The forest creeps a little closer
to overhear my phone calls
and learn if I think the sky
will fall in pieces or as one
gigantic plastic membrane.
The trees have reason to worry.
Their plumes of foliage droop
in a toxic atmosphere no one
should breathe unless depicted
by Hieronymus Bosch. You agree
that we should fly to Holland
to enjoy the Bosch exhibit,
but your passport has expired
and you won’t be photographed
for a new one because you look
too old and tired to travel.
The forest nods as we converse.
Crows spackle the windy glare.
Chickadees percolate at feeders.
I want to hang up on you
and recover the youth wasted
on being young. The city
you haunt looms taller than hills
in Kansas or Wisconsin.
Its lights bleed the night sky pallid.
Its bridges knit together worlds
that don’t really love each other.
Hearing your voice originate
two hundred miles southwest
of me generates sensations
trees would mistake for beavers
gnawing at their trunks. I wave
to the crows, the windy treetops,
the bobcat who daily prowls
for mice that gather seed-scraps
beneath the feeders. You note
how distracted I seem. The trees
agree that the sky will fall soon,
but I can’t speak loudly enough
to assure them that such collapse
will only slightly mar the cosmos
and leave most of the stars intact.
About the Poet:
William Doreski lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire. He has published three critical studies and several collections of poetry. His work has appeared in various journals. He has taught writing and literature at Emerson, Goddard, Boston University, and Keene State College. His new poetry collection is A Black River, A Dark Fall.
About the Painter:
Hieronymus Bosch was born Jheronimus van Aken (or Jeroen Anthonissen van Aken) to a family of painters going back six generations. He was born so long ago that there are gaps in his biography, for example, we still don’t know what year he was born although it is generally thought to be 1450. His pseudonym, Bosch (pronounced Boss is Dutch), is derived from ’s-Hertogenbosch, a city in Brabant, Holland, in which his ancestors settled, as recorded.
How did we come to ascertain his age?
In Art History, provenance is an important element as are data on the artists. In dating works of art, curators and art historians have to consult primary documents for accuracy.
We have found that The Garden of Earthly Delight was owned by the House of Nassau before it came into the ownership of Phillip II of Spain. This was from researching documents of ownership, deeds and wills.
We also know that in Bosch’s Netherlands, the legal age for independent signatures on documents, such as housing deeds, is twenty-four years. Art Historians worked backwards to identify the year of his birth (1450) through a deed, dated 5 April 1474, of a sale of a property that belonged to Katharina van Aken, Hieronymus’s sister. Hieronymus was a witness, as was his brothers Goessen and Jan, along with their father, during this sale. On the deed, Hieronymus’s signature was found next to his father’s, indicating that he was not yet twenty-four.
Through conjecture and some laborious corroboration of data surrounding Bosch’s life, it is thought that he was married to Aleid van de Meervenne between 31 July 1477 and 14 June 1481. It would look like his wife, Aleid, was very much older than him, although the difference in ages would be an exaggeration. [In other documents, her name appears as Aleyt Goyaerts van den Meerveen.] We know that they moved to the town of Oirschot, soon after, where she inherited a house and land from her family.
Bosch was a member of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, an ultra-conservative religious group, which his parents and grandparents had belonged to as well. Members would meet in the chapel of St John’s church in ’s-Hertogenbosch. Again, we know this from records which stated that Bosch was admitted as an ordinary member in 1486/87; his name “Jheronimus, son of Anthonis van Aken” is found along with the other 350 members from the Low Countries and Germany. This membership indicates that Bosch came from a society that is well networked and that he belonged to a significantly important family. It was also noted, only a year after joining as an ordinary member, that he became a sworn member, with his name “Jeroen the painter” appearing in the margin of a document listing the nine sworn brothers who attended an important banquet—Swan Banquet—during Christmas time. All this tells us that Bosch was by that time, identified as a painter and that he was regarded highly enough to be sworn in as a member of this prestigious club.
Disaster would strike in 1516. An epidemic struck ’s-Hertogenbosch in summer that year. Victims died of symptoms likened to cholera and Bosch would be one of the many struck dead. The exact date of his birth is not recorded but documents showing a requiem mass being held for “Jeronimus van Aken painter” on 9 August 1516 in the Brotherhood’s chapel at St John’s church was found. The requiem mass was held with dignity by Dean Willem Hamaker, assisted by several deacons with music provided by an organist and choir. As there were gravediggers present, this suggested that the requiem was a funeral mass, indicating that Bosch must have passed a few days earlier. There is no known marked grave for “Jeronimus van Aken painter, sworn brother”, but it would not be uncommon for him to be buried in the church courtyard.
About the Artwork:
This remains my favourite piece by Bosch. The Garden of Earthly Delights, owned by Museo del Prado in Madrid since 1939, is a piece of surrealist art, painted at a time that Surrealism had yet to be invented. In this way, Bosch can be said to be a forerunner and he is often paralleled with Salvador Dali. Do note that this oil painting on wood is not classified as a Surrealist piece but as Christian art due mainly to two other panels flanking this piece.
