Thursday, January 10, 2008

El jardin de las delicias -- Part 4 The Garden


During the summer between my sophomore and junior years at the University of Notre Dame, while in the throes of newfound Catholic piety, I crafted a coffee table in my father's basement workshop, with a tiled chessboard built into the top. I designed and jigsawed a chess set, thirty-two pieces enameled black and white, hollowed and weighted at the bottom with solder, the bottoms then covered with green felt. I was hugely proud of the entire production, the finest thing I had ever made.

I was also racked with guilt. Pride is the first of the Deadly Sins. We are called -- so I believed -- to keep our eye on the prize, and the prize is not in this world but the next. The sin called for penance. I would chasten my pride by destroying one of the chess pieces, the white king. I laid the poor fellow on the cement basement floor. I raised the hammer. Then, in a change of heart, I replaced the king with a more easily replaceable pawn. Smash!

As you can see, I was neither a very good sinner nor a very good penitent. I was also already on my way toward apostasy from the bipolar Catholic theology of Paradise and Hell, those enclosing wings of Bosch's triptych. Already my secret longing was for the Garden of Earthly Delights.

The traditional interpretation of the central panel of Bosch's masterpiece is humankind's descent into wickedness, to be paid for in the fiery torments of Hell. And certainly we know from his other works that Bosch had a moralist's regard for sin. But no one could have painted the Garden of Earthly Delights who had not felt -- and did not long for -- pleasures of the flesh. I look at the Garden and see a world that is far more attractive than the sterile precincts of Paradise or the shuddering horrors of Hell.

Men and women, black and white, humans and beasts, enjoy a peaceable kingdom, a world that while tolerant of unconventional desires is devoid of violence. Couples make love in bubbles, in pools, in orchards, in teepees, in mussel shells, on grassy lawns. Everywhere there are luscious fruits -- cherries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries. The children of Adam cavort with the children of Eve, the lion lies down with the lamb. In the central pool the women bathe, their golden tresses hanging down; their companions circle, an unending parade celebrating the diversity of life. Even the birds, recognizable by species, look on with charmed delight, sharing fruits.

Bosch has pulled a sly trick. Never has "wickedness" been made to look so inviting. Forget for the moment, he seems to say, death, judgment, heaven, hell, all the dark preachings of Savonarola, the burkas, the hairshirts, the smashed chess piece, all those catalogues of sin. Enjoy beauty and pleasure where you find it. Treasure what is yours -- this Earth, this flesh, these creatures, these fruits and flowers. Let Venus rule; not gloomy Saturn or violent Mars.

I look again at the presumed portrait of the artist in the panel Hell. The old master seems to wink.