The ‘vast cosmic drama’
by Fr. Anthony Giambrone, OP
Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) is certainly one of the most singular visionaries in the history of Western religious art. While the essential theology and moral message of his images accords perfectly with his late medieval context, adjectives such as “dreamlike,” “fantastic,” “grotesque,” “carnivalesque,” and “psychedelic” all fail to capture the full graphic force and fecundity of his works’ imaginative energy and detail.
His paintings somehow effect an immense transformation of our own familiar universe into an alien moral space: a world swarming with monsters and monstrous implements and machines, overrun by crowds of wild hybrids and outright impossible creatures and the innumerable, teeming bodies of human sinners and fools.
It is the artistic vision of Dr. Seuss crossed with Edgar Allen Poe in the service of fiery doomsday preaching, nourished on an overdose of Gothic bestiaries and postmodern dystopian novels — with a bit of Poor Richard’s homespun wisdom for good effect — perfumed with a puff of secondhand opium smoke, then applied to the panel with a fine-haired brush.
For all this outrageous circus, it is never difficult to read the essential message of a Bosch painting. For some, in fact, it is unpleasantly simplistic and direct. The riotous color must not deceive: Bosch’s world is a black-and-white world of manifest good and evil. His celebrated triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, for instance, embodies a narrative image of Solomon’s sagacious proverb:
Sometimes a way seems right, but the end of it leads to death! (Proverbs 14:12)
Carefree, alluring, unfettered play in the springlike palette of mortal sin leads unwitting souls intractably to frightful darkness and pain. The viewer cannot escape the conclusion except by looking away.
The same vast cosmic drama is transmuted to an intimate personal level in Bosch’s Death and the Miser. The composition is modeled on negative examples drawn from the so-called Ars moriendi, devotional textbooks on how to die a good Christian death.
The scene of the painting, one of the only interior scenes in all of Bosch’s work, depicts an old man lying upon his deathbed, surrounded by collected items pawned by the unfortunate poor. An image of this usurer in his earlier life appears at the bottom of the picture, fingering prayer beads while simultaneously counting his profits. Now his split soul must eternally choose one or the other of these two masters — and with horror we watch him grasping at a sachet of mammon, ignoring the grace streaming down from Christ’s cross above.
Anxiety and guilt and the horrible power of sin are inescapable forces when we enter the spiritual universe of Bosch. It would be a great mistake to confuse this all with pessimism, however. Alongside his fascination with sin and the four last things — death, judgment, heaven, and hell — Bosch’s oeuvredisplays another, more overpowering preoccupation: success in resisting sin’s allure. The Temptation of St. Anthony was the specific way the artist explored this motif of moral triumph, and he returned to the subject between four and 15 times (attributions of authentic works are a matter of much debate).
The Lisbon triptych fulfills all expectations of what a Bosch painting should be. The great saint is tossed high in the air like a plaything at the mercy of merciless demons and, already half dead, must then pass through the blasphemous Black Mass in the central panel, before he emerges in the right-hand panel with the composure of a victorious, contemplative hermit.
Bosch’s epic image of trial and virtuous triumph influenced a whole tradition of imitators. From the maddening mental anguish of Joos van Craesbeeck’s raucous version, to the surreal and solemn confrontation of Salvador Dali’s vision, to the transports of torment that Michelangelo imagined, however, these imitators only saw one half of the picture. They grasped the awful, theatrical struggle of mankind’s mortal battle with sin: Anthony’s near death from and imprisonment by evil. Yet none of them captured Bosch’s ultimate narrative of heroic victory and spiritual peace.
In Bosch’s Prado Temptation, this final state of victory is magnificent and unmistakable. Indeed, the knockdown battle with the demons now disappears altogether and only the victorious panel remains. We accordingly enter an atmosphere almost pleasant and serene, in which the presence of sin is something like so many mushrooms in a garden.
St. Anthony, signed on his shoulder with a Tau cross like a veteran Crusader, sits hunched in the countryside, beside a meandering stream, his gaze lost somewhere beyond his immediate place. His eyes are wide but remain reposed. No shadow of fear or discomfort contours his features.
Beside him, two small mongrel creatures aim to strike him with their blunt weapons. Unlike other artists’ conventionally erotic, brothel-like renderings of a sexual trial, it is not clear just what sins Bosch’s little gremlins are proposing.
Perhaps they plot to trap the saint in an uncharitable thought against another or an unguarded moment of pride. All sins have become equally threatening and equally malign: interior spiritual failings no less than gross bodily transgression. All these sins have also become equally harmless and distant; for it is also far from clear that these assailants can in any way reach or disturb this monk in meditation.
Anthony’s shield of virtue is here complete. In the distance another pair of goblins head off to raise some unknown mischief in the little church. Like the devil, his agents never rest. Yet, the simple belfry over Anthony’s head signals that the saints themselves are the living stones of the Church and the true dwelling place of God. In their souls abides that peaceful rest that sleepless evil cannot molest.