This past spring a humble museum in a small Dutch city mounted the largest Hieronymus Bosch exhibition in history. Along with nearly half a million other acolytes, I made the pilgrimage to ‘s-Hertogenbosch, birthplace of the father of monsters. My way was snared with perils (I neglected to book tickets far enough in advance) but Providence cleared my path (the museum extended their hours, so I flew back to the Netherlands), and in the end I was given the keys to a garden of earthly delights (just not a key to the original Garden of Earthly Delights; the Prado won’t loan out Bosch’s most famous triptych, not even for an event of this magnitude). It was quite literally the event of a lifetime.
The space was a mirror of the works themselves: modestly sized but expertly lit, and thronged with a jolly menagerie who pressed ever closer to one another in their ardor to have a better look at the horrors of hell, and of heaven, and everywhere in between. Many silently stood before the pieces, a faithful congregation bobbing their heads as they listened to the audio tour on their headphones, but like others I eschewed the mechanical hand-holding—armed with the printed guide and a healthy foreknowledge of Bosch, I sought to experience him in my own time rather than have my eye guided by a digital Virgil (or perhaps more accurately, Beatrice).
My confederate in this expedition was my old friend Travis (and in a roleplaying game a long time ago, a proto-Manfred Grossbart), and together we wove amidst the silent listeners and the multi-lingual murmurers, adding our own whispers to the confessional-like thrum of the place. I can’t claim that all of our observations were weighty, nor were those we overheard and understood of our peers, but that’s one of the effects of standing before something that is in itself profound—you find yourself unable to take it all in at once.
“The birds,” Travis laughed softly to himself. “All the other animals are twisted, but here the birds are untouched, pristine. Everywhere and again, birds.”
Or something like.
“It’s so sensual, isn’t it?” said another English-speaking patron, literally licking their lips as they looked to us for confirmation. “The reds…and the shapes…”
Or something like.
“Hell is always so industrious,” I noted, or something like.
We had our share of epiphanies as well, of course, some assisted by our fellows, others from the program, but many from simply being in close proximity to works we had both spent so many years poring over, albeit in reproductions. I’ll be the first to champion the affordable artbook, and digital images are without a doubt the single greatest boon to disseminating art as widely as possible, but still, there’s nothing like standing in front of the real deal. It’s as important a difference as looking at a photograph of a landscape versus being in a wild place yourself, able to wander over here or squint toward that far vista, experiencing instead of just observing. That may sound pretentious, but it’s true… and besides, we’re halfway through an appreciation of an early Dutch master nearly five hundred years dead, so let’s be real, some high-falutin' art talk was unavoidable.
The pieces that attracted the most attention were the triptychs, and with good reason. They move you, if you have that which in you can be moved by glorious capering creatures in lurid, licentious detail. The crowds were thickest around the Haywain
and the Last Judgment
and the copy (from one of Bosch’s disciples) of the Garden of Earthly Delights
—epic works brimming with his trademark horrors and kaleidoscopic vision, all set out in miniaturist details. Yet for all my love of Bosch’s monsters and angels, his torments and his treasures, his hurly-burly and his sturm und drang
, for me the most powerful painting to see in the flesh was the Ship of Fools
We have a history, that painting and I. My weird Gothic crime whateverthefuckyoucallit novel The Folly of the World is set in the late medieval Netherlands, and while I drew heavily from the paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder to capture certain qualities for my text, I also wanted to pay homage to one of Brueghel’s inspirations… and here I was at last, meeting the painting that had slipped as easily into The Folly of the World as I slipped through the ice of the canal my very first night skating in Poeldijk as a child.
I recognized the merry faces on that boat, and saw myself in the man scrambling up the mast to cut down somebody else’s chicken. As Jim Jarmusch said, “steal from anywhere,” a mantra he in turn pilfered and then fine-tuned from Godard, and as any Grossbart will tell you, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.
So that drab night in April I expected to find pieces of my past sewn through the exhibit like tiny details of quietude tucked into a mobbed and busy canvas, but I didn’t reckon on seeing glimpses of my current work in progress staring back at me. Neither A Crown for Cold Silver nor A Blade of Black Steel have the overt connection to a particular Bosch as The Folly of the World does to The Ship of Fools, but there is a definite and decided influence, and I don’t think I’m just ret-conning it in there. It’s not just his prominent use of damned mortals, bizarre devils, and absent-when-you-need-them angels, because come on now, this is Western Art we’re talking about here.
No, it’s not the broad strokes that stained me long ago when I first found his work, but, as is so often the case with our favorite artists, the details. Bosch knew monsters came in every shape, conceivable or not, but he also knew judgment could swoop down without warning and be as bizarre as it was terrifying, and that the line between we mortals and our inhuman tormentors can be too fine to ken. More than his vast scenes of animalistic warfare or supernatural debauchery is his owlish eye and sharp hand for the human, and as Travis and I reeled out into the cold streets of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in a herd of likewise-elated enthusiasts, it struck me that Bosch wasn’t the only one who had come home.
Alex Marshall is the author of A Crown for Cold Silver
and A Blade of Black Steel
(out this week!). Back in his Jesse Bullington guise, he wrote The Brothers Grossbart, The Folly of the World
and The Enterprise of Death
. (He's also made some Pornokitsch cameos in the past, as half of the 'Films of High Adventure