Criticism — From the August 2016 issue

Abandon All Hope

Hieronymus Bosch comes home

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A naked man grabs me by the lapels and bares his teeth in frustration. I say naked, when I mean clad in a skintight nude suit that delineates his six-pack and decorously abstracts his genitals in the manner of a kids’ action figure. I have been assaulted by the personification of Anger. I’m probably being paranoid, but the unshakable sense of foreboding this gives me derives, as far as I can tell, from the suspicion that his little coup de théâtre is so effective because the guy playing Anger has actually taken against me, can discern in me something weak or sinful that he could exploit as grist for his performance. Earlier, a jester wearing a boat around his midriff had sniggered at the way I was holding my press folder. Maybe I’m not being paranoid, and the bad feeling I’ve had since I walked onstage at the Theater aan de Parade — which will increase over the course of my stay — is only an appropriate response.

Detail of the right panel, depicting Hell, of 1490–1500 © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid/Bridgeman Images. All artwork, unless otherwise noted, by Hieronymus Bosch

Hieronymus B., Nanine Linning’s immersive “dance triptych,” is one of more than ninety “fascinating cultural experiences” to be staged in and around the small Dutch city of ’s Hertogenbosch to mark 500 years since the death of its most famous son. No one knows exactly when Jeroen van Aken was born, but the date of his funeral mass at St. John’s Cathedral — August 9, 1516 — is recorded in the archives of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, the then-Catholic confraternity that counted him among its members and in its ecumenical incarnation survives to this day. (“Hieronymus,” incidentally, is a Latinization of “Jeroen,” or “Jerome,” Bosch’s patron saint and later a favorite subject; in adopting the name of his hometown, Bosch was swapping one toponym for another — Aachen, in Germany, being the birthplace of his ancestors.) From a contract dated to 1475, which mentions Bosch working with his father on a carved altar for the brotherhood, it’s assumed he was born around 1450.

Sixteenth-century portrait of Bosch, from the Flemish school © Scala/Art Resource, New York City

Sixteenth-century portrait of Bosch, from the Flemish school © Scala/Art Resource, New York City

’S Hertogenbosch lies roughly fifty miles from Amsterdam, in the southerly province of North Brabant. It’s a quiet, attractive, prosperous-seeming place, with a well-preserved medieval center inside the remains of its fourteenth-century ramparts. On the train from Schiphol Airport the announcer placed heavy emphasis on the first syllables, ’S-HER-to-gen-bosch, as if to gee himself up for the syllables to come. The locals give themselves a break and call it Den Bosch. The focus of the celebrations is Visions of Genius, an exhibition of Bosch’s work at the Noordbrabants Museum (which ended on May 8); Charles de Mooij, the director, has secured seventeen of the surviving twenty-four paintings attributed (with varying degrees of certainty) to Bosch, and nineteen of the surviving twenty works on paper. Never before — conceivably not even in his lifetime — have so many of Bosch’s works been assembled in one place, all the more impressive an achievement given that the Noordbrabants is a small, provincial museum, numbering precisely zero Bosches in its permanent collection.

The quid for the Noordbrabants’s quo, in the case of the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice and other world-class institutions loaning work to the exhibition, comes in two forms: restoration and knowledge. With backing from the government, corporate partners, and the Getty Foundation, the Bosch Research and Conservation Project has restored nine of the loans and undertaken detailed reflectographic analysis, resulting, among other things, in the attribution to Bosch of two pieces hitherto considered to be workshop: a drawing, Infernal Landscape, and a panel fragment, The Temptation of St. Anthony, the latter stored for the past decade in the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

The left and center panels, depicting Eden and a false Paradise, of The Garden of Earthly Delights. Courtesy Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

The left and center panels, depicting Eden and a false Paradise, of The Garden of Earthly Delights. Courtesy Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

