Bosch's Paintings: Madness or a Hidden Message? Andrey Elinson Explains
Today, the images created by Hieronymus Bosch show up in the most unexpected places: on socks, pins, T-shirts, tote bags, and hoodies. The artist himself could hardly have imagined that in 500 years, his work would become part of popular culture. All that said, Bosch is still considered one of the most enigmatic artists in history. Art critic Andrey Elinson discusses whether Bosch's art was a phantasmagoria from the mind of a madman or a fully conscious creation with educational and prophetic messages.
An Artist Possessed?
"You might think that Bosch was a prophet. Just take a look at this heap of trash, with plastic straws sticking out of it, adrift at sea in the left segment of The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych," says Andrey Elinson, not without irony. This, of course, is not meant to be taken seriously. But if you do take this seriously, Bosch being a prophet implies that he sent an important message to his contemporaries, which can be revealed by the subsequent generations as well. Prophecy is always multidimensional, just as Bosch's paintings are multidimensional, says the art critic.
"You can, of course, just enjoy contemplating works of art exactly as they are. But human beings are built in a way that drives them to understand everything, to find an explanation, to get to the bottom of a mystery," notes Andrey Elinson. That's why there have been so many attempts at "cracking" Bosch's paintings. The artist was rumoured to be a heretic, a practitioner of black magic, and an alchemist; some said he was possessed by demons, and others, that he was using psychoactive substances. "Attitudes to his bizarre genius swung back and forth like a pendulum: at times, his paintings were approached as a well-hidden spiritual message, at others, as a product of insanity," says the expert.
"And that's fair. Let's try to set aside everything we know about art history, surrealism, or postmodernism, and just look at one of Bosch's popular paintings as is. Again, take the Garden, for example, or The Temptation of St. Anthony (by the way, Bosch did not give the names of his paintings, they were added much later). Many people's first thoughts will probably go along these lines: a mentally sound person would never imagine or paint something like this. There is this trope in popular culture: if a child draws a frightening picture at school, their teacher is sure to run and get their parents and a therapist. This situation is more or less the same...," the art critic reasons.
Secret Message or Heresy
Andrey Elinson would like to remind the reader: to avoid modernization. That is the first warning that novices in the field of history and culture studies are given by experienced professionals. "We try to understand Bosch by applying the categories of our own worldview to him. But more than 500 years have passed since his death. And the changes that have occurred in culture during all this time are not even evolutionary; they are revolutionary," the expert notes. Bosch was a man of his time; therefore, when interpreting the images in his art, it is useful to think about how they were viewed by his contemporaries, says Andrey Elinson. We should not be shocked by the era's aesthetics: just think of the bizarre depictions of animals in bestiaries or in the marginalia of medieval manuscripts.
Most admirers of Bosch's work have always been convinced that each of his paintings is a puzzle with a very sensible solution. "Be that as it may, we have to ask: did the author himself want the viewer to solve his puzzle?" Andrey Elinson argues. According to him, many historians and art experts are not so certain about this. Linda Harris, one of the researchers of Bosch's work, suggests that his paintings reflect Cathar teachings that are far from accessible to everyone. Catharism was a medieval movement whose members, Cathars, viewed the world in a dualistic way: according to them, all material things were evil and all spiritual things were good. They further believed that the world had actually been created by the devil, whom anyone unaware of the truth would mistake for God. "If one uses the interpretation suggested by Harris, one can unravel, or rather, convince themselves that they have unravelled, quite a few secrets concealed by Bosch," says Andrey Elinson. "On the left side of the Garden, we can see the fountain of life, a traditional feature in medieval depictions of paradise, but it looks a bit odd. It sits on a pile of dirt (the trash island we were just talking about). In the centre of the fountain, there is an owl. Harris writes that the owl in medieval culture often symbolized the devil. This means that the fountain is not a fountain of paradise at all, but the key of death in Satan's garden. All the material things that he creates are evil, a trap for immortal souls," recounts Andrey Elinson.
At this point, everything might seem to fall into place, except for one nuance, the art critic continues. The majority of reputable researchers of Bosch's life and work believe that he was not a Cathar. Not just because Bosch actually belonged to the Brotherhood of Our Lady, the urban community of the noble and pious citizens of 's-Hertogenbosch, but also because his lifestyle was typical of an urban artist at the time. "It would be been impossible to both live this life and follow the teachings of heretical exclusivism... And his customers (some of whom were, to put it mildly, highly educated) should have had even less trouble than we did with recognizing such an obvious Cathar message; especially since Cathars were one of the most serious pains in the Catholic Church's neck. The latter, by the way, had no issues with Bosch," notes Andrey Elinson.
He recommends exercising caution when interpreting allegories. First of all, we must not forget about the historical context. Each image could have a culturally established meaning, but sometimes the same symbol could mean different, and even completely opposite, things. For example, some sources did, in fact, associate the owl, as a nocturnal bird of prey, with the devil. But others described the owl as a symbol of wisdom and being able to find one's way in the dark. In that case, it doesn't seem out of place in the Garden of Eden. "Another example is the fish, which traditionally represents Jesus Christ in Christian iconography, but is linked to something sinful in many of Bosch's paintings: for instance, in The Temptation of St. Anthony, you can see fish surrounded by demonic forces," Andrey Elinson continues.
A Puzzle for the Ages
Other traditional medieval symbols can be found in Bosch's paintings just as easily. There are depictions of bread as a reference to the Eucharist, lamb as a reference to Jesus, grapes as a reference to the kingdom of God, strawberries as a reference to temptation, dogs and pigs as a reference to uncleanness. Bosch also used alchemical symbolism: the very first things that instantly come to mind are numerous flasks and tubes, as well as the mysterious red ball (The Adoration of the Magi and The Garden) that many interpret as a reference to the philosopher's stone in the form of a carbuncle. The character with the wand in his hands in The Marriage Feast At Cana could be an alchemist, trying to create a false miracle as opposed to the true one performed by Christ.
But Bosch would not have been a genius if he had only used and combined the symbols that were already available to him, notes Andrey Elinson. Many art historians believe that by creating his images, the artist gave new meanings to what he was depicting. Some of these meanings are easy to read; others are still debated. "But perhaps this is why today's audience, living in the paradigm of postmodernism and sophisticated perception of contemporary art, loves Bosch's paintings so much, seeing the potential of co-authorship, the chance to find meanings that resonate with us," says the art critic. Each of this painter's works is a mystery that we can spend an infinite amount of time trying to figure out. We are separated from the author by entire eras, cultural layers, and his own rich imagination. "But this is what makes these puzzles all the more compelling," Andrey Elinson concludes with confidence.