Hieronymus Bosch, The Ship of Fools, ca. 1500-10
Detail from Bosch's 'The Ship of Fools' (c1500-10) © Musée du Louvre, Paris

Half a millennium ago in the tiny backwater of ’s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, a revolution took place in sacred art. Commissioned to create altarpieces whose narratives had always been biblical, a painter of Aachen ancestry, Jeroen van Aken, produced instead monumental triptychs chronicling the joys and temptations of everyday life.

In the glowing “The Haywain”, emperors and popes, nuns and merchants, beggars and thieves, lovers, teeth-pullers and lute-players scrabble and claw for a share of the golden haystack — unaware that it is pulled by a chariot leading, in the darkened next panel, to a smoky hell of devils, torturers and monsters: a sword-bearing pig, a frog with a headdress, a marching fish. The bright material scene is a social panorama as lavishly detailed and vividly engaging as Chaucer; the demonic one resounds with the doom-laden mysticism of the late Middle Ages.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Haywain
Detail from 'The Haywain' triptych (1510-16) © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

By the time he died in 1516, Hieronymus Bosch was a wealthy, respected intellectual and artist who had Latinised his Christian name and signed his paintings to assert identification with the Dutch town in which his work is rooted. He would still recognise perfectly preserved medieval ’s-Hertogenbosch — “the Duke’s wood” in Dutch — now, while visitors here today can in turn trace his inspirations. The gargoyle-studded Gothic St John’s Cathedral resonates with Bosch’s hybrid creatures. Thousands of fancy-dress revellers on the streets for Carnival this week could have walked straight off his raucous panels.

Close to the market square where Bosch worked stands the Noordbrabants Museum. It possesses not a single Bosch but, marking the 500th anniversary of his death, has achieved the coup of mounting the artist’s biggest ever retrospective. Opening on Saturday, the once-in-a-lifetime exhibition Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of Genius assembles from loans across Europe and America two-thirds of his 25 extant paintings, and 19 of his 20 works on paper.

“The Haywain” returns from Spain to Holland for the first time in four centuries. “The Adoration of the Magi”, finely painted in gold leaf and topped by a brilliant yellow star, visits from New York’s Metropolitan Museum. An incandescent quartet, “Visions of the Hereafter”, with half-visible angels glimmering in white impasto set against boiling rivers and lightning bolts, acquired by a cardinal in 1520 and later a showpiece of the Doge’s Palace, comes from Venice.

Hieronymus Bosch, Gluttony,
Detail from Bosch's 'Allegory of Gluttony and Lust' (1490-1500) © Yale University Art Gallery

Among fresh discoveries, the mesmerising “Infernal Landscape”, from a private collection, demonstrates in a layered, intensely detailed drawing the associative, additive way in which Bosch composed images: a net fishes for lost souls, fed into the maw of a monster via a paddle wheel; a snouted, helmeted creature rides a walking barrel; a dragon vomits people into a cauldron; human figures are the clappers of a bell tolling damnation.

Other rarely-seen sheets express delight at devising new forms: a salamander with a shell metamorphoses into a horse’s skull; a top-heavy beast, duck’s beak on swan’s neck on scaly body waving human hands, calls to mind in pathos and bizarreness the Mock Turtle of Wonderland. And newly attributed to Bosch is an exquisite oil on oak fragment from Kansas City, “The Temptation of St Anthony”, the saint scooping water from the edge of a pond replete with further fantastical monsters plus a floating sausage.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Bosch's 'The Temptation of St Anthony' (c1500-10) © Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas

Such revelations reflect the deep scholarship of the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, which traded erudition for loans to persuade institutions worldwide to support this survey of an artist at once precisely shaped by place and time, and of vast global reach — heralding not only Pieter Bruegel and then Dutch genre painting but also Surrealism’s attempt to make visible the invisible. Miró quoted Bosch in his seminal “The Tilled Field”; Dalí, Ernst and Magritte all studied him.

Can audiences accustomed to Surrealism appreciate how radical and peculiar Bosch must have appeared during his lifetime? ’s-Hertogenbosch’s achievement is to return us to the sheer strangeness and spiritual force of an artist who occupied a unique position on the cusp of two worlds. “The Wayfarer” triptych, following the progress of an Everyman pilgrim, sack on back, pig’s trotter as amulet, trudging on life’s journey, hesitant, cautiously looking back at a house of ill repute — broken shutters, caressing couple, tramp urinating against a wall — embodies both his medieval reference points and, in the marvellous conviction of its naturalist manner and quotidian, secular detail, the transforming effect of northern Renaissance realism. At the same time, ’s-Hertogenbosch’s distance from the sophisticated 15th-century urban centres of Antwerp and Bruges gave the seclusion that kept pristine Bosch’s private visionary sensibility.

In his biblical scenes, high illusionism gives an almost hyper-real atmosphere. Although it is daylight, above the interlocking sequence of malicious, stupid faces calling for Christ’s crucifixion in “Ecce Homo” burn flames from a large torch, painted wet in wet; a striking note telling the haste with which Jesus, arrested just before daybreak, was tried and condemned. Beyond, Bosch opens out the composition of this traditional motif, adding a city view with figures engrossed in their morning errands, oblivious to the drama: suffering taking place while, in Auden’s words, “someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”. From a stone niche an owl peers out.

Hieronymus Bosch, Adoration of the Magi, c 1470 - 80
'Adoration of the Magi' (c1470-80) © Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bosch loved owls. There is scarcely a painting here without one: perched disapprovingly on a branch above the cart in “The Haywain”, eyeing up a titmouse from a tree in “The Wayfarer”, aboard the absurd leafy mast of the toppling “Ship of Fools”. In Dutch medieval culture, owls were personifications of evil: birds of prey, creatures of the night, spooky watchful presences. But in Bosch’s drawings, long-eared, barn, little owls are depicted repeatedly with affectionate precision.

Seen at a stretch, Bosch’s oeuvre pulses with ambivalence. A keen observer of nature, he chronicled the world around him with exceptional realism but visualised with the same exuberance the unknown, the feared and desired realms of hell and paradise. “The Haywain” gloriously evokes the very material existence whose renunciation is preached by the Gospels. Are the nudes cavorting among engorged fruits and outsize birds in the famous “Garden of Earthly Delights” — here only in a copy, the Prado never lends the fragile original — a dream of prelapsarian Paradise or a warning against sin? Through the 16th and 17th centuries the work went by titles including “Lust” and “The Strawberry Painting”; today it reads as a call for liberty.

For it is surely freedom of expression that makes Bosch a modern artist: one whose insistence on the primacy of the imagination, combined with moral insight, rings out across this stunning show.

‘Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of Genius’, Noordbrabants Museum, ’s-Hertogenbosch, February 13-May 8, hetnoordbrabantsmuseum.nl

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