Sunday, May 1, 2016

From Hell to Heaven in the Hometown of Bosch

Bosch’s most famous work, the “Garden of Earthly Delights.” Credit Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado. Depósito de Patrimonio Nacional
Hieronymus Bosch is a kind of populist superstar among the old-master painters. His fans relish his surreal, inventive images of the afterlife, but particularly his vivid visions of hell: sinners straddling giant knife-blades, egg-shaped machines churning miscreants into their bellies, cruel hybrid frog-devils and dog-faced lizard birds.
Five hundred years since the death of the Dutch artist in 1516, it’s believed that only a tiny fraction of Bosch’s output survives — about two dozen paintings and some 20 drawings — but the fascination with his oeuvre hasn’t abated. In all that time, aficionados have asked the same question: How did he come up with his amazing imagery? Where did he get the inspiration for these strange little monsters?
Very little is known about Bosch the man. We have no letters or diaries, and written information in archives tends to be about transactions: who bought what and when. I wondered what I could discover about his mind and his artistry by going back to the place where he was born, lived and worked.
I headed to the city of ’s-Hertogenbosch, known locally as Den Bosch, whose name the artist eventually took as his own. This year the city celebrates the 500th anniversary of the death of its legendary son, in an attempt to “forever link Bosch to Den Bosch,” as I was told by Lian Duif, program manager of the Jheronimus Bosch 500 Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has been planning the quincentennial celebration since 2008.
Den Bosch, an hour south of Amsterdam by train, is a picturesque medieval city that’s not on a typical tourist itinerary, though it boasts the country’s largest cathedral and an underground network of natural waterways.
Although only a handful of landmark buildings from before the 16th century survive, the city is still laid out almost exactly as it was in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance — Bosch’s time — because all the new structures have been built on plots that were established in the 15th century, and the skyline has barely changed.
As a result, one can still get a pretty good sense of how it felt to live in the old city in 1516. But until about 10 years ago, there was little to link Den Bosch directly to its most famous son.
“We thought: There’s something more than the paintings,” Ms. Duif said. “There’s this intangible heritage, another aspect of Bosch, his time, his city, the market square, his studio. That’s all holy ground.”
The foundation supports a host of activities related to Bosch, which will go on throughout the year, including the sold-out blockbuster exhibition “Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of Genius,” the largest-ever retrospective of his works, until May 8. Its opening was marked by a parade of Boschian puppets on Feb. 12, attended by tens of thousands of visitors, including the Dutch king, Willem-Alexander.
Activities throughout the year include exhibitions of contemporary art related to Bosch; an evening light show, “Bosch by Night”; a program of concerts; more parades in June; a theater festival in August; and a Bosch circus in the fall.
The Cathedral of St. John, once full of works by Bosch. Credit Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times
The city has also collaborated with the Netherlands’s leading theme park, Efteling, a fairy-tale and folklore-based amusement park, to develop the Bosch Experience Discovery Tour, an app-guided walking tour and Heaven and Hell Cruise, which passes by life-size figurines modeled on Bosch’s little monsters and demons from his most famous work, the “Garden of Earthly Delights,” and ends with a fire and brimstone 3-D light show inside a dark canal tunnel called the Hell Gate.
Exploring Bosch’s life on one’s own isn’t terribly complicated, either. The key physical landmarks of his life are positioned along a single red brick street, the Hinthamerstraat, so that you can follow his life along a straight and narrow path. What an apt metaphor for this devout Catholic whose paintings often centered on the figure of the Wayfarer, a traveler torn between the righteous and the perditious paths.
Walking the whole distance would be an easy stroll of about 10 minutes without stopping, but there are about seven historic locations linked to Bosch’s life that are worth exploring along the way, so the whole tour can take about two hours.
