A festival of unearthly delights

No end of creativity from Hieronymus Bosch


A fish-tailed woman, riding a mouse, cradles her child in arms that are branches. A blue bird, seated on a throne, gorges on a naked body from whose anus black birds flock. Lizards claw at the bedclothes. A man is crucified upon a harp. It is the stuff of nightmare; it can only be Hieronymus Bosch. In 2016 the city of ’s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, where the artist lived, worked and from which he took his name, will commemorate the 500th anniversary of his death with a festival of over 100 events, culminating in the most important Bosch retrospective ever held.

The year opens with a production by the South Netherlands Philharmonic of Gian Carlo Menotti’s children’s opera, “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, inspired by Bosch’s “Adoration of the Magi”, and closes with the unveiling of the “Bosch Beest”, a nine-metre-high wrought-iron public sculpture. Seven regional museums have co-ordinated their programmes, including new Bosch-inspired works from Jake and Dinos Chapman and Jan Fabre. A Dutch theme park has even created an augmented-reality medieval experience in the old city centre.

“It started with a dream,” says Lian Duif, programme director of the Jheronimus Bosch 500 Foundation. It had to. When planning began, the connection with this small, otherwise undistinguished city was hardly known and the city did not own a single one of his works. The triumph of 2016 will be “Bosch: Visions of Genius” from February to May at the city’s Noordbrabants Museum. It will gather 39 works from public and private collections scattered across ten countries. Some, such as the Prado’s “Haywain”, are returning to the Netherlands for the first time since the 16th century.

All the museum could offer to negotiate these loans was knowledge. With the foundation, it established the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP), an international, multidisciplinary team that has spent five years visiting every work, meticulously photographing each under visible light, infra-red and X-rays, and analysing their physical condition. Supported by the Getty Foundation’s Panel Paintings Initiative, the team has cleaned and restored almost half of the recognised paintings. This unprecedented attention to Bosch’s work may have unearthed new treasures. Several newly attributed works will be exhibited for consideration as part of his oeuvre.

These efforts are not intended for art historians alone. The BRCP’s computer scientist, Robert Erdmann, has developed software that seamlessly stitches together the 12 terabytes of image data collected, enabling users to get much closer than they could in a museum and to navigate between visible, infra-red and X-ray images, drawing aside each layer like a curtain.

There is much to see. Bosch’s creations seethe with detail. Unlike the smooth finish of his contemporaries, his brushwork is boldly expressive and so too, as this new technology reveals, is his draughtsmanship. The infra-red exposes evolving dynamic underdrawings, as Bosch sought the most direct way of attracting the viewer to his subject. “You see him think on the panel,” enthuses Matthijs Ilsink, co-ordinator of the BRCP. “His creativity never ends.”

Art for all

In 2016, those who cannot experience this exhibition of Bosch’s work at first hand can enjoy the delights of the online gallery (at boschproject.org) where the full collection will be permanently available to the public from February onwards. The software is open-source, to be available for future curators and lecturers everywhere. It may change both academic and popular engagement with visual culture, stirring the imaginations of generations to come.

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