Ask Anonymous • Hieronymous Bosch
By Anonymous Bosch

"The Cure of Folly, Extraction of the Stone of Madness"
Hieronymous Bosch (1840)
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Dear Readers,

Recently I was forwarded a note that had been mailed to the Calvin College alumni office from a San Bernardino, Calif., mailing address. The note was attached to the cover story of the January 1, 2003, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The cover story itself was a brief but fascinating discussion of a painting (The Cure of Folly) by the 15th-century Dutch artist Hieronymous Bosch. The note consists of the following question: “A relative of Anonymous Bosch?”

This question pleases me, and not only because of the reader of the JAMA and the Calvin connection to the world of American medicine and Dutch painting. I have been consistently chary of providing too many clues about my identity, my lineage, although many have guessed that I am a female American of Dutch extraction — no comment on that wild guess. My silence does not have its basis in modesty; I think I have demonstrated repeatedly that I am competitively humble. No, my practice of silence has been based primarily on prudence and pique, in equal amounts.

But a question about my relationship to Hieronymous Bosch pleases me because it is such a pleasure to admit that, yes, Hieronymous Bosch and I are related. Almost all of us Bosches are. We share a surname that connects us to a region in the Netherlands named Hertogenbosch, but we also share a less obvious element of our names — the fanciful Christian names bestowed upon us by whimsical parents glad to perpetrate their wit upon defenseless children. Hence the company of Bosches that many of you already know.

Harry Bosch, to take one example, is the name of a Los Angeles detective in a popular murder/mystery series written by Michael Connelly (Harry’s real name is Hieronymous, but he goes by Harry as a concession to West Coast limitations). This Bosch is dark and haunted, like his 15th-century namesake, and he brings that darkness into the appropriately dark world of contemporary life and death in California. Then there’s Harry’s career-criminal relative, Felonious Bosch; the brothers Autonomous and Heteronymous Bosch; Theophanous Bosch; Theonomous Bosch; Eponymous Bosch; Exogamous Bosch; Pusillanimous Bosch; Venomous Bosch; Spumous Bosch; Synonymous Bosch; and the Incredible Bosh (note the disguised spelling of the surname) so familiar to alert readers of Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. There are, incidentally, a couple of South African animals bearing the family name as well, and the Euonymus bush in your back yard is also rooted in the family, but that is another story for another day.

Still, it’s the Hieronymous Bosch of the 15th century who is the most famous member of the clan, and for good reason. His paintings have much more range than the JAMA story would indicate; the writer mentions Bosch’s reputation of using “scatological images . . . in the service of eschatological themes,” but that’s no way to describe the startling realities depicted in these paintings. Consider, if you will, some of his most popular triptychs and panels (take a look, if you’ve forgotten, at BoschUniverse): The Garden of Earthly Delights; The Hay Wain; The Last Judgment; The Seven Deadly Sins; and The Temptation of St. Anthony. Almost everywhere present in these paintings is a fascinated awareness of human depravity, brutishness and sordidness, together with an equally focused sense of the presence of demonic energies pushing and encouraging humans into all manner of human or sub-human grotesquerie. Unfortunately, these very noticeable elