I spent a week’s holiday in Belgium, which afforded me the opportunity to visit a number of important galleries and soak myself in the work of the so-called Flemish Primitives, the early Netherlandish painters who flourished between the 15th and 16th centuries. I say “so-called” primitives, as their work is anything but primitive, rather being a school of sophisticated masterpieces by supremely talented individuals on mostly Christian but sometimes classical themes.
Thinking back, the work of perhaps the best known of these painters, Hieronymus Bosch, was one of my ways into classical Art when I was in my teens. I haven’t had much opportunity to see his work in the originals, there being one solitary, albeit astonishing, Bosch in the National Gallery; I did see a number in the Prado in Spain a few years ago, including the surprisingly small Garden of Earthly Delights triptych. Virtually the first painting I encountered in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels was the Temptation of St Anthony triptych, a much bigger series. I’d known this painting from book reproductions for half my life (we even used the figure of the bird with the letter as part of the publicity for my play Groping in the Dark) but seeing it up close and personal like this was thrilling. The work teams with vibrant detail and writhes with a terrible life. All three panels show scenes from the life of the early Church desert father St Anthony, who was assailed by the world, the flesh and the devil as he attempted to put his mind solely to Godly thoughts in his wilderness retreat. Bosch is a mysterious figure about whom little is known; one theory has it that he leaned towards a Cathar outlook and saw the material world as a stenching (all those decaying fish creatures!) thing of evil. Certainly in Bosch nature is prodigious in its production of horrors; figures mutate between the human, the demonic and the bestial, as if the world were merely a breeding ground for freaks, each one of which has its own peculiarities and quirks. The freaks torment, torture and prey on each other; there’s a curious attitude towards generation which suggests that the act of sexual congress produces this carnival of horrors in which the revellers get off on their terrible antics. The Saint must resist the blandishments of this world, which despite being horrific hold intense fascination. Only contemplation of the person of Christ and His sacrifice can take the Saint away from the demonic world and it takes an enervating effort to achieve communion with Christ (one of my favourite images in the painting, on the left panel, has Anthony being carried away by his companions, utterly exhausted). Even when the Saint appears in meditation in the right panel, his gaze is fixed on a table under which naked sinners are lost in violent, somnambulant revels – but here he has learned some distance, perhaps linking the Saint’s gaze with that of the ideal Artist, who can look at these things as mere vision; for whom the earth itself is a passing vision…
In Ghent, Bosch’s third and last and greatest version of Christ Carrying the Cross assaults the viewer with a vision of intense violence and hatred carrying on around a Jesus who, His mind entirely elsewhere, has transcended it despite still being physically a part of it. It is telling that all but one of the figures around Christ are male, testosterone-fuelled products of a brutal patriarchy against which only withdrawal to an inner world and passivity towards the outer aggression are the only answers. The one female figure is Veronica, who holds her veil on which Christ’s face has been miraculously implanted; she holds this out to the viewer and so Christ looks at us. This has a curious effect, as if I think of the veil with Christ’s face as a mirror, I also must widen my view and take the entire painting as a reflection; I wonder how much I contribute to this hell of aggression portrayed and how I can free myself from it. The aggressive world is timeless and ever-present, no matter what temporal ephemera happen to be around at any given moment; whether Christ (whatever He signifies) is the answer is another issue – the painting certainly posits the question of aggression with unwavering force. It is blindingly obvious that Bosch, in this painting and others, does not see the Church as a means to Christ, as the representatives of religion are themselves a part of the aggressive world and offer no solace; the good thief in the upper right corner swoons in terror at the words of his grisly confessor, who couldn’t be less Christ-like if he tried. The painting is a formal triumph, with Christ at the centre of a cross and the two thieves, Veronica and the hands of Simon of Cyrene at its four corners. I rather admire the gumption and resistance of the bad thief at the right lower corner but clearly it gets him nowhere and only adds to the ugliness of the scene.
Also in Ghent, Bosch’s St Jerome at Prayer echoes the theme of the St Anthony triptych but in a calmer key. St Jerome has abandoned the things of this world – his fine cloak, his book, his hat; he lies abject at the feet of his object of contemplation, Christ on the cross. The world around him is a complete wasteland, an emotional and physical dead end. Yet this desperate natural world cannot harm the Saint, as evidenced by the lion who has been turned here into little more than a gentle lamb.
In Bruges, Bosch’s Last Judgement triptych shows the world’s end. The last days are a war zone, with cities on fire and rats the size of cows in the streets. As ever, the prodigious demons torture the damned. Most medieval Last Judgements confine hell to the right hand corner and give most space to the righteous and the Heavens above. Not so Bosch, for whom hell is almost the whole scene; his left hand panel is a calm scene where a few naked innocents are taught by angels or frolic in serenity and a single Gothic structure stands (in contrast to the many destroyed buildings in hell); there is also a hint here that a more positive vision of sexuality might be possible. According to Bosch, few will find a way out of hell, punishment, retribution which – if I for a moment apply a Blakean reading – can be seen a mindset rather than a physical place (although of course the mindset creates the physical into the embodiment of hell). For me, Bosch’s work is a vision of the mind in action, for the most part a terrible, tormented mind full of violence, enmity, sometimes strange pleasure but finally disease and death; yet there is an alternative mind of calm, knowledge, contemplation. Yet it takes tremendous efforts of concentration to take oneself from one to the other, and that other is always waiting with its pinchers to pinch and pull.
Bosch is the most extreme of the Flemish Primitives and whilst he sums up their vision is also anomalous in the fever pitch of his imagination. Like most of them he was a master craftsman with an enviable sense of composition and a mean ability to colour his scenes in vivid, striking tones. He’s a great place to start as his figures are so utterly indelible that once seen they are never to be forgotten. In my next blog, I’ll talk about some of his fellow Flemish Primitives, who give him some context and not a few of whom are geniuses in themselves. Yet I suspect he’ll always be my first love, who torments me with the most terrible and profound of loves.