I planned my Bosch excursion with the art historian Gary Schwartz, who was born in Brooklyn but moved to the Netherlands more than 40 years ago. His new biography, “Jheronimus: The Road to Heaven and Hell,” was published in February.
We met at what’s known as a “brown cafe,” a kind of living room pub with a spacious terrace under umbrellas in the heart of the market square, called In de Kleine Werelt at Markt 10.
Mr. Schwartz ordered us each a pastry known as a Bossche bol, the city’s signature treat, a kind of doughnut filled with whipped cream and smothered in chocolate, and told me about Bosch’s early life. We could see the verdigris bronze statue of Bosch in the city square, and two of the three houses where he once lived.
The house where the artist was born around 1450 (no official date is known) to a family of painters, as Jheronimus van Aken, was also on this square, but it most likely burned down during a devastating fire in 1463, which razed much of the medieval city. The fire itself, many historians suggest, may have been an inspiration for Bosch’s vivid depictions of hellfire, since it might have made a strong impression on him as a teenager.
We know from city records that from about the age of 12 until 30, Bosch lived at No. 29, which is now De Kleine Winst, a modest wooden souvenir shop, painted forest green; it bears a brass plaque reading “Jeroen Bosch, 1450-1516.” (Jeroen is the Middle Dutch equivalent of the English Jerome.)
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For many years, this three-story building served as the Bosch family home, workshop and studio, where his family ran a very active art operation. His grandfather, Jan van Aken, from the town of Aachen, Germany, was a painter, and four of his own sons took up the profession; this is also where the young Hieronymus learned to paint, and probably where he adopted his artistic pseudonym, Bosch, taking the name of his own city as a kind of calling card.
Around age 30, Bosch married Aleid van de Meerveen, who had inherited land, houses and income from her parents and grandparents (all of whom had died in quick succession) including her home at 61 Markt, which is now a shoe shop. He moved in with her, and while the couple had no children, they took in Aleid’s orphaned nephew. They lived in this house from 1483 until Bosch’s death.
A poster of the artist in town. Credit Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times
During Bosch’s lifetime, Den Bosch was the northernmost city of the Duchy of Brabant, a part of the Holy Roman Empire, and a monastic city. According to Mr. Schwartz, one of every 20 inhabitants was either a monk or a nun, because the town was a home to prestigious monasteries.
Bosch himself became the first artist to be accepted into the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Dear Lady, a fraternal order devoted to worshiping the Madonna that received its charter in the 14th century.
“This order had a certain religious glamour and there were more people who wanted to be part of it, so they started taking members who weren’t clergy — dues-paying members,” Mr. Schwartz said, “but at the core they were sworn brothers — they were ‘made men’ — and they belonged to the church hierarchy.”
To become a “sworn brother,” Bosch would have had to qualify as one of the four grades of minor orders, which were doorkeeper, reader, acolyte and exorcist. Mr. Schwartz suspects that Bosch may have qualified as an exorcist — which naturally made me wonder: Could he have seen the demons he depicted?
“It didn’t mean that he was allowed by the church to exorcise demons in people. That was only done by full priests,” Mr. Schwartz explained. “Just being called an exorcist, for an artist who dealt so heavily in demons, is something that must’ve meant a lot to him.”
Leaving the crowded, noisy Markt and heading east along the Hinthamerstraat, we soon came to Het Heilige Geefhuis at No. 72, or the Holy Spirit House, now the city’s library, a venerable building that stands on the site of the former Tafel van de Heilige Geest (Table of the Holy Spirit) — a kind of medieval soup kitchen for the city’s poor dating to the 13th century.
A few yards down at No. 94 is the Home of the Illustrious Brotherhood, with a mustard yellow facade and Gothic-looking spires.
Across the narrow street and through the cobblestone plaza is the immense Gothic Sint-Janskathedraal (Cathedral of St. John), built in the 13th century originally as a parish church, and now the largest cathedral in the Netherlands.
