There's little doubt in my mind that Heironymus Bosch would be a very interesting dinner guest. his paintings are mind-blowing on so many levels. I have been spending a lot of time with art lately, I do anyway, but I am currently teaching a class on art, cinema and theology--exploring how these three meaning making media intersect and invite us to think about what it means to be human.
I am not teaching on Bosch, although were there a film about him (which I don't think there is, I don't mean documentary but biographical film which is what I am using in the class) I certainly would. There is very little known about him; no letters or diaries, nothing but the barest biographical information and only about twenty-five paintings have been attirbuted to him. Rumours and opinions about his trippy content and painting style. Some say that his works were inspired by heretical religious views on certain heremetic practices-nobody really knows because he didn't say.
The painting above depicts a supposedly hypothetical 15th century medical practice, in which a stone, which was thought to be the cause of madness, was extracted by essentially digging a hole through the scalp and skull until the dura was exposed and the 'stone' could be extracted, thereby bringing healing. The medical practitioner wears a funnel hat, very reminiscent of the Tin Man, and the woman watching has ahuge book resting on her head! This topic isn't exclusive to bosch, others depicted it as well.
But Bosch's work offers some slightly different commentary I think. Rather than a stone, the doctor in the painting extracts a flower bulb, and there is another on the table in front. It could be quite simply that what Bosch is aiming for is a critique on those who would substitute the search for wisdom with foolish shrotcuts. A big idea of the period concerned the relationship between chemistry and alchemy--the sort of magical approach to life and science that was conducted principally vis the religious communities--the highest goal of which was the production of a transmuted lealing property known as the philosopher's stone--it was often called the 'flower of wisdom'and was depicted as a golden flower, which is exactly what bosch creates here. The golden flowers of chemistry were not easily discovered, and they were the result of great learning, endless patience, hard work, and suffering (in the service of God). However, Bosch’s patient, Lubbert (we know his name from the inscription and it is a dutch name for a fool) wants it extracted 'quickly,' and would rather submit to painful surgery than endure the long hours of study and repeated failures required for success.
The other two characters are a monk and a nun, the nun wearing a big red book on her head. there was apparently a flemish practice of wrapping oneslef with pieces of text, kind of like phylacteries, the idea being that the wisdom could be transmitted by osmosis rather than study--the nun is gooing for it big time and has put the whole book on here brain! And she is perhaps even worse because there is a golden flower on the table in front of her, right under her nose (i.e. within her religion?).
foucault wrote about this painting and of it he said that, "Bosch's famous doctor is far more insane than the patient he is attempting to cure, and his false knowledge does nothing more than reveal the worst excesses of a madness immediately apparent to all but himself." The doctor is a bigger fool than the patient, false wisdom is a greater folly than foolishness and we are awash in it these days. I think the apostle paul talked about that somewhere.