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article imageThe Millennium by Hieronymus Bosch

By John Rickman     Dec 12, 2007 in Arts
The Spanish painter Luis Barba unveiled his latest work at this years Art Basel Miami Beach--an art show patronised by millionaires. The painting, a rework of Hieronymus Bosch's triptych the "Millennium" shows modern celebrities in Bosch's landscape.
This is apparently supposed to be a comment on today's art world but the deeper meaning of the work, if any, may be lost on a public which barely recognized Bosch's great work much less the ideas behind it.
In order to understand the new work perhaps it would be a good idea to examine the original.
Art historians have very little documentary evidence, apart from his paintings, with which to reconstruct the life of Hieronymus Bosch or his personality. He was born Jheronimus (or Jeroen) van Aken to a family of Dutch and German painters some time around 1450. He signed some of his paintings with the name Bosch, which may be a reference to his birthplace, believed to be the town of Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc), which is in the south of the present-day Netherlands
If all this seems rather vague then the rest of what we know of his life is equally sketchy. He appears to have been a respected member of the community and a successful artist who received commissions to design stain glass windows, crucifixes, altarpieces and other religious items. Much of this work was destroyed in a wave of Protestant iconoclasm which swept the Netherlands in the sixteenth century. Only a few other details of his life are known other than that, when he died in 1516, he was referred to as a “famous artist.”
If his life is shrouded in mystery it is an open book when compared to his surviving work. An often heard comment from art historians is that Bosh’s oeuvre is so difficult for modern art historians to interpret because the meaning of the symbols, which it is claimed would have been easily comprehensible to the people of his day, have been lost to us over time due to the shift in values from his day to ours.
This is at best a very dubious proposition, particularly since historians have a rather good understanding of the symbology of the medieval art works which preceded Bosch’s paintings and of the Renaissance works that followed. If the artist’s intent had been to communicate with a general audience then a set of symbols which had only a very short intellectual shelf life seems rather counterproductive.
A far more plausible explanation is that the symbols are mysterious precisely because they were intended to be inaccessible except perhaps to a small audience of initiates such as the members of a secret or hermetic society. A group known as Homines Intelligentiae or the “Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit,” has been suggested by some historians as the possible patron who commissioned the Millennium triptych. This group was part of a heretical movement that had been spreading throughout Western Europe since the thirteenth century.
The waning of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Renaissance was a time of great intellectual and spiritual effervescence, new ideas were abroad in the land and the guardians of the old certainties were marshaling their forces to combat them. The Church was still all powerful and it was not wise to question accepted belief publicly.
Secret societies and underground intellectual movements were a common way to avoid direct, and possibly suicidal, conflict with the ecclesial authorities. The Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit, while never a fully coalesced movement, drew on a diverse set of ideas browed from a broad range of philosophies including those of the Gnostics, Millennialist and especially the Adamites.
The Adamites had been an offshoot of the Carpocrtian Gnostics in the second century C.E. who preached a sensual mysticism and emancipation from moral law. They called their church “Paradise” and claimed that its members were re-established in Adam and Eve’s state of original innocence. Adamites rejected marriage and practiced “holy nudism.”
Although suppressed by the beginning of the third century C.E., a Neo-Adamite movement arose in Europe in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. The Brother’s and Sisters of the Free Spirit were heavily influenced by these ideas.
Bosch is often thought to be among the last of the great painters to express a medieval world view. He is seen by some critics as an artistic throwback out of step with his contemporaries. If this were the case then why did he not use an iconography comprehensible to a medieval mind? The lack of a commonly understood medieval symbology suggests that he was rather more ahead of his times than behind them.
The term millennium refers to a worldly paradise ushered in by a returning Christ, a thousand year period of earthly happiness before the final assent into heaven. It is argued by some that it is this earthly paradise, and not a condemnation of sin and lustfulness which is at the heart Millennium. In order to understand this work, which is often called the “Garden of Earthly delights”; we must first look at the back of the triptych.
Here we find a flat earth in the process of being made. In the upper right corner of the left shutter Bosh wrote “Ipse dixit et facta sunt,” (For he spake, and it was done”) and on the right shutter he wrote “Ipse mandavit et create suni,” (He commanded and it stood fast”). These lines are drawn from Psalms 33 and 148, a celebration of God’s creation, and help establish the religious context of the entire work.
