On the trail of the weird and wonderful Hieronymus Bosch

It’s hard to imagine the visionary mind behind the immense creative genius that was Hieronymus Bosch. His artworks combine the surreal with the nightmarish, seemingly playful yet terrifyingly sadistic. If the symbolism of his work is hard to understand in the 21st century, in medieval Europe his meaning would have been instantly recognisable.

Statue of Hieronymus Bosch, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Statue of Hieronymus Bosch, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Hieronymus Bosch trail, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Hieronymus Bosch trail, Den Bosch, Netherlands

A man straddles the blade of a knife, forced to slide along it to enter Hell. A pig wearing a nun’s habit kisses a man. A monstrous bird-demon eats sinners and defecates them into a pit. Bizarre animals inflict terrible punishment on humans. A hunter is killed by a hare and eaten by hounds. Musicians are tortured on giant musical instruments. A pair of giant ears, pierced by an arrow, wield a large knife. All this, and more, set against the desolate and fiery landscape of Hell.

Those are all scenes from The Garden of Earthly Delights – a triptych depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; a central scene of earthly delights full of medieval symbolism and populated by bizarre creatures, giant fruits and naked people; and a final panel showcasing the horrors awaiting sinners in Hell. To say Bosch had an interest in the consequences of humanity’s moral failings would be an understatement.

It was paintings like this that made Bosch famous across Europe, and his visionary work had enormous influence during his lifetime. The most powerful monarch of the era, Catholic zealot King Philip II of Spain – he who dispatched the Armada against England, who attempted to crush Dutch independence, and who was the principle patron of the Inquisition – had one of Bosch’s paintings in his bedroom.

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Hieronymus Bosch trail, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Hieronymus Bosch trail, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Interestingly, it was was Bosch who first painted (possibly invented) the concept of the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. The idea that those who went to Heaven did so through a tunnel of light. Amazing to think this idea, so familiar today, was first popularised by a Dutch painter who died in 1516.

To celebrate the 500th anniversary of his death, a small museum in his home town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch managed against all odds to bring together the majority of his work in one blockbuster exhibition. For the first, and probably the last, time the majority of Bosch’s existing works came home, including twenty major paintings and numerous sketches. Light at the end of the tunnel, indeed.

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, NetherlandsSculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

So popular was the exhibition that we only managed to get tickets for a Tuesday afternoon. As we made our way to Den Bosch (shorthand for ‘s-Hertogenbosch), expectations were high. The exhibition was very busy but also extraordinary and beautiful. Almost better though, was the Bosch trail which turned this small, picturesque Dutch town into an open air gallery-cum-treasure hunt.

In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that Den Bosch had gone a little Hieronymus Bosch crazy. Almost every shop had a Bosch-themed window display regardless of what it was selling. The range of Bosch-related merchandise on sale was mind-boggling in its infinite variety – we are now proud owners of one of the most complex jigsaws known to humankind.

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Hieronymus Bosch trail, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Hieronymus Bosch trail, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sculptures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Den Bosch, Netherlands

It felt like the Golden Goose had landed and everyone was taking their opportunity while it lasted. I can understand it, ‘s-Hertogenbosch is hardly a name that previously had international recognition. That’s a shame, because it’s a lovely town with a medieval centre worth a day of anyone’s time…but more of that later.

Before and after, Hieronymus Bosch paintings and photos, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Before and after, Hieronymus Bosch paintings and photos, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Before and after, Hieronymus Bosch paintings and photos, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Before and after, Hieronymus Bosch paintings and photos, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Before and after, Hieronymus Bosch paintings and photos, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Before and after, Hieronymus Bosch paintings and photos, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Before and after, Hieronymus Bosch paintings and photos, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Before and after, Hieronymus Bosch paintings and photos, Den Bosch, Netherlands

* All photos of paintings by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) courtesy of http://boschproject.org via https://commons.wikimedia.org

15 thoughts on “On the trail of the weird and wonderful Hieronymus Bosch

  1. Pingback: The superb, surreal world of the Bosch Parade | notesfromcamelidcountry

  2. Pingback: Exploring the Surreal with Peter Capaldi – Unlock Art | TateShots | mostly music

  3. Brilliant. I love Bosch very much. The wall mural caught my eye. Often you see an old painting and you think: dress that girl in jeans and a leather jacket, no one will notice the difference. (Think of some Vinci or Boticcelli portraits. The second reason I find him (Brueghel) interesting is that my ancestors come from nearby. 1400′ in Flanders. So I can imagine them dressed and living in that way. 🙂

    • Bosch and Brueghel (Elder and Younger) are amongst my favourites, there is something magical about their work. I once went on a Brueghel ‘hunt’ across Belgium and France in search of ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’. I was studying Auden’s poems, including Musee des Beaux Arts, which had a profound effect on my 18-year old mind. A great opening line, “About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters”.
      Tracing your family tree back to 1400s Flanders is quite extraordinary, but somehow doesn’t surprise me.

      • I’d seen “Icarus” before without really looking. A reproduction. My favourite Brueghel is possibly “The hunters in the snow”. The terrible winters my ancestors (and yours across the sea) faced for centuries. I don’t think people realize now what a miserable (yet happy at times) life they led. And the tracking was my parents’s doing. It is quite an extraordinary yet common family history. One of my ancestors had an inn in Belgium in the 1600’s that is still there. Amazing.

        • Where is that inn? That’s amazing, I’ll have to visit.
          The Little Ice Age, it had a profound impact on the lives and minds of people in medieval Europe. No one understood why it was so cold, why it was so wet and why crops kept failing. Hunger, poverty, violence. I find it fascinating that that was the period of the most extreme witch hunts – and also some pretty good art. Superstition and art go hand in hand!

        • The inn is called “de dri koningen” or something like that. It is in Lendeled, near Courtrai (Cortrijk) Unfortunately it was bombed to the ground in WWII. But it was rebuilt and still there. (One of my brothers went and took a picture. Quite an ugly building I’m afraid)
          An interesting parallel you make about witch hunts. I guess people always look for culprits. 😦

  4. I first came across Bosch’s work at the Prado when I was 20yo and was almost mesmerized by his scenes. The interest in him continued, and just recently I found a lovely book on him at a local library, which expanded my understanding of this extraordinary person. Love the sculptures!

    • Eremophila? Now that is interesting. My wife has done quite a bit of research and publication on Eremophila plants. 🙂 Why did you choose that “Gravatar”? (If you don’t mind my asking).
      Brian

      • Hi Brian,
        despite my current location(high rainfall cold winters mild summers), I am a desert lover, and feel most at home in this world when in a desert environment. I trust that answers your question sufficiently 🙂

        • Absolutely. I have yet to experience the desert. A friend of mine once did a Sahara “walk” complete with camels and all. He came back transformed. 🙂

    • He is extraordinary, someone who broke boundaries. The Prado is doing its own Bosch exhibition this year as well. They have the Garden of Earthly Delights there, which wasn’t in the exhibition in Den Bosch because it is in too delicate a condition to travel (apparently). The sculpture ‘trail’ was a lot of fun!

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