Tag Archives: hieronymous bosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights & the Surreal

I first made acquaintance with Hieronymus Bosch (‘Jerome’, 1450-1516)  in 2012 at the National Gallery in Ottawa (when it was still free). The painting was ‘Funnel Butt’ – that is, The Temptations of St Anthony, to which my friend Emily directed me (after we had seen a bewildering array of St Jeromes):

Funnel butt:

Things often come from Boschian butts -- funnels, flowers, arrows, etcAnd so began a love that runs deeply and fervently to this day.

While I was in El Escorial, Spain, a couple of weeks ago, I was flipping through my Madrid guidebook, saying to myself, ‘Now, maybe I’ll stay in Escorial until the library closes at 2:00 on Saturday and skip the Prado, going straight to the airport.’ And then I discovered that the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, is home to The Garden of Earthly Delights – the greatest Bosch monsterpiece of them all.

There was no way anyone was going to lock me up with manuscripts of Collectio Hispana on Saturday. I would finish my work Friday. It was imperative.

And I did. Not only that, however, I finished early on Friday, so I took the tourist tour of the Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

The first section of this tour was tapestries – like most such Late Mediaeval and Early Modern items I’ve met, these were produced in Flanders or the Netherlands for the most part. In the second room you’ll find some remarkable work, as good as any Early Renaissance painting. In the first room? Four Bosch tapestries! The Garden of Earthly Delights, the Haywain, the Temptations of St Antony, and a St Martin one.

So my touristing in Spain was off to a good start – a Garden of Earthly Delights tapestry and a Temptations of Saint Anthony tapestry. Who could ask for better? It was clear that I was destined to see the real thing.

So, on the Saturday I left Spain, I saw it. It was the first thing I did after entering the Prado (second, actually; nature calls).

What can be said about The Garden of Earthly Delights?

Look at it.

First of all, ‘the Garden of Earthly Delights’ is really only the centre panel of this Late Mediaeval kaleidoscope of wonders. The left panel is Paradise, the right panel Hell.

As I observed Hell that day, in particular the man-turned-architecture pictured below, the word that came to my mind was Surreal.

And I do not use the word lightly, as so many do these days. I use the word with actual Surrealists in mind; indeed, the definition of surreal in the OED is:

Having the qualities of surrealist art; bizarre, dreamlike.

The most famous Surrealist is Salvador Dali. Is Dali not Boschian in some respects?

I am not the first person to acknowledge this similarity, of course. Here is a good article about the dreamlike and nightmarish aspects of Bosch’s art, putting him fort as the first Surrealist.

When we consider The Garden of Earthly Delights, perhaps the subject matter must, of necessity, come from the realm of dreams? Paradise from deep in the collective unconscious of where we have come, where we long to be, Hell from our great fears of the Final Judgement and where we long never to be. And that central panel, whence comes the name, is the world of our own bizarre, carnal lusts, hidden deep in the psyche, in the hippocampus, in the world where Greek mythology blends with human history and nightmare and zoology in an insane revelry for the senses.

The Surreal Hieronymus, painting from the depths of the sub/unconscious human soul.

Of course, I mostly just delight in it because it’s so weird.

Like flower butt:

Your art and its value (sanity and immortality for all)

Bosch found immortality if not sanity through his art.

I close every e-mail I send with the following quotation:

It is healthful to every sane man to utter the art within him; it is essential to every sane man to get rid of the art within him at all costs. -GK Chesterton, Heretics

I believe Chesterton here. I believe that each of us should produce his’er own art — be it the art of music, of dance, of gardening, of poetry, of blogging, of painting, of sculpting, of musical theatre, of cooking…

So many of us wish to be involved with or to produce something of lasting value in this world, do we not? In Letter 1.3, Pliny the Younger writes to Caninius Rufus:

Why don’t you — for it’s time — commit lowly and paltry cares to others, and plant your very self with your studies on that high and fertile retreat? This business ought to be your leisure; this work your quiet; in these your vigils, in this even your sleep should repose. Fashion and compose something that would be yours forever. For the rest of your affairs will come by lot after you to one and another master, but this will never cease to be yours if once you begin it. I know what spirit, what natural cleverness I encourage — you just shine forth so that you may be for yourself as great as you will seem to others if you are to yourself. (My trans.)

Pliny is here encouraging Caninius Rufus to engage in the leisure of scholarship, of writing books or analysing books or philosophising and all those things that are part of the leisure of a Roman aristocrat. This, says Pliny, is what will be a true legacy; all that other business, of home and commerce and government, will come into the hands of others.

As a PhD student and blogger, this is encouraging. What is it that lasts, what is a great endeavour? A business empire? A well-laid garden? The purchase, like Jay Gatsby, of an enormous house? All these can crumble and fall; all will be passed on to one and another when I die. But not my writing; not my art that keeps me sane.

Indeed, has not Pliny himself become immortal through his self-published, highly-stylised letters? Is not the temporal immortality of G K Chesterton found in his multitudinous writings — the essays, the poems, the novels, the books? Wagner, whose Das Rheingold I am listening to right now, is immortal through his music; Rodin through his sculpture; Michelangelo through the agony and the ecstasy of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

And Thucydides was not wrong when he wrote, ‘My history is an everlasting possession, not a prize composition which is heard and forgotten’ (History 1.22.4, trans. Jowett) — for people still read him today, and not just Classicists (we being a breed who do read some obscure texts).

When I think on this, on the quest to make art to keep sanity, to gain immortality, to survive in a dark world, I am pleased and encouraged by my friends who are doing just that. I have two friends, Ryan (plays with Doublechief) and Liam (solo awesomeness), who are taking the rock star route to immortality; my friend Mae makes glass jewellery (you can buy it here); my friends Andrée and Jennq are the artistic directors of Caithream Celtic Dance Fusion; Pip keeps up age-old traditions of art and beauty (visible here).

There are many other friends in the arts — my blogging siblings, one of whom used to write for Marvel Comics, another of whom writes young adult novels; friends involved in music at their local churches; friends who play in amateur orchestras; my piano-teaching, church-choir-leading mother; and no doubt loads of others who escape memory right now — if left out not, not really forgotten!

So I hope that you will not simply consume the art around you — music, books, sculptures, paintings, gardens, films — but make a little art yourself. Find sanity, immortality, light in a dark world.