The devil’s ass is hell’s gateway.
– Netherlandish Proverb
To mark the 500th anniversary of Hieronymus Bosch’s death, Het Noordbrabants Museum has mounted Jheronimus Bosch, a survey exhibition of the Netherlandish master’s career.
The exhibitions brings together 16 of the 25 surviving paintings and 19 of the 20 known drawings by Bosch. The curators secured unprecedented loans for the show, including the Prado’s Haywain, which has not left Spain for 450 years, the Ship of Fools from the Louvre and Death and the Miser from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, recently re-attributed to Bosch, comes from as far as the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. The show is all the more remarkable because Het Noordbrabants Museum, while located in Bosch’s natal city of ’s-Hertogenbosch, has no works by the artist in its own collections.
The Surrealists saw Bosch as an anti-clerical madman visualizing his dark unconscious; in the 1960s, the counterculture embraced Bosch as a proto-hippie celebrating free love and hallucinations. Both of these self-serving theories are wrong: Bosch appears to have been a religious ascetic who firmly supported official church dogma concerning the fallen nature of humanity, the transience of human desires and, his great theme, the afterlife. Phillip II of Spain was an enthusiastic patron of both Bosch and the Inquisition.
As seen in these details, even by the lurid standards of the Late Middle Ages, Bosch had an exceptional ability to imagine the horrors of eternal damnation, which were obsessively rendered in oil paint in order to convince the viewer to repent and abjure sin. If we find them unnerving or repellent, then we are having an orthodox 15th-century response, which is perhaps the greatest testimony to Bosch’s skill as an image maker.
Jheronimus Bosch is on view at Het Noordbrabants Museum from 13 February – 8 May 2016. More information.