A Thousand Erotic Games
Raoul Vaneigem writes about Hieronymus Bosch
Hieronymus Bosch had a unique facility for depicting on wood and canvas the combination of corruption and innocence that characterises us. Bosch’s abysses, like our own, are inhabited by hybrid monsters, creatures half-angel, half-beast, and make us wonder which half will pounce on the other and enslave it. His visions anticipate Rabelais’s phantasmagoria. But unlike Francesco Colonna’s The Dream of Poliphilus, written in Bosch’s time but published only later, unlike even the Park of Monsters in Bomarzo, Bosch’s work does not invite transient moments of contemplation. As the fruit of a heightened consciousness that scrutinised the secret universe of subjectivity, it puts us in the dock and demands that we cross-examine ourselves. Nightmare and reverie in Bosch go beyond a ‘picture of the state of things’ meant to elicit admiration or repulsion, beyond moral judgment, and beyond the kind of intellectual speculation that is no more than substance disincarnate, thought detached from life. What confronts us is a mirror of what dwells within, haunting us, possessing us, casting a spell and obscurely governing our actions. We find ourselves, standing in front of Bosch’s paintings, suddenly obliged to engage with the traces of humanity and inhumanity that intermingle and do battle within us. The question arises: what possible human faculty might be called on to bring calm and harmony to inner chaos? Not a faculty of judgment – of approval or condemnation – since in Bosch there is no aspect of the self that is unaccompanied by its opposite; the torments of hell go hand in hand with the delights of the Golden Age.
‘The Haywain Triptych’ (c.1516)
The basic instinctual paraphernalia of the inner self does seem, whatever the particular rationality, normality or spiritual cult beneath which it is concealed, to traverse the history of humanity relatively unchanged. (Is it not tempting to speak of an ‘ahistorical’ psyche when one realises how little difference there is between the contemporaries of Gilgamesh and the militarised brutes, the fanatics, the exploiters and the exploited of the 21st century?) But with Bosch, no doubt, the particular manifestation of that self, its mobilisation and its pictorial representation, do belong to the historical period and social circumstances of his everyday life.
He was obviously a man of erudition, a scholar with a wide-ranging curiosity. Attention has often been drawn to the frequent presence in his work of the sort of colporteur who criss-crossed national boundaries at that time, peddling almanacs, prayer books, banned lampoons and booklets whose edifying covers disguised ideas hostile to established orthodoxies and authorities. Bosch was also highly respected, a notable, a guildsman and a member of the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady in ’s-Hertogenbosch. If that is surprising it is because we are too prone to underestimate the degree to which the dominance of the Inquisition, with its accompanying theology of repression, the tyranny of governments both civil and ecclesiastical, and more pervasively the pressure of custom and prejudice, led some men and women into a clandestine second existence where they took on roles proscribed by the conformism around them. There they indulged the pleasures of the flesh, preached hedonism, and engaged in extortion, crime and subversion – all the while planning to obtain forgiveness for their sins by way of last-minute penitence. It is not implausible to suppose that Bosch had such a double life; to imagine in him a willingness to break free of the roles that society expects its members to play, and a wish to reveal, with a kind of malicious innocence, what seethes underneath a cassock or a uniform, or behind the masks of virtue, clear conscience or good manners.
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Vol. 38 No. 20 · 20 October 2016
Raoul Vaneigem’s impressionistic piece about Hieronymus Bosch overlooks an important point: a 15th-century artist did not paint a four by two metre triptych to express his own ideas or intellectual interests (LRB, 8 September). He did it because someone had commissioned the work and paid for it, and that patron largely dictated the content of the piece. The triptych known to us as The Garden of Earthly Delights is first documented in 1517, one year after Bosch’s death, as being in the possession of Count Hendrik III of Nassau, in his palace in Brussels. Depending on the date of the triptych (scholarly opinion varies between roughly 1490 and 1505), it would have been commissioned either by Hendrik himself or by his uncle and predecessor Engelbert II: that is, by rich, erudite aristocrats from the inner circle of the Burgundian court, who collected works of art, read widely, held extravagant parties (in the same palace where the Garden hung there was also a bed large enough for fifty guests), and could afford to flirt with heretical or otherwise fringe ideas. Other works by Bosch feature more conventional Christian themes: scenes from the life of Christ, saints resisting temptation, the punishment of sin. Presumably the artist’s other patrons favoured those. Bosch’s unparalleled imagination in executing all those commissions was of course his own; but it is a mistake, I think, to assume we can know much about what was going on in his head.
