Are we heading, eyes open, to a materialist Hell on Earth?

PAUL JOHNSON

If I wanted to pick an artist whose work and mind seem peculiarly apt for the present day, my choice would fall on Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516), the Netherlandish master who specialised in moralising fantasies and diablerie.

Hieronymus Bosch
(c. 1450-1516)

The world we live in is characterised by unchecked and unpunished, widening and deepening evil, manifesting itself in countless ways but in particular by what I call the Seven Deadly Sins of the 21st century. These are: violence and brutality, not just of a physical kind but expressed towards all the finer feelings of virtue, religion, temperance and gentleness, which are mocked and spat upon; grotesque lusts of the flesh, expressed in the endless cult of the body, not just for sexual reasons but for vanity, with luxury dieting, cosmetic surgery and fortunes spent on clothes locked in perpetual struggle with gluttony, pandered to by ‘celebrity chefs’, organic shops and other hypocritical engines of gobbling; lying, now raised by the media, politicians and intellectuals not only to an art but to a science; cowardice, which makes people, especially our rulers, do what they know is wrong for fear of punishment by powerful lobbies; pandering to the lowest instincts of the coarse and uneducated, for financial and political reasons; the systematic punishment of those who show courage and the love of truth; and, finally, the exaltation of blind materialism by new forms of militant atheism which are dehumanising us all.

This murky world of lies and cruelty, lit by the flickering fires of lubricity and sadistic merriment, and by mysterious explosions, portending eventual catastrophe, is exactly the earthly panorama Bosch delighted in depicting — or perhaps one should say felt it his imperious duty to display by his extraordinary skill in line and colour. He lived in the age of the hinge, when one door was shutting on mediaeval faith, leaving behind only superstition, and another door opening on the humanist passion of the Renaissance, with its sharp and exhilarating spirit of criticism. Having said that, we must admit we know little about him. But he was rich. He did not need to paint at all. He came from a family of painters, but early in life married a woman 25 years his senior who was well endowed with houses and land. He moved among the rich. He was a member of an exclusive club or guild called the Brotherhood of Our Lady, whose tastes he shared and catered for. His paintings reflected all kinds of sophisticated knowledge — theological, scientific and literary.

He also engaged in humour, at various levels. The humour was important. His works were bought by rich men and women, by aristocrats and members of princely families, even by rulers. After his death, his most persistent collector was the austere and ultra-Catholic Philip II, King of Spain and the Indies. But his pictures were also owned by humanists and philosophical speculators, some of whom fell under suspicion of heresy. They were designed to be studied and enjoyed in private, by people of both sexes who were well read, highly intelligent, concerned about the evils of the day but also endowed with a strong sense of humour which enabled them to see saddening events in perspective and laugh at them. Ernst Gombrich thought this a particularly vital part of Bosch’s appeal to the elite. The extraordinary episodes in his apocalyptic paintings, involving sinners and devils, were not so much designed to shock and terrify the poor and ignorant by being displayed in public places such as the naves of churches, as to interest and amuse cognoscenti in their private chapels and studiolos.

The Crowning with Thorns
by Hieronymus Bosch
click to enlarge

Yet we have to be careful about making any generalisations about this powerful and thoughtful painter. So many of his works (including many of those collected by Philip II, for instance) have disappeared. We know of them only through crude prints or bad copies, or mere reference in documents. Many others have vanished without trace. Motivated by his own strongly held beliefs, Bosch was extremely hardworking and productive, and conscientious in always trying to create pictures of the highest merit and finish. But what has survived and can be confidently attributed to him is meagre.

It is clear that Bosch sometimes aimed at the deepest and simplest human emotions, as well as sophisticated or cynical or jovial taste. A case in point is the picture I regard as his masterpiece, ‘The Crowning with Thorns’ in London’s National Gallery. In this moving work, which I visit periodically to gaze at in silent meditation, Christ is being tormented by four men, each illustrating a different aspect of cruelty. The man at the bottom right is the brute who does not know what he is doing but just unleashes his degraded instinct to inflict pain and humiliate. Above him is the intellectual, who actually hates God while denying His existence, and who smiles condescendingly at Christ’s sufferings. At the bottom left of the picture is the bearded old man who perversely delights in witnessing distress, especially of those who are holy and tender. Above him is the most important of the four: the man who joins in evil because he is a coward. This person evidently knows that something terribly wrong is happening, but is too frightened to prevent it, or even to refrain from participating in it, because he is submissive to the culture of his peers and to the prevailing wisdom. His face is a masterpiece of despicable emotions, yet only too common at the time it was painted, about 1500 — and indeed today, in 2007.

In the centre, Christ gazes directly at the viewer. He is more sad than reproachful, yet there is some inevitable condemnation in the face he presents to the world, for he knows that among those looking at the picture many more, when it comes to the point, would be actively or passively on the side of his torturers than would lift up their voices in protest at the way he is being treated. It is a melancholy truth about the history of humankind that for evil to triumph, and to go on triumphing, all that is needed is the inaction or shameful silence of the majority. The face of Christ, as he gazes out at the world and its wickedness, expresses emotions akin to those examined in Thomas More’s De Tristitia Christi, underlining the fact that Bosch’s work was in line with the best kind of humanist writing on religion. In More, indeed, was found a man who not merely rejected the cowardice of the craven majority faced by the tyranny of a superstitious atheist, but deliberately chose martyrdom rather than deny his faith, thus placing himself humbly but firmly on the side of the suffering Christ.

If Christ is the symbol of suffering goodness in an evil world, so the fourth man in the quartet of torturers is the epitome of a majority opinion, or non-opinion, as humanity lurches towards the earthly hell of Bosch’s vision. Here is mankind writ large as he is today, nervous and poltroonish, undecided and vacillating, bowing one day to the lobby of Sodom, another to the mad mullahs, a third to the green fanatics. This pitiful Majority Man of 2007 is now becoming really alarmed about the prospect of a roasting Earth. Well: Bosch also painted the reality of hellfire taking over the ‘Garden of Materialist Delights’.

  

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Paul Johnson. "Are we heading, eyes open, to a materialist Hell on Earth?" The Spectator (February 17, 2007).

This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.

THE AUTHOR

Paul Johnson, celebrated journalist and historian, is the author most recently of George Washington: The Founding Father. Among his other widely acclaimed books are A History of the American People, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, Art: A New History, and The Quest for God: Personal Pilgrimage. He also produces brief surveys that slip into the pocket, such as his popular The Renaissance and Napoleon. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph. He lectures all over the world and lives in Notting Hill (London) and Somerset.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Johnson


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