The ecstatically demented, sublimely excremental oeuvre of Hieronymus Bosch has no doubt generated more questions, more outright befuddlement, than any other in the history of art. Today it is perhaps easier to grasp its turbulent appeal, but in the highly repressive, post-Inquisition climate of late-15th, early-16th century Europe, what on earth did people see in his work? The answer, at least according to the author, is not very much. Bosch’s most notorious patron, the Spanish monarch Philip II, probably found him a trusty purveyor of the sort of naughty tee-hee grotesqueries the king favored for his private entertainment. The rest of Bosch’s contemporaries mostly saw no further than the conventions of liturgical allegory which Bosch consistently employed, if only as a point of departure. To them, these were pictures of other places: a little bit of heaven and a whole lotta hell. But to Bosch, who was, as Harris argues, a closet heretic thoroughly steeped in the critical shadow lore of Gnosticism, they depicted everyday life on Earth. This was the world as he saw it, a world—to quote from Harris’ wonderfully restrained prose—”fundamentally unsound.”
This heretical take is not new, and while readers have already been regaled with one sectarian rereading after another (Bosch as party-hard Adamite, Bosch as Rosicrucian dandy), Harris’ thesis is convincing. She labels our man a devout Cathar, one of the few remaining supporters of a uniquely bleak and uncompromising brand of dualism originating in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This connection provides a tenable key to decoding the buried church-baiting, hell-on-earth messages of his art, while also suggesting an almost primordial source for the mind-boggling extremity of the present-day horror stories that seem to flow nonstop from that Balkan region.
Hardback: 285 pages