Rotterdam’s famous art museum, the Boijmans van Beuningen, has just opened a major exhibition of the paintings and drawings of Heronymus Bosch. Never before have so many works been brought together by this enigmatic Dutch artist, who has continued to intrigue painters, princes and the public for half a millennium.
Heronymus Bosch created his bizarre world of monsters, forbidden pleasure, and earthly folly five hundred years ago, but his work has stood the test of time. The hybrid concoctions of his imagination made him a darling of the surrealists and of the psychedilic scene in the 20th century. Even the dour Inquisitor King Philip II of Spain came under the spell of his grotesque and luring images.
When Heronymus Bosch applied his brush to a subject, even the innocent story of Christmas became a disturbing scene of mysterious symbols and allusions to sin and death. All is not well in Bosch’s cracked but enticing world. Bosch unfolds for us a universe that is both perverse and erotic, bewitching and nightmarishly repulsive, yet not without a touch of Hitchcock-like humour: sinners in Hell are condemned to make love for all eternity to pig-faced nuns and toad-shaped knights, eggs waddle about on human feet, and trees take on the shape of people. It is genetic engineering gone horribly wrong, with wartnosed notables and duckbilled mammals spitting and cavorting in a carnival of colors and natural detail against landscapes of sweeping spiritual beauty.
Travelling in the Imagination
Heronymus Bosch was probably born around 1450 and died in 1516, in a region which is now part of the Netherlands but which at that time was ruled by the dukes of Brabant and of Burgundy. These were years of colossal change. As the Middle Ages waned and the Reformation loomed on the horizon, science and a new secular understanding of nature and of the human being were coming to the fore. Explorers brought back images and stories of fabulous creatures from the New World.
Bosch himself travelled chiefly in his imagination. His real name was Jheronymus van Aken, indicating he may have been of German descent. As his fame spread beyond his region, he assumed the name of his native town, ‘s-Hertogenbosch or Den Bosch, a prosperous center of the Roman Catholic faith. Bosch did some of his earliest work for the city’s great Gothic cathedral St. Jan’s.
Valuable Works of Art
In the late 16th century, half a century after Bosch’s death, Dutch Protestants in this region united in a war against Catholic Spain and its orthodox King Philip II. Both sides coveted the paintings by Bosch so much that they waged a war-within-a-war to gain possession of his works. That is why many of his paintings – only 25 have survived – are in Spain today. Famous panels like “The Temptation of St. Anthony”, “The Ship of Fools”, and “The Hay Wain” are among the world’s most valuable works of art. His masterpiece, the alterpiece of the Garden of Delights, is the prized possession of the Prado Museum in Madrid. It is so valuable that only a copy of it can be seen at the exhibition in Rotterdam.
Observations of Detail
Bosch lived during the shift from the Age of Faith to the Age of Humanism. Though he is intensely devout at times, as in the moving head of Christ in the “Crowning with Thorns”, he already displays a modern freedom of expression that at the same time respects material reality in its careful observation of detail. Even his most outrageous gargoyle-like caricatures are not the mad inventions of a dystopic art pervert, but often simply literal translations into paint of practical sayings and proverbs that were well-known at the time. Although the printing press was invented during Bosch’s lifetime, most people could not read the written word, but they could ‘read’ images and symbols. The Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam is showing half of the surviving paintings by Heronymus Bosch and all of his drawings, as well as copies by his contemporaries and works by modernday artists inspired by his work (Salvador Dali, James Ensor, Bill Viola). The exhibition will continue until November 11.
For more information: www.radionetherlands.nl