Jo Fletcher-Cross peels back the layers of ’s-Hertogenbosch to try and understand the work of its most famous son
I’m suspended in mid-air, looking out over a vision of paradise. All I can take in at first is the trees; once my vision adjusts I notice some oddities nestled in the undergrowth. Then I look down and shriek: I’m sitting on the back of a flying fish.
Hieronymus Bosch, the most important artist of the middle ages, died in 1516 and for the 500th anniversary, his home town has gone Bosch bananas, with a whole year of events and exhibitions. As part of the commemorations, the city’s Noordbrabants Museum has curated Bosch: Visions of a Genius, the largest exhibition of his works ever held. It’s only in Den Bosch until May, moving to Madrid’s Museo del Prado after that, but related events will continue right throughout 2016.
I love his surreal mix of fantasy and reality, and decided to take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the paintings together. Somehow I end up in the basement of the city hall, looking around at various pieces of memorabilia – Hieronymus wine, anyone? A friendly assistant looks up from the till. “You want to do virtual reality, yes?” I’m ushered into a small dark room, sat down on a glowing cube with an Oculus headset over my eyes and whoosh — off we go to the Garden of Earthly Delights.
Den Bosch is a beautiful place to visit, and it’s surprisingly easy to imagine the master at work. The gothic spires of St John’s Cathedral, where he worshipped, rise up above the town; the flying buttresses are dotted with fantastical sculptures which bear a striking resemblance to many of the grotesque creatures in his paintings. Throughout 2016, it’s possible to climb up to the gutters of the cathedral, 25 metres off the ground, to get up close to the 96 sculptures.
The city is criss-crossed by the Binnendieze, a centuries-old system of subterranean watercourses. Visitors can cruise along these waterways in an open boat, and for 2016 the experience is dedicated to — you guessed it — Hieronymus Bosch. The route meanders past imposing fortifications, ancient facades and atmospheric cellars, as well as a fine and rather comical collection of Bosch-inspired statues.
It’s possible to experience his artworks year-round, by proxy at least, by heading for the Hieronymus Bosch Art Center, a converted church which houses photographic reproductions of all the works. A glass elevator whisks visitors up 40 metres to the top of the building for panoramic views. Gaze down and wonder how a man living in this small town 500 years ago came up with some of the most extraordinary paintings of all time. I can’t claim to have got inside his imagination, but immersing myself in this charming, quirky place has helped me peel back a few layers of mystery.