Holy Fire

At Baker Street station I had to spend the last of my big English coins in order to top up my Oyster Card: a two pound piece with the Rosetta Stone upon it, which I was hoping to keep as a souvenir. But was it really the Rosetta Stone? According to the Royal Mint’s online site, there is no such coin; maybe I was carrying a counterfeit around in my pocket. A mystery that will never be solved. At St Pancras Station, a thunderous bass sound rolled through the concourse: a raggedy fellow in a top hat, banging away on an old upright piano. I was looking for International because I was going to catch a Eurostar train to Brussels, change there for Roosendaal, then go via Breda and Tilburg to my destination, the city of ’s-Hertogenbosch in the Brabant in the Netherlands.

On the outskirts of twenty-first century cities you see piles of glittering debris which might be plastic, metal or some amalgam of the two. Huge warehouses where the pre-cooked pre-packaged food many urbanites eat now is gathered and despatched. Reading matter too. There will be enclosures full of new vehicles—vans, trucks, cars—and also dumps where those that have been used up are sent for wrecking. Graffiti like cries of lost souls stain bleak industrial walls beside community gardens which resemble bare, post-holocaust survivals. In the rain and the cold of a February morning, you might think the slag heaps, the stagnant ponds, the choked watercourses and the grey muddy ground between the woebegone trees are the precise antithesis to, and analogue of, the gleaming interior of the fast train you are on; and you would be right.

We racketed through Kent and then dived down into the Chunnel, to emerge in what looked like, and was, another country. It was still drizzling but the yellow sun was breaking through now, turning the mist to gauze and illuminating the green fields, the orderly farms, criss-crossed by pylons resembling miniature Eiffel Towers. Everywhere you could see the finishing touches being put to tall, new, cream-painted security fences topped with razor wire. They snaked across the landscape according to a logic that was not apparent to me. The railway stations we passed through were deserted apart from French soldiers, with their uniforms, their belts of hardware, their stun guns, their robotic demeanour, standing guard. Clearly, in this age of involuntary migration, refugees and asylum seekers, these were strategies to enforce what is now usually called border control.

I was sitting next to a young Asian woman who her spent her time drawing, with a blue biro, in an A4 notebook, violently grotesque human caricatures. These she would painstakingly annotate using Chinese characters. I was making a few notes myself and, inevitably, at some point, as a consequence, we were drawn into conversation. She was in Europe on a two year visa. She worked, she said, in retail and was taking a week off from her job to go to Brussels to chill. From Taiwan originally, she was a Mandarin speaker who also did some translating into, and from, the Japanese. She said the characters inscribed below her drawings were titles that included the date and time at which each was completed. When I asked her if she planned to stay in London, she looked perplexed.

Yes I would like to, she said. But I do not want to settle down.

In the seat in front of us, a man and woman were talking. They were bureaucrats. Or politicians. Probably the former. Both Brits. Both leftists. Both in their forties. He was older than her but evidently it was his first time at the European Parliament; his attempts at mansplaining were patiently, politely, rebuffed by his younger, more experienced, colleague. She laid out, in meticulous fashion, the strategies they would have to adopt if they were to be successful. What were they going there to do? Suffice to say it was about jobs and growth. And then, their business concluded, they began to discuss their hotel. A complete change of tone. Pheromones wafted. That each was married to another no doubt made anticipation of their imminent jouissance sweeter, more intense. It was another, a different kind of, European betrayal.

I had to change at Brussels for an Amsterdam train. It went via Antwerp. I sat in a quiet carriage, reading my latest acquisition: Samarkand, by Amin Maalouf, a fiction about Omar Khayyam and his Rubaiyat. The author is Lebanese; the book, written in French, had won the Prix Goncourt in 1993. While I was so engrossed, we must have crossed the Belgic border: two Dutch guards arrived. There was something vaudevillian about them: the man mimed silence for us; the woman, who was black, performed her house-keeping announcements wearing a bright red scarf, which she was inclined to twirl. She gave me a demonstration, which all could hear, of the correct pronunciation of Roosendaal. When I could not properly get my tongue around the syllables she made as if to cuff me across the ears.

I spent about twenty minutes, in the cold sleeting rain, on the platform there before the Den Bosch train arrived to carry me east and north through the Brabant: a wide, flat land, with canals and tree farms, under a lowering sky. This is the birthplace of Vincent van Gogh—at a village called Zundert, to the south, on 30 March in the year 1853. He preached at Etten, also to the south; painted The Potato Eaters at Nuenen, which we did not pass through; took drawing lessons at Tilburg, which we did; some of his work is collected at the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch. The North Brabant Museum was in fact where I was going; but not to look at van Goghs.

