Hello, Mr. Bosch. Thank you for meeting with me today. Please tell me how and why you decided to become a painter.
Becoming a painter was a natural choice for someone whose father was also a painter. The real question for me was, what kind of painter do I become? What is the best way to improve my skills and earn a living from my work? In 's-Hertogenbosch, it was fairly easy to acquire the tools and training that I needed, and my father provided to me as much as he could. My father, Anthonius van Aken, worked closely with local religious organizations to train their painters.
Please describe for me what it was like for you growing up in 's-Hertogenbosch, and what it is like to live here now.
We were always a fairly well-to-do family, and 's-Hertogenbosch was in fact as pleasant when I was growing up as it is now. The city was not characterized by as high of an income disparity as might be seen in other Flemish towns like it during the fifteenth century. We have a "predominantly middle-class commercial population," as Bosing states (11). This was because we have no "active court life" and we also have no university (Bosing 11). However, we do have centers of learning and culture characteristic of the era. We have, for example, a Latin school that is very "famous," as Bosing claims (11).
Please describe the sources of influence or inspiration of your work. Explain where these sources are evident in your body of work, or in specific paintings.
It was largely because of my exposure to religious teachings that I began to develop the style of painting for which I am most famous. The motifs and symbols I incorporate into my painting are derived directly from my Christian education with the Brotherhood of Our Lady, and the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life. The Brothers and Sisters of the Common life were a "modified," and moderate organization that did not require the taking of traditional vows for monks, such as the vow of poverty or chastity (Bosing 11). We were encouraged to develop a highly personal religious sentiment, which was why I felt free to explore the range of images and themes in my paintings.
In addition to religious teachings, local folklore also played a major role in my choice of what to paint, and how to paint it. I was strongly influenced by concepts of morality, told through the stories and motifs in local folklore. Paintings of mine, like the Garden of Earthly Delights, demonstrate a fusion of Christian and folk traditions with my own twisted imagination [laughs]. I have been criticized on occasion for my phantasmagoric scenes, but generally audiences have been pleased with my work because of the attention to detail that I imbue in each and every painting. Don't get me wrong; I love traditional Flemish religious art, with its subtle sense of meaning and depth. However, I wanted paintings to come alive for the public. I did not want to render a flat, boring religious scene. Taking cues from one of my favorite Flemish painters, Jan van Eyck, I created triptychs and panels on which every inch was covered with detailed depictions of religious symbolism. For example, van Eyck's Crucifixion and Last Judgment provides much of the inspiration for my Garden of Earthly Delights. Although Crucifixion and Last Judgment has only two panels, and I tend to prefer three, you can see how I admire van Eyck as well as Rogier van der Weyden. However, I felt that their work was a bit too traditional and staid for my taste. Christianity is a religion that is ripe with conflict and I found that there were too few references to how the folk people of the Netherlands -- the everyday folk -- react to Christianity and incorporate the religion into their own lives. How do people reconcile their folk beliefs with a strictly monotheistic religion? To what extent does fear and guilt pay a role in the human psyche, especially when faced with Christianity's admonishments? As lovely as Van Eyck's Annunciation is, it shows us what the Chruch wants us to see: their version of the story of the visitation to Mary.
I began to look closer at the works by the van Eycks and noticed that there were subtle ways of drawing out more controversial themes like temptation and lust. For instance, in the Ghent Altarpiece, van Eyck depicts Eve clearly as the seductress. I wanted to go from there: take the concepts of guilt, temptation, sex, lust, greed, and all those other things common to daily human life. I wanted to depict as realistically as I could the complexity of human experience -- and not to show just what the Church dictates was the core story of the Bible. Paintings like the Portinari Altarpiece inspired me to make triptychs, but I would look at it and go: that's just what I can read in the gospel. I want to show people what they cannot read. I want my viewers to read between the lines, so to speak.
And thus I took my cue. I was heavily influenced by the mystique surrounding van Eyck paintings. I especially appreciate the Arnolfini Portrait, and loved what van Eyck did with the mirror in the back. This inspired me to render The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things as I did: using unconventional composition that included a sort of wheel of fortune as a motif. Finally, in Cutting the Stone, I show a common folk remedy. I do not only like to paint religious subjects, but this painting shows how folk remedies were just as much a part of daily life in Brabant and throughout Flanders as was Christianity. Cutting open a patient's skull has been painted before by other Dutch artists, and I wanted to depict this tradition too.
Some have described your work as being subversive; and you even admit to wanting to move away from traditional Christian art forms. Explain to what degree religion influences your art, and the messages you are trying to send. Are there any political implications in your work?
[Chuckles]. Who said I was subversive? My art might be challenging for some ultra-conservative viewers. However, I am a traditionalist. My paintings seethe with Christian imagery. I feel that I tell it like it is, getting out there what I think the real stories and messages of the religion are, rather than only presenting a sterile version. I do not mean to say that blood on the cross is not gory enough. What I mean is that many religious artworks fail to capture humanity. It is as if they are painting only the ethereal realm, the realm of the divine, and the realm of the Biblical. I want to show how those realms impact the world we know more intimately in our daily lives. I should also mention that my painting Cutting the Stone demonstrates an appreciation for illuminated manuscripts, which are a form of art that prove the integration of Church propaganda with the visual arts.
Most of my artwork is religious to a degree. I am not making a political statement so much as I want to present the reality of our inner world, our psyche. Garden of Earthly Delights takes that divine realm that is depicted in more traditional religious art, and shows how that realm impacts the mundane world that we actually live in. Thus, we see an orgiastic village scene. We see the panoply of human life playing around, frolicking. To take the center panel as it is, it would seem that life is not so bad. Yet to perceive the center part as being only part of a tripartite whole, it becomes clear that we here on earth are continually pulled in two different directions. On the left, we see how we are pulled towards the moral ideals of chastity, temperance, and holiness. There is no sex, no chaos, no conflict there in the Garden of Eden. On the right, we see how we are pulled towards the seven deadly sins, which lead us to Hell. The imagery in Hell is spectacular and frightening. A knifei is coming out, erect like a penis, from a human ear? Grotesque tongues. Come on, this side of the panel shows clearly that I do believe that we need to cultivate a balance between asceticism and debauch. In the Garden of Earthly Delights depicted in the center, it is a huge party. The bombardment of the senses is, of course, intentional, to show that it is not acceptable to live life out of control. We do not need to live like monks in order to be morally upright. Back to your original questions, my paintings are only shocking to those who do not spend the time to understand that I am advocating respect for life. Religion is one of the primary ways…