I was thinking of calling this piece ’36 Hours in s’ Hertogenbosch’, but some of those hours were spent sleeping, and anyway I then came across the fascinating information that Jeroen van Aken, aka Hieronymus Bosch, was also known as a ‘duvelmakere’, or ‘maker of devils’. This is the five hundredth anniversary of his death in 1516, and the town of s’ Hertogenbosch (‘The Duke’s Forest’, usually shortened to Den Bosch) is en fête.
There are Bosch-related images on banners and in shop windows, three-dimensional models hanging from street-lamps, a Bosch walking trail, and most spectacular of all, paintings, drawings and sketches, drawn from museums and galleries all over the world and superbly displayed in the Noordbrabant Museum, with accompanying video screens which showed close-ups of the intricate detail, and cross-references from one image to another.
Bosch is not, I must confess, a favourite artist of mine, but he goes down well with Him Indoors, and this exhibition is clearly the opportunity of a lifetime for Boschists. So off we went, Stansted to Einhoven plus a bus. s’ Hertogenbosch seemed to me delightful – and the weather was lovely, which always helps.
The old centre is almost completely pedestrianised, and the medieval buildings (dating from the time when Den Bosch was the second largest town in the (present-day) Netherlands, second only to Utrecht) beautifully restored and maintained.
Newer buildings are kept low-key, using traditional local brick, and (mostly) low-level, so there is a real blending of older and newer stuff without anything jarring. There are lots of quiet lanes, little courtyards with communal gardens, and every so often glimpses of the canals which run through and (mostly) under the town, and which too are currently adorned with Bosch-related artworks.
We went on a circular trip through the canal system, which used to function as both water supply and sewage output for the houses above, sometimes in almost complete darkness until a shaft of daylight ahead indicated a gap between houses or even a little bridge.
The trite conclusion is that this is where Bosch got the idea of Heaven being a circle of light in the distance, but it’s quite persuasive when you’re down there.
Bats are provided for with bat-shaped bat houses; in the lighter areas were signs of mud nest-building, and we spotted a swallow, among other birds, in the open section outside the town walls.
We also went to Sint Jan’s (St John the Evangelist’s) cathedral (very odd – real Gothic, seventeenth-century Protestant brick, and then nineteenth-century Gothic after the church was restored to the Catholics by Pius IX).
For me, one of the most striking features inside was the large number of huge, deep-carved grave slabs set into the floor. The glossy black stone has been worn to a smoothness which in some places has obscured the decorations and inscriptions, while others are still legible.
I wondered where, in this clayey, flat landscape, these enormous slabs had been mined; I then wondered where, for that matter, the limestone(?) blocks of which the church is built originated. (I think it’s safe to assume that building materials were brought to the city by water…) Mostly seventeenth-century, the slabs are usually heraldic, but a few show memento mori devices as well.
It’s possible to take a tour of the roof, which is dotted with gargoyles on every rib and buttress; it’s so busy just now that you need to book well in advance for this ordeal, so my issue with high open places was not put to the test this time. These grotesque figures (we may not have seen them, but we got the postcards), of men and women, craftsmen and monsters, must have been familiar to Bosch, though again it may be rather trite to cite them as a direct influence.
There is also a permanent Bosch Museum, opened in 2007, in the former church of St Jacobus. It displays very good reproductions of all the known or attributed works (including the sketches) and has the altarpieces reconstructed so that you can open the side boards yourself, and turn over the sketch papers, of which Bosch frequently used both sides.
The brick church tower is the highest building for miles around: if you stagger to the top (or cheat by using the lift) you get stupendous views across the flat, watery landscape to other church towers in the distance, as well as a panorama of the town itself.
Returning to ground level, we spent the rest of our available time just mooching around, admiring the bustling cafés, the clean streets, the care and courtesy of the cyclists mingling with pedestrians (how very unlike our own dear home town, we thought) and following the Bosch trail to giant goldfinches and trees of flying fishes, conjurors and giraffes …
Hieronymus Bosch was born into a family of artists from Aachen, his first name being either Jheronimus, or Joen, or Jeroen, depending on whether you want the Latin or the Dutch (the Latin of course being more usually spelled Hieronymus (= Jerome)). The surname van Aken demonstrates where the family originated, but Jeroen, as far as is known, spent his entire life in or close to Den Bosch, being born in his grandfather’s house on one side of the market square and later living with his wife Aleyt Goyaerts van den Meerveen on the other side. His date of birth is unknown, but is estimated to be about 1450. A funeral mass was held for him in the cathedral on 9 August 1516, so he must have died a few days before.
People have been attempting since his own day to interpret Bosch’s grotesque and haunting images. Part of the explanation may be found in a note on the ‘Fields have eyes’ sketch: (in Latin) ‘ It is surely a sign of a most wretched mind to use existing material rather than inventing new.’
His own inventiveness, put to the service of an urgent need to warn his contemporaries of the wages of sin, has been imitated many times, but never surpassed, and even if, like me, you don’t really warm to the results, you have to admire both the imagination and the amazing virtuosity which turned that imagination into paint.