My companion on that leg of the journey was a mangosteen juice salesman from Spanish Forks, Utah. He was of Hispanic descent; and possessed of the monomania of the committed commercial traveller. He told me all that I will ever need to know about the virtues of the mangosteen. It is a native of the Moluccas; but the source for this fellow’s firm’s fruit was a depot in Kentucky; though I am unsure if the mangosteens were imported or grown locally on plantations; perhaps the latter. Mangosteen juice contains xanthones—over forty, he said. They are supposed to be anti-inflammatory and this was his selling point, especially among the Germans and the Swiss, with whom he was having some success. He did not say there are some who think it is a central nervous system depressant; and that there are toxic side effects to drinking the raw juice.

There was a golden dragon rampant on a pedestal in the middle of a fountain outside the Den Bosch railway station. It was raining again. The taxi driver who picked me up said people from ’s-Hertogenbosch (‘The Duke’s Forest’) are known for their forthright opinions. And their welcoming nature. Many of us, he said, are Catholic, as if that had something to do with being friendly and opinionated. We drove down wide straight roads, through complex waterways, by large areas of standing water which might have been permanent, fringed with bright green reeds and inhabited by ducks and geese and swamp hens. You could see in the distance ragged grey sheets of rain moving slowly across the flat land.

The hotel was on the outskirts of the city, standing alone, as if upon an island in a lake. It was called the Mövenpick, the Seagull’s Pick (a boast about the speed with which food is prepared in these establishments). They are a Swiss chain, and were, I thought, too luxurious, as well as too expensive, for me; but it was too late for second thoughts because I had already paid. Spandau Ballet’s True was playing as I came in to Reception: Why do I find it hard to write the next line? A disconsolate-looking hooker haunted the bar; I never saw her speak to anyone except the barman. I drank some delicious South African red wine, ate and then went up to my room and slept for twelve hours straight. Perhaps it wasn’t too luxurious after all.

~ ~ ~

The exhibition space was half-dark, lit by lozenges of golden light disposed along the walls or else, free-standing, in the centre of one or other of the several rooms. These were perspex light-boxes, designed especially for the show, within which the paintings were at once exhibited, illuminated and sequestered. The gallery was full of people, a murmuring, indistinct crowd, like pilgrims, passing reverently from lozenge to lozenge. They were well-dressed, well-heeled, middle-class, middle-aged or older; some in wheelchairs.

It was both intimate and estranging; you had to wait until a gap opened up into which you could insert your head, as it were, and thereby feast your eyes upon a painting. And you didn’t have long, either, because other bodies, other heads, were crowding in behind you, awaiting their turn. Sometimes the faces around me, with their bulbous eyes, their intent gazes, their unmistakeably Dutch caste, resembled those in the crowd scenes of the late medieval paintings we were looking at. I would glance from painting to spectators and back again, feeling in that simple act five hundred years collapse.

The first painting in the exhibition was a small roundel on a wooden panel showing a whey-faced man looking back as he walks away from a ramshackle building. I cannot improve upon Ingrid Rowland’s description: Clad in rags and mismatched shoes, the peddler bows under the weight of his pack, a wooden spoon and a catskin hanging from a loop, perhaps to advertise the wares he has to offer. His left hand clutches a traveller’s hat with a spool and bodkin stuck into it—he can double as a tailor if need be. With his right hand, he wards off a yapping dog with a cudgel-like walking stick; his bandaged left leg suggests that he has already been bitten.

The road ahead is blocked by a wooden gate; opening it represents some kind of deliberate choice. The dilapidated house behind him is evidently a brothel, with its long johns hanging in a window to dry, its symbolic broken clay pot on a pole, its pigs feasting at the trough, and its sign ‘The Swan’ (male swans are rare among fowl for having penises). A woman in the door of the Swan is being fondled by a mercenary soldier who has left his long pike leaning against the run-down façade, while another customer urinates against an outside wall. Another woman gazes out from an upstairs window. Has the peddler just left her company or did he pass her by? Did she buy something from him? Did he buy something from her? In the spindly tree above the peddler’s hooded head, an owl eyes a titmouse; just behind the gate, an ox and a magpie stand guard.

