Bosch in the Burning World

At the joining of the Dommel and the Aa in the southern part of the Netherlands, a town was built and called “Bosch” after its forest. It prospered, rivaling Utrecht. In its churches there was music. In town there was money. The two rivers were combined to make a moat for protection. Dommel meant drowse. Aa spoke for itself.

At the joining of the Dommel and the Aa, a man called after his town (and thus, a man called Forest) slipped in and out of realities, painting, succeeding, marrying, worshipping. Always succeeding, though he slipped in and out. 

At the joining of drowse and ah were visions. Daydreams. Awe perhaps, also—in the way of dreams, uncanny. Bordering on nightmare, perhaps. He painted what he saw. Though what he saw was the unseen, that world where everything mattered.

In our world, nothing seemed to matter. Our world was burning, and no one noticed.

But he did.


Hieronymus Bosch painted earth as blissy, fruity, naked, and ostensibly sinful. He painted a bizarre musical Hell—in the works everybody knows. And in 1502, he painted St. Anthony looking straight at me. Stopping me in my day, my striding, enjoying, pleasantly privileged day. Stopping me, you might say, dead.

It is a hard fate for me to be arrested by Bosch. His canvases are moralistic, full of contemptus mundi—just that otherworldliness I knew as a fundamentalist, and rejected, saving my life by committing to this world, and no other.

But then . . . “this world” ought to be plural, worlds, since there’s so plainly more than one. The outer world and the inner. There’s the catch. And there he caught me: Bosch did. St. Anthony did.

An inwardness shines out from Bosch’s busy, surfacy paintings. It is very hard to explain. Much easier to get caught up in the chutes-and-ladders comedy of it, the cartoon evil and the incomprehensible vice and—really, isn’t it just adorable?—all this sinning and sincerity, the pinky nudes in their apparently damnable naughtiness?

In a museum in Lisbon. Decades after dropping those struggles with saintliness and purity and self-loathing. In a small room shared by a Bosch and a Holbein and a Dürer—the chamber of wonders, I called it. Full of excitement and awe, thinking I ’d call my partner over to see it, to bring his savviness to bear, his ability to see. Then thinking maybe I ’d just stand there a while. Silent. Wondering. 


St. Anthony’s face, with its look of calm unsurprisedness, comes to the viewer unmediated. His eyes lock on to yours, as if he stood in the room, monk-robes and all, placing a hand on your shoulder. I imagine he ’d smell a little of cloves, or fields—the “odor of sanctity” and all, though undoubtedly, in real life, he stank. But his sanctity would be the kind that makes you want to be human, not sorry for it, like those skin-and-bones flesh-hating hermits. Is this really there, in those soft eyes? Or am I just finding what I want to find? In history, he was a founder of the monastic movement and a renowned ascetic. Yet, in a museum full of soft-fleshed Virgins and radiant Christ-babies, this Anthony is the one who engages me. 

On the canvas, everything around him swirls in its own spin of appetite and strangeness. Each character utterly in its own world, as you expect with Bosch—carrying on as if no one were watching. Oh, it’s a riot! In the upper skies fly certain large fish carrying well-dressed burghers, signifying . . . something, no doubt. The vanity of wealth? The airworthiness of fish? No one knows, though as with everything Bosch there are many scholars who make sage guesses or offer elaborate keys: astrology, or alchemy, or secret heresy sects, or . . . Yet the painting remains a puzzle. With the fish carriages fly other demonic critters, insect-like, carrying scythes and wrangling people-prisoners. And with them sails a kind of devil’s pirate sky-ship.


Hieronymus Bosch, The Temptation of St. Anthony. Oil on panel, 51.5˝ × 93.7˝ (ca. 1502). Center-panel detail on following page. Photo credit:


On the ground, just under the saint himself gazing out from the picture’s central tableau, unfold two processions, left and right. Cavalcades of folly and sin, I presume. Really you can have a lot of fun just nosing up to these and seeing the hybrid creatures of tree-parts and people-parts and animal-parts, riding on donkeys, thieving and flirting and cavorting: clerics and nuns, perhaps a statue, maybe a parody of the Bible story “Flight from Egypt,” an overturned cart . . .

