Half a millennium ago, Hieronymus Bosch walked across the market square of the small Dutch town of ‘s Hertogenbosch, taking the 100 yard walk to his studio, where he would paint the timeless, demonic, and captivating works that continue to fascinate people today. To commemorate the 500th anniversary of his birth, the town’s Het Noordbrabants Museum has secured the majority of his works for what is arguably one of the most important exhibitions of our century, Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius. Exploring the timeline of his oeuvre, viewers are able to revive his living genius, and therein the fantasies and chimeras he created with a timeless sense of wonder.
Presented by museum director Charles de Mooj, the show is the culmination of what seemed an impossible vision: to assemble every surviving work, resulting in a showing of 20 of the 25 surviving triptychs and corresponding panels, as well as 19 of the artist’s 25 surviving drawings. It’s a reunion of paintings deemed unlikely to ever occur again, facilitated by a six-year, international research program to study and restore each of the works on loan. Each donating museum, including the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Accademia in Venice, The Met in New York, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, has been rewarded for its participation with new information, and freshly restored paintings.
A complex man, Bosch’s works have confounded scholars with theories of hidden heretical meanings. Known as an upright Roman Catholic citizen, he came from a family of industrious, though unremarkable painters. In addition to his prodigious talent, Bosch was an astute self-promoter. Born as Jeroen van Aken, his family originally hailed from Aachen, but he took a liking to the wool-rich town of S’ Hertogenbosch, and an even greater one to the grander sounding name, ‘Jheronimus Bosch’. His promotion of his prestigious locale, in conjunction with his prodigious skill, saw prestigious clients traveling the world to buy his paintings, from princes to heads of the church and state.
For the intrepid traveler, the exhibition celebrates Bosch’s timelessness, with his transcendent Surrealism compounding the significance of his legacy today. Throughout, questions of what defines humanity, exhibited in the fantastical imagery of Bosch, feel expressly relevant today. To Bosch, humanity was inherently sinful, and his art, a harbinger of torment and divine retribution depicted a grim reality where no earthly sin went unpunished. This feeling surges forth from the canvas, where sweltering scenes of hellish machinery and eccentric monstrosities menace human subjects. His amorphous hybrids, such as a fish-head that strolls on two stilted legs, swallowing unrepentant sinners, seem to multiply as the eyes scan.
His folding diableries are labyrinthine in content, unfolding with the extending viewing. In Death and the Miser (on loan from Washington’s National Gallery of Art), his titular miser, is sprawled on his deathbed as a skeleton opens the door and points an arrow at his form. At his bedside, an angel harkens his gaze to behold a crucifixion figure, hung with light streaming towards him, interrupted by a stream of ghoulish figures. One peers down from the bed’s canopy with a torch, casting cinders into the black foreground, while another offers the dying man a sack of coins, seeking to to bribe him away from salvation with material lures. The composition itself suggests the miser’s actions before his fatal punishment, and positions the angel as a pious guide to salvation despite impending evil. It is a choice between Heaven and Hell, eternal paradise and interminable perdition. This polarization surfaces often in Bosch’s work, yet is rendered doubly interesting here. Examination of the underdrawing shows that Bosch first painted the sack of coins in the dying man’s hand, whereas in the final version, it is the demon tempting the miser: it is a question of faith suspended that calls the viewer to question his own morality. “Responsibility for the decision lies with the man himself; it is he, after all, who will have to bear the consequences: will it be heaven or hell?” states the exhibition catalogue.
Although the public face of Bosch was that of a popular townsman and respected Catholic, his private terrors, pangs, and plights surface in his paintings and drawings. Awash in apocalyptic expectation and even saintly temptations, he presents viewers the vivid nightmares of his time, the human soul balanced between sin and salvation. In this comprehensive show, Hieronymus Bosch reveals himself from his triptychs and, taken in one long measure, welcomes viewers to detect patterns in his iconography and phantasmagoric imagery. Bosch evokes reflection on each of our own inner searching, pulled by devices of “Earthly Delights,” only to understand how the human condition Bosch portrays is universal and ageless.
— Quincy Childs
Exhibition Site [Noordbrabants Museum]
An apocalyptic prophet, an explorer of the unconscious, and a perverse fantasist [Independent]
Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius, Het Noordbrabants Museum, review: ‘a tour de force’ [Telegraph]