2016 © Dr. Lucas van Dijck
Jheronimus Bosch had the good fortune to be born in a medium large and prosperous city. The circa 15,000 inhabitants shared in the flourishing of the Burgundian empire, characterized by abundant wealth and deep religious feelings. The city was a commercial centre situated between South and North but also between England-Holland and the German hinterland. It was only during the last two decades of his life that Bosch witnessed wars (more particularly against Guelderland) and religious turmoil.
From his twelfth year on (after 1462) Jheronimus spent his youth in a house at the Market Place, two houses away from the corner with the Hinthamerstraat. Before that he lived at the southside of the Vuchterstraat, near the Jorisstraat. The parcel was called Regenberchserf. After his marriage circa 1481 the painter still lived at the Market Place but this time a few houses away from the Moriaen. In this way the Market Place was his first and direct environment where he could observe the daily commercial activities. Right across his house was the town hall where well-trained clerks wrote down Latin acts about purchases and sales, money loans, annuities and taxes. Numerous monasteries and the wonderful St John’s Church (then still under construction) bore witness to catholicism and piety. One out of every fifteen inhabitants was a monk or a nun. There were also two beguinages and a few female hermits.
Of great importance to Jheronimus was his circle of friends: the respectable and rich Brotherhood of Our Lady invited him to become a sworn brother and to join the weekly prayers in the Brotherhood’s chapel in the St John’s Church. During the numerous meals with his fellow-brothers he could benefit from their scholarship and their social network. A lot of them had studied in Cologne, Paris, Orléans or had been active in Rome. He will certainly have listened to the worldly-wise experiences of his almost-neighbour Lodewijk Beys, who travelled to Venice and Jerusalem three times and won a lot of money on religious bets. Probably Beys brought home books or drawings of camels, elephants and black men. In the Market Place Jheronimus could see products from the Flemish and English textile industry, wood from the Baltic states and ironwork from Southern Germany, particularly from Nuremberg. The world was already open, back then.
Every day he could meet priests who did not take celibacy all too serious and who had female partners and children. More than half of the ’s-Hertogenbosch priests and canons lived as lovers and fathers. City life was animated by the city musicians with their crumhorns, flutes, tambourines and bagpipes, but also by wayfarers and beggars. The population regularly suffered from fierce epidemics, such as the one in 1516, when Jheronimus himself caught a heavy pleurisy from which he died in the summer of that same year. They reminded man of his fragility and stimulated the trust in God. Luther and the religious wars appeared at the horizon but Bosch will hardly have been aware of them. The real turmoil began after his death.