On Sunday I went to the Prado Museum to see their extensive exhibit of Hieronymus Bosch’s work. Besides remaking my vow to be a cultured Westerner, I had another reason for going. On the Antioch College Chorus trip I wrote about in the last blog, part of our curriculum was going to art museums where our in-house professor would lecture. Before the trip, we each had to pick an artist and ourselves lecture about one of his paintings in the museum where it was housed. My choice was—well, you guess it: Hieronymus Bosch.
I think I picked him because in the language of the time, he seemed like a “far-out dude.”
His paintings where what we called “trippy,” something those us who experimented with LSD could relate to. (Yes, I was one of them, but I didn’t inhale.) And the most famous one titled “The Garden of Earthly Delights” well-described my emerging view of life on this planet—especially as a college student. I remembered that he belonged to some kind of secret Brotherhood that I imagined was kind of like the late 60’ s communes and that endeared him to me further. I particularly remember a remarkable painting about dying that left out all the angels and harps and simply portrayed a tunnel of light and the newly departed dissolving into it as they headed out the portal of life.
Revisiting Bosch in the Prado, I see I got it all wrong. The real guy was a bizarre blend of Dr. Seuss and a rabid Pentacostal preacher. His Garden of Earthly Delights was not the least bit delightful, but a stern finger-wag against the sins of enjoying earthly pleasures, a living hell with many things emerging from people’s butts and weird creatures ravaging those who dared partake. In my new view, he was a sexually-repressed dark Northern European who hated woman, bagpipes and carnivals. Come on, Heironymous, lighten up! Those happen to be three things I love and no demonic creatures are nibbling at my head.
He idolized penitent saints like St. Anthony and St. Jerome who passed their days being tormented by temptation in the desert. The Buddhist would say their problem was their bad posture while they meditated, crumpling their chi energy. Buddha was celibate and meditated too, but he mostly had a smile on his face. These guys looked miserable.
In general, Bosch seemed to believe that life on earth was a hell of temptation that few could resist. Maybe he was just a man of his time, when life was more nasty, short and brutish. But he also had a strand of some Christian’s view that the earth is a mere hellish stopping point to a heaven that only a few would reach because they kept failing their stern God’s tests. Go ahead and believe it if you want, but you will create the life you envision and why would someone willing choose the view, for example, that sexual pleasure, nature’s design to propagate the species, the thing that will produce children who will give more meaning to your life than almost anything else, the thing that has people smiling throughout the day after, is evil and sinful and the reason why God can’t wait to see you fry in Hell? Not my kind of religion.
Meanwhile, back to Bosch. He seemed to pre-imagine skyscraper cities, flying planes and goodness know how he knew about elephants and giraffes and monkeys tucked up in Belgium. He has a few black-skinned folks beyond the third Magi and in one scene, a white man and black woman seem quite involved with each other. And the Prado did have that painting of the tunnel of light and it was quite a beautiful vision.
If Hieronymus was my neighbor, I’d invite him to a carnival in Bulgaria and have him folk dance with women to live bagpipe music. See if that would loosen him up a bit.If that didn’t work, I’d show him the translation of the old Christian text that had a terrible typo. The original word was “celebrate.”