Vol. 38 No. 21 · 3 November 2016
Let’s be good empiricists about Bosch, and in particular about The Garden of Earthly Delights. Marta Uminska is right that the first mention we have of the painting (seemingly alongside others by Bosch) is from 1517, in the diary of a traveller from Apulia: ‘Some paintings of diverse bizarre things, representing sea, skies, woods, fields and many other things, some of which emerge from a sea mussel, others that are defecated by cranes, women and men both white and black [not the least of Bosch’s provocations] in diverse actions and poses, birds, animals, of all sorts and done with much naturalness, things so pleasant and fantastic that, to those who have no knowledge of it, it cannot be described well in any way’ (Letters, 20 October). The diarist saw the painting in Henry of Nassau’s palace in Brussels. No one knows for sure when the Garden was painted: scholars plump for dates stretching from 1490 to the first years of the 1500s. So all that is certain is that the triptych was in Nassau’s possession 15 or 20 or even 25 years after it was done. No trace of its original commissioning and whereabouts has survived. Twenty years is a long time, certainly in the Netherlands around 1500.
Specialists generally agree that either Henry or his uncle Engelbert, who like his nephew was a great art lover, must have commissioned the painting. The agreement here strikes me as wishful (art historians are always pleased when they can edge the ‘bizarre’ back into the realm of power and good taste). The Nassaus were art lovers, and Bosch in later life was a painter coveted by connoisseurs: the count could have acquired the triptych years after it was done. In time it became a Nassau talisman: by 1567, when the Duke of Alba arrived in the Netherlands, Nassau’s head of household was tortured almost to death by the duke’s henchmen for having ‘faict refuz de bailler une painture de Jeronimus Bosseman’. (He gave in eventually: by 1568 the Garden was heading for Madrid.) The painting was a treasure, but it does not follow that those who treasured its inventions understood them very deeply, or claimed to. The first title we have for Bosch’s triptych crops up in a Spanish inventory from 1593: ‘una pintura de la variedad del mundo, que llaman del Madroño’ (‘A painting of the world’s variety, which they call the Strawberry’). I warm to the ‘they’ here: the strawberries in the Garden are especially beautiful, and may be a clue to the painting’s worldliness. ‘Of all sorts and done with much naturalness.’ Isn’t it likely at least, recalling the Apulian diarist, that Nassau and his head of household knew full well that what they were protecting was a singularity, a wonder, a mystery, perhaps even a survivor from a lost – suppressed – world of belief? We all go guessing after that singularity. But don’t imagine the art historians’ guesses rest on more solid ground than Vaneigem’s.
Vol. 38 No. 23 · 1 December 2016
T.J. Clark writes of The Garden of Earthly Delights that it seems ‘likely at least … that Nassau and his head of household knew full well that what they were protecting was a singularity, a mystery, perhaps even a survivor from a lost – suppressed – world of belief’ (Letters, 3 November). A singularity and a mystery, yes; a survivor of a persecuted heretical cult, as Raoul Vaneigem suggests, no (LRB, 8 September).
The issue here is an old chestnut. The assumption is that Bosch was so weird he must have been the equivalent of today’s outsider artist: a marginal figure who somehow flourished in the mainstream of medieval high culture. It’s a short leap, in the medieval context, from outsider to heretic, and it’s a theory with strong imaginative appeal. But it doesn’t hold up. Vaneigem’s essay more or less recapitulates Wilhelm Fraenger’s work in the 1940s, which first brought up the supposed links between Bosch, Jacob Van Almaegien and the Adamites. In Fraenger’s reading, since The Garden of Earthly Delights was manifestly not susceptible to orthodox Catholic interpretation, and it was unthinkable that it was a personal piece, it must have been commissioned by some non-Catholic sect. Fraenger’s suggestion was the Brethren, with Van Almaegien at their head, commissioning Bosch to create triptychs that reflected their philosophy of love. Vaneigem puts more weight of intention on Bosch, but the foundation is the same.
The leading modern Bosch scholar, Walter Gibson, demonstrates the ‘gross implausibility’ of Fraenger’s claims. There is no evidence that Bosch’s home town harboured a heretical sect, that Van Almaegien was the head of one, or that he and Bosch ever crossed paths. And beyond some circular symbolic readings of his supposedly Adamatical paintings, there is no evidence at all to suggest that Bosch himself was a heretic.
Instead, the evidence suggests that Bosch was both orthodox and rather clubbable. Aside from his vast success across Europe as a religious painter, he was a respected guildsman and burgher in his home town of ’s-Hertogenbosch, and a member of the inner circle of its Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady. The Brotherhood was very much an orthodox Catholic institution and a mainstay of ’s-Hertogenbosch’s civic life. It’s false to conclude, with Vaneigem, that this in itself constitutes evidence of ‘the degree to which the dominance of the Inquisition … led some men and women into a clandestine second existence’. All it suggests, in fact, is that despite the weirdness of his work, Bosch was socially and religiously orthodox.
As Chaucer, Langland and Brant (whose Ship of Fools Bosch painted) show, bawdiness, madness and anticlericalism were all mainstream at that time, even if they inspired a frisson of worry in readers. Bosch’s oddness and style may be without precedent in large-scale art, but there is plenty to be found in manuscript miniatures. With all this in mind, to presume he was an outsider is to avoid a more interesting question. If he was an insider, then what on earth was medieval Europe really like?