Just inside the front door of the cathedral, to the left, is the Brotherhood Chapel, where all the members of Bosch’s order would gather for their more exclusive services and rites. Once, this church was full of artworks by Bosch, Mr. Schwartz said, commissioned by his friends and brothers in the clergy. Even the church’s main altar was a Bosch work, which apparently remained in place until 1629 when the city fell to the Protestant army of the Reformed Dutch Republic in the Eighty Years’ War. This is also where, on Aug. 9, 1516, Bosch’s funeral Mass was held.
We continued on to the end of the Hinthamerstraat, where we stopped before the chapel of St. Anthony and what was once an asylum for the insane, which Mr. Schwartz told me was established in the Middle Ages to treat those suffering from St. Anthony’s Fire, today known as ergotism or erysipelas, which causes fever, chills, convulsions, loss of limbs, hallucinations and, ultimately, death.
Boats travel to sites important to Bosch. Credit Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times
One of Bosch’s favorite subjects was St. Anthony, who was tempted by demons and whom he depicted as a dour-faced abbot hunched over in a heavy brown monk’s robe. I always assumed that Bosch chose this theme because it gave him a chance to paint his beloved little monsters, but learning about St. Anthony’s Fire puts a new spin on it: Could it be that Bosch was also depicting the hallucinatory terrors of the disease’s sufferers, perhaps described to him?
As dark clouds started to loom in the ever-changing Dutch horizon, we headed toward the last stop on our walking tour: the Jheronimus Bosch Art Center, where I said farewell to Mr. Schwartz. This former church was renovated in 2006 to create a permanent destination for Bosch aficionados to explore his works. Inside, the display includes all of Bosch’s known works presented in large-format poster reproduction, in frames that you can open and close to see his triptychs, for example, up close and from all sides. This is a great place to visit if you miss the exhibition of original Bosch works at the Noordbrabants Museum.
For the final leg of my trip after lunch, I took a boat tour offered by Kring Vrienden van ’s-Hertogenbosch. My guide was Hugo Groeneveld, a retired coastal engineer, who narrated a bit of city history as he motored our small skiff through the winding, watery tunnels underneath the city. Some parts travel through the open air, which was bucolic and lovely, while the passages through the tunnels at times were dank and eerie.
Along the way we encountered various figures on the banks and popping out from walls of the tunnels from Bosch’s “Garden of Earthy Delights.” These figures are part of the “Bosch Experience,” but I would have been just as content without them.
Just being underneath the city in the boat, with the quiet ripple of the waves and the soothing purr of the skiff’s motor, suggested a different element of Bosch’s universe, the more positive side. The sense of peace one gets so close to the water — and yet so close to the city — seems to me a kind of paradise.
The tunnel walls multiplied ahead of us, suggesting a kind of circular infinity. I gazed through the darkness until there was a hint of daylight, indicating the way forward. When our captain shut off the boat’s lights and we floated onward in the dark, I was reminded of another Bosch picture, the “Ascent of the Blessed” from the Doge’s Palace in Venice.
In that image, the lucky souls who have followed the righteous path and have been delivered from purgatory into salvation float upward into a circle of light. There, in the center, is a faint figure, barely distinguishable by the suggestion of a pair of white wings, offering them welcome. It’s nice to think that Bosch, so famous for his visions of hell, surely enjoyed this bit of heaven on earth.

If You Go


Bosch Experience ‘s-Hertogenbosch. A discovery tour of Bosch’s city, created in conjunction with Efteling theme park. Using a free Bosch Experience app and route booklet (in Dutch and English), follow Bosch’s life on a tour through the medieval city center, to the top of St. John’s Cathedral, and onto a canal cruise under the old city.

Until May 8

Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of Genius, the Noordbrabants Museum. Billed as the largest-ever retrospective of Bosch works, this exhibition brings together about 17 paintings by Bosch and 19 drawings, along with works by members of his workshop and followers.

June 11 to Sept. 18

Jan Fabre Tribute to Hieronymus Bosch in Congo,the Noordbrabants Museum. Among several exhibitions related to Bosch, this one is by the Belgian artist Jan Fabre.

Until April 2017

Bosch Grand Tour. Seven Dutch museums in four cities in the province of Brabant present exhibitions of contemporary art that relate to Bosch.
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