C. and I spent the evening assembling a jigsaw puzzle of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, one of the most vexing images humanity has produced. The left panel depicts an idyllic scene where God introduces Adam to Eve and perhaps describes the joy of virtuous living. In the center panel, however, humanity is left to its own devices. The result is a literal clusterfuck as people frolic, feast, and copulate with one another—and with enormous strawberries. (Theories abound as to the fruit’s symbolism, ranging from their seeds to their sweetness; perhaps they are the devil’s candy.) The last panel introduces us to hell, and there is no devil here, only nightmares made from the material of our world. A city smolders on a hill while a bird-man feeds upon bodies, expelling them into a void. A pair of ears clutches a knife. A pig dressed as a nun encourages a man to sign a legal document. And so on.

Slowly piecing this image together left me with no better understanding of Bosch’s vision; it’s too overwhelming. Some have argued it’s a subversive commentary on the doctrine of original sin, that we might find delight in this world if we could live without shame. But Bosch was a devout Christian, so it’s more likely a warning about the perils of forsaking religion in favor of a frivolous life. Desire as heaven, desire as hell. But I marvel that arguing for a disciplined life of the spirit can be this delirious and fun.

The idea of developing a new visual grammar to speak to a fallen world brings to mind the painter Barnett Newman‘s rationale for minimalism and abstraction. “We felt the moral crisis of a world in shambles,” he said, “a world destroyed by a great depression and a fierce World War, and it was impossible at that time to paint the kind of paintings that we were doing—flowers, reclining nudes, and people playing the cello.”

Thinking about these things while doing a jigsaw puzzle feels connected: the inherent pleasure in putting together something that’s been broken, the clarity and sense of presence that comes with moving a piece from point A to B, and the fleeting sense of control it brings.

Kali Malone – Dungeon Canon

Studies for Organ | Rehearsal Demo, 2020 | Boomkat | Bandcamp