The Mystery of Hieronymus Bosch

There has never been a painter quite like Jheronimus van Aken, the Flemish master who signed his works as Jheronimus Bosch. His imagination ranged from a place beyond the spheres of Heaven to the uttermost depths of Hell, but for many of his earliest admirers the most striking aspect of his art was what they described as its “truth to nature.” The five hundredth anniversary of his death in 1516 has inspired two comprehensive exhibitions, at the Noordbrabants Museum in his hometown of ’s-Hertogenbosch and at Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado, as well as an ambitious project to analyze all of his surviving work, drawn, painted, and printed, according to the latest scientific techniques (the Bosch Research and Conservation Project). Yet despite all we have learned through these undertakings—and it is a great deal—the man his neighbors knew as “Joen the painter” remains as mysterious as ever.

How could it be otherwise with so strange and masterful an artist? His early admirers celebrated the boundless ingenuity of his work, but they also recognized the sureness of his hand and his unerringly observant eye. In the precision of his draftsmanship, his sensitivity to landscape, his fascination with animals, he shows some surprising affinities with his contemporary from Florence, Leonardo da Vinci—who else but Leonardo would have noticed, and recorded, as Bosch does, the way that evening light can turn the waters of a distant river into a radiant mirror? Both artists were fascinated by grotesque human faces, but Bosch also detailed grotesque human behavior with a bawdy abandon all his own. No matter how closely we look at his minutely particular works, there is always something more to see.

The earthly life of Jheronimus van Aken is sparsely documented; the clues to his inner life are fewer still. He grew up on the northernmost border of the Flemish-speaking, Burgundian-ruled Duchy of Brabant, in a city whose name means “the duke’s forest”: Silva Ducis in Latin, s’-Hertogenbosch in Flemish, Bois-le-Duc in French, Herzogenbusch in German, Bolduque in Spanish—all languages in common use in his times and in his region. The forest itself was probably an ancient memory by the time of his birth around 1450, replaced by an emporium that ranked only behind Brussels and Antwerp for size and importance within its area, famous for its steel knives and its cloth market.

The van Aken family had been painters for at least three generations, and residents of Den Bosch (the colloquial name of s’-Hertogenbosch) for two. In 1430, three years or so after arriving in the city, Bosch’s grandfather and grandmother enrolled as members of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, the local religious confraternity. Ever afterward, the brotherhood would provide their large extended family with spiritual solace, social contact, and artistic commissions. Their four sons, Thomas, Jan, Goessen, and Anthonius, would become painters in their own right, as, in turn, would the three sons of Anthonius van Aken: Jan, Goessen, and Joen/Jheronimus. All of them seem to have had active careers. Only one had a truly exceptional talent.

In 1462, Anthonius van Aken, aged around forty, bought a house on the market square in Den Bosch, where, like his neighbors, he could display his wares out in front of the door. Twelve-year-old Joen may already have provided him with something unusual to show. Anthonius and his wife had joined the Brotherhood of Our Lady as regular members in 1454, yet another sign of their prosperous middle-class life in a prosperous town; in fact, Den Bosch was renowned in the Low Countries for its hospitality to wanderers and generosity to the poor. This was the setting in which the boy Joen van Aken grew to maturity, where the routines of work, piety, and family life drew an added energy from wider worlds of trade, politics, and speculation, both intellectual and spiritual.

A wildfire swept Den Bosch in 1463. The aftermath provided the van Akens with several commissions to replace lost or damaged works of art, but their house on the market square suffered slight damage to its roof. The conflagration seared its way into the visual memory of their youngest son, who seems to have registered everything he saw, then and always, with uncanny precision. Yet the dazzling visual acuity that led him to revel in the fine points of line, color, texture, or light was matched by an ability to see beneath the surface of things, separating truth from falsehood, sincerity from hypocrisy, kindness from cruelty.

Sometime between 1477 and 1481, the thirtyish Joen married a woman of property, Aleid van de Meervenne, and moved to another, larger house on the prestigious north side of the market square, apparently setting up his own separate studio as Jheronimus Bosch. Like his father and grandfather before him, he joined the Brotherhood of Our Lady, signing its books in 1487; the following year, in a move unprecedented in his family’s history, the brotherhood took him in as a “sworn brother,” a member of the confraternity’s eighty-man elite. The duties of a sworn brother included hosting a sumptuous banquet for the entire group from time to time, and the brotherhood’s books for 1489 show that “Jeronimus the painter” treated his brethren to twenty-four pounds of beef. His artistic talent and his wife’s dealings in real estate had propelled him into a higher rank of society.

As his reputation spread, he may have taken the artistic name “Bosch” as a way of telling out-of-town patrons where to find him (“van Aken” meant “from Aachen,” but great-grandfather Thomas had left that city for the Low Countries by 1404). By 1505, those patrons included aristocrats, courtiers, and heads of state, passionate collectors of Flemish art who saw something uniquely desirable in the visions of Jheronimus from s’-Hertogenbosch. There is no indication, however, that the artist himself ever moved from the house he shared with Aleid on the north side of the market square. If he traveled in his youth, no records of that travel survive. He died, childless, in his mid-sixties, during an outbreak of plague in 1516, survived by his wife for another six years. His nephews continued to follow the family’s traditional calling on the same local scale as their own father, Goessen van Aken, not on the timeless, borderless scale of their uncle, Jheronimus Bosch.

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