The reason I was in the Netherlands for a quick visit in week 12 of this year was an exhibit in the city of ‘s Hertogenbosch. That’s a mouthful of Dutch, but all it really means is “Duke’s Forest”. In the late Middle Ages, the city was one of the largest in the Duchy of Brabant, along with Louvain, Brussels and Antwerp. The Belgian fight for independence, which officially ended with the treaty of Maastricht in 1843, cut the duchy in half, and north of the border, Noord-Brabant became a Dutch province and Den Bosch (for short) its rather quiet capital. Today, the city is overshadowed in the province by Eindhoven of Philips fame, but from its heyday date both a very large (for the Netherlands) Gothic cathedral as well as its other big claim to forever-after fame. Around the middle of the 15th century, a certain Joen or Jeroen van Aken was born here, and he was to become the most famous Dutch painter of his time as Jheronimus Bosch (usually spelled Hieronymus in English). As was the case with other painters of his time, many of his works eventually ended up far away from Den Bosch, because the Netherlands were variously owned and operated by Burgundy, France, Austria or Spain, and their kings, dukes and princes took away a lot of art, sometimes paying for it, too.
Sadly, the city couldn’t show a single painting of its famous son in its museum, and something had to be done for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Bosch’ death in 1516. Enter a team of art experts assembled to conduct the most comprehensive study of Bosch work ever, with an intriguing proposal to any museum or gallery willing to participate in a trade: we provide research and restoration services for free, and in return, we get to have your Bosch paintings or drawings for our exhibit. The idea worked like a charm, and this spring, the spectacular exhibit brought close to half a million visitors to Den Bosch. In city parks, unsettling three-dimensional monstrous sculptures, lifted out of Bosch’ paintings created a strange cityscape, many local merchants got into the act and for a few months, den Bosch was all about its famous son, who is honored with a statue in the main market.
I stayed in the Duke hotel, a modern, friendly place that has top-floor rooms with views all over the city. Many little details, such as a fun collection of snacks, an XXL shower and the integration of bits and pieces of the old building in the decidedly modern aesthetic made my room a lot of fun to be in. Aside from the exhibit, visitor had a chance to climb to the roof of the cathedral, to see the sculptures on the flying buttresses that support the walls up close. 82 feet over the city is a wondrous world of medieval craftsmen, strange gargoyles and human-animal hybrids straight out of a Bosch painting.
The church’s interior is certainly worth a visit, but it pales in comparison to the thrilling roof exploration. All sculptures have been replaced in the late 19th century and some have been replicated more faithfully than others, but overall, the sense of being in a world Hieronymus Bosch would have felt right at home with added tremendously to my visit.
In the meantime, the Bosch circus has moved on to Madrid. The royal Spanish thieves of yore ensured that the Prado today has the largest single museum’s collection of Bosch’ works, and it was easy to get other museums to pitch in: the Prado has plenty of bargaining power: “I’ll give you a fistful of Goya for your El Bosco triptych”. Den Bosch is recovering from the visitors (the museum was open around the clock in the last days of the exhibit) and things are returning to normal. If you happen to be in the neighborhood, the inside of the church is certainly worth a peek, the cafes are very inviting, Bosch statue is still there, and a little boat tour on the Dieze, the little stream that runs under and through the old city is a great way to get a perspective that is a little different.