"What interested Bosch despite all his otherwise unmedieval modernity was the revelation of what might be concealed within an action or behind it." (1)
In Roman mythology Saturn ruled as the god of agriculture and his reign was said to preside over a time of great prosperity. Within Roman society, an annual festival was dedicated to the legendary king. During these Saturnalian festivals, courts and schools were closed: "Slaves enjoyed freedom of speech and temporary liberty and were waited on by their masters. The term is figuratively applied to any occasion of unbridled riot or crime." A similar festival was conducted by the church, where young people, dubbed 'the abbots of unreason' directed the proceedings. "But the ceremonies quickly degenerated into buffoonery". In both cases these festivals are similar in that they involve an inversion of rank:
The fool becomes the king.
The king becomes the fool.
This inversion of the poles of authority is the role of the fool as he breaks through normal protocol to say what he believes without reservation.
The role of the fool was later institutionalized and the fool or jester became an attachment to royal courts and the fool's profession could be defined by the license they were granted that allowed them to say anything they wished and get away with it.
The head costume of the fool is derived from that of the ass and his ears. In festivals celebrating the ass that appeared in the 'The Flight to Egypt', the priest would conclude by braying three times, to be answered by the congregation who would bray three times also, thus officially closing the meeting. This braying emanates from the clergy in the painting The Ship of Fools by the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch, as backing vocals to this anthem of the same name by Sebastian Brant:
"We travel through every land
We seek through every port and every town
We travel around with great harm
And cannot reach
The shore where we should land
Our journeying is without end
For no one knows where we should land
And has not one peaceful day, one peaceful night
To wisdom none of us pays heed." (2)
I find it also fascinating to describe the tendencies in the naming of certain deceptive botanical and geological features with reference to the fool. Fool's Gold, for example, or Fool's Parsley, which to all outward appearances looks like the real thing but whose smell confirms the plant as an imposter. The fool's indifference to the accumulation of knowledge and too much book learning is one of his main attributes. This ignorant characteristic may also define a poetic nature who is prone to search for truth in the world like some curious child wandering perhaps through some grassland gathering grasses that to him seem to resemble wheat or barley but are in fact bitter wild plants not fit for eating. I would wish to describe the small pouch that the fool carries with him as some preserved specimen of our appendix that, before it began to wither away inside us, permitted us to forage over the veldt with care and purpose: thus the edible plant was discovered only through trial and error.
Imagine the predecessors of most of our common vegetables today growing in their original South American climes. There the tomato is a sprawling ground creeper that claims territory with an abandon unmatched by its far-off cousin tied and staked and forced to be a bush or a tree in a greenhouse. These greenhouse hybrids sport fool's titles:
Hieronymus Bosch reminds me of the geneticist who engineered such mutations, or someone who at least described them. I have always found the images of Hieronymus Bosch hard to look at. They have always seemed to me to reek of caricature or social commentary. The symbols in the paintings of Bosch always strike me as un-elemental and not in the least economical. Their iconography seems unstitched like each little broken piece of a fallen statue put up on their own new plinths. The imagery of Hieronymus Bosch reminds me of the imagery of Hogarth, Daumier or Goya because it is first and foremost a commentary on society. Bosch's imagery seems like Modern art in that its iconography is self-conscious and not economical and hermetic like an icon. The problems artists face today when dealing with iconography that never seems to be entirely their own, must be similar to the type of problems Hieronymus Bosch encountered in his day. The work of Hieronymus Bosch may allude to the fact that the process of self-consciously stripping down and refilling a symbol's meaning may be the only legitimate practice of the artist who exists in a world in which information has become anonymous due simply to the fact that everyone can use it and that this iconoclasm leads to aesthetic reform.
"This was no doubt the first time in painting that human qualities, vices and sins were no longer presented in allegorical personages equipped with attributes alluding to the acts they personify…He breaks down the symbols into their components, made tools of them and used them as he wished, so that, if nothing else, they at least stand for the principle behind the action performed." (4)
Another image by Hieronymus Bosch entitled Accidia comes from a tabletop painting representing the Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things. This scene depicts the sin of slothfulness. In order to elaborate this image I would like to give it the borrowed title of:
"the finality of the useful" (5)
No action seems valid or worthy of pursuing. No one thing can be fixed upon or properly understood. The monk's cell is a microcosm of that vast ocean over which the Ship of Fools sweeps-or faith itself is that unnavigable and limitless expanse. I am reminded of the legend of Saint Augustine. One day the saint came across a boy with a bucket who was attempting to transfer the water from the sea into a small hole he had dug on the shore. On seeing this, the saint told the boy he could not possibly fit all the water of the ocean into this small hole. But the boy said to the saint "Then how do you hope to transfer the infinite mystery of the Trinity into your small brain?" And with that the boy disappeared.
More than being temporarily confounded by the immensity of his devotional quest-the monk has become vain within it.
"Monk's accidia took on the characteristics of the melancholia and paralysis of the will which all too often befall those pledged to God. But in the everyday life of lay persons it is of no less import, a kind of creeping timidity that makes it impossible to come to grips with even the most urgent and essential." (6)
For the reason that his will is paralyzed, the monk is a fool. I think this image is perhaps the most appropriate image of Hell in that it depicts self imposed limbo where things, instead of being swallowed up by some deluge, just seem to remain the same: life persists while moaning; "what's the use?"
To return to the fate of hybrids amongst the desolation of the nuclear winter or within the festering heat of the greenhouse, ravaged by radiation sickness or skin cancer, trying to continue to do the things they have always done-trying to sleep at night and to wake up to eat and drink except that gradually their hair is falling out or perhaps they have diarrhoea again.
