The superb, surreal world of the Bosch Parade

If a visit to ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s Bosch Parade proves anything, it proves that the world needs more enthusiastic amateurs. The parade is a celebration of wild imagination and DIY building skills. Each year, individuals and organisations interpret the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and translate them into preposterous floating artworks. Over a weekend, their creations take to the water to entertain thousands of onlookers.

2016 is the 500th anniversary of the death of ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s most famous son, Hieronymus, the medieval artist who redefined the meaning of the word “surreal”. We came to ‘s-Hertogenbosch (also known as Den Bosch) to visit the excellent 500th anniversary exhibition of Bosch’s work, during which we found out about the Bosch Parade. We just had to come back to witness the weirdness.

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

This being the Netherlands, the whole parade takes place floating down a canal, guaranteeing that the participants are likely to get wet. This being summer in the Netherlands there was a strong chance that the spectators would get wet as well. As if pre-ordained, it rained. It takes more than a little rain to dampen Dutch spirits though, and it was a day full of fun.

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

There were many highlights, but for me the sight of a half submerged house with a saxophist and two dancers on its roof was a favourite. We Leven Vrolijk Verde (literal translation, ‘We Live More Gay’) evokes not only the terrible floods that have cost many lives in Dutch history, but represents Bosch’s depictions of Purgatory in his work. I’m still not sure how they managed to avoid the water.

The Cloud & The Fall of the Rebellious Angels seemed to be a 3D visualisation of a scene in one of Bosch’s paintings depicting the Fall of Man. To be honest, that seemed less important than the ability of a host of people in wetsuits to navigate a giant cloud made out of balloons down a canal … and to get it over (not under) a foot bridge that was in their way.

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

A giant bat-like demon made its way slowly towards the crowds powered by a woman laying on top of its wings. It looked both difficult and uncomfortable, but at least she was above the water and, barring a disaster, would arrive dry at the other end. Which is more than could be said for the people in red wetsuits piloting a ferocious blast furnace down the canal.

As the flames leapt higher its crew plunged themselves into the water. This, I assumed, represented people falling into the fires of Hell, a central theme of Bosch’s most famous painting, The Garden of Earthly Delight; and the terrible fire that destroyed ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 1463, a hugely influential experience for Bosch. In fact, it was something to do with the Tower of Babel and modern day scientists. Who knew?

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

On this particular anniversary at least the 500 Crowns (made by 500 retired Dutch people) was easily understandable. As were the two boats-cum-art installations which featured live music. Leviathan was carrying a choir which had sensibly decided to wear waterproofs; the second boat, called Fair in Hell, had a full band and rogue trumpeters roaming the banks playing mournful tunes. It was all rather magical.

That night we headed into ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s Grote Markt to watch a beautiful animated light show depicting the life and work of Hieronymus Bosch. We joined a crowd of people as the buildings on one corner of the medieval square where Bosch once lived became a cinema screen. It seemed like a fitting end to a perfectly strange day.

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

The Bosch Parade, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands

‘s-Hertogenbosch, the hardest place name in the Netherlands

I find Dutch incredibly difficult to pronounce. Even though it shares a common root with English – some words are exactly the same in Dutch and English – the pronunciation frequently leaves me baffled. Although I’ve been learning numbers thanks to my neighbour’s daughter, who chalked them on the steps leading to my apartment, Dutch is seemingly beyond my grasp.

I think the Dutch acknowledge this, even if they might not admit to it. Otherwise why would the virtually unpronounceable ‘s-Hertogenbosch be more commonly know as Den Bosch? Even I can pronounce Den Bosch. ‘s-Hertogenbosch literally means Duke’s Forest, and there was once a castle and forest here, and presumably a Duke.

Den Bosch station, Netherlands

Den Bosch station, Netherlands

Dragon statue, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Dragon statue, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

We visited Den Bosch to go to the truly fabulous Hieronymous Bosch exhibition, organised to celebrate the 500th anniversary Bosch’s death. One of my colleagues mentioned that Den Bosch was a lovely town, with a unique canal system that goes underneath the town’s buildings. He recommended spending a bit more time there. I’m glad we did, it’s a fabulous place in a part of the country that attracts few tourists.

Even if there hadn’t been an internationally renowned exhibition of the town’s most famous son, Den Bosch would have been worth a visit. The centrepiece of the town is the fantastic medieval marketplace, a vast open space surrounded by traditional Dutch buildings and outdoor cafes. This is where Hieronymous Bosch lived as a child, and where he had a studio in later life.

Canals, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Canals, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Canals, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Canals, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Visible above the rooftops, and just a short walk away, the grandiose Gothic Sint-Janskathedraal towers over the town and sits on a large open square. A church was built here in the early 13th century, but was knocked down to make way for the cathedral, which would only be completed in 1530. Dying in 1516, Bosch never got to see it completed, although it was under construction the entirety of his life.

The cathedral has magnificent stained glass windows, something of a rarity in the Netherlands. A €48 million renovation of the building was completed in 2010, as part of the work 25 new angel statues were created, including one wearing jeans and using a mobile phone. Scaffolding has been constructed creating a tour of the exterior, on which you can see the new angels. Sadly it was fully booked.

Sint-Janskathedraal, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sint-Janskathedraal, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sint-Janskathedraal, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sint-Janskathedraal, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sint-Janskathedraal, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sint-Janskathedraal, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sint-Janskathedraal, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Sint-Janskathedraal, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Perhaps the nicest thing about Den Bosch is just wandering its narrow cobbled streets alongside its picturesque canals. It’s an atmospheric place. The canals are unusual, rather than winding their way alongside buildings like elsewhere in the Netherlands, they go underneath them. There is a boat tour of the canals lasting around 90 minutes, which was too long for us on this visit but will provide a reason to go back…possibly for the Bosch Parade in June.

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Den Bosch, Netherlands

Statue, Den Bosch, Netherlands

Statue, Den Bosch, Netherlands

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