Some people think the Wayfarer in this painting—a thin man with bright intelligent eyes—is a self-portrait of its maker, Joen van Aken, better known to the world as Hieronymus Bosch. He was a member of a family of painters who moved from Aachen (= Aken) to Den Bosch in the 1420s and established themselves as artists and artisans there. Joen probably lived his whole life (1450-1516) in the town from which he took his professional name. When he was a child he saw a wildfire, which formed a memory trace that stayed with him and recurs often in his work: usually figured as the conflagrations of Hell. Aged about thirty, he married a woman of property, Aleid van de Meervenne, and they moved into a large house (still there) on the north side of Market Square, where he set up a studio.

Subsequently, like his father and his grandfather before him, he joined The Brotherhood of Our Lady, signing its register for the first time in 1487. The next year he became a sworn brother, one of an elite of eighty, a role which obliged him from time to time to feast the entire fraternity. In 1489 he bought twenty-four pounds of beef, presumably for a banquet of this kind. His wife continued to deal in real estate and, childless, their wealth and status grew. Joen pre-deceased Aleid, dying of plague in 1516; she followed six years later. This, then, is some of the little we know about the burgher, artisan and upstanding citizen who created the astonishing visions of the painter Hieronymus Bosch.

The exhibition at the Noordbrabants gathered together nineteen of the twenty-five known drawings, and twenty of the twenty-five attested paintings, for a show commemorating the five hundredth anniversary of the death of the artist. There were also some works from the School of Bosch: imitations or copies or formerly attributed paintings. All the big ones were there save The Garden of Earthly Delights, which the Prado in Madrid would not allow to travel because it is too frail (they sent The Hay Wain instead); and The Temptation of Saint Anthony, in Lisbon, which the Portuguese declined to lend, allegedly because it is such a major tourist attraction there.

It’s not my intention to attempt a review of the exhibition, just to make a few remarks. The first is that you can only understand the quality of a great painter by seeing their actual works: nothing could have prepared me for the sheer sensuous delight there was to be had in looking at these paintings, which have an active scintillation of light built in to their surfaces: some of it accomplished by a judicious use of white highlights. These spirited, shimmering surfaces were to me more enticing, and more remarkable, than the paintings’ famed and admittedly also splendid grotesquery.

The second point is that Bosch was a magnificent colourist. When I think back on that show now, I see particularly the pinkish red he was fond of using, which seemed to migrate from painting to painting, so that it was as if swathed around us in the half-dark of the gallery. It is the pink of the curtains in Death and the Miser; of the dress worn by Saint Julia (and the colour of the robes of her mourners and tormentors) in the picture of her crucifixion; of the clothes of god no less than the outré palaces and fountains in The Garden of Earthly Delights. (There was a copy of the left hand panel of this in the show, its ornate pink urn in a pond like a prefiguration of an iteration of the Mandelbrot Set.)

The third relates to the drawings: among them were studies of people Joen must have encountered on the streets of Den Bosch. There were cripples, beggars, soldiers wounded or maimed in war; old women whose hard lives had turned them into semblances of witches or crones. They were realistic drawings which nevertheless inclined towards the fantastic and made me wonder if the composite and often distorted beings we see in Bosch paintings were not exaggerations of tendencies he detected in the lives going on around him? His observation of birds and animals—both domestic and wild—was acute to an almost hallucinatory degree; and, again, his habit of combining the human and the animal in the one being seemed more like the elaboration of an affinity—don’t we all resemble some animal or bird or fish?—than the inventions of diabolism or intoxication.

Of all my responses to this show—works you felt you could never exhaust—the least predictable was the feeling of grace which came upon me when I saw the four last works, pictures of heaven and hell, and especially the last one of all, which shows human souls at the end of their earthly lives entering into eternity. Ms Rowland again: we are destined to move through life as weary, wounded wayfarers, a few of whom will be led by angels through a luminous heavenly tunnel before we leap naked into a burst of absolute light. It seemed that I had indeed moved through the exhibition in precisely that fashion.

~ ~ ~

The Duchy of Brabant, founded in 1183, was a constituent state of the Holy Roman Empire; most of it is now in Belgium—all, in fact, except for a few exclaves; and the Dutch province of North Brabant. It is territory that has changed hands many times during the last two millennia’s incessant wars. No wonder Bosch saw so many grotesquely wounded men in the streets of his town. The Burgundian War, for instance, which culminated in Spanish rule over the Brabant, took place during his lifetime; with the consequent rise of Swiss Mercenaries as a fighting force; and the beginnings of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty, major collectors of Bosch’s work: which is why there are so many of his paintings in Madrid.

