Rare Hieronymus Bosch Works Return to Den Bosch for 500th Anniversary

Jheronimus Bosch, The Last Judgement, ca. 1495-1505. Brugge, Stad Brugge, Groeningemuseum. Photo: Rik Klein Gotink and Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project.

The city of 's-Hertogenbosch, in the heart of the Netherlands, lies just a short train trip through the countryside from nearby Rotterdam, or Antwerp. Colloquially known simply as "Den Bosch," or "the forest," it is the paragon of a charming Dutch town, comprised of a medieval city center with historic cathedral and marketplace, intersected by twisting canals and surrounded by ancient ramparts. But 's-Hertogenbosch is perhaps most well known for its most famous citizen, one of the most inventive, unique, and memorable painters in the history of Western art: Hieronymus Bosch.

August Falise, Statue Hieronymus Bosch, 1929, market square Den Bosch.

In 2016, 's-Hertogenbosch has erupted with Hieronymus Bosch fever, commemorating the 500th anniversary of the artist's death with a major, international cultural event. At the centerpiece of the festivities stands the exhibition Jheronimus Bosch - Visions of a Genius, at the Noordbrabants Museum, which has inspired and instigated the return of an unprecedented number of Bosch's paintings and drawings back to the artist's hometown, and, with them, will draw an unprecedented number of visitors to this small Dutch city and through its doors.

Jheronimus Bosch, The Ship of Fools, ca. 1500-10. Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures. Photo: Rik Klein Gotink and Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project.

Hieronymus Bosch was born sometime around 1450, and lived and painted his entire life in 's-Hertogenbosch, where he died in 1516. Very little is known of his life, as only a few official records remain of it. He left behind no letters or diaries, or any other written clues as to the intentions behind his artwork, which, given its fantastical nature and often esoteric iconography, has intrigued and baffled modern art historians. His macabre scenes full of bizarre torture devices, demons and half-creatures, set alongside his paradisiacal visions of exotic plants and animals, architectural follies, and frolicking humans, have sparked a few wild theories, from hereticism to psychedelic drug use. While these outlying theories have been widely discredited, and it is largely understood that many of Bosch's phantasms and grotesqueries were derived from medieval literature, sermons, and puns, he was a uniquely visionary artist, as anyone who has marveled at the myriad mysterious details in his paintings will attest. Bosch became quite well known and widely copied even in his lifetime, while his influence stretches on to the present day. Revered by successive generations of Flemish artists, resurrected by the Surrealists, his works continue to captivate and confound.

Jheronimus Bosch, Gluttony (fragment of the Ship of Fools), ca. 1500-10. New Haven (USA), Yale University Art Gallery. Photo: Rik Klein Gotink and Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project.

Bosch's outsized influence runs contrary to his output, which numbers only about 25 authentic, extant paintings. These have been collected far and wide, firstly by kings and dukes, and now by venerable art museums, among them, the Louvre in Paris, the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Prado in Madrid. Remarkably, the Noordbrabants Museum, a small museum devoted to the arts and crafts of the region, has been able to assemble 20 of Bosch's 25 paintings, along with 19 of 25 drawings believed to exist, all together for the first time, and all within mere meters of where they were originally painted. It is the largest retrospective of Hieronymus Bosch's work ever staged, truly a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Jheronimus Bosch, Visions of the Hereafter, ca. 1505-15. Venezia, Museo di Palazzo Grimani. Photo: Rik Klein Gotink and Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project.

This exceptional gathering of rare works is the result of a research and conservation effort, begun in 2007, led by a team of international experts. The Bosch Research and Conservation Project undertook a comprehensive and systematic study of Bosch's entire oeuvre, using infrared reflectography and ultrahigh-resolution digital macro photography to document the works in minute detail and to reveal layers of underpainting beneath. The study has already had some surprising results, including the verification of a canvas by Bosch previously attributed to his workshop, and a few works that were found to be inauthentic. The full results of the research will be published soon in a two-volume monograph with a full catalogue of his works. But perhaps one of the most surprising results of the study was the collaboration that followed between the small Dutch museum that initiated the research and the prestigious institutions that took part. The Noordbrabants Museum found that those international institutions, who had all benefitted from this groundbreaking scholarly and scientific research into their prized Bosch holdings, were then inclined to lend their works for this historic assembly. Charles de Mooij, Director of the museum in 's-Hertogenbosch, was "stunned" at this generosity.

Jheronimus Bosch, Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1470-80. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1913. Photo: Rik Klein Gotink and Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project.

Major works by the Dutch master will return to Den Bosch, some of which have not traveled for centuries. These prime examples of Bosch's work include The Ship of Fools (ca. 1500-10) from the Louvre, Visions of the Hereafter (ca. 1505-15) from Venice's Museo di Palazzo Grimani, and Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1470-80) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Most impressive of all, the Museo del Prado in Madrid has lent Bosch's The Haywain (1510-16), marking the painting's first return back to the Netherlands in 450 years. The Haywain--one of Bosch's finest triptychs depicting the passage from innocence to debauchery to the dark depths of hell--had entered the private collection of King Philip II of Spain, an avid collector of Bosch's work, in 1570, only a few decades after Bosch's death; it has not left Spain since it was acquired. The Prado's generosity notwithstanding, however, Bosch's greatest masterpiece, and one of the Prado's finest, The Garden of Earthly Delights, will not be joining The Haywain in 's-Hertogenbosch. One will still have to make the pilgrimage to Madrid to see it.

Jheronimus Bosch, The Haywain, 1510-16. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado. With the special collaboration of The Museo Nacional del Prado. Photo: Rik Klein Gotink and Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project.

But those who make the pilgrimage to the little Dutch city of Den Bosch this year will certainly not be disappointed. Along with the exhibition at the Noordbrabants Museum, visitors can take in a variety of Bosch-themed events, performances, lectures, and even a circus incorporating Bosch's fantastical imagery into its acts. The historic buildings on the market square will be lit by night with projections of Bosch's artwork, while the stone walls of the medieval waterways will be illuminated by animated 3D projections of Bosch's nightmarish hellscapes. Along with these visual delights and spectacles, the Bosch pilgrim will no doubt be rewarded simply by regarding the same landscape, breathing the same air, and walking in the footsteps of the master in his own hometown.

Bosch by Night, Garden of Earthly Delights, artist impression. Courtesy of Jheronimus Bosch 500.

Jheronimus Bosch - Visions of a genius takes place at the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch from 13 February to 8 May 2016, with extended viewing hours offered daily from 9am to 7pm. More information about the Jheronimus Bosch 500 citywide celebration can be found here.

--Natalie Hegert