Below the processions are a bridge and a pond with dream-monster fish, people riding them or imprisoned inside them and looking out, while beside the pond is, uh, a beheaded goose? Or something vaguely stomach-shaped with a gaping esophageal maw, ridden by a creature playing a lyre, and behind him a gigantic strawberry with people sprawled under it and a nun wielding a sword sitting in a cup. There. You tell me—what’s this all about, except craziness? Writing can’t begin to exhaust the free-for-all Bosch has painted. If you look, you’ll get drawn in and an hour will pass before you come back. And you still won’t know what you’ve just seen.

The Temptation of St. Anthony is a triptych altarpiece, with painted wings on either side of the central canvas. On the left wing, three faithful men assist the bent and exhausted saint over a little wooden bridge. Of course, this being Bosch, under the bridge are monsters, or monstrous doings. Some characters reading and scheming; a messenger-bird on ice-skates in some sort of uniform complete with badge. And higher up, above the faithful threesome and saint, other merrymakers and lost souls and demons. 

The right wing offers a calmer moment: the saint sitting, gazing again, same face, same eyes, just looking up from reading his Bible. Around him is chaos, of course. Creatures, nudes, a scary old lady, a beggar. And in the background, more flying burghers above a placid Dutch landscape, windmill and all.

All in their own worlds. Hermetic, sealed off, silent. And in the middle, the gazing saint.


There in the midst, St. Anthony seems to be looking out into our world, his eyes speaking to us. Almost uncanny, un-Bosch-like. I have looked at the many Bosches in the Prado, more than once. I recall nothing like this! The central tableau of the painting takes place before the courtyard of a ruined church. The saint kneels at a little wall beside a grouping of well-dressed men and ladies at a round table, who seem to perform some kind of mocking ritual (a Black Mass, according to most interpreters). A pig-faced man, gorgeously robed in forest green and carrying a lute, is having his pocket picked. Two figures in exotic headdresses officiate, while a clarinet-nosed demon bird tootles behind them. A beautiful woman, sumptuous in rose-pink, crowds the kneeling saint, handing the sacred dish past him—but of course he ignores her and the others. An apostate nun receives the dish, while beside her a large, handsome head in a green turban reclines, bodiless, on trousered and booted legs. Strangely composed amid this scene of vague infamy, St. Anthony gazes out and holds up two fingers in calm and blessing.

Far out on the horizon a city burns in dusky night, windows alight, roofs ablaze, lurid red flame so bright that despite the billowing black smoke it throws a tiny shaft of light through a gap in the collapsing church walls and right across the courtyard. Catastrophe burns on the horizon, dreadful in the night. But as I said, no one is noticing. No one notices anything in these Bosches. Things just go on as they always do, people locked in their pursuits. There’s something immemorial here, the unending story of lust and life. The unending visitation of suffering, ignored unless it comes nigh thee.


I couldn’t stop thinking about the Bosch when we got back to Paris. We were living there for a winter and part of the coming spring—luckiest guys ever!—housed at an artist’s residency called the Cité international des arts, where my partner had been invited. I was the add-on, the accompagnateur, free to wander and think and find books.

And I was able to lay my hands on the source Bosch would certainly have known well (a common reference of Bosch scholars): the widely read medieval book of saints called The Golden Legend, written about 1260 by the Genoese Italian author known as Jacobus de Voragine. In it Anthony is tempted by devils offering him all manner of enticements, starting with sex. But always he outfaces the tempters, refusing them until at last they manifest their horrible snouts and claws in rage. “Now that I have seen you in all your ugliness, I will fear you no longer,” he says. 

Once Anthony was being so pestered and tweaked and tempted by devils that he called out, “How can anyone escape?” And a voice answered: “Humility.” Then angels lofted him to safety through the air, demons trying in vain to block the escape. It would have been fun to see this scene painted instead, perhaps yielding some air-traffic mix-ups with the airborne fish. The moment seems made-to-order for Boschy hijinks, but the painter leaves Anthony solidly on the ground, weighted with his patient gravitas.

