‘s-Hertogenbosch was a flourishing city in fifteenth century Brabant, in the south of the present-day Netherlands, at the time part of the Burgundian Netherlands. The city passed through marriage to the Habsburgs sometime in the 15th century.
The city has its own food speciality, the Bossche Bol, effectively a giant profiterole, somewhat larger than a tennis ball, which is filled with whipped cream and coated with chocolate.
The city’s official name is a contraction of the Dutch des Hertogen bosch — “the Duke’s forest”. The duke in question was Henry I, Duke of Brabant, whose family had owned a large estate at nearby Orthen for at least four centuries. He founded a new town located on some forested dunes in the middle of a marsh. At age 26, he granted ‘s-Hertogenbosch city rights and the corresponding trade privileges in 1185. This is, however, the traditional date given by later chroniclers; the first mention in contemporaneous sources is 1196. The original charter has been lost. His reason for founding the city was to protect his own interests against encroachment from Gelre and Holland; from its first days, he conceived of the city as a fortress. It was destroyed in 1203 in a joint expedition of Gelre and Holland, but was soon rebuilt. Some remnants of the original city walls may still be seen. In the late 15th century, a much larger wall was erected to protect the greatly expanded settled area. Artificial waterways were dug to serve as a city moat, through which the rivers Dommel and Aa were diverted.
Until 1520, the city flourished, becoming the second largest population centre in the territory of the present Netherlands, after Utrecht. The birthplace and home of one of the greatest painters of the northern Renaissance, Hieronymus Bosch, the city was also a center of music, and composers, such as Jheronimus Clibano, received their training at its churches. Others held positions there: Matthaeus Pipelare was musical director at the Confraternity of Our Lady; and renowned Habsburg copyist and composer Pierre Alamire did much of his work at ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
The wars of the Reformation changed the course of the city’s history. It became an independent bishopric. During the Eighty Years’ War, the city took the side of the Habsburg (Catholic) authorities and thwarted a Calvinist coup. It was besieged several times by Prince Maurice of Orange, stadtholder of most of the Dutch Republic, who wanted to bring ‘s-Hertogenbosch under the rule of the rebel United Provinces. The city was successfully defended by Claude de Berlaymont, also known as Haultpenne.
In the years of Truce, before the renewed fighting after 1618, the fortifications were greatly expanded. The surrounding marshes made a siege of the conventional type impossible, and the fortress, deemed impregnable, was nicknamed the Marsh Dragon. The town was nevertheless finally conquered by Frederik Hendrik of Orange in 1629 in a typically Dutch stratagem: he diverted the rivers Dommel and Aa, created a polder by constructing a forty-kilometre dyke and then pumped out the water by mills. After a siege of three months, the city had to surrender, an enormous blow to Habsburg geo-political strategy during the Thirty Years’ War. This surrender cut the town off from the rest of the duchy and the area was treated by the Republic as an occupation zone without political liberties.
After the Peace of Westphalia, the fortifications were again expanded. In 1672, the Dutch rampjaar, the city held against the army of Louis XIV. In 1794, French revolutionary troops under command of Charles Pichegru took the city with hardly a fight: in the Batavian Republic, both Catholics and Brabanders at last gained equal rights.
From 1806, the city became part of the Kingdom of Holland and, from 1810, it was incorporated into the French Empire. It was captured by the Prussians in 1814. The next year, when the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was established, it became the capital of North Brabant. Many newer and more modern fortresses were created in the vicinity of the city. Until 1878 it was forbidden to build outside the ramparts. This led to overcrowding and the highest infant mortality in the kingdom. The very conservative city government prevented industrial investment, they didn’t want the number of workers to grow—and the establishment of educational institutions—students were regarded as disorderly. As a result, the relative importance of the city diminished.
‘s-Hertogenbosch was founded as a fortified city and that heritage can still be seen today. After World War II, plans were made to modernise the old city, by filling in the canals, removing or modifying some ramparts and redeveloping historic neighbourhoods. Before these plans could come to effect however, the central government declared the city a protected townscape. Most historic elements have been preserved. Because the main ramparts are crucial in keeping out the water, they have never been slighted, their usual fate in the Netherlands. In contrast to cities like Rotterdam, ‘s-Hertogenbosch also survived the Second World War relatively unscathed. Much of its historic heritage remains intact, and today there are always renovations going on in the city to preserve the many old buildings, fortifications, churches and statues for later generations. In 2004 the city was awarded the title European Fortress City of the year. It is planned to restore the city defences to much of their old glory in the coming years. ‘s-Hertogenbosch also has the oldest remaining brick house in the Netherlands, ‘de Moriaan’, which was built at the beginning of the 13th century. In the 1960s, de Moriaan was renovated to its former glory based on a famous 16th-century Dutch painting called ‘De Lakenmarkt van ‘s-Hertogenbosch’ (‘The fabric market of ‘s-Hertogenbosch’). In the north of the old city, the hexagonal powder arsenal, or Kruithuis, still exists, one of only two of its kind in the country. The Townhall is an originally 14th-century Gothic building, transformed in the typical style of Dutch classicism in the 17th century. Around the city itself many other fortresses can still be seen. Until recently it was a major garrison town.
