I always imagined Lisbon to be a place where it rains a lot but Isaac said that isn’t really so. Only in this part of the year, he said. The rest of the time it earns its sobriquet: The White City. Next morning heavy showers were sweeping in over the city from the Atlantic. I looked out the window of my hotel room and there, on the sill of the room opposite, stood a red, white and blue Dutch clog, slowly filling up with water and then overflowing. Isaac came round again later; we were going to take one of the old-fashioned yellow trams out west to visit the National Museum of Ancient Art—so-called because it only holds works made before 1850. Much of their collection was confiscated from the Catholic Church or came from the estates of disestablished aristocratic families. It is housed in a seventeenth century palace colloquially called Janelas Verdes, after the street in which it stands: Rua das Janelas Verdes, the Street of Green Windows.
At the tram stop I bought for a few Euros an umbrella from an old gypsy woman but, the first time I opened it, one of the ribs bent and broke so, whenever I had to use it after that, it felt like a crippled bat hovering malevolently over my head. Lisbon was full of umbrella sellers, and just as full of broken umbrellas; they seemed designed to disintegrate immediately upon purchase. This one did keep my upper body halfway sheltered but, when it rained, it rained so hard it was impossible to keep my feet dry as well. By the time we got to the Street of Green Windows my socks were squelching inside my shoes. Isaac had a better umbrella and more sensible footware; he was a local after all. He seemed sympathetic to my plight but I thought I detected in his manner the mild derision of the young towards the incompetence of the old.
Janelas Verdes was actually done out in the same colours as the Carlos Lopes Pavilion: white stone, pale ochre panelling, red tile roof. The collection, naturally, features Portuguese art from medieval times forward; also a fine selection of European painting, including works by Memling, Cranach the Elder, Holbein the Elder, Durer, Velazquez, Zurbarán, Poussin and many more. We wandered damply through gallery after gallery of mostly religious art, seeing many splendid things, while looking for the one work that motivated this perhaps redundant quest: Hieronymus Bosch’s The Temptation of St Anthony, the painting the Portuguese had declined to send to the show at the Noordbrabants because it was too vital a tourist attraction to lose for the six months or so it would have been gone from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga.
I don’t know exactly what I expected but it turned out to be an entirely different viewing experience from the one at Den Bosch. The triptych was free-standing, alone at the narrow end of a rectangular gallery towards the back of the building, and entirely unattended by any security apparatus; nor audience either. Whereas, at the Noordbrabants, you had to find a place amongst a crowd of people peering at the works through perspex, here you could see the painting naked, as it were; better still, you could walk around the back and have a look there as well.
There was something reassuring about the massive wooden construction of the artefact. The grisaille paintings on the reverse of the right and left wings, used to close the centre panel unless it happened to be a holy day, were visible too. One, an ochre-ish grey, showed the arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane; the other, which was a bluer grey, Christ carrying the cross up to Golgotha. Both were crowded paintings which seemed somehow more terrifying for their monochromatic detachment. The brutality of Peter cutting Malchus’ ear off with his sword; Judas fleeing in righteousness and despair; the unrepentant defiance of the thief who would be damned.
The three front panels all feature a translucent aqua sky in which strangely morphous craft fly: fish, lizards, birds, a ship, an egg with wings ridden upon by a toad carrying a sputtering light on a pole. The saint appears in all of the panels: twice in the left, praying on his back upon an amphibious flying monstrosity; and, down below, having fallen, hauled unconscious to safety by three men, one of whom is recognisably the Wayfarer and therefore, most likely, another Bosch self portrait. In the centre panel, surrounded by corrupted clergy, corrupt nuns, grotesquely altered humans, he points to a grotto where Christ is being crucified; while, on the right panel, he sits hunched in his cloak over his Bible, looking past, rather than at, the manifold temptations that surround him. There is a city burning in the back of the centre panel; in the right hand panel a gladiatorial contest proceeds in a coliseum outside of which armies are marching; in the left, a brothel or a temple is built out of a bent-over human form whose arsehole shadows its entrance. Under that luminescent aqua sky, this world is darkly red, darkly brown, yet threaded through with the gorgeous pink the painter loved so much.
I was looking for the kiwi which, improbably, appears in the right hand panel of one of the triptychs: alas, not this one, but The Hay Wain, which I had seen in den Bosch without, however, remembering to seek out the Apteryx. How is it even there? Is it really a kiwi? When The Hay Wain was painted (1516 according to dendrochronologic analysis of the wood it is upon) Abel Tasman’s ‘discovery’ of New Zealand was still a century and a quarter in the future. Even if you accept that the Spanish or the Portuguese may have arrived sooner in the Antipodes, no pre-1516 date for European discovery is credible. The ‘kiwi’ then, must have been the product of a vision or a dream; but one which may yet have been based upon news from beyond the European sphere, for Bosch was certainly one of those whose attention was focussed upon the fantastical creatures world exploration was then bringing to the West’s notice: the giraffe in the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights is proof of that.
Two further points: The Temptation of St Anthony clarified a feeling I had looking at the works in Holland: space in a Bosch painting is singularly composed, as if each of his constructions, whether human, animal, avian, amphibious, piscatorial, demonic, architectural or some combination of the above, exists in a dimension of its own, making his work particularly responsive to the reproduction of detail and, inter alia, extremely satisfying to view on zoom on a computer screen. The second point is more specific to this painting, perhaps, but has larger implications. Anthony was the patron saint of those who suffered from ergot poisoning, aka Saint Anthony’s Fire: caused by eating bread made from grain upon which the ergot fungus flourished. Ergot poisoning was common in Europe in the Middle Ages; its effects resemble those of LSD intoxication. Indeed, there is a chemical relationship between ergot and lysergic.
Ignis sacer, then, the holy fire, or at least its effects, seems to be a part of the subject matter of Bosch’s Temptation. More generally, his own intoxications with ergot, if indeed they occurred, might have contributed something to the astonishing, recombinant, fecundity of his visions. Mind you, if we did know that, what is it then that we would know? What does it mean? It is one of those causes which does not banish, nor really explain, its effects. The tree person, holding a swaddled babe in its arms while saddled up and riding upon a field mouse, will not go away; nor the bodiless bird-winged figure with a burr for a head, a thistle for a hat, and a falcon upon his wrist; nor any of those fish-demons flying in the aqua sky; nor the pig-headed man with a dulcimer under his arm; nor even the one whose head is a bugle farting air. Wherever those visions came from, however they came, they retain a sense of actuality which makes them, once seen, veritable things of the world. You cannot fully comprehend the inventions of Hieronymus Bosch; but you cannot unsee them either.