BY Fernanda Eberstadt in Features | 08 SEP 16
Featured in
Issue 5

The Bearded Woman Is Being Crucified

In the 500 years since Bosch's death, his art has lost none of its power to reflect the complexities of our lives

BY Fernanda Eberstadt in Features | 08 SEP 16

The harvester leading the hayride to hell has a mouse’s head, clad in a white wimple, and wears a beaded dress and a gigantic fish about his waist. The horse is actually a clay jug pissing wine from its rear-spout; its rider has pheasant wings and a spiky chestnut-conker for a head. Death rides a fish through the sky; a duck-billed platypus is ice-skating; a fleet of black swallows shoot forth from a man’s flaming bottom. A bearded woman saint is being crucified.

And God? Every time he tries to do something reasonable, such as materialize Eve from a human rib, he gets dive-bombed by rebel angels in the shape of flying centipedes. Are we having fun yet? 

In Hieronymus Bosch’s Northern Gothic dreamscapes, surfaces buckle, genders and species fuse: fish scales, salamander underbellies and werewolf fur sprout where we expect human flesh. Some of the artist’s comic gags play on the permeability of the seemingly solid: brittle fruits that hatch like eggs, revealing clusters of maggot-sized humans. Kitchen ladles and hurdy-gurdies become instruments of torture; the fountain in the Garden of Eden seems to be made of synthetic flesh.

Hieronymous Bosch, Saint Anthony, c.1500-05, oil on panel, 1.3 x 2.2 m. Courtesy: Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Five hundred years after his death, Bosch’s candy-pink and iridescent-blue visions of a manically hybrid multiverse have lost none of their power to disturb. His art appeals to our most primal intuitions: the child’s sense that the world is not what it seems, that cannibals lurk in the bedroom closet and that a crack in the sidewalk could plummet us into a land of talking robins. His winged triptychs — surprisingly small — use the familiar syntax of saints’ lives and nativities in order to undermine our sense of reality, opening us up to an electrifying Other, a merrily paranoid delirium in which Alice in Wonderland meets Hannibal Lecter. 

For 21st-century critics, the question of Bosch’s viewpoint remains as vexing as it was for his contemporaries. Are his monsters intended as humorous grotesques, collectibles for a princely Wunderkammer, or is he deadly serious about the wages of sin? Was the ‘devil-maker’ (as one 16th-century source called him) a heretic or — even worse — an atheist? Or is he a normative Christian showing us, in art historian Joseph Leo Koerner’s words, that the world is ‘an enemy territory that should be held in contempt’?

The more we learn about Bosch, the harder it is to pin him down. Born c.1450 into a long line of artist-craftsmen, he lived all his life in the same market square of the North Brabant town of ’s-Hertogenbosch. When he married (his wife was a prosperous merchant’s daughter; they had no children), he moved to the swankier north side of the square, but kept the family workshop in his childhood home. Although his art’s otherness tempts us to read him as a proto-Henry Darger — a lone misfit crouched in his garage hallucinating wars between rat-headed toads and armoured mermaids — in fact, Bosch seems to have been surprisingly well-adjusted and clubbable. He was a paid-up member of what Erwin Panofsky described as the ‘furiously conventional’ Confraternity of Our Lady, one of the pre-Reformation lay groups devoted to respiritualizing religious practice in the Low Countries. What’s more, his work was hugely popular during his lifetime: the counts and archdukes of the Burgundian Netherlands commissioned his paintings for their private collections, while the market for copies — and forgeries — of Boschian marvels boomed. By the mid-16th century, Renaissance connoisseurs such as Philip II of Spain and François I of France — patrons respectively of  Titian and Leonardo da Vinci — were among the collectors of this Late Medieval maverick. (Bosch’s Table of the Seven Deadly Sins, 1505–10, now in the Prado, hung on the wall of Philip’s bedroom in the Escorial.)

The last great artist of the Northern pre-Renaissance, Bosch is also the patron saint of our new millennium of drones and clones.

This disconnect between what seems to us the inassimilable alienness of Bosch’s art and its widespread success makes the conundrum even spicier. If Bosch isn’t a paranoid schizophrenic or a joker, what then is he telling us about the world we inhabit?

