In Hieronymus Boschit is visions of hell, Satan and his followers subject sinners to an endless parade of punishment. A Hare captures a former hunter, tying him to a post as a pair of hunting dogs maul a nearby man. A player has his hand impaled on a table as a furry creature closes its paw around his neck. Yet another sinner is crucified on a huge harp about to be plucked by a demon whose body looks like a tree.
These chaotic scenes and others like them cemented Bosch’s status as “one of the [a] hell of a handful of truly original creators,” writes Alice K. Turner in The story of hell. Painted at the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th century, the infernal landscapes of the Dutch artist are both warnings for Christians who hope to avoid an afterlife of eternal pain and visually lavish feats of imagination.
Six years after Bosch’s hometown of ‘s-Hertogenbosch hosted the the greatest retrospective ever of his work, a smaller but equally ambitious exhibition debuts at Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest (MFAB) in Hungary. “Between hell and paradise: the enigmatic world of Hieronymus Boschfeatures nearly 90 works by the Old Master and his peers. According to a statementit is “the most comprehensive exhibition” of the artist’s works ever held in Central Europe, and includes almost half of the handful of paintings—just 25 in total — attributed to him.
Highlights of ‘Hell and Heaven’ include Musea Brugge’s Last judgement triptych, the Louvre ship of foolsthe Metropolitan Museum of Art Adoration of the Magi and the Städel Museum Ecce Homo. These masterpieces are placed in dialogue with works that inspired Bosch and vice versa. Each of the seven sections of the exhibition deals with a different aspect of the painter’s life and work, from the religious views that shaped his art to his evolving legacy.
“The exhibition explores timeless human themes rendered by Bosch in an entirely original pictorial language: the choice between virtue and vice, questions of faith and truth, the experience of unfettered desires and their mastery, as well as than the spiritual quality of human existence”, notes the museum on its website.
Bosch himself is a man mired in mystery. Coming from a family of painters between 1450 and 1456, he probably witnessed a devastating fire in his hometown during his youth. The disaster may have “influenced Bosch’s later works, some of which include raging fires in their backgrounds,” Claire Selvin wrote for ART news in 2020.
In the early 1480s, Bosch married a wealthy woman whose family money enabled him to pursue a career as an artist. Initially, he painted fairly traditional religious scenes, such as Crucifixion with a donor, but as his stature grew over the next decade, he shifted gears to the apocalyptic landscapes he is known for today. Bosch died in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 1516 after spending most of his life in his home town.
Disturbing and bizarre (they directly influenced 20th century surrealists), these works shaped conceptions of hell in the Renaissance and for centuries after. In the MFAB exhibition, a tapestry version from the mid-16th century The Garden of Earthly Delights– arguably Bosch’s best-known painting – testifies to the appeal of his art at the time of its creation.
“No other artist in Western painting has ever captured such an enduring demonic imagination as Bosch,” says Ed Simon for Hyperallergic. “… [T]The result was five centuries of nightmares, the Dutch painter’s offspring visible in contemporary satanic imagery from horror films to heavy metal music.
Review of “Hell and Paradise” for a Hungarian media Papageno, Zsuzsa Borbély sums up well the chaotic character of Bosch’s work. Instead of focusing on a central figure, the painter offers “something to see… [a]t almost every point on the web,” notes Borbély, per Google Translate. “Thus, it is up to the observer to find out what detail is conspicuous and noteworthy.”
Take a close look at a Bosch altarpiece, whether in person or numerically, gives new details with each viewing. Although these hellish landscapes are ostensibly designed to terrify, they are also imbued with that artsyAlexa Gotthardt describes it as “a whimsical oddity”.
For every person with a sword in their skull, there’s an image undoubtedly designed to entertain, whether it’s a pig dressed in a nun’s habit in The Garden of Earthly Delightsa corpulent man simultaneously drinking a drink from a barrel and defecating in Bruges Last judgement or one mustachioed head attached to a set of legs at the bottom of the better known Vienna Last judgement.
Like Charles de Mooij, director of Het Noordbrabants Museumwhich hosted the blockbuster 2016 retrospective, told the the wall street journal‘s Anna Russell at the time, “Each painting has its own secrets.”
“Between hell and paradise: the enigmatic world of Hieronymus Bosch» is on view at Museum of Fine Arts, Budapestin Hungary until July 17.