BRIGHTON-BASED film-maker Phil Grabksy was under no illusions about the size of the task when he set about making a documentary based on Hieronymus Bosch.

So little is known about the Dutch medieval artist that people have been forced to extremely speculative measures just to pinpoint when he was born. “People have been known to guess on the basis of a portrait done of him at roughly the time of his death,” says Grabsky. “That’s all there is to go on.”

After speaking to art history experts, Grabsky began to piece together information about Bosch’s life – and especially the devout religiosity that can be witnessed in many of his paintings, not least The Garden of Earthly Delights (above left).

“His work makes it clear that you’ve got to choose between heaven and hell,” says Grabsky. “We have to remember this was a time when nobody challenged the idea of God. You come away from these paintings thinking, “Wow, I sure don’t want to go to hell”.

The premise of Grabsky’s film is the same as most of the productions he creates with his company Exhibition on Screen. As the name suggests, Grabsky and co shoot footage inside a major exhibition – they have filmed displays of Claude Monet, Leonardo Da Vinci and Edvard Munch among others in the past – and interweave it with a biography of the artist’s life.

The Bosch exhibition was extra special as it was held in Hertogenbosch, the artist’s hometown, on his 500th anniversary. “We immediately said yes to doing Bosch even though we knew it was a slightly challenging title,” says Grabsky. “He is one of the most significant artists ever.”

In a reflection of Bosch’s brilliance, the showing in Hertogenbosch was extremely well attended. Grabsky was shocked to find that his team could only film after 2am, as that was when the last paying visitors had finally left the building.

“He is still incredibly influential on people like Terry Gilliam and Guillermo Del Toro,” says Grabsky, and it is easy to imagine the latter taking inspiration from Bosch when one considers the manic, grotesque scenes of his film Pan’s Labyrinth. While Bosch’s work can overwhelming, it is Grabsky’s mission to introduce the subject of his film to a wide audience.

“I think everyone is interested in art but they think it’s too intellectual or complicated. Most people just don’t know about Bosch, but I hope we might be able to do something about that.”

Broadcasting iconic art to the masses

FOR 15 years Phil Grabsky and his team have been producing art films entailing exhibition showings and biopics of artists like Leonardo Da Vinci, Claude Monet and Edvard Munch. The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch is the company’s 13th film.

Grabsky: “We show you the exhibition on film because most people can’t get there in person. We really had to fight hard for one cinema chain to pick it up, which was Picturehouse. They weren’t sure about the premise at first, asking who would see an art film. But more people go to an art gallery every week than a football match.

“With all the films we’re providing a much fuller biography than would usually be the case. One film I watched about Bosch gave no background to his life at all, which I thought was ridiculous. Everything is about historical context – every film I make has some biography in it.” 

Who was Hieronymus Bosch?

BASED on a self-portrait painted shortly before his death in 1516, analysts surmise that the artist may have been born in 1450. He was born and lived most of his life in Hertogenbosch, a city in the Duchy of Brabant.

His grandfather, Jan Van Aken, was understood to be a painter who had five sons, four of whom went on to become artists. Bosch’s father, Anthonius van Aken, was artistic adviser to the religious confraternity the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady. The religiosity of Bosch’s family and immediate environment inevitably prompted the artist to assume the same beliefs.

It is thought that Bosch’s father or one of his uncles acted as an artistic scholar to the young painter. None of their works have been preserved to this day, however.

The first mention of Bosch on municipal record is April 5, 1474, when he was named along with two brothers and a sister. Bosch married Aleyt Goyaerts van den Meerven sometime between 1479 and 1481, and the couple moved to the nearby town of Oirschot.

The Curious World Of Hieronymus, Bosch Ropetackle Arts Centre, Shoreham, Jan 13, 7.30pm, £12. Call: 01273 464440. Visit: