“Lamentings heard i’ the air; strange screams of death, And prophesying with accents terrible Of dire combustion and confused events”- William Shakespeare (Macbeth, 2.3)

Ok, let’s talk about the bizarre.

Not the bizarre fascination so many people seem to have with reality shows… TOWIE, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding anyone?  Nor am I talking about the bizarre and scary world which has created the ‘Honey Boo Boo’ phenomenon.  Even the Blobfish and the Aye-Aye lose their bizarreness factor when compared to what I’m going to be talking about! (You may want to Google Blobfish and Aye-Aye, just so you get an idea how bizarre this is going to get…)

Ok, I think I’ve created enough suspense.  Today folks, allow me to introduce you to Hieronymus Bosch: artist extraordinaire, and possessor of one heck of an active imagination!  (Not to be confused with the fictive character of the same name featured in the Michael Connelly books!)

For those of you who may not be familiar with any of Bosch’s work, he created all kinds of mythological and mutant species within his artwork.  Some may be recognisable to us from myth and legend, whereas others are entirely figments of his astonishing imagination.  Many people have suggested, over the years, that Bosch was one of a series of artists suffering from hallucinations (attributed to ergot poisoning – caused by mould in grain), and so this was the source of his extraordinary characters.  Maybe, maybe not. The jury’s out.  But, take a look for yourselves:

The Last Judgement, triptych, c. 1450-1516

In one of Bosch’s works, The Last Judgement, we see a triptych of creation – God casting out the rebel angels, Eve being created from Adam’s rib, the serpent (in the shape of a woman…I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Bosch’s view was that Lilith was the serpent) giving the apple, the angel casting the unfortunate couple from the garden.   Then we have the Last Judgement.  Earth is rife with torments as humanity is shown with all of its sinful nature.  Jesus is above this, judging the souls.  Finally, on the right-hand side is Bosch’s interpretation of hell, where the wicked souls are punished and demons run rampant with giant fish and what appears to be different types of bird creations…I can see aspects of pelicans and penguins in there, and they happen to be wearing green coats.

Now that’s all well and good, but I’ve seen some of this ‘demons and hell’ creativeness before, in other forms.  What is new to me is the ‘Earth’ panel.  Virtually indistinguishable from the ‘Hell’ scenario, the colours and landscape blend together seamlessly.  And then you look closer.  To look at this canvas in person, try and get hold of a magnifying glass! On the computer, make good use of your ‘zoom’!

Perplexing figures of heads on feet, a turbaned head of a man attached to what looks like two spiked shields with a tail and clawed feet (on the top of the roof).

Close-up detail, middle panel, The Last Judgement

Now look to the bottom right-hand corner.  Is that a giant Swiss Army knife?  That’s what it looks like to me! Follow that line to the left, and you’ll come across the mutation of a hatching egg (on legs) with an arrow piercing it.  In between the egg and the Swiss Army knife is what appears to be a plague doctor (with a stork mask as was common in the period of the Black Death).

If this isn’t confusing enough, see if you can spot the other two eggs in this painting.  By their size, in proportion to the rest of the figures, they appear to be ostrich eggs, and are right next to what seems to be a Turkish man, complete with robes and turban.  What makes this especially interesting is that this figure seems to be the only one in the ‘Earth’ panel who is clothed (besides the demons), and then you look closer and see that this may not actually be a human after all – the bird claws acting as his feet give him away.

So, what is your verdict?  Was Bosch just another artist tripping on mouldy grain, or did he actually have a genius for imagining the bizarre and outlandish that few could hope to match (possibly with the exception of Tim Burton!)?

 

Undoubtedly one of the more inventive takes on dystopia that I’ve seen for quite some time, I would highly recommend anyone interested in investigating the fantastical to explore the ‘Fables of Flemish Landscapes, Bosch, Brueghel, Bles, Bril’ exhibition being held at the Palais des Beaux Arts  de Lille from 7th October 2012 until the 14th January 2013.  Myths and legends spring from the canvas in this remarkable collection of paintings, reality is exchanged for artistic license, and paradise and hell are created out of the fantasy one unexpectedly finds in the landscape genre.  If you want to brush up on your Bosch before visiting the exhibition, check out our e-book ‘Bosch’ by Virginia Pitts Rembert.  Alternatively, explore the full extent of dystopia in ‘Apocalypse’ by Camille Flammarion.

-Fiona Torsch

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