Unlike such exhibitions as Edgar Degas at the Museum of Modern Art and van Gogh at the Art Institute of Chicago, which were assembled oceans away from the environments that nurtured the painters, the show devoted to Hieronymus Bosch at the Noordbrabants Museum in ’s-Hertogenbosch, where the 15th-century painter lived all his life, allows viewers to experience Bosch in his own cultural world. Even today his hometown, with its rows of moss-clad trees and four-story houses, retains the feel of a small Dutch village wrapped around a main square. Bosch and his family lived on this plaza dominated by St. John’s Cathedral for many years.
There is no evidence that Bosch traveled. The creativity of his febrile, if macabre, imagination was nurtured entirely in his fantasies: the lack of outside stimuli in the backwater town renders his work all the more remarkable.
The Bosch Research and Conservation Project, an assembly of Bosch experts, spearheaded the project of assembling and analyzing the 20 paintings, various triptychs and panels, and 19 drawings on display. Although the Prado did not lend The Garden of Earthly Delights (1500–5), the iconic work bought by Philip II of Spain, it did lend The Hay Wain triptych (ca. 1515), in which a large group of people grab at handfuls of hay in a melee symbolizing the avarice behind the fight for earthly possessions. Other museums lent generously, making it possible for some of the most familiar images to be on view, including The Wayfarer (ca. 1500–10), in which the poor wanderer treads his way through life, having to choose between good and evil.
Perhaps most revealing are the stunningly original drawings that demonstrate Bosch’s obsession with images of evil and the grotesque. While he revered heaven, he had a passion for hell. Imagine, as in Two Monsters (ca.1500), an animal with human hands, a swan’s neck, a dragon-like head, and a leg pushed into a sawed-off bone! It is a complete fantasy, and a breathtakingly frightening one. It is not a study for a painting but a total work that stands on its own.
In the drawing Infernal Landscape (ca.1500), presumably a scene from hell, there is a net fishing for souls; a dragon throwing up souls into a giant cauldron; a barrel moving along on legs that are half human and half dragon; and a man’s head peeking out from the front of the barrel as a strange monster sits astride it.
In later centuries artists would produce works with imagery reminiscent of Bosch’s, but Bosch himself seems to have followed his own internal vision, and it was an extraordinary one.