This triptych was painted when Bosch was between 40 – 60 years old and has been critiqued for its subject matter which still defies comprehension. Could the fleshy display be an admonishment of society’s loose mores? Could this piece be an expression of sexual jouissance or the desire for it? Was this a warning of what could happen when one gives in to the sins of the flesh? Was Bosch attempting to warn viewers of the impending end-of-days that await us? Like his birthday, there is a shroud of mystery surrounding the interpretation of The Garden of Earthly Delights which is the triptych’s modern title.
The Garden of Earthly Delights forms the central piece and the title of this triptych. It is flanked by a panel on each side and meant to be read or viewed from left to right, with the left panel showing the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve as central protagonists, and the right panel depicting carnage and darkness. When the triptych is closed, a scene of God creating the Earth is seen; this is depicted in grisaille (greyish colour-tones). The right panel depicts a scene from Hell, where the end-of-days has occurred, as indicated by the fires and the strange human capsule containing what looks like a tavern; this is the panel’s central focus as this surreal and strange man-tree is the first thing our eye is drawn to. What this represents is open to interpretation. Triptychs have been very popular in Europe since the Middle Ages, arising from early Christian art and was the popular standard form for altar paintings. It is not known if The Garden of Earthly Delights was meant for the altar of a church, given the composition. But many triptychs formed an important visual narrative for meditation and prayer, with the central panel being the biggest, all linked by a similar theme—usually Christian—in European art. Some triptychs are small enough to be portable and these would accompany the devout as travelling altars. Some art historians have said that The Garden of Earthly Delight was probably commissioned by a lay patron.
Concentrating on the composition in the central panel (220 × 195 cm, 87 × 77 in) of Bosch’s piece, the beholder’s senses are assuaged with weird and wonderful creatures, nude human figures, some with strange objects attached to their nether regions. We are aware that Bosch has created a world in this oil painting, what would seem to be a futuristic sci-fi world. Walter Gibson, an art historian, has called it “a world of dreams [and] and nightmares in which forms flicker and change before our eyes.” The eye spies a giant mollusc that has swallowed a couple in coitus, it would seem; the mollusc is carried by someone bent double due to its weight. Then, there are the pink and blue hybrid monuments that represent buildings, maybe mountains with a life of their own that seem so out of place in 15th and 16th-century European landscapes. What intrigue me are the gigantic birds that are recognisably modern and real juxtaposed against fantastic animals fashioned purely from the imagination. It is for this reason that Bosch has been called “the inventor of monsters and chimeras”. My eye catches a couple in glass or perspex (which is highly unlikely, given its period, but the sphere does look somewhat made of plastic) globe which is attached to a stem, the globe representing the flower, if that’s the idea. The theme of entrapment becomes obvious as I spy more nude figures enclosed in transparent and organic vessels and/or cylinders. There’s a mouse in a transparent cylinder staring at someone who is inside a red fruit. There is also a lady with a pair of cherries above her head, cherries signifying sin, as some sources have said. It is not difficult to see the signs and symbols of debauchery, sin and temptation strewn all over this oil painting.
It is a busy painting, to say the least. And there are just so many interpretations that one can make of it. The Garden of Earthly Delights needs several visitings before any sense can be made of its bizarre nature. Christian themes and symbolisms bookend this panel, they are also rife in the central piece, even though the composition may seem to detract from them. To do justice to this triptych, each panel has to be studied intensely and carefully as each is a separate narrative. Psychoanalytic readings of this triptych are popular but some art historians have rejected this 20th century perspective since the concept of the libido and subconscious were viewed differently in the Middle Ages. What this indicates is how art is viewed and perceived: art is read through a personal, social and cultural lens. More significantly, context is also everything when we perceive art. I find a psychoanalytic reading of the painting to be most interesting, myself, as my mind wanders through the dream-like landscape of the central piece, wondering if this a visual expression of Bosch’s unravelling unconscious.
Hieronymus Bosch passed away in 1516 as records show. His personality remains veiled in mystery as are his life and training as an artist. We do not know the exact number of his surviving works and there have also been debates around certain attribution: we don’t really know if some of the works said to be his are his or copies. However, according to a Wikipedia entry, 25 pieces remain that are genuinely attributed to Hieronymus Bosch. The Garden of Earthly Delight is one. This triptych was purchased by Phillip II of Spain (1 May 1527 – 13 September 1598) in an auction in 1591, and the reason for it being in the ownership of the Museo del Prado.
Doreski’s poem is as surreal as the painting, in my view, although the poem depicts an experience far more realistic than the triptych. Like Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, ‘Depicted by Hieronymus Bosch’ needs several readings for a relatable meaning to emerge. I’m on my fifth and the poem with its run-on lines is fast embedding itself in my mind. I sense loss and recovery.
Bosch, Hieronymus, The Garden of Earthly Delight (between 1490 and 1510), oil on oak panels, Museo del Prado.