Linguistically, humility roots in humus. There’s an earthy sensibility in Anthony that surprises. Yes, he’s a desert saint, distant and austere. But the stories Jacobus tells bend toward a gentle groundedness that subverts the world-hating stringency of official saintliness. Anthony’s rules for living are simple and avuncular: “Don’t be too quick to move somewhere else” and “Don’t worry too much about the past.” He recommends not groveling privation, but moderation. Simply that. You could imagine him as a pretty good counselor down at the church, someone who understood being human and would try to make you less crazy with god-fearing, not more so. Though it is true Anthony tends to see satanic beings, often of gigantic height, somehow he does not become a scary zealot. Consider this tale, my favorite, which I’ll take right out of William Granger Ryan’s translation:

An archer once saw Anthony taking his ease with his brethren and was displeased at the sight. Anthony said to him, “Put an arrow to your bow and shoot!” The archer did so, but when he was ordered to do the same thing a second and third time, he said, “If I go on doing this, my bow will break!” Anthony: “So it is with us as we do God’s work. If we stretch ourselves unduly, we are quickly broken, so it is good for us to relax from our rigors from time to time.”

Maybe this humanity touched the artist, too—though Bosch was clearly tempted toward severity. His canvases certainly intend an unremitting sermon against the flesh. Indeed, in the town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (always called by its nickname “den Bosch,” then and now), he belonged to two lay brotherhoods of religious conservatism and strict piety. Yet . . . who looks into his painted world and feels moralistic rigor? What we feel is something else—curiosity, fascination, confusion, bemusement. And when Bosch paints Anthony radiating a kindly beatitude, we feel not judgment, but an invitation to be more human, not less—though in a higher register.


Viewing a Bosch painting is entering a hubbub of too much, everywhere. It reminds me of the internet. The eye darts here and there, collecting randomly and ending up oversated, binged out. But in time I begin to notice the very different registers within this free-for-all: high, low, campy, and sometimes really just unreadable. In St. Anthony himself, we find a portrait of warmly believable humanity. He is in our world, realistic and fleshed-out. The goblins and devils, however, seem nightmarish but denatured, their real sting absent—more like Halloween spooks in dress-up. Somewhere down there, several levels beneath literal believability, are also figures who seem to be mere painted symbols, metaphors of various vices perhaps: that strange red-draped figure in the right wing, for instance, looking like a fat one-legged tummy with a huge knife stuck into it. Too weird to imagine as anything but a transform of some moralizing point, pun, or lost folk-saying. 

And then there are bits of actual cartooning, which I confess my inner ten-year-old likes best, among them the ice-skating Messenger Bird in the left wing, who always seems ominous. He works for the bad guys, I think. He’s matched in the right wing by (for me) the oddest of all: an armless man of the same size and scale and animation-vividness. He’s dwarfish and draped head to foot in a shapeless crimson cloak, making his way just above the head of the seated saint. His visage is middle-aged, prominently nosey, with a look of stubborn personality. He bumps along in a kind of walker, with a teapot dangling from one rail. A band around his head permits a stick to be stuck in there. Perhaps it’s a whirligig. Perhaps it’s a drinking ladle that might allow a cooperative customer to buy a drink from the teapot. I took to calling him Tea Caddy, until I realized that tea had not yet come to Bosch’s Europe. So what’s in the pot? Beer? Water? I imagine him getting a penny a sip from a well-disposed traveler or a Brueghel-like crew of field laborers. I like him because he doesn’t mope; he seems full of irrefrangible selfness.

I am far from feeling in control of this spectrum of registers, this range from visual symbol and wordplay to fun-time cartoon to achingly touchable humanity. Probably hardest to grasp is the sprinkling of elfin, almost childlike nudes, with their barely discernable sexuality that nonetheless seems to be leading them astray. They’re fey, remote, and subversively charming (as they are in the most famous Bosch, the Garden of Earthly Delights). In them the moralizing seems most prominent and most undercut at the same time. The easiest clever move with a Bosch painting is to notice this attraction to everything his official sermonizing deplores. Bosch is fixated, obsessed, mesmerized by all things fleshly. He is of the devil’s party and doesn’t know it. It’s why we love him and find so much life in his painting—life that does not easily resolve to a single interpretation.

