To ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Tricky, isn’t it? But it becomes a lot easier when you know the locals shorten it to Den Bosch, pronounced ‘boss’ (‘The Duke’s Wood’ to ‘The Wood’). It’s from this nickname that its most famous son, the painter Hieronymus, took his surname. English speakers are fortunate he didn’t chose the full version.
I was over there working but had time to visit the local museum dedicated to Bosch. It doesn’t have any originals but it does have good copies of the entire oeuvre. Seeing the lot together, it struck me how many of his works, despite their peculiar features, are so straightforwardly didactic they don’t provoke much thought – be good if you want to go to heaven, be bad and it’s hell for you. It’s the handful of more ambiguous paintings that really absorb.
I’ve discussed one of them here. The one I enjoyed spending some time with on my visit was his Garden of Earthly Delights. It’s obvious that Bosch enjoyed portraying these damnable delights a little too much; painting giant strawberries can’t help but be fun, I guess. As a consequence, the temptation to commit at least the odd illicit delight is made perhaps more manifest than he intended. And this despite the accompanying portrayal of hell – but then hell here is literally marginal, a sideshow, sitting as it does on the right-hand panel.
Despite its eschatological subject matter the work seems all too immediate. Nudity, dancing, sex, trippiness, suggestive fruit, sybaritism in candy colours – it’s just like Ibiza (though I’m not sure about the people prancing about whilst mounted on strange beasts).
On the other hand, if you want a taste of Bosch’s hell, an NHS ward could be the place – especially, say, if you were to catch a group of colorectal surgeons doing something invasive. Just like the medievals, we’re disposed to think that one leads to the other: that the price to be paid for an excess of earthly delightfulness may well be a nasty, brutish and lengthy period in the cancer ward.
The other highlight of my trip was the herring, specifically the Nieuwe Haring, which you can buy from half-a-dozen trailers in the centre of town. Filleted, raw but subtly soused you can eat them one of two ways: in a soft, unbuttered bun or on their own and entire, dropped into the mouth Top Cat-style (the tail is left on to provide a grip). You can also opt to have them sprinkled with chopped raw onion, which turns out to be pleasantly apple-like. The taste is meaty as much as fishy, and the texture is unctuous. At a couple of euros you can’t go wrong.
Incredibly healthy too. Eat enough of them and you may even counter the ill-effects of indulging in earthly delights.
Funny how we Britons don’t traditionally eat anything like this. It says something about the culture that, despite the other side of the North Sea hosting one of the best sashimi-style dishes in the world, it’s taken the rolling out of Japanese-themed chains like Itsu to give us a taste for raw fish.
Back to Den Bosch’s favourite son. I had a bit of time on my hands in the evening and would now like to inflict on you the product of a bet I had with myself:
There was a Flemish painter, name of Hieronymus
A handle that is pronounceable by few of us
His hometown ‘s-Hertogenbosch
Puts even more at a loss
Lucky its nick- and his surname are homonymous.