Few museum moments (or hours) are more entertaining than standing with your nose almost pressed to a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Detail chases detail; one frightful scene sweeps away the next. Anything human suffers, and demons have more fun the more bizarre and tormenting their cruel inventions become. Humans are pan fried, boiled, skewered. They are impaled on spikes, swords, knives, beaks, claws, fangs, wheels embedded with nails. In Bosch’s world, genetics have gone totally bonkers: insects have human heads and frog legs sticking through a solid carapace, and that shell is protected by a piece of medieval armor. Rebel angels fall like rain from a cloudy heaven, but they may be bugs by the time they reach earth and then further devolve into long-beaked demons in hell. Landscapes reveal the degree of sinfulness in the world. The Fall is instant: at the very moment Adam and Eve are driven from Eden a lion falls upon a deer, and the endless round of mortality begins even before our universal mother and father learn to cover their nakedness.
We never had a chance.
Milton called this the Felix Culpa, the fortunate fall. The Fall was inherent in the act of creation, and salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ was inherent in the act of Original Sin.
It appears that Bosch’s secret hope was this: if his imagination is great enough, if he can re-arrange and reshape more and more of God’s creation in ways both terrifying and amusing, perhaps the Last Judgment will look kindly on him. He has paid attention; he has focused; he has faced terror and mastered it. This should be worth some divine consideration. So his imagination blossoms, flourishes, goes for broke, gallops apace, soars, out-Frankensteins Shelley.
This triptych is in the Academy of Fine Art just across the way from the Secession Museum here in Vienna. It was painted between 1504 and 1508. The three panels are simply arranged: Paradise on the left, the Judgment and the various punishments in the larger middle panel, and an intimate glimpse at Hell and its master on the right. Here’s the whole:
I don’t recall any other painting of Paradise which also features the rebel angels being cast out of heaven. But those rebels deserve to be here because they are, in fact, the raison d’etre of the Creation. Also note how that optimistic, fecund green of Paradise is mocked in the other two panels. The same color appears, but horridly.
Some closer views of Paradise:
Jesus/God performs the surgery to create Eve. Bosch has it right in a way we don’t normally see: neither has a belly button! But there are oddities, too: Adam seems to have no sex whatever, and Eve has the beginnings of green leaves sprouting fruitfully from her genitals. To the left, Paradise gets a little ambiguous. A cock sits in a tree, an ambivalent Catholic symbol. Is he the cock who practices the vigilance, the watchfulness necessary to lead a pure life? Or is he the reminder of Peter’s denial of Christ, a weakness Christ says will occur three times before the cock crows? Both may be suggested by that dark, potentially dangerous, forest. And that fruit on the ground: is this the fruit of the Tree of Life, and has it fallen because it’s ripe or because it’s rotten? Do Adam and Even have a chance?
Once again, Bosch surpasses other artists: yes, the serpent has the traditional, misogynist female head and torso. But unlike, for instance, the carving between the front doors of Notre Dame, this serpent has a long, scaly tail the the clawed rear legs God disposes of after the Fall. Also, note that the rooster has been replaced by an owl. In Catholic symbolism, the owl represents mourning and desolation. In the medieval bestiaries Bosch would have known, owls represent the Jews, who preferred darkness to light when they denied the divinity of Christ.
And so, our fore-parents are shown the gate:
Into the unknown forest we go. When they emerge, they’ll be in the barren, mountainous land where a sweaty brow accompanies the labor of survival. Meanwhile Nature has already become, as Tennyson says, red in tooth and claw. The lion slays the deer and will no longer lie down with the lamb.
All that remains for us to know is the ultimate cause, the crime that hovers over creation like a thunder cloud:
God needn’t bloody his own hands. Michael’s mighty army of angels is sufficient. The fallen ones are radically denatured as they fall. Some commentators say Bosch sees them as insects by the time they sink beneath the cloudy firmament. They look more like rain drops to me.
We can follow the progress of the Paradise panel pretty easily because we know the story and we know the conventional symbols Bosch uses. When we get to the main panel–is it purgatory?–the rules change. We might hope Bosch has read Dante and can therefore parcel out punishments according to Dante’s system of labeling some crimes more serious than others. Bosch depicts the Seven Deadly Sins, not the more personal list Dante constructs. All are deadly; all share the same degree of culpability, so they all trip over each other within this confined landscape: Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Wrath, Greed, and Sloth.
Maybe Pride is the worst. Some theologians think so. Therefore, maybe you can find Pride in this panoply of tortures and cruelties. But maybe not. Here is the whole of the panel and then small sections. You decide who’s who.
Got the lay of the land? Now here are the neighborhoods:
I particularly like the cooking skills here.
A good emblem of lust: an ape misplaying a lute as he serenades a naked lady.
And why do fallen souls need a blacksmith to shoe them in iron?
Is that God behind Christ’s left hand? He looks like a boy leaning on the bleacher railing at Fenway Park. This figure appears, at least, in the same color robe God wears during the war in Heaven.
And finally, in the right hand panel. we are introduced to hell and its denizens.
Satan’s belly is a furnace. A scholar-devil in pince nez reads a list of today’s arrivals, a fallen woman learns to read infernal history, or perhaps the book of her sins. Astonishing musicians accompany all this chaos.
Like clubbers behind the velvet rope, the damned wait to enter hell.
And that’s a sad commentary.
See what Bosch knew?