Hieronymus Bosch: visionary of change

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Hieronymus Bosch was known as “the devil maker”. In honour of the 500th anniversary of his death the exhibition Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of Genius is taking place at his birthplace in the Netherlands.

His paintings are inhabited by all kinds of wretched creatures and monsters. People sometimes assume the artist was on some kind of medieval acid because of his overwhelming web of illusions and hallucinations. Yet his works are filled with a deeper meaning. Bosch presents a piercing vision of society for everyone to see.

He was born around 1450 in ’s-Hertogenbosch (known as den Bosch) as Hieronymus van Aken. His father and uncles were artists and Bosch and his brothers learned the trade in the family workshop. Bosch’s work became popular because of his remarkable style. He received commissions from important members of the aristocracy and clergy from all over Europe. By changing his name to that of his home city he made sure they could find him. He married a woman of means and lived comfortably, but they weren’t rich.

Political and economic developments played a big role in Bosch’s artistic career. He lived in a transitional period between the late medieval period and the Renaissance. Trade and urbanisation were increasing, weakening the feudal system. The demand for art rose because of this growing wealth. At the same time the gap between rich and poor was expanding in the cities.

In the late 15th century perceived misbehaviour among religious leaders led ordinary people and clergy to form a religious movement known as Modern Devotion. Their aim was to change the relationship between church and society. They created small communities to live in with shared property. Their critical ideas influenced Bosch and his contemporaries.

To this day only a small fraction of his work remains, but the surviving works create a very vivid impression. In the exhibition there are 20 of Bosch’s paintings and 19 of his drawings on display. This is the greatest number of his works to have been displayed together. Works of important contemporaries and followers are also included.

One of the most impressive images is The Hay Wain. In this triptych Bosch shows the consequences of human actions. People of all classes are following a hay wagon. Some are fighting each other in order to seize some hay. The clergy is also stuffing its bags. Meanwhile demonic creatures with animal heads are pulling the wagon towards hell. Their greed is leading people into destruction. A burning world full of agonies awaits them.

By showing how people shape their society Bosch questioned the existing status quo. He condemns the rich. One of his paintings is called Death and the Miser. It shows a man taken by surprise by death in the shape of a skeleton. He is scared and wants to buy his way out, but knows his fate is sealed.

The work of Bosch’s contemporaries and followers also shows this critical approach. For example, in one 15th century woodcutting we see devils carrying crowns. Compared to the other artworks Bosch’s unique vision and imaginative power are apparent.

The exhibition pays a lot of attention to the techniques and themes in his art. Research results are shown on several screens in the exhibition. Through them the drawings beneath the paint and images beneath repainted pieces become visible. This gives the works an extra dimension.

Even though Bosch’s works were commissioned by the wealthy he wanted to make art that everyone could understand, which is why he included ordinary people. He was the first artist of that period to paint a vagrant. In his drawings he immortalised many scenes of street life. Black people and exotic attire are visible in his paintings. He even depicted a female saint hanging from a cross.

But Bosch is at his best when he can release his army of fantasy creatures, as in his famous triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Here he merges the characteristics of nature, animals, people and machines into a new absurd reality. In the first two panels naked people are going wild in a green landscape with huge flowers, fruits and animals. This playfulness changes into horror on the third panel. The dark landscape is inhabited by deformed figures with animal heads. People are desperately trying to flee grotesque tortures.

Bosch’s fantastical images transform the exhibition into a festival. But they originate from a social basis. He wanted to hold a mirror up to society — albeit an extremely distorted one.

Like his peers, Bosch was influenced by the important social changes taking place. The exhibition limits itself to the art, but luckily Bosch’s art speaks for itself. That makes him a phenomenal artist to this day.

Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of Genius is at Noordbrabants Museum,’s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, until 8 May.
Hella Baan is an editor of the Dutch newspaper De Socialist.