The Impious Delights of Hieronymus Bosch

  • 2016-03-29
  • New Republic

Hieronymus Bosch, elusive conjurer of jewel-like panoramas in which elegantly rendered humans, birds, fish, fruits, insects, musical instruments, and odd machines co-mingle, cavort, and run amuck in orgies of seemingly lewd and brutal communion, died on August 9, 1516, making this year his quincentenary. Bosch’s unknown birthdate hovers, by scholarly consensus, around 1450, but we do know for certain that he came from a family of painters surnamed van Aken and that he lived and worked all his life in an atelier still standing on the market square of a medieval town called ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, now an hour or so by rail from Amsterdam. To honor this favorite son, the town has proclaimed a year of revelry. The Bosch-themed events, theatrical and otherwise, are spearheaded by a unique exhibition of his art at the Noordbrabants Museum, which stands just a few blocks away from the attached three-story ungabled house in which Bosch is said to have dwelt with his childless wife Aleid van de Meervenne.

Titled “Jheronimus Bosch: Visions of a Genius,” the show claims to bring together more of Bosch’s works than have ever been seen under one roof: 17 out of his 24 paintings and 19 of his drawings. (Since attributions shift year to year, however, it might be prudent to regard the authorship of the paintings, rather like the figures they portray, as being in a state of flux.) Early in March, I flew to the Netherlands just to see it, as Bosch has been an obsession of mine since childhood. Like many of my peers, my first exposure to his shape-shifting, spell-binding world came in the form of glossy reproductions, color plates in massive art books. Our family’s volumes weighted down the bottom shelves of mahogany bookcases in front of which I sprawled poring over details—tiny details that rewarded hours of staring. Painted in sure strokes with small brushes, sometimes not more than a single hair, and brilliant hues, Bosch’s teeming human-scapes exuded an aura of the forbidden to my child’s eye. Even at their most dire (the Hell and Last Judgment panels of the triptychs), they were never as frightening to me as images by Bosch’s contemporaries, those, say, of the German painter, Matthias Grünewald, whose bleeding, tortured, twisted-fingered Christ on the central panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece struck terror. Bosch, by contrast, induced queasiness but even more compellingly, wonder. Bosch can be eerie, nasty, playful, but also beautiful.

Unfortunately, the curators of the Netherlands exhibit have eschewed all engagement with ambiguity. (There is, however, one passing mention of the word ambiguous in a brochure description of the so-called “Peddler” or “Wayfarer,” a figure repeatedly painted by Bosch and formerly called the “Prodigal Son.”) They have chosen to contend that Bosch, a faithful Catholic, was exclusively a religious moralist with a single idea to convey, namely that: Mankind is struggling for good in a world of evil. Through printed matter and an audio guide, the local exhibitors drum this message into the ears of thousands of spectators who are flocking daily to the exhibition mainly, as it appears so far, from other parts of Europe.