It’s been one hell of a homecoming for Hieronymus Bosch. The Het Noordbrabants Museum stayed open continuously for 39 hours over the closing weekend of Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of Genius to give visitors one last, long look at the exhibition that brought the majority of the master’s works back to the town where he painted them.
Never before has an art show in the Netherlands sold as many advanced tickets; more than 220,000 people descended on den Bosch since Visions of Genius opened in February 2016 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death. The crowds around the paintings remained deep throughout the night of May 7th, each many-headed huddle a testament to the enduring fascination of Bosch’s own monsters.
In addition to gathering an unprecedented number of Bosch’s works, the exhibition reunited the panels of several triptychs—sawn apart and scattered over the centuries—including the celebrated Wayfarer Triptych. The brilliant achievement of the little-known regional museum allowed audiences to see the fullness of Bosch’s vision for the first time.
You can’t look away. Nude figures cavort inside eggs and shells, are fed or eaten by nefarious humanoids; unlikely orifices are stuffed with flowers. More than one person is stuck shunting around a copulating couple in an enormous mussel strapped to their back. The weirdness of Bosch’s work has been attributed to equally outlandish causes, including the artist’s involvement with a secret sex cult or the psychedelic influence of moldy bread. Bosch’s work is often called ‘psychedelic,’ an indication of how difficult it is to actually describe. Bosch captures—perhaps more than any other artist—the mutable world, life driven relentlessly by sex and death, and consciousness caught between imagination and the brutish facts of the flesh.
The fascination of looking at these paintings is in seeing more than it is possible to see, and seeing it all at once. Bosch compacts massive distances, rendering both foreground and background in hyper-detail; the miniature dramas hovering around the frame are as gripping as the central events. In the middle ground behind Saint Christopher, a man is seen lynching a bear in a perverse echo of the Saint himself, dangling a fish he’s caught on a line; beyond this a naked figure, only millimeters high, flees a crumpled white mass at the edge of the river, and a fire burns in the distant blue hills.
Hybrids abound—unicorn dolphins frolic in heaven and rat-faced lizards impale the damned. Reptilian fish emerge from dark waters in The Creation of the World, like Bosch had an uncanny intuition of evolution. Evil was there from the beginning; even in Eden creatures devour themselves or each other. The life Bosch conveys is mutable, relentlessly driven to survival and sex. Bosch’s paintings merge reality and fantasy, heaven and hell, flesh and flower. He gives us the end and the beginning at once. Symmetry, though, is not the point. In Bosch’s Last Judgment, almost everyone is heading for hell.
The boundary between paradise and eternal damnation is a churning confusion of bodies, and even the instruments of angels have become the instruments of torture. Up high, close enough for God to hear him scream, a man is strung upon a harp and played by a devil with long white claws. Bosch himself never made it to heaven or hell; the all-night run on Visions of Genius shows that we still haven’t been able to let go of him here on Earth.