‘s-Hertogenbosch is also home to Saint John’s Cathedral, which dates from around 1220 and is the height of gothic architecture in the Netherlands. It has an extensive and richly decorated interior, and serves as the cathedral for the bishopric of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In 1985, it received the honorary title of Basilica Minor from Pope John Paul II.
Originally, the cathedral was built as a parish church and was dedicated to St. John Evangelist. In 1366 it became a collegiate church, and in 1559 it became the cathedral of the new diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. After 1629, when the city was conquered by the Protestants and Catholicism was banned, a Protestant minority used the church, which came to be in a heavily dilapidated state. When Napoleon visited the town in 1810, he restored the building to the Catholics.
A Romanesque church used to stand on the spot where the St. John now resides. Its construction is thought to have started in 1220 and was finished in 1340. Around 1340, building began to extend the church, from which its current gothic style came. The transept and choir were finished in 1450. In 1505, the romanesque church was largely demolished, leaving only its tower. Construction of the gothic St. John was finished about the year 1525.
In the year 1584, a fire broke out in the high wooden crossing tower, more majestic than the current one. Soon the whole tower was set ablaze, and it collapsed upon the cathedral itself, taking with it much of the roof up to point where the organ was situated. In 1830, another fire damaged the western tower, which was repaired by 1842.
The first restoration of the cathedral lasted from 1859 to 1946. A second attempt at restoration was executed from 1961 to 1985. The third and most recent restoration started in 1998 and was completed in 2010, costing more than 48 million euro. Major parts of the building are once again covered by scaffolding erected for restoration of the outer stonework, but also, ironically, to remedy mistakes made by earlier restoration attempts.
During the restoration 25 new angels statues had been created by sculptor Ton Mooy, including the one with a modern twist. The last angel in the series holds a mobile phone and also wears jeans. “The phone has just one button, says the artist. It dials directly to God”. The mobile-using angel had to be first approved by the cathedral’s fathers, who rejected earlier designs with the jet engines on the angel’s back.
The large organ in St. John’s Cathedral is one of the most important organs of the Netherlands. The organ case of this organ is one of the most monumental of the Renaissance in the Netherlands. This organ has a long history that begins with the construction in the period 1618-1638 by Floris Hocque II, Hans Goltfuss and Germer van Hagerbeer. The rood loft and the organ case were built by Frans Simons, a carpenter who probably came from Leiden. The sculpture of the organ case was carved by Gregor Schysler from Tyrol, who, however, like Floris Hocque, was originally from Cologne.
The organ was renovated, expanded and improved in past centuries by several organ builders, according to the latest fashions. The last renovation took place in 1984 and was conducted by the Flentrop firm. The organ was restored to about the situation of 1787, as the German organ builder A.G.F. Heyneman left it. Use is made of many pipes of that era, but also of pipes from later periods. In late 2003 the organ was thoroughly cleaned.
As mentioned, the city was the birthplace and home of one of the greatest painters of the northern Renaissance, Hieronymus Bosch.
Little is known of Bosch’s life or training. He left behind no letters or diaries, and what has been identified has been taken from brief references to him in the municipal records of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and in the account books of the local order of the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady. Nothing is known of his personality or his thoughts on the meaning of his art. Bosch’s date of birth has not been determined with certainty. It is estimated at around 1450 on the basis of a hand drawn portrait (which may be a self-portrait) made shortly before his death in 1516. The drawing shows the artist at an advanced age, probably in his late sixties.
His grandfather, Jan van Aken (died c. 1454), was a painter and is first mentioned in the records in 1430. It is known that Jan had five sons, four of whom were also painters. Bosch’s father, Anthonius van Aken (died c. 1478), acted as artistic adviser to the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady. In 1488 Bosch also joined the highly respected Brotherhood of Our Lady, an arch-conservative religious group of some 40 influential citizens of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and 7,000 ‘outer-members’ from around Europe. By about 1480, he had married a nice Catholic girl, the wealthy Aleit van den Meervenne. An entry in the accounts of the Brotherhood of Our Lady records Bosch’s death in 1516. A funeral mass served in his memory was held in the church of Saint John on 9 August of that year.
It is generally assumed that either Bosch’s father or one of his uncles taught the artist to paint, but none of their works survive. Bosch first appears in the municipal record on 5 April 1474, when he is named along with two brothers and a sister.
