LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
He's been called the mad monk and the devil's painter, hailed as a psychedelic seer born too soon. The Dutch artist, Hieronymus Bosch, has been many things to many people since his death in 1516. This 500th anniversary year is seeing two major international exhibitions and a massive scholarly revamp of all that is known about Bosch. Vicki Barker reports from the Netherlands.
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VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: Snails with human legs, filigreed trees, monsters part bird, part insect, part something eerily other. Animations dance across the facade of the very workshop where their originals were created. We're in ‘s-Hertogenbsoch where Hieronymus Bosch, or Boce (ph) as the Dutch pronounce the name, lived and worked and died five centuries ago.
BARKER: His appeal endures. George Lucas put some of Bosch's monsters in the alien bar scene in the first "Star Wars" film. And demand for the temporary exhibition of Bosch paintings here was so strong that the Noordbrabants Museum remained open around the clock for its final weekend.
FIONA ZACHARIASSE: Now, a very good panel, if you want to look at strange little monsters, is "The Haywain."
BARKER: Curator Fiona Zachariasse pours over one of Bosch's most famous paintings about the wages of human avarice.
ZACHARIASSE: And here, in the last panel, the punishments, people being torn apart by dogs, put on a spit like a sort of kebab, having a lance thrust right through the body, and there are other various horrible things going on.
BARKER: Any search for the source of these demon-strewn visions should begin here in ‘s-Hertogenbsoch. And Zachariasse says Bosch certainly drew on it for inspiration.
ZACHARIASSE: In a number of the paintings, you see souls are being made to crawl over sharpened knives - very horrible. But the knives all bear a little maker's mark that is in fact the maker's mark of one of the knife makers here in the town.
BARKER: But dismiss any thoughts of tortured genius, Zachariasse says. Bosch was a leading burgher in this devout, prosperous, Roman Catholic market town.
ZACHARIASSE: He married very well. He married into minor nobility. And he had a house on the north side of the market, which was the chichi side. On the east side of the market that's where he had his studio. So every morning he just got up, walked about 100 yards across the market and went to work.
BARKER: Bosch's mad monk reputation probably had its source in his membership in a religious guild whose members took symbolic vows. But Zachariasse says that would have been the contemporary equivalent of joining the local rotary. And if, to modern eyes, the works seem firmly of the Middle Ages, to his contemporaries, Bosch would have seemed shockingly, excitingly modern.
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BARKER: In a quiet office at the museum, art historian Jos Koldeweij clicks through a massive online database 10 years in the making.
JOS KOLDEWEIJ: You can go very far in detail. You can compare all the ears or all the lamps or all the funny things Bosch painted. There are several ways to look at the paintings. I'll show you.
BARKER: Koldeweij says whoever commissioned these paintings, and Bosch only painted on commission, may have practiced something then known as the modern devotions, now seen as the early stirrings of humanism.
KOLDEWEIJ: This modern devotion emphasizes that all human beings have to think, themselves, about good and evil. We have to read the Bible in our own language, take the message out of it for our own lives.
BARKER: Even his signature was unprecedented in the Holland of that day, Koldeweij says. And Bosch didn't just sign his paintings. He used the Gothic lettering of that new fangled technology, the printing press.
KOLDEWEIJ: So it's the letter of modern times, of the book printers. And that's the new world. That's the new times, Renaissance.
BARKER: The Renaissance, that was always going to come up. There's a custody battle underway in art criticism circles at the moment...
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WALDEMAR JANUSZCZAK: Hello, Waldemar Januszczak.
BARKER: ...Waged by Waldemar Januszczak, influential art critic of The Sunday Times of London. He argues that it is Bosch, not the Italian Renaissance masters, who should be considered the true founder of modern art.
JANUSZCZAK: You only have to look at a movement as important and as far-reaching as surrealism to realize that it couldn't have happened without Bosch's example. In my opinion, expressionism as a whole couldn't have happened without Bosch's example.
BARKER: This, despite the fact that Bosch only left behind 25 known paintings. Most of them have now moved onto the Prado, in Madrid, where they will be on view until mid-September. It's a fitting homecoming. Spain's King Philip II, who also ruled the Netherlands in the mid-1500s, was one of Bosch's earliest collectors.
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BARKER: And in November, on All Souls Sunday, Hieronymus Bosch will be commemorated at a special requiem concert in the cathedral just across the square from where he lived and died. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker.
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WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. BJ Leiderman wrote our theme. I'm Linda Wertheimer.