Hieronymus Bosch died in 1516 leaving behind centuries of speculation about the man. His paintings are disturbing and beautiful, filled with details that run the gamut from impeccably paradisiacal to nightmarish, hellish and predictive of surrealism. Five hundred years after his death historians are still puzzling out bits of his work and young artists are still picking over his works, studying for his method, often finding inspiration.
His The Garden of Earthly Delights is a particular favorite. The triptych plays with images of perfection in one panel, a world virtually untouched by sin, followed by another that details the earthly ways of mankind with fornication and frivolity; the final, disturbing panel finds humans paying the price for their folly with images that vividly and convincingly portray the torments of hell. With the panels closed, the viewer becomes aware of a world in something approaching harmony. Often seen as the world during creation, the outer image of a tranquil garden gives way to shock once the internal piece is revealed. Is he warning us of the wicked ways of man? or is he poking at those who’d have us believe in Original Sin?
That dazzling little triptych is the subject of scholarship and many a writing assignment for first-year art students. It was also revisited by seven artists in 2014 who transformed Bosch’s world into their own, replete with emojis and nods to consumer culture (as detailed in this 2014 article from Art News.com).
Would Bosch be flattered or rolling over in his grave? That’s difficult to say because we know so little of him. Like Chaucer, his biography becomes a temple of speculation; discussions of his work become littered with qualifiers about what he might have done or what he should have done or what people of his era believed. Was he a religious man who painted in reverence to God or was he a wild man who painted in defiance of the Creator? There’s great fun in attempting to unravel the mystery; it’s almost as much fun as there is speculating on the work itself.
Nils Büttner attempts to restore some order in Bosch scholarship. Bosch wasn’t an outsider, Büttner writes, but a revered, upstanding citizen whose name was well-recognized, and who commanded excellent prices for his work. The author takes the path of a historian rather than a biographer. He leans on established fact rather than racing down blind alleys with the hope of unmasking a sex-crazed lunatic who could have cultivated a dark, secretive cult around him. The biographical details of Bosch’s life are dealt with briskly before the scholar casts his eyes to the works themselves.
For art historians, a well-rendered “reading” of a painting can be filled with revelations and affirmations. To hear a well-tempered scholar, play upon the work of the masters is like hearing a lush symphony or concerto. What we suspected in the pit of our psyches becomes affirmed and what we doubted is cast aside with an authoritative dismissal that feels very much like victory. It can be as riveting for the academic as a football game is for the sports fanatic.
Alas, Büttner doesn’t offer such thrills in the pages that follow his brief, fact-driven biography. The writing sometimes takes too long to say what it has to say, becoming engulfed in a circuitous route that distracts. A simple example from the author’s description of The Temptation of St. Anthony: “This form of representation can be explained in terms of the theological debate that was current at the time around the cult of imagery, which had been gathering momentum through the course of the fifteenth century.” But why not simply: During the fifteenth century there was great theological debate about the cult of imagery?
Elsewhere: “According to the doctrine of the fourfold meaning of scripture propagated by St. Augustine, one of the Fathers of the Church, a word in the historical sense signifies the thing named in each case, which according to the Latin term res means both the thing and the prevailing conditions.”
Yes, it’s there, the meaning of both the thing and its thingness and our author’s intention, but it takes longer to absorb than it should. Prose can get drunk on its own clauses and be sexy in its verbosity, seductive in its ornamentation, when the time and the subject are right. Otherwise it clanks like a hammer on a train rail.
Within a few pages of the previous example, we also read: “For the observer unfamiliar with the theological ideas and texts, a lot of what is in this picture may come across as alien. This is not, however, entirely the fault of Bosch’s manner of visual narration and his nature symbolism, but it is mainly due to the fact that knowledge about the themes and motifs of Christian art and the narratives based on them is not nowadays as widespread as it was then.”
Rather than feeling merrily intoxicated, one feels ready to shout at the overstatement of the obvious and the Labyrinthian prose. Of course it’s not Bosch’s fault. Of course there’s a gap of knowledge in a world that may not be steeped in, say, the intricacies of the first five books of the Old Testament. But that’s where a good scholar would intervene and explain that the symbols can be directly linked to this allegory or that. There’s no need to tap dance around it or blame viewers from the present for their presumed lack of biblical scholarship.
As pretty as it is to think that some will stick to facts regarding Bosch, it’s also a little too late in the game for that. The great joy of his works is both their out-and-out weirdness as well as the inspiration we can glean from them today. To read about them in terms that veer toward plainsong is the absence of joy. No, Bosch could not have predicted all that would come in the wake of his works, all the speculation and the hub-hub but most people, in their hearts, know that. Historians help educate us on those things that are largely forgotten, remind us of those things we know but have misplaced in the memory banks, and provide context for those alien images or esoteric layers.
This English translation of Büttner’s book appears almost half a decade after its initial issue in German. In the world of books, we often find ourselves asking, “Why this book now?” It would be easy to say that Bosch has been dead for 500 years but of course his work remains. Discussions and books and lectures about his work also remain. So, in many ways, he lives on. However, of all the things that could be said or celebrated about the man and his work, Hieronymus Bosch adds little other than a decent cursory look at some of the painter’s more intriguing works.
Is this a good effort to cast aside useless speculation? Yes. But in so doing, it sacrifices the joy of discovery for mundane observations.