Far from a starving artist, Bosch was a prominent city burgher, and his reputation was widespread enough that royalty in several European countries bought his paintings. He managed the rare feat of becoming a famous painter in his own time despite spending virtually his whole life in the village where he was born. By confining his travels to his own vivid imagination, the deeply religious Bosch created incredibly detailed visions of sin, judgment and punishment that still give viewers the creeps today.
Bosch’s work – almost all of it religious in nature – consistently showed a terrifying, demon-packed hell awaiting all variety of sinners and fools, an outlook very consistent with his strict religious affiliation. Also, Bosch painted at a time when books were hard to come by (moveable type was first invented shortly before his birth) and art was still the best way to communicate biblical teachings to people and to scare the bejesus out of them.
In his early period, he painted a few works that weren’t religion-specific, but even those mocked the flaws of his fellow man. In “The Conjuror” (c. 1475), he paints a gullible villager mesmerized by a magician’ s trick while an accomplice picks his pocket. “ The Cure of Folly” (c. 1480) concerns a surgeon in a funnel hat using a scalpel to remove a stone from the head of an elderly patient (a superstitious procedure reputed to cure, of all things, stupidity).
Other early Bosch masterpieces included: “ The Seven Deadly Sins,” with an allegory from everyday peasant life for each sin; “ Death of a Miser,” in which a man on his deathbed collects a last bag of gold even as a shrouded reaper enters his room; and “ The Ship of Fools,” with a boat full of drunken singers (including a nun and monk) sharing space with omens of stupidity and hubris.
Those works paved the way for the seminal works of Bosch’ s career, a trio of oil-on-panel triptychs (three hinged panels that fold together) created in the early 1500s. All three featured a chaotic middle panel flanked by scenes of Eden on the left and of eternal damnation on the right.
“The Last Judgment,” the largest painting Bosch ever made, also packs the most raw dread into the frame. Here, the Eden scene is actually four scenes in one, from the fall of the rebel angels to the creation of Eve. The middle panel is the judgment itself, with Jesus rapturing a tiny minority of souls to heaven while the rest are subjected to all kinds of inventive torture – cooked in pans by demons, forced to dance nude for other grotesque monsters or impaled by various pointy objects. The demons themselves might be Bosch’s greatest contribution to art and pop culture, ranging from human-animal hybrids to fat witches with brightly colored faces to legged serpents with built-in trumpets and armor. “The Haywain” has a similar setup, with its middle panel built around a giant hay cart pulled by monsters as people fight each other on their way to grab some hay. Of course, their greed for a worthless worldly good is punished in the right hand panel, with more torture at the hands of demons.
Bosch topped both those works with “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” with its fully realized vision of wild lust. The “ Garden” could refer to the left-hand panel, where God in the form of Jesus presents Eve to Adam for the first time and all kinds of animals populate the landscape. Or it could mean the center panel, where hundreds of naked humans overindulge in all of the world’s pleasures. Animals and plants grow to massive sizes, to the point that couples copulate inside giant berries. People enjoy sex, dancing, eating, drinking, cavorting with animals; pretty much everything they weren’t supposed to do in the 1500s.
Not surprisingly, Bosch’ s most over-the-top depiction of the fall from grace comes complete with his most graphic damnation yet. The hell of this painting features extra layers of irony, with musicians tortured on a giant harp and lute, a huge hollowed-out man used as a factory by demons, and the bizarre structures from the garden replaced with exploding buildings encased by darkness. Anyone intrigued by the rest of the painting couldn’t miss the message of where Bosch felt such antics would lead.
Bosch’s later works included somewhat mainstream scenes from the life of Jesus, trading the hideous monsters of the triptychs for hideous expressions on the faces of deceitful men. And his surprisingly uneventful personal life continued its fairly mundane pace.
Famous during his lifetime, Bosch became less so in the years after his death when the Italian Renaissance dominated the art world (Leonardo da Vinci and Bosch were born and died within a few years of each other). As Michelangelo, Raphael and others became popular, Bosch’s distinctly medieval style looked outdated. But his legend got a second wind 400 years later. Salvador Dali credited Bosch as a precursor to the surrealist movement, and paid homage to the “Garden of Earthly Delights” in his own “The Vision of Hell.” The budding psychoanalysis movement was also fascinated by the monsters conjured by Bosch’ s imagination; Carl Jung actually called him “the discoverer of the unconscious.”
So imagine, Bosch dares to use cherries not only to depict a worldly pleasure, but also a temptation that will lead to a fall from grace. Ha! There’s someone who would have never made it to a Cherry party! And it seems most appropriate that in ‘s-Hertogenbosch we found the Jan de Groot bakery…
…full of decadent pleasures…
…including the most decadent of all…
So there! Bears rule!