. The perspective Bosch has employed makes this image dreamlike, more a hallucination, with the dim light and murky tones adding to the sense of a landscape post apocalypse, where the surviving animals appear to flee their sanctuary in more of a chaotic retreat than a victory, their future in this dark terrain uncertain. The visionary intensity peaks in one of the the four so called Visions of the Hereafter (1505 -15) which were later displayed in the Doge’s Palace in Venice in the seventeenth century. Bosch’s aim was to powerfully contrast the opposing forces of Heaven and Hell. Technically and imaginatively these four panels constitute an elevation of a kind in Bosch’s artistic achievement. In the Garden of Eden panel with its sumptuous alternating shades of green, angels prepare to lead the blessed to their fortunate destiny. In the next panel, the William Blake-like The Ascent of the Blessed, souls are seen ascending to Heaven. At the bottom, angels hold the souls aloft as they wait their turn to take a miraculous tapering tunnel through the skies at whose end an angel stands to greet them, bathed in holy light. Perspective is heightened not only by the tunnel effect, but the four groups of angels and souls, which diminish in size as they approach the tunnel and move in a harmonious symmetry from left to right. At the next stage the soul enters the tunnel itself to feel the first rays of holy light, which Bosch depicts by subtle whitening on the front of the soul and accompanying angel. At the tunnel’s end the welcoming angel facing the newcomers can just be made out, with either souls beside him, their arms raised as if in greeting, or even perhaps dead relatives of the recently deceased having come from Heaven itself to greet them.

Although much about Bosch’s life and hence the exact ingredients of his art necessarily lies in the realm of supposition, what is certain is that we are unlikely to witness such a collection of his work again in the modern age. To have these rare masterpieces before us, and they can justifiably all be termed so, is a privilege. Bosch is of course in the top tier, one of those ‘celebrity’ globally owned artists whom people think they understand, in the same way as say Van Gogh or Goya, but as ever a closer inspection throws up secondary pathways that weave irresistibly away from the well travelled collective thoroughfare. Let us then shed the tired old skin of assumed reference and mechanical reverence and take them.

Will Stone is a poet, essayist and literary translator. His first collection Glaciation (Salt, 2007), won the international Glen Dimplex Award for poetry in 2008. The sequel Drawing in Ash was published to critical acclaim in May 2011 (Salt). Shearsman Books have recently reissued these collections in new editions and will publish the third part of the trilogy The Sleepwalkers in March 2016. His translations include works by Trakl, Nerval, Rilke, Zweig and Roth. His Emile Verhaeren Poems (Arc, 2013) and Georges Rodenbach Poems (Arc 2015/16) served to illumine the Belgian black hole. Pushkin Press published his first English translation of Zweig’s Montaigne in August 2015 and will publish Zweig’s essays from the 1930’s as Messages from a Lost World in January 2016.

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