There’s a deal of national and civic pride at stake here. The official slogan of Jheronimus Bosch 500, printed on banners fluttering from the city’s lampposts and on the blue track tops sported by its crack detail of official guides, is welkom thuis, jheronimus! — “Welcome home, Hieronymus!” (If it grates that Bosch’s most famous painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, is staying put in the Prado, none of the infallibly charming and diplomatic representatives of JB500 will admit it. The Spanish are oddly proprietary about the painter they refer to as El Bosco, perhaps because gruesome depictions of Hell remained popular in ultra-Catholic Spain long after they had lost their appeal in Northern Europe. When I ask Lian Duif, JB500’s director, if a loan of The Garden was ever in the cards, she is categorical. “We didn’t even ask for it,” she says. “It’s the same as our Night Watch — it will never travel.” The objection that Rembrandt was Dutch, and Bosch not Spanish, seems abruptly inappropriate, and I take a big bite of my complementary apple pancake to cover the silence.) The program of ancillary events — the “Bosch Experience” — seems designed to reassert a link weakened by half a millennium of acquisition and dispersal, and to carry on reasserting it long after the Noordbrabants show completes its short run. (Until September 11, the paintings will be reunited with Earthly Delights at the Prado, in a show that the Spanish, true to form, are calling “the most complete and one of the highest quality organized to date.” Bienvenido a casa, Jerónimo.)

Detail of the center panel

Detail of the center panel

Aside from Hieronymus B., visitors to Den Bosch in 2016 are promised a Heaven and Hell cruise, by open boat along the canalized River Binnendieze, which runs through and sometimes underneath the city center and will in certain subterranean stretches be enhanced with 3-D projections of hellfire, screeching bats, and winged demons; A Wondrous Climb, a walk up a clanging gantry staircase to the roof of St. John’s Cathedral, for a look at both the grotesques on the flying buttresses and, beyond the city limits, a sodden polder called the Bossche Broek, supposedly much as it was in Bosch’s time; and Bosch by Night, the obligatory son et lumière, in which animated figures from Bosch’s paintings will be projected against the facades of four buildings on Markt, the town’s main square.

Many of the events depend, like Hieronymus B., on the animation of Bosch’s imagery. (Albinus in Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark has pretty much the same idea, to have “some well-known picture, preferably of the Dutch School . . . brought to life.” But then, “his life ended in disaster.”) The implication, I guess, being that art is more accessible when it moves, and the still stuff is for a specialized audience prepared to fork out twenty-two euros to get past the security guards at the Noordbrabants. In any case, for the rest of the year the city will assume the status of an upmarket theme park based on the bold proposition that insistent and graphic reminders of the eternity of torment awaiting all but a few of us might represent a fun day out for all the family. The calculation seems to be that Bosch’s appeal has long extended beyond his natural constituency of museumgoers. I don’t know much about art, but I know I like men farting out blackbirds while being eaten alive by blue bird-headed monsters, shod in pewter jugs.

You can almost hear Ton Rombouts rubbing his hands. Rombouts, the mayor of Den Bosch, is smooth in a vaguely Blairite fashion, well-preserved for sixty-five, with the mobile middle of the practiced politician, accustomed to multilateral glad-handing. In his welcome to the press he trots with exemplary freshness through a speech he must have given a thousand times. The difficulty of pronouncing ’s Hertogenbosch. Its “Burgundic atmosphere.” (For a period in the fifteenth century, the Duchy of Brabant was ruled by the dukes of Burgundy, the legacy of which is, supposedly, the easygoing, café-cultural, work-to-live joie de vivre that marks the locals out from the sullen Calvinists north of the Maas.) The intolerability of leaving town without trying the local speciality, the Bossche bol, which, by all appearances, is nothing other than a massive profiterole.

The difference this year, of course, is Hieronymus, whose benefit to the city of his birth, Rombouts explains in his mostly fluent English, can be expressed not only in tourist “spendings,” welcome as they may be, but in terms of the lessons Bosch can teach us in this “time of fear,” when the seven deadly sins “are still worrisome topical.” By depicting them so vividly, Bosch can help us not capitulate to “hate and greed and fury.” If Rombouts has an overriding ambition for the Bosch 500 program, it’s that it will bring “hope, again, to our society.” It’s a notion I’ll hear promoted several times over my two visits: Bosch as the painter of hope.

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is the author of Pub Walks in Underhill Country (Penguin), a novel. His article “Blast from the Past” appeared in the December 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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