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Hieronymus Bosch – A primer

Hieronymus Bosch

Believed to be a portrait of Hieronymus Bosch

In researching my recent post on Roberto Bolano and Hieronymus Bosch, I was able to take a closer look at Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings and his career in general. He’s a fascinating character. With an aesthetic that seemed to spring out of nowhere and a love of curious monsters that would put Guillermo del Toro to shame, he is one of the most curious of the Middle Age painters. Here is a quick bio and sample of his work, for those curious.

Hieronymus Bosch was born around the year 1450, in the Dutch town of Hergotenbosch (from which he took his surname). Biographical information on the painter is thin, but it is known that by the time of his death in 1516, he was internationally famous for his unique, biblically fulsome paintings.

Bosch’s style is characterized by menagerie. His themes, and most of his imagery, are Christian in origin, but he also included characters from folklore and myth to create his extremely varied Hell-scapes. Temptation, punishment, and a bit of gallows humor, are all included in Bosch’s paintings. Though the themes of these paintings are likely Christian in a doctrinal sense, Bosch’s work has nonetheless become the object of critical fascination in both psychological and art historical circles, as critics have suggested everything ranging from atheist subversion to subconscious revelation in his works.

Bosch worked mostly with oil on wood, favoring triptychs and polyptychs as his primary form. His most famous work is “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, a triptych that contains a microcosm of his stentorian Christian themes and a perfection of his gleefully cluttered aesthetic. The painting features the Garden of Eden of the left panel, a mixed curiosity of characters populated the “Earth” at its center, and a right panel that portrays the final judgement and the hell to follow. Wikipedia actually has a fairly exhaustive analysis of the painting, which serves as a good jumping off point for anyone interested in delving into the wealth of scholarship on Bosch’s work.

Here are some examples from Bosch’s career, from what are believed to be his earlier experiments, clear through to his masterpieces.

The Conjurer

"The Conjurer" Believed to be one of Bosch's earlier works, this painting shows the profile-style characters that Bosch would use throughout his career.

The Seven Deadly Sins

"The Seven Deadly Sins"

"The Haywain"

"The Haywain"

The Temptation of St. Anthony

"The Temptation of St. Anthony" Bosch himself can be seen helping the saint across a bridge in the left panel.

Hermit Saints Triptych

"Hermit Saints Triptych"

The Garden of Earthly Delights

"The Garden of Earthly Delights" Bosch's most famous triptych.

Detail from "The Garden of Earthly Delights"

Detail from "The Garden of Earthly Delights"

The Marriage at Cana

"The Marriage at Cana"

The Last Judgement

"The Last Judgement"

The Path of Life

"The Path of Life"


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Roberto Bolano and Hieronymus Bosch


Roberto Bolano's "2666"

I recently attempted to write an essay about 2666—Roberto Bolano’s sprawling, late-life masterwork—and found myself stumped. For someone with my borderline unhealthy adoration of Bolano, this was unexpected to the point of offense. A couple things to help put this in perspective: 1) I LOVE Bolano. I have consumed almost his entire oeuvre and dragged myself through the 900-page wilderness of 2666 two times over. I am hovering near the range of obsession, even if I haven’t fully committed to that plunge. 2) There is so much addressed in 2666—so many philosophies, characters, times, and circumstances—that it’s almost impossible to not have anything to say about it. It’s like not having an opinion about life. And yet, there I was.

The problem I had in talking about 2666 is one that I find in addressing other such postmodern doorstops as Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow. All these books present such a titanic edifice of thought that it feels like you’d have to have several PHDs before you were qualified to offer a worthwhile opinion on any them. And even then, is it possible to talk about such works in broad terms? One could spend a lifetime picking through the intellectual cross-hatching of Gravity’s Rainbow and to talk about it in any degree lesser than “exhaustive” feels downright lazy.

2666 presents these same conundrums. The novel touches on everything from Robert Rodriguez to the Russian Revolution and trying to fit the pieces together could cause you to question your sanity (a prospect that the novel itself cheekily proffers). But the difference between 2666 and Gravity’s Rainbow, for me in any case, is that with 2666, I feel that superhuman erudition is a welcome companion to one’s journey through the novel, rather than a price of entry. Bolano, by his own admission, created a work with so many twists and blind alleys that not even he knew where all of them led. The novel was crafted as an experience accessible on the emotional level, as well as the scholarly, and it is for that reason that I think I developed such fondness for it. There are themes and thought experiments to be extrapolated from the five books that comprise 2666, but the aesthetic pleasure of reading was so strong that it could carry me through the novel without leaving me feeling obligated to dirty its margins with a spider web of notes and obscure references.

