My mother introduced me to the works of Hieronymus Bosch back when I believed God lived in our church, where I thought He stuck mostly to a room filled with money from the collection plates. I cannot remember why she showed me a book of Bosch’s paintings. I do know I snuck the book from the shelves whenever I could.
Whenever I remember the world the way I imagined it during my childhood, I recall a world of devils riding nude women, a world of bodies piled on the scorched soil of burning landscapes, a world of cages, monsters, fires. The world of a young boy is already one of innocence teetering on the edge of ruin (especially our world in the 1980s, with nuclear obliteration looming, jobless fathers stumbling home with mean fists, and strangers ever lurking in the mall shadows); so the world of Judgment that Bosch promised was a world that seemed entirely possible and true.
Certainly, as a boy I did not believe in salvation so much as momentary escape, and I do not know how much salvation is promised in the paintings of Bosch. Christ, as depicted in one of the painter’s works, does not extend a hand so much as hover over the ruin.
And even as a boy I understood that a landscape of nude men and women frolicking and fondling each other—stuffing themselves with enormous fruits that doubtless left them dripping and sticky and giggling—was a world of great sensual delight (and what a confusion to the mind of a boy, this endless impossible orgy). I cannot remember whether I found these illustrations arousing, whether I traced the lines of hips, of breasts, whether I dreamed my body inhabiting these worlds. Since then I have certainly written of boys who dream of such pleasures, who long to burst, sinful and sticky, from their innocent husks.
I see now how Bosch is a great one for juxtaposing paradise and hell, sin and judgment in his triptychs, and I realize how profound it must have been for a young mind to move from the mindless titillation of paradise to the scene in which those men and women remained nude but vomited blackness into bottomless pits; or slumped seemingly lifeless, groped by strange beasts; or found themselves stuffed into the beaked mouths of birdlike monsters, only to be defecated into deeper pits. From then onward, on some level, I must have appreciated that any paradise, any world of pleasure, was surely a world doomed.
Certainly it is possible I have, to some extent, conflated the images of Bosch’s triptychs by overlapping the delights and the torments until they seem entirely one. Perhaps they are already, in some sense, different reflections of the same image. Certainly the lesson has stuck; recently I wrote a story including a fictitious book titled The Art of Lovemaking, which I imagined to be illustrated with images of nude corpses piled and intertwined with each other. As I wrote, I believed I was describing photographs of mass graves and industrial-scale murder. Now I wonder: Are those piled bodies , in truth, Bosch’s tormented souls? Does the smoke coiling around them come not from smokestacks but from those volcanoes rimming the horizons of Bosch’s obliterated landscapes? I certainly remember little, if anything, of those long-ago Sundays spent in church, other than my attention shifting to God in his room of money, as He watched and judged us in our pews. But perhaps the lessons learned from such paintings, once taken in, are impossibly deeper than the deepest cadences of pastors and priests.