On the quincentenary of his death, few, if any, of Hieronymus Bosch’s contemporaries can claim a similar level of continuing fame. He is a major draw at museums, but his reach extends far beyond: in addition to the standard books, T-shirts and postcards, he has been treated to accessories ranging from tote bags to mousepads and phone cases.
Born Jheronimus van Aken around 1450, nothing suggests that Bosch was anything other than a prominent, prosperous citizen, an orthodox Catholic, and a devotional painter much in demand among patrons. For all the singularity of his work, there is no evidence to suggest that Bosch was, in any sense, an outsider. In Bosch’s case – with the 45 paintings and drawings currently attributed to him spread across 20 collections in Europe and North America – few people have had the chance to measure the myth against reality by looking at many of the works themselves.
Happily, the quincentenary of his death offers two chances to do exactly that, with major shows at the Prado
(31 May–11 September) and the Het Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch
(until 8 May).
And let ‘us not forget that just 700 drawings remain in all of Western culture which were created before the year 1500.
That choice between heaven and hell, eternal life and perpetual damnation, greed and lust on the one hand and purity on the other surfaces so often in Bosch’s work. Responsibility for the decision lies with the man himself; it is he, after all, who will have to bear the consequences: will it be heaven or hell?
His works are incredibly timeless, particularly his depictions of people struggling with basic life decisions: to do good, or to do evil. The costumes and the religious sensibilities and a million other aspects are decidedly medieval, but at their core, the decisions and the question of what defines humanity are very modern indeed.