Hyeronimus Den Bosch 500 Years (1) – Life is a Carnival

In the early hours of Saturday, two pilgrims make their journey to the Brabantian city of s’Hertogenbosch. It is spring and the mist crowns with fog the naked trees, their little buds teeming with the promise of light and warmth. In town, the market square starts to erect tends and awnings, filling them with flowers (the expensive commodity), fruits and fish, and the exquisite lace of the neighboring Flanders. But also there will be conjurers, acrobats, improvised surgeons, divinators, preachers, mendicants, philosophers, whores, clowns, and the always surprising type of visitors who join the festival of the city. For three days in the annual calendar, the city forgets about hierarchy and ranks, the orderly life of the parish, the rhythms and social customs, to give place to music, mead and malarkey.   Folk cherishes this day, but none as much as Jeroen van Aken, who is avid to collect images, stories, sensations and imaginations, brought and spiced by the variety of visitors. His genius visions are fired up in those days, his senses heightened by colour and imagination. The stories of fugitives, preachers, wizards and doctors… so, let’s begin to explore the world of this painter whose name would resonate for centuries to come as the painter of his city: Hieronymus Den Bosch (1450-1616).

In a period that overlaps the late Medieval times and the early Renaissance, Den Bosch times are of turbulence and change. The Duchy of Brabant emerges between the proud Flemish and the stubborn Hollanders, s’Hertogenbosch is a flourishing town, and Jeroen belongs to a family of painters, and later will be in charge of the whole guild. His imagination runs wild, fed by stories of punishment and hell, redemption and martyrs, both gory and glory mix in the brushes and drawings of the painter. Pilgrims like ourselves find detailed accounts of the life of such bygone years. For many, Den Bosch paintings can be “scary”, the delusions of a fanatically influenced artist; for others, the images are rich “texts”  in times of illiteracy and story telling; for some, the painters visions of hell and punishment reflect his pessimism in an era of change. For me, however, the painter is an incisive social story teller, a fantastic imaginator and ultimately a proposer of alternatives and beautiful worlds. In this blog I will attempt at describing my visit to the fantastic exhibition organised by the Het Noordbrabants Museum (13 February-8 of May, 2016), welcoming his illustrious citizen back. It is so rich and fantastic, that I will try to describe my impressions in three parts, using Den Bosch favorite format, the Triptych:

Life is a Carnival

Drawings in situ, Den Bosch exhibtion. Beatriz Acevedo. Rights reserved.

The first painting that welcome us is the Ship of the Fools, the complex depiction of both morality and madness management. I have described and analysed this painting many times before (its symbolic power is infinite), but it never ceases to amaze me. This time I wanted to look at the periphery, the details, the little imagined creatures. This is a picture of mischief, but also of possible options. The painter is not ambiguous in making fun of the Church excesses: a monk and a fray play silly games trying to bite a flying bread in the midst of a wild party. Music of mandolins and more drinks threaten the precarious balance of this ship, where “fools” allegedly were transported from town to town, which seems adequate for this town surrounded by water, excluded by aquatic rings, far away from the control of the omnipresent Catholic church or the growing power of dynasties like the Hapsburg and the Spaniards. Around the painting a subtle character with a metallic hat advances in the water, while high on the sail a battle between a flying man and a hungry devil takes place. And the fool? Well, he seems to be away of this madness, his back turned against us, simply contemplating the distant land.

Drawings in situ, Den Bosch exhibtion. Beatriz Acevedo. Rights reserved.

Similar social observations are depicted in almost cartoonist detail in paintings like the Conjurers – the conning spectacle that still attracts crowds in cities across the planet.  Also, there are many depictions of what was seemingly popular practice of “Extracting of the Folly Stone”, in which alleged doctors will “cure” madness by extracting the mystic stone through brain “surgery” or rather butchery trepanations. In this paintings, Bosch seems to question who are the real “lunatics”… the doctors do not hold so much promise, despite their robes and funny hats! Instead, the patients look directly at the viewer, pledging? questioning? or simply surrounding themselves to the so called power of “science” and “expert knowledge”, which according to my darling Foucault, are other ways of power. Indeed Foucault offered a fantastic analysis of those paintings in his work the History of Madness.

Drawings in situ, Den Bosch exhibition. Beatriz Acevedo. Rights reserved.

Den Bosch is not simply illustrating social and biblical scenes, I believe that he is actually offering a moral stand in topics that are still relevant to our times. Take, for example, the death of the miser, surrounded by heavy fabrics and coffers of gold, while devils contest his soul. He tries to bribe the demons who are not fooled, while death gently arrives…. Gold and titles as success and fame, celebrity and power carry on their deceiving allure over the centuries, and yet, as the painter shows, these are all futile: we are mortals, souls experiencing a brief moment of life, a miraculous opportunity that cannot be only paying the mortgage, or consuming and shopping for the sake of the  market, without any inclination to happiness, to delight or joy. This message is clearer in the famous Haywain triptych,  as explained in the catalog: the Haywain is drawn by a band of demonic creatures in the direction of hell… it is followed by a procession of people on foot and on horseback and everybody is there: emperors, popes, kings and dukes, to the simplest peasants and townfolk (p 28).  Here a man and his child approach the golden hay, far there a creature with the body of a fish and legs of men runs as if pursuing a treasure, people around roast a pig head and some fish, and quack doctors operate on powerless geezers. It is not difficult to imagine the town filling up with people and travelers, the variety of characters in the Theater of Comedy. On top of the hay heap, a woman with a book – Science perhaps- has on her lap a man with a lute -arts?- so what does this mean to all us?

Drawings in situ, Den Bosch exhibition. Beatriz Acevedo. Rights reserved.

The paintings are all crowded with thousands of characters. It is not difficult to imagine the city 500 years ago, preparing for festivities, welcoming the myriad of strange characters, who, like us, are attracted by the strange allure of the place. Outside the museum, the city is preparing herself for her own Festivities, oddly scheduled in the spring rather than previous summer, which was cancelled because of the winds. My friends and I walk around the city, bathing in the spring sun. Theo, the only native of the area, explains to me how the region is so different from the Hollanders… a fort of Catholicism mixed with a Germanic tradition, Brabantia has been a powerhouse of culture and imagery. Den Bosch surely drank from the rich tradition of folk tales from Germany, and also the varied imagery of the Bible. Pinar, leads the troop: she walks fast and gingerly in  her beautiful dress, pointing out the route, and this role is quite appropriate for her, as she is a leader in sustainability, veganism and well being. Bands of musicians populate the city and take on the corners with trumpets, drums and catchy melodies… Theo and I danced to the music: Theo, the politician,  reminiscing about his childhood; I  – the painter-   inebriated by the imagery and celebrations. Behind, Martha Lucia -the reflective dancer, talking life and fortune with Charlie -the music maker-… What den Bosch would make of all us? Are we part of his paintings? which seem more relevant than ever, 500 years later… Life is a carnival, and we are all characters of the parade!







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