My problem in writing my essay was that I found it difficult to reconcile my desire to make sense of 2666’s details while also paying credence to its whole. To focus on the book’s affective qualities would mean neglecting its library of intellectual detail, and to focus exclusively on that detail would be to obfuscate why I was so interested in it in the first place. There was, of course, a model for such a critical balance, and I eventually happened upon it, the point of entry being the paintings of the sixteenth century Dutch master, Hieronymus Bosch.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

Hieronymus Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights"

Little is known about Bosch’s life, other than that it began in the latter half of the fifteenth century and ended in the earlier days of the sixteenth. His themes were clear and remained consistent throughout his career—torture, temptation, suffering, and Christian salvation. Bosch took to this well-trod thematic ground with an unmistakable style. The painter’s horrific triptychs offer, at the same time, sweeping visions of pangeic agony and isolated capsules of metaphor, allusion, and, I think it’s more than likely, jest. All in all, his paintings engage an effect similar to Bolano’s novels.

Both Bolano and Bosch offer visions of outsized suffering, overstuffed with minute detail. In Bolano, this predilection manifests itself in the histories of fictional revolutions and desultory artistic movements; with Bosch, the artist’s imagination is set to work creating bird-beaked devils and revelers subjected to unique torments such as fit their particular sins. The organization of these encyclopedic grotesqueries is an impressive feat for both artists, as it is here where they form a cohesive whole from the sum of their great many parts. Again, there are parallels to be found in the work of both artists.

2666 is an inversion of Bosch’s most famous triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. Whereas with Bosch, Hell’s wasteland occupies the far side of the frame, in Bolano it is the center. “The Part About the Crimes”, the centerpiece of 2666, is comprised of a methodical recounting of systematic rape and murder so unflinching that it makes Beelzebub’s quests for human punishment seem quaint. The bleakness of these themes is balanced, both in Bosch and Bolano, by competing forces that at least attenuate such suffering, even if they fail to negate it.

Bosch’s cosmology is one in which Earth is a mixture of the divine and the profane, both balancing in a shaky middle ground. Bolano posits that such violence, grotesque for its inversion of rationality, is the centerpiece around which the world pivots. His instances of beauty exist in precarious flux about the edges of this violence. Bolano’s great anxiety is that goodness is simply untrue. As a character remarks in The Savage Detectives, “the question is whether evil is a force, for if it is a force, then it can be fought against, but if it is not, then all is hopeless.” In both Bosch and Bolano, the grandest schemes are revealed via the compilation of seemingly infinite minutia.

The Temptation of St. Anthony

Hieronymus Bosch's "The Temptation of St. Anthony"

Both Bosch and Bolano focus in a manner that is almost obsessive on the dark, the melancholy, the horrific. But in both cases, this subject matter is turned into aesthetic experience via its treatment. Bosch’s Hell and Bolano’s Mexico are similar places in that they reveal the torrid minutia of their creators’ subconsciouses, and rather than fighting this collection of demons (in Bolano’s case intellectual, in Bosch’s case literal) they give them free reign, resulting in works of striking detail that are, for all their varied grotesquery, beautiful.

Just as Bosch labors over the details of his duck-like demons and their ironic tortures, Bolano populates 2666 with every manner of well-crafted phantasm. There are wanderers, warriors, critics, madmen, solopsists, and supernumeraries. What unites Bolano’s wandering cavalcade is literature. Whereas Bosch’s Christianity provided the mythic patina for his work, Bolano’s obsessive, lifelong immersion in literature endows him with the characters and ideas that populate his masterpiece. All the great variety of ghosts that show up on the pages of 2666 are united by their pursuit of Art. There are the critics, the writers (both failed and adored), and the journalists, scrabbling morosely at their trade. What to make of this garden of deformities? In both cases, the answer is hidden.

Critical analysis of 2666 is possible, but it’s a doomed enterprise, for only through fallacy could one force the pieces of the novel into systematic cohesion. While Bosch’s tortures look uniform from afar, on closer inspection they show conflicting flashes of irony, pagan folklore, and oblique import; Bolano’s paean to literary ambition squandered in senseless violence has a shape discernable from telescopic ranges, but zoom to any of its finer details and there is revealed a fresh terrain in which to become lost.

The Conjurer

Hieronymus Bosch's "The Conjurer"

In the cases of both Bolano and Bosch, there is a critical contingent that argues that the artists’ encyclopedic catalogues of the horrific have no greater import than in their value as curiosities. This is a hard argument to refute. Despite critics that would paint him as a satirist, Bosch’s paintings seem very much in keeping with an orthodox, Christian view of the Middle Ages, and looking for a moral force beyond Christianity in his work is a strained enterprise at best. Bolano’s great novel presents similar frustrations, even if they arrive from a different set of problems. 2666 is an unfinished masterpiece and its constituent ideas propagate themselves without the restraint that marks Bolano’s shorter books. But my enjoyment of both Bolano and Bosch stems from a willingness to appreciate the aesthetic form, while making allowances for the possibility that the content might not contain the starkest of revelations.

This isn’t to say that my interest in either artist is diminished. I am more than capable of assuming transcendence in Bosch’s devils, just as I am willing to believe in meaning in Bolano’s mess. In both cases, these artists have forged a pure aesthetic by sheer force of will. It’s the sort of feat that makes transcendence seem possible, despite life’s horrors, despite the mind’s calamity.

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