What is it about the place that nurtures visionaries? Is it, precisely, its flatness, its featurelessness? Brabant means misty land in one of the languages—Walloon, Flemish, Brabantian, Dutch—spoken here. Another version is place of swamps. Not only has it has been marched over by invading armies since Roman times and probably before that; it has been under the sea too. In the fourth millennium BC, perhaps because of flooding, people from here migrated north to the Orkney Islands. We know where they came from because of genetic studies of the European vole, a local variety of which they took with them. It survives in the Orkneys but is not found anywhere else in the British Isles.

They were cattle herders and the voles may have stowed away in the fodder on board their boats. Or went as pets; or food. These people, whoever they were, built the Neolithic town of Skara Brae on Mainland in the Orkneys which, along with other megalithic structures, such as those uncovered at Ness of Brodgar, also on Mainland, predate Stonehenge. Some suggest it was they who took that style of architecture south into the rest of Britain. But the megalith builders were practitioners of an international style, whose dimension and reach we don’t really understand. From Egypt to Peru, Malta to Tongatapu.

We think we know who we are but do we? There is a grave on South Ronaldsay in the Orkneys—the Isbister Cairn, also known as the Tomb of the Eagles—where the bones of several hundred humans, some with healed trauma wounds to the skull, are mingled with those of sea eagles endemic to those islands. Were they Eagle People, the way Ancient Egyptians might have been Jackal People or Ibis People? Did they not construe, or were they trying to articulate, their difference from animals? Or, in this case, birds?

We find therianthropes in Bosch’s paintings as well: bird- or fish- or animal-headed or -bodied men and women. He seems to have possessed a recombinant fury, an ardent desire towards the willed miscegenation, not simply of the human with the animal but with the man-made as well: those anthropomorphic barns looking bleakly at us as we obsess over the buying of real estate. Is it an expressive demonology or should we think of it as an exploration of possibilities, not all of which end in damnation? Is it the profligacy of our sexuality and its outcomes that he is celebrating? Why did I find so much humour in his work? As much as, or more than, I found horror?

~ ~ ~

Den Bosch, now as then, remains a solid middle class town, with many fine buildings dating from the seventeenth century, and some which are older—including the magnificent gothic cathedral, contemporary with York Minster, of St John the Evangelist. I was disoriented after leaving the exhibition and wandered aimlessly, trying to order my thoughts. I did go into the cathedral but remember nothing about it. I must have also walked past Joen van Aken’s house in Market Square but do not recall that either. I do remember a fellow in a motorized wheelchair speeding hectically backwards down a narrow footpath; the tall black bicycles so many upright people so uprightly rode; and the smell of fish, emanating from mobile stalls that sold some kind of popular piscatorial snack.

I ended up in a bar called The Baron’s Lodge, sampling a strong Belgian beer called Tripel Karmeliet—Triple Carmelite. It is a yellow ale brewed using three grains—wheat, oats and barley—in a recipe that originated at a monastery in Dendermonde. The alcohol content is upwards of eight percent and soon had my head buzzing. There were three mature blondes sitting side by side along the other flank of the horseshoe-shaped bar; and a couple of leather-jacketed fellows perched at the rounded end.

A robust discussion ensued, about what I could not say, because it was in Dutch; or, perhaps, Brabantian. They graciously included me in the conversation, though there was nothing, except for nods and smiles, that I could contribute. It seemed to be some civic matter they were discussing, some contentious aspect of local politics which deserved, and got, a good airing. When the most déshabillé of the blondes slid off her stool and departed, the party broke up. I took a bus back to the Seagull’s Pick.

Next morning, early, I saw from the window of my room a full moon setting in the west while, in the east, an incandescing sunrise slowly caught fire; and up above vapour trails, like untranslatable hieroglyphs, criss-crossed the pale sky. Though it was barely light, traffic on the ring roads was already passing, as the good citizens of the Netherlands went about their daily business. Ain’t No Sunshine in my Life, in the version by Bill Withers (who wrote it), was playing as I checked out; a watery orb glimmered in a gauzy sky.

