Last week in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the city in the southern Netherlands where Hieronymus Bosch lived between 1450 and 1516, maintaining a studio on the market square where he painted the grotesque fantasies of heaven and hell which soon won him commissions from across Europe, a landmark exhibition opened to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death. Only twenty-five paintings remain definitely attributed to Bosch today, but Charles de Mooij, the director of Het Noordbrabants Museum, has managed to bring together twenty, convincing some of the largest art institutions in the world to partake in an unprecedented act of sharing. The resulting exhibition, Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius, will run at Het Noordbrabants Museum from 13 February until 8 May.
The Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid has loaned the Haywain Triptych – which returns to the Netherlands for the first time in 450 years, having resided in Madrid ever since it was bought by King Philip II of Spain in 1570 – the Musée du Louvre in Paris the Ship of Fools, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington Death and the Miser. Together the twenty paintings, including four triptychs and four double-sided panels, will be joined by nineteen of Bosch’s twenty-five extant drawings. Nine of the paintings have been newly restored by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project.
Working for six years under the leadership of Jos Koldeweij and Matthijs Ilsink, the Bosch Research and Conservation Project was Charles de Mooij’s chief bargaining tool in bringing together his exhibition. Without any paintings to offer in return, he persuaded institutions to exchange artworks for information, as the research team used infrared and X-ray technology to reveal Bosch’s varying stages of composition, shedding new light on his techniques, materials, and influences. Local historians have offered new contexts for Bosch’s life in Den Bosch. The Getty Foundation also got involved, paying for the state-of-the-art conservation work which allowed so many of the paintings to travel. De Mooij has said:
‘Hieronymus Bosch is the most important and most original medieval artist our country has ever produced. It is long-cherished ambition to get the vast majority of his works back to his hometown in 2016. And a great opportunity for a new generation to get acquainted with this work, which is unique in every respect.’
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Born into a family of painters as Hieronymus van Aken, the artist adopted the name of his hometown as a means to promote his work. He lived his whole life on the Bossche Markt, marrying the wealthy Aleid van de Meervenne in 1480, and in 1488 taking an oath to become a member of the devout Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady. Serving in part as cautionary tales, his mature paintings are so gleefully inventive that they defy easy analysis: as if to summarise the impulse of his art, on one of his drawing Bosch scrawled the Latin motto, ‘Pitiful is he who always makes use of the inventions of others and never creates anything himself’.
The centre of Den Bosch has barely changed in the five centuries since Bosch’s death, but from 5 March the city is putting on an array of events to coincide with Visions of Genius. Visitors will be able to climb Sint-Jan’s Cathedral, the site of Bosch’s funeral on 9 August 1516, to look down on the city beyond its statues of animals and buffoons; take a ‘Heaven and Hell Cruise’ along the Binnendieze river; peek inside the Zwanenbroedershuis, the historic building which served as the base of the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady; while moving projections, light and sound shows, and 3D recreations of Bosch’s lascivious figures will adorn and encompass the city’s streets.
Some of the modern technologies which allowed the exhibition to take place have been turned to the ends of internet consumption. For the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, Robert Erdmann has developed an innovative synchronised image viewer which allows us to ponder the various compositional phases of the three Bosch works held in Venice: the Triptych of St. Uncumber (also known as The Crucifixion of St. Julia), the Hermit Saints Triptych, and Four Visions of the Hereafter, all in the property of the Palazzo Ducale. Meanwhile the programmers of Q42 – commissioned to produce one part of director Pieter van Huystee’s ‘transmedia triptych’, which combines an interactive web interface with a documentary film and a virtual reality installation, all inspired by Bosch’s 500th anniversary and the Noordbrabants exhibit – have devised an online tour through The Garden of Earthly Delights, the one work by Bosch which the Prado was unwilling to relocate.
The full results of the research carried out by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project will be published in two volumes later this year, with a documentary due to be released in November. In the meantime Het Noordbrabants Museum is extending its visiting hours for the duration of Visions of Genius, staying open from 9am until 7pm seven days a week. Works by some of Bosch’s followers and contemporaries will accompany his panels and drawings. Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius has opened to rave reviews, described as ‘one of the most important exhibitions of our century’.