If we can’t definitively say what Bosch’s dreamworld meant to him, we can say what it means to us today. Indeed, it is precisely because his work remains so enigmatic, so radically unknowable, that it has been all the more possible for 20th- and 21st-century artists to ‘complete’ it. From Franz Kafka, whose stories endow creatures straight from a Boschian freak show with an empathetic inwardness, and Francis Bacon, whose howling harpies express the existential horror implicit in Bosch’s theology, through to the macabre baroque erotica of David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet (1986), Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) or the studio photographs of Joel-Peter Witkin, how we read Bosch tells us who we are.

In 1909, the paleontologist Charles Walcott discovered a 500-million-year-old fossil bed in the Canadian Rockies in which was incrusted a range of unimaginably weird life forms. The Burgess Shale included such wonders as a soft-bodied creature with five eyes on stalks, a row of flippers and a hose-like nose ending in a fringed claw. To Stephen Jay Gould, whose 1989 book on the discovery is titled Wonderful Life, these fossils are a tribute to contingency, a refutation of triumphalist progress narratives. The Opabinia and the Hallucigenia belonged to an animal kingdom that was no less ‘fit’ than ours: it just had the bad luck to get hit by a major extinction event. For many Bosch lovers, his art has this same lost strangeness of an alternative creation.

The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1510) — the title is a 19th-century addition — presents a spectacle unprecedented among Old Masters: four different worlds and time-frames, none of which are ours. Here, there are no haymakers, peddlers or barmaids to anchor us in the everyday. Its central panel — in which diaphanous young humans, white and black, cavort in consensual freedom with a fantastical variety of oversized birds, fruits, animals, chimera — is so far out that historians still can’t agree on what it’s about. The painting offers a counter-narrative to biblical history: a world in which man didn’t fall, but remained at one with an indecently gorgeous nature — a living Burgess Shale, if you will. Today, in the age of factory farming, STDs, ethnic violence and environmental catastrophe, its vision of giddy harmony looks like an extraterrestrial utopia.

Hieronymous Bosch, Table of Seven Deadly Sins, c.1505-10, oil on panel, 1.2 x 1.5 m. Courtesy: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

If we examine the two wings framing this central panel, however, Bosch’s message becomes darker. To our left is the Garden of Eden, where God introduces a luscious Eve to a newly awakened Adam. All good, except that, at their feet, a wildcat kills a lizard, a chimera devours a frog and a variety of amphibious monsters war in a murky pool. What is Bosch telling us about the chances of human goodness when his Eden already reeks of corruption and slaughter?

No surprise, then, that on the right-hand panel, depicting Hell, all our worldly pastimes have been turned against us in a diabolical jiu jitsu: the musician is being crucified on his lute; the gambler’s severed hand still holds the die; the rabbit carries the huntsman on a spit. But it’s the landscape formed by the two folding wings of the exterior that strikes us today with a new poignancy. The grisaille painting shows a transparent globe containing a drab, watery wasteland void of colour, humans, birds, fish or animals: the First Day of Creation, surely, when the Earth is just emerging from its primal chaos. To the contemporary viewer, however, living at a time when natural disasters can once more be seen as the consequence of human wrongdoing, Bosch’s scene also suggests the end of life on Earth. In the foreground lies the shattered wreckage of a horned helmet or, perhaps, a skull; in the far distance, a sprinkling of palaces and churches that soon will be engulfed by the rising seas. A tiny grey God sits high in a corner, his raised forefinger in Hans Belting’s words, ‘hesitant, almost shy, as though the world he had created was already slipping beyond his control’.

The last great artist of the Northern pre-Renaissance, Bosch is also the patron saint of our new millennium of drones and clones. His nightscapes of firebombed cities, refugee hordes and animal-robot mutants look uncannily prescient. His art — in which joy, wild freedom, curiosity and terror are entwined — feels ever more crucial to a culture in which heaven is unthinkable, hell is everywhere and the fruits of the unearthly garden are sweet but toxic.

Fernanda Eberstadt is a novelist living in London, UK. Her essays have appeared in New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker.