Stay awhile with Hieronymus Bosch (1450 – 1516). In aesthetic terms, he represents an authentic art of the horrific, true evocations of the infernal. Yet his painting is a universe away from today’s so-called shock art, in intention no less than execution. Two centuries after Dante’s death, it provided vivid, comprehensible, visual analogies to the poet’s imaginative verbal descriptions of the consequences of sin.
The seductiveness of sin, the force of it, and its consequences, occupies the center of Bosch’s entire body of work. Bosch conjured animated warnings to keep his audience from letting their guard down against satanic ambush. Like St. Anthony, a fallen people spend their lives fending off attack by one demon or another. Malignant spirits can be quite alluring; hence, the elegant, serenading troubadour in The Haywain, below. An allegory of vanity, The Haywain is a Boschian riff on the Ship of Fools motif. Here, an impatient, grasping crowd grapples with each other to grab as much hay—an old symbol of greed and its transitory rewards—as they can from the stack. (“Whan the sunne shinth make hay” takes us back, in English, to the mid-1500s.) A cluster of sumptuously dressed clerics head for the hay on horseback.
Bosch, Bruegel, and Grünewald raised art of the frightful and foolish to exalted heights. Goya, too, depicted a nightmare world with an artistic power that infused demonic hallucination with a certain glory. So then, wherein lies the vital difference between a Bosch and a James Franco? Or a Goya and a Basquiat? How is it that our contemporary art of the grotesque—let’s call it that—is crippled, unable to create order and beauty out of the abyss? Why are earlier ages better suited than our own for transforming degradation and despair into a De Profundis?
Hans Sedlmayr, writing in 1958 from earlier lectures given in war-time Munich, crafted an answer before the question became as urgent as it is today:
So long as the world of Christian belief remained an effective reality, the outlook behind such painting must be interpreted as a vision of temptation. The picturing of Hell therefore remained to some extent hemmed in by Christian orthodoxy. And it was thus only to be expected that it should attain its full freedom and develop its most extreme forms when art has finally left the Christian world behind it.
In other words, once man has forgotten that he is made in the image and likeness of God, he is already in Hell. His art heralds his annihilation. It precedes him, no more consequential or enduring than graffiti on a wall. Nevertheless—and against the evidence—Sedlmayr closes Art in Crisis with these words:
. . . joy still hibernates and retains its germinal life. Yet for its flowering it needs a soil, and there is but one soil that can bring it to fruition—it is the soil of knowledge, the knowledge that we are creatures of God.