The train to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (‘ship hole’) rolled along beside narrow canals where broad flat-bottomed barges passed industriously to and fro carrying goods to market. I made the mistake of going online and saw footage of rivers in Bali choked with rubbish; a prediction that all top predators in the world will go extinct in the next fifty years; and found myself, disastrously, on a site called Big Green Radicals where whoever-they-are were saying that what they call Big Green is actually a plot, not to save the planet, but to destroy it—by restricting our god-given right to burn fossil fuels until the wastes choke us in our beds. I fled back to Samarkand, there to read more about the bejewelled copy of the Rubaiyat which went down with the Titanic.

A true story, as it happens; though it wasn’t, as in the fiction, Omar Khayyam’s original manuscript that was lost; but an American publisher’s printing, luxuriously rebound by British bookbinders Sangorski & Sutcliffe. The firm, which is still in business, said: The book was undoubtedly the most ambitious bookbinding ever undertaken by any bookbinder at any period in history. It boasted over a thousand precious and semi-precious jewels, thousands of separate leather onlays and it took the firm two years of continuous work to finish. The jewels were rubies, amethysts, topazes and emeralds. The front cover pictured three peacocks, symbolic of Persia, with a gigantic spray of tail feathers. The design included embroidery in gold. And the book was enclosed in a slipcase of oak.

Divers searching the wreck of the Titanic have not yet recovered The Great Omar and it seems unlikely now that they will; it will remain at the bottom of the Atlantic. A second copy was destroyed when a London bank, whose vault it was in, was obliterated by German bombs during World War Two; a third copy is in the British Library. The manuscript of Joseph Conrad’s story Karain: A Memory, which New York lawyer and collector John Quinn had bought, also went down with the Titanic. The eponymous Karain, an exiled Bugis chief, wrote Conrad, had known remorse and power, and no man can demand more from life.

~ ~ ~

The following weekend, at Lisbon’s National Museum of Ancient Art—so-called because it holds only works made before 1850—in Rua das Janelas Verdes, the Street of Green Windows, I saw The Temptation of St Anthony, the painting the Portuguese declined to send to Noordbrabants. It was a very 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 unattended by any security apparatus; neither audience nor guards either. 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 its massive Baltic oak construction. 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 was to be damned.

The three front panels each 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 while lying on his back upon an amphibious flying monstrosity; and, down below, fallen, hauled unconscious to safety by two men, one of whom is the Wayfarer and therefore, most likely, another Bosch self-portrait. In the centre panel, surrounded by corrupted clergy, corrupt nuns, grotesquely altered humans, Anthony points to the grotto where Christ is being crucified. On the right panel he sits hunched in his cloak over his Bible, looking past, rather than at, the temptations that surround him.

There is a city burning in the back of the central panel; in the right hand panel a gladiatorial contest—a man and a beast, perhaps a dragon—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 looms above its entrance. Under that luminescent aqua sky, the world is darkly red, darkly brown, threaded through with the gorgeous pink the painter loved so much. I was looking for the kiwi which appears in the right hand panel of one of the triptychs: alas, not this one, but in 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 (according to dendrochronologic analysis of the wood it is upon, in 1516) Abel Tasman’s ‘discovery’ of New Zealand was still a century and a quarter in the future. Even if you accept that the Portuguese or the Spanish may have arrived sooner in the Antipodes, no pre-1516 date for European discovery is likely. It must have been the product of rumour, a vision or a dream. Bosch was one of those whose attention was focussed upon the fantastical creatures world exploration were then bringing to the West’s notice: the giraffe in the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights is proof of that.

Two more things: The Temptation of St Anthony clarified a feeling I had from 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 your computer screen.

The second point is 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 they occurred, might have contributed something to the astonishing, recombinant, fecundity of his visions.

But if we knew that, what then would we know? What would it mean? It is one of those causes which does not banish, nor explain, its effects. The tree person, holding a swaddled babe in its arms while 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 its wrist; nor those fish-demons flying in the aqua sky; nor the pig-headed man with a dulcimer under his arm; nor the one whose head is a bugle farting air. Wherever those visions came from, however they arrived, they retain a sense of actuality which makes them, once seen, veritable things of the world.

Art historian Ernst Panofsky, a Warburgian, in 1953 wrote: I cannot help feeling that the real secret of his magnificent nightmares and daydreams has still to be disclosed. We have bored a few holes through the door of the locked room; but somehow we do not seem to have discovered the key. This remains so. You cannot fully comprehend the inventions of Hieronymus Bosch; you cannot unsee them either.

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