Another gold star for Phaidon's 'Art & Ideas' series, in this case, Laurinda Dixon on Bosch for a lucid, engaging account about this artist about which we know so little apart from his works (the canon of which scientific investigation is slowly establishing).
What is so successful about this series is how it places the artist in their time in such a way that in learning how they are answering their contemporary demands and issues, they are enabled to breakthrough to 'timelessness'. Unlike much art history, focused on analysing stylistic development and influence which is of interest mostly to the specialist, this focuses on what the art might mean both to its original audience and to ourselves.
The fault line of interpretation in Bosch is how conventionally Catholic is he: orthodox or heretic? Dixon lands firmly, but cleverly, in the orthodox camp. Cleverly because, as she notes, what it meant to be orthodox in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century has radically shifted in part. What has been retained is a clear moral vision around temptation and its overcoming through a focus on the exemplary life of Christ and of his saints and His grace, what is different is living in a very different cosmological landscape where the conventions (and complexities) of alchemy (most notably) apparently no longer apply.
It is in her discussion of alchemy that Dixon is most illuminating. Many contemporary notions of alchemists as 'a hidden tradition' of esoteric specialists dodging persecution by the Church are simply wrong. Alchemy was a tradition that permeated not only high but popular culture, was patronised by royalty and church and over-flowed into what we would now imagine as 'science', most especially medicine. In Bosch its signature is everywhere and it being so does not signify that Bosch was a 'heretic'.
Her reading of Bosch's masterpiece, 'The Garden of Earthly Delights' is particularly illuminating mapping its four stages - triptych and cover painting - against a traditional fourfold alchemic pattern of mimicking the creation of the world, playing within that creation, enabling new combinations to form, dissolving them and recovering them in a renewed and purged creation: a new earth. She shows how many of the motifs that appear to us obscure begin to clarify when you read them against the processes, patterns, symbols and tools of the alchemic life.
In passing, she also happily reminds us that Renaissance attitudes to the body were a lot freer than they are in our post-Victorian world. You needed not be a heretic of the free spirit to paint nudity, sexual congress and 'vulgarity' as it was within mainstream culture a great deal more acceptable than it is today. Her illustrations of this are wonderful (and a touch bizarre) including a tin badge (of which hundreds have been found) of a winged and crowned flying phallus that was distributed to pilgrims during religious festivals!
Likewise you get a vivid sense of the inevitability of Luther's breakthrough - Bosch's world is both orthodox yet highly critical of the failures of the institutional church but more than this it is permeated with a deep sense of the world's spiralling moral failure. Human beings are trapped, hedged in on all sides by the consequence of their sin, and though Bosch offers images of salvation by exemplary work, you sense that he knows (the culture knows) that this simply is not enough, something must break in from outside, namely God's grace. It is time for a necessary rebalancing, away from 'indulgences' (in both the religious and secular sense) and for grace to reach in and transform, symbolised (and hoped for) in Bosch's repeated appeal to the 'Apocalypse' and the 'End Time'.
However, interpretation aside, Bosch remains enigmatic in a way that few artists can compete with, even when we may have decided that he was painting within the 'orthodox' world of his time as solid burgher running a successful artistic workshop (and other enterprises) and being a leading light in the local religious fraternity, it does not capture the sheer fertility, seriousness (including the pointed humour) of his imagination, that makes it so arresting, whether one enjoys it or no. For that we have only the wonder that we bring to contemplating the works themselves - one human meeting another.