Participating (directly or indirectly) in everything we claim to condemn, we are stuck in self-defeat or self-delusion, obsessing over details while the world burns. It’s a checkmate that can’t be escaped, except by a move in another dimension.


I wept away too much of my young manhood. In my earnestness, I found it hard to give up on Christ. But I developed a method of escape, in the form of a literal move upwards—to the vertical terrain of the High Sierras. I came to prefer trekking alone there, carrying a week or two of rations and a few necessities on my back, as unarmed and stubborn as that Tea Caddy bloke, though far less sure of myself. I was there to think higher, bigger—if I could. To be flowered and rivered and sequoia ’d, peaked and exposed and sheltered again, until my own wrongness somehow disappeared into the general rightness. A dangerous rightness, yes. I liked that. A land of no dogma except: Take care. Look around. Be present. 

When I returned to the world, of course it was still burning with war and politics, lies and greed. But I, at least, was stabilized enough to function in it. Of course I saw the natural world as my ally, and wanted to do what I could on its behalf. After all—it had saved me. A provisional thing, this kind of salvation—limited to the present moment. That seemed enough.


In the center of the center of the sprawling canvas, above the kneeling saint and the oblivious circus around him, unfolds a strangeness of a different kind. I’ve been mentally calling its locale a cavern (plants sprout from the heaped-up ruins), but I’ve come to see that really we are looking into the dark, far-back interior of a crumbling church. We can see straight in.

A cross is illuminated there. Christ hangs visibly from it. He also stands in front of the cross, gazing out at us, hand raised in blessing. And beside Him is a table offering the Eucharist . . . which Eucharist is also Him, of course. A threefold involution: Christ is Christ in Christ, deep in the cave in the middle of everything. Illogical, time-bending, a place to get lost (and found) in, the inmost inside of the rose—mirror-maze, labyrinth, earthly path, soul’s desiring. 

Here the sacrifice never stops. 


What sacrifice? For me, not the doctrinal one. But rather the human one, the one we experience daily, the death of the soul, despair and meagerness eating us up. And yet here we are, enduring, waking to another day another loss another outrage, here we are, fearing the worst and yet eager for more. That gazing man-god by the cross, calm and present, mirrors (or in fact models) the face and gesture of the saint. Come here, he says, and be more human. Come out from the wealth-striving and beauty-pageantry and tittle-tattle rattle of life’s empty chases. Come here, come deeper. Breathe. Partake.

To breathe here is to arise, in all simplicity, to that higher register. To be present with mystery, to allow it. To be at once grounded and exalted, emptied and filled. To be spiritual in all your mere flesh. If this is not the sublime, it certainly points toward it. In this painting, as in all the great Bosches, some kind of dialogue has been opened with our dream-selves, our fear- and hope-selves. And this understanding is offered: come to terms with emptiness. Don’t think you will fill it. Be as empty as you are, so that something better might flood in.

In the evangelical college where, once upon a time, I tried (in vain) to work out my salvation, I learned the Greek word kenosis. It referred to Christ “emptying” himself of divinity to become mortal, a self-sacrifice truly beyond measuring. The concept has stuck with me as an alternative theory of value to our culture’s worship of acquisition, our more-more-more insatiability. “Less,” or “enough,” are not values found in consumer capitalism. Yet they are found here, in this painting.

Bosch’s paintings are always about that Ecclesiastes message: the world’s emptiness. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. It seems to me that kenosis—self-emptying—is the answer to vanity. Is the higher register of it, you might say, transforming the existential problem of vacant, meaningless wanting into an unexpected joyous paradox: a ladder of emptiness straight into the fullness, and over-fullness, of the sublime.


It’s not that I think art will save us. We have set our world afire and no one knows how to stop it. Going to a museum won’t help. But not going to a museum won’t help either.