"The greatest fool in history was Christ. This great fool was crucified by the commercial Pharisees, by the authority of the respectable, and by the mediocre official culture of the Philistines. And has not the church crucified Christ more deeply and subtly by its hypocrisy, than any pagan ? This Divine Fool whose immortal compassion and holy folly placed a light in the dark hands of the world." (7)
Christ in the picture Ecce Homo (Frankfurt) hobbles out onto his stage ushered in with the words: "Behold the Man!" Someone has said about this painting that it presents not so much Christ's suffering as the horror of a crowd incited into violence by a few worthless remarks. The main grimacing mass jeers: "Crucify Him !", while the donors plead: "Save us Christ Redeemer !" The rising hatred of the crowd, Christ dragged out onto the stage dripping blood-there exists a clear order of a succession of events. Unlike an icon, in front of which the devotee perhaps experienced a suspension and elimination of time, Bosch's organization of content is unrealistic: it presents an order of events that are happening anticipating that something different and perhaps more terrible is about to happen. The paintings of Hieronymus Bosch present tableaux of time. One experiences not the present of the content of the image itself, but reads it and orders it into categories of events with different potentials. The figures in the background gathered around the town hall over which hangs the flag of Islam (a supposed enemy of Christianity); the two figures on the bridge gazing into the flow of the river; the blazing torch and the swords waiting in the scabbards of the jeering crowd; the dripping Christ slowly losing blood-all these events borrow different measures of time.
Another version of the same theme (Philadelphia) seems to exploit the whole frontality of the icon picture plane to force toward the viewer's realm a rotting mass that crowds the space normally reserved for the single close-up of Christ, thus showing clearly the way in which humanity violates and disintegrates a sacred ideal and engenders Christ's general separation or disappearance from humanity.
"Like all poetical natures he loved ignorant people. He knew that in the soul of one who is ignorant there is always room for a great idea. But he could not stand stupid people, especially those who are made stupid by education. People who are full of opinions not one of which they even understand, a peculiarly modern type." (8)
While the rest of the world seems festering and riddled by maggots and radiation, Jesus stands ripe and glistening like a Dutch still life that is actually infested with moths, flies and caterpillars. It was as if we had pulled away from the containment of the iconographic close-up, transgressing its mirror surface into time and the humanity who watch its passing, Christ is brought in like some alien and again the inflicted ones must witness him:
"Behold the man indeed !" the crowd scoffs. "Even if we are a worthless lot and scourged by illness and sin, at least we lived our own different lives. Why should we deny ourselves as he has ? How could we take up our crosses and follow him when that was destined to be his lot. Behold the man-but he is his own man. While he yearns for death and escape from this world we must wait here-for we live here. " The lamenting Christ is like Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, who, in love with himself may have experienced similar yearnings:
"How sad it is !" murmured Dorian Gray with eyes still fixed upon his own portrait. "How sad it is ! I shall grow old and horrible and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June. If it were only the other way! If it were I who was always young and the picture that was to grow old. For that-for that I would give anything. Yes there is nothing in the whole world I would not give ! I would give my soul for that !" (9)
In these images by Bosch our relationship towards Christ changes from a kind of passionate devotion into a compassionate understanding whereas previously the icon was a clean cold and resolute plate facing the world and reflecting it –we had to believe in the icon's capacity, in something that refused to give and would not come apart so that we could reflect upon ourselves and our potential (our capacity) in relation to the anomaly of the icon. One needed faith to stand in front of the cold mirrored plate of the icon and possess the capacity to become like it and have no capacity any longer-to finally hold nothing back until like the icon, one became a conduit. But this non-restraint, instead of hollowing us out to become a pipe to god, would allow us to act on every instinct: we are capacitors, let us store every manner of energy ! We would live life on earth with no escape-no chance to drift upwards-not even in death-we would just rot away in the earth.
"Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow and hollow-cheeked and dull eyed. You will suffer horribly…Ah ! realize your youth while you have it. Don't squander the youth of your days listening to the tedious trying to improve the hopeless failure or giving away your life to the ignorant the common and the vulgar. These are the sickly aims the false ideals of our age. Live ! Live the wonderful life that is in you. Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing…A new hedonism –that is what our century wants. There is nothing you could not do. The world belongs to you for a season…" (10)
(1) LINFERT, C.: Hieronymus Bosch, Harry Abrams, New York, p.42
(2) TOLNAY, C.: Hieronymus Bosch, Methuen, London, p.25
(3) HESSAYON,D.G.: The Vegetable Expert, pbi Publications, Waltham Cross, p. 101
(4) Op. Cit., Hieronymus Bosch (Linfert), p42
(5) COLLINS, C.: The Vision of the Fool, The Grey Walls Press, London, p.15
(6) Op. Cit, Hieronymus Bosch (Linfert), p. 44
(7) Op. Cit, The Vision of the Fool, p. 18
(8) WILDE, O.: The Garden of Eros, Paul Elek, London, p. 50
(9) Ibid.,p. 10
(10)Ibid., p. 102
LINFERT, C.: Hieronymus Bosch, Harry Abrams, New York, 1989
COLLINS, C: The Vision of the Fool, The Grey Walls Press, London, 1947
TOLNAY, C.: Hieronymus Bosch, Methuen, London, 1966
WILDE, O: The Garden of Eros, Paul Elek, London, 1961
HESSAYON, D.G.: The Vegetable Expert, pbi Publications, Waltham Cross, 185