A Wonderful Climb: the flying buttress statues of St. John’s

From March 5 to October 30, 2016, it was possible to view the flying buttress statues on both the north and south sides of the top of St. John’s Cathedral in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The statues are not clearly visible from the ground floor, but via a specially constructed walking path in the gutters, the public was able to view the 96 flying buttress statues up close for the first time under the name ‘A Wonderful Climb’. A climb on St. John’s to the sixteenth century, the time of Hieronymus Bosch.

A Wonderful Climb on St. John’s

From March 5 to October 30, 2016, the public could take a closer look at the flying buttress statues that were installed in the sixteenth century at the top of the Gothic-style St. John’s Cathedral in s-Hertogenbosch under the title A Wonderful Climb. The total of 96 statues sit astride the flying buttresses, hence the name flying buttress statues. Through a constructed gutter construction, the public in groups, accompanied by a guide, was able to see the expressive original statues and 19th century replicas with their own eyes. A Wonderful Climb was realized with the help of more than 25 supporters and through the collaboration of:

  • St. John’s National Monument Foundation;
  • Sint-Jans Museum de Bouwloods;
  • Circle Friends of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

 

‘s-Hertogenbosch in the spirit of Hieronymus Bosch

In 2016, s-Hertogenbosch was completely dedicated to Hieronymus Bosch (or Hieronymus Bosch) in the so-called Bosch 500 years, which marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Hieronymus Bosch from Den Bosch. This Dutch painter belonged to the Northern Renaissance and has gone down in history as the painter of satirical scenes and the creator of devils, but also as an innovator.

The flying buttress statues at St. John’s Cathedral

Many figures in Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings have expressions that can also be found in the 96 so-called flying buttress statues that were installed at the top of St. John’s Cathedral in s-Hertogenbosch in the sixteenth century and have looked out over the city and its residents for centuries. The disadvantage of the statues placed at a great height is that they are virtually invisible from the ground floor, so their facial expressions are not noticeable at all, especially because the depicted figures all look towards the sky.
In 2016, the same year in which Hieronymus Bosch was commemorated in a grand manner in his birthplace, after two years of preparation it became possible for the public to walk with a guide at a height of 25 meters in the gutters of St. John’s. Via a scaffold built next to the cathedral, after 184 steps, the visitor could enjoy a breathtaking and very exclusive view of s-Hertogenbosch and a large number of the flying buttress statues could be clearly seen.

Mysterious images

The detailed natural stone statues depict fantasy animals, mythical animals, dragons, musicians, jokers and kings and date from the early sixteenth century. The images are reminiscent of the time when Hieronymus Bosch lived and made his paintings with figures in medieval clothing, with tools and musical instruments. It is clear what the social or religious meaning is of a number of images, but no clear explanation can be given for a large number of mysteriously depicted monsters, animals and human figures.
Most of the 96 allegorical flying buttress statues at St. John’s Cathedral are depicted sitting astride the church’s upper flying buttresses. The sixteen double flying buttresses each have six statues, making 96 in total. In addition to these flying buttress statues, dozens of other statues and figurines have also been placed on St. John’s.

Nineteenth century copies

The flying buttress statues on display in the church date from the nineteenth century. Copies and reconstructions of most of the statues were made during the restoration based on drawings by the Den Bosch painter, architect and restorer Lambert Hezenmans. However, the copies differ in detail from the originals because the architect was only able to make his drawings and sketches from a distance.

Museum De Bouwloods

A number of the original statues of St. John’s were on display in the adjacent museum De Bouwloods. This museum houses sculptures that could no longer be kept at the church due to their condition and copies of which have been made as replacements for outside the church. All design models and casts that were used are also preserved in De Bouwloods and exhibited to the public. From the opening of the exhibition A Wonderful Climb, guided tours of the museum were given daily at 1:00 PM and 3:00 PM.

Allegorical figures

Source: Satrughna, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0)The sixteen flying buttresses are spread across the north and south sides of the cathedral; both sides have eight arches. Six statues are placed on each of the sixteen arches. The statues represent allegorical figures, including:

  • musicians (including a lute player, horn player, flute player and triangle player);
  • various professions (including a mason, blacksmith, painter, draftsman and stonemason who makes the flying buttress on which he sits);
  • medieval residents of Den Bosch;
  • multiple monsters, dragons and devils;
  • animals (including a monkey, dog and birds, including an eagle with an inkwell, as a symbol for John the Evangelist who writes the Gospel);
  • the kings Balthasar, Caspar and Melchior.

‘The decorations were not placed for the people on the street, they are too high for that. The statues are made in honor of God and look towards heaven.’
Herman Lerou, architect and St. John’s expert

Practical information

Opening hours

A Wonderful Climb could be visited daily from March 5 to October 30, 2016:

  • Tuesday to Sunday from 10:30 am to 5:00 pm;
  • Monday from 1:30 PM to 5:00 PM.

In a short time, 10,000 tickets had already been sold; reservations for a visit were therefore recommended. At the beginning of September, the 100,00th visitor was welcomed, who happened to be a real Den Bosch resident.

Price and catalogue

A ticket cost €7 per person and the 96 (!) page catalog The flying buttress statues on St. John’s Cathedral by Ronald Glaudemans was also for sale for the same price. All 96 images are included in this catalog and provided with short captions. Ronald Glaudemans is the official building historian of the church and has published several lectures and books about St. John’s Cathedral. All proceeds went to the restoration of St. John’s.

Accessibility

Access was only possible in groups of a maximum of 15 participants accompanied by a guide, up to a maximum of 60 participants per hour and 30 participants at the same time in the gutters. The tour lasted about an hour. A Wonderful Climb was not suitable for children under the age of 6, while children from 6 to 12 years were only allowed to ascend under the supervision of an adult.
A Wonderful Climb was accessible to wheelchair users up to the top level of the elevator, but not in the gutter construction. The elevator could only be used with permission from the accompanying guide.

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