Oh, we know enough, theoretically, to roll back some of the global ecological catastrophe. We could. But we choose not to, or not to bother, and that is what no one knows how to fix. 

But Bosch reminds us that the world has been burning for a long, long time. Small fires, bonfires, occasional firestorms. Greed and hatred at work as usual; the pinched private smolder of mere selfishness; the raging conflagration of organized tribalism. Either way, it has always been quite easy not to notice your neighbor’s life burning with despair or want. We have organized ourselves around armed power and the love of money. How could we be otherwise? 

And now the burning world is made literal. It has escaped from the rhetorical excess of agitprop and sermon, and begun to rage across the actual world.

Yet I never hesitated when I flew from Portland, Oregon, to Paris. According to an online calculator, our airplane probably emitted around 1.5 tons of CO2. That’s quite a lot—about as much as a half-year of driving a typical automobile. The carbon-footprint website says I could “offset” the whole ton and a half if I sent twenty-eight dollars to reforestation in Kenya. But I didn’t. I am, of course, a dedicated environmentalist. I drive (when in Portland) a very efficient auto that I haven’t replaced in seventeen years. I vote. I compost. Yet if the world has to burn a little in order for me to have my winter in Paris . . . who am I to say no? Too much righteousness is, you know, unseemly.

In fact, my Bosch-watching holiday was really a holiday-from-a-holiday, for we had fled to Lisbon to get a little sun in the midst of the cold, gray Paris winter. Airfare was cheap, we ’d never been to Portugal, away we went. 

And it was in Lisbon that I saw the St. Anthony, at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. (The Louvre has only one Bosch, the Ship of Fools, which during my stay was always out for conservation work.) So in Lisbon I was three-deep in a regress of privilege: Paris, Portugal, and the odd luxury of fixating on an ancient painting. I never question this kind of luck. Am I to sell all and give it to the poor, take up my hair shirt, hair Levi’s, hair thinking, hair not-thinking, and monk myself? Obviously not.

Yet . . . I wouldn’t object to a bit more consciousness. You know, amidst the plenty.


Holiday-from-a-holiday over, I am a Paris wanderer again, invisible and inaudible. The natives are accustomed to tourists who flicker and mouth bad French and disappear. They have better things to do: governance, fashion, money. Some days a martial parade goes by our window, clip-clopping with horse brigades and shining uniforms. Not one of us in the five stories of the “Cité des arts” knows what the occasion is, ever.

As always, I tread the rue St. Antoine, street of the saint, in the old fever-swamp called Marais, where once no one of “quality” would go. It was for the Jews. But I wander just a few blocks and the street becomes rue de Rivoli, boulevard of palaces and highlife. Two ends of the same road. 

I am adrift in headlines and bad news I wish I had not read. But this is the same as always. Some murderous god-blathering true believer has rampaged overnight. Some political buffoon has a sudden following of millions. Some sleek counting-house princeling has explained again why the poor must be left that way. 

“Can this be real?” I ask statuary Pascal, staring down from his tower. Surely he notices the incompatibilities, the way commerce flows from, and toward, the spirit, neither understanding the other. He leans as he always does, pensive and silent. 

And I think of that look of St. Anthony, that calm that seems to answer whatever outrage the news is selling today. Can this be real? I ask him—my daily disbelief. 

Yes, he answers—of course. What else were you expecting? 

The lack of surprise—that’s what I want. As much as I can want anything, I want that. And with it, entrance into larger, deeper space.

Even in this waking dream of Paris, I want that.


David Oates writes about nature and urban life from Portland, Oregon. He is author of four books of nonfiction, including Paradise Wild: Reimagining American Nature (Oregon State University Press, 2003). His work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Earth Island Journal, High Country News, and elsewhere. The Heron Place (2016) won the 2015 Poetry Award from Swan Scythe Press. Peace in Exile: Poems was published in 1992. He won the Dovid Heersche Badonnah award from Bitterroot Poetryand last year he convened a group of writers to create the collection Come Shining: Essays and Poems on Writing in a Dark Time (Kelson Books, 2017).