The painting shows the earth on the third day of creation. We see the new earth, surrounded by a crystalline globe, in the process of having the land divided from the waters. Where the waters have receded plants and trees spring to life. Hovering above it all God the father sits with an open book, perhaps symbolizing the “word,” on his lap surveying his handiwork.
It has been suggested that this painting, which is celebration of creation, is a direct refutation of the theory that the Millennium is a “...satire, (a) pessimistic comment” on the “great interest in everyday life.” On the contrary, it is a celebration of the impending return to the primeval state of grace. This theory gains support when we examine the interior panels.
The left shutter shows the Garden of Eden at the moment when God, in the form of Jesus, introduces Adam to Eve while the right shutter shows Hell. Between the two stands the panel that has been dubbed “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” and is supposed, by many, to show the sinfulness of man and warn that such behavior will lead to damnation. But does it?
A detail that is often overlooked is that the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Earthly Delights share a common landscape and horizon line, which would appear to indicate that the Garden of Earthly Delights is the continuation and fulfillment of the Eden rather than satire, or attack, on earthly lust. On the contrary, the frolicking men and women are the children of Adam and Eve and, like their parents before the fall, are innocent of clothes, or sexual shame.
This is very different view of sexuality from that seen in the dour and accusatory naked bodies of Medieval art, warped and twisted by lust, into ugly and deformed monsters. There is nothing ugly or deformed about Bosch’s revelers, they are beautiful, playful and above all, happy as they frolic unashamed in an exquisite landscape filled with wonder and joy.
In the background we see a happy band of men and women riding a menagerie of exotic animals in wild carousel around a lake filled with lovely women, rising like Venus from the waters, while all about them is held a jubilee of blissful eroticism. These two panels are the very essence of the Adamistic philosophy preached by the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit, the belief that the values of the Christian faith can be reconciled with an acceptance of nature and a healing of the ancient, and wholly artificial, breach between the spirit and the libido.
But what of Hell, lurking right next door, doesn’t that prove that the people in the center panels are sinners and this is the punishment that awaits them? Actually no, it does not. A close examination of this shutter reveals that none of the voluptuaries of the central panel have been damned to this place for their sins. The clientele of this hell are an entirely different group of people all together.
This is not really as surprising as it might seem. Although the Millennium is made in the form of a traditional altarpiece there is no evidence that it ever actually preformed that duty. This is not surprising since its message is one of heresy. But even though it was not a real alterpiece it followed the long established conventions of that type of work which usually had an image of the crucifixion in the place of honor, on the center panel. The worshiper was therefore reassured that while Hell did indeed await those who strayed from the path, he or she had been saved by their faith in the sacrifice of the cross, by their belief in what was in the center of all things.
Likewise the patrons of Millennium, those for whom this work was created, knew that this was a Hell reserved for someone else, but not for them. And Millennium must have been commissioned by a patron, or group of patrons, since this was before the time when an artist could simply create a work of art in the hopes of selling it later.
Well then, for whom was this Hell created? Perhaps for no one at all. The very idea of frightening people with grotesque hells was anathema to the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit, who believed that redemption was open to all, even to the Devil himself.
Then why the Hell? Perhaps it is there to mock the very idea of such a place. A close examination of the painting reveals that it is not simply one hell but many blended together. The central figure is thought to be a withered tree of knowledge while all around it are shown the various hells that have grown up in the absence of knowledge, which is also called ignorance. Here we see, among others, the “Knight’s Hell,” the “Musician’s Hell,” the “Monk’s Hell,” the “Hell of Avarice,” and the “Hell of the Four Elements.” But there is no Hell shown for what the Church would brand “sexual sinners.”
Another possibility is that this Hell represents the state of fear and ignorance that those who have not accepted the knowledge offered by the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit are condemned to live in. It is a hell of the unenlightened person’s own making, filled with the fears and tortures of their own mind.
There is no guarantee that this interpretation is any more accurate than any of the numerous other schools that have grown up to explain Bosch’s work, although it does appear to address many of the problems that some of the other schools leave unanswered. A fuller examination of all the hidden meanings and subtexts of even one of the panels that go to make up this work would fill a good sized volume. However this does not mean that the hunt for meaning has been a waste of time.
On the contrary even an erroneous school of interpretation, if used as a tool with which to approach a work of art, helps the consumer of art engage with the piece on a far deeper and more satisfying level than could ever be achieved by merely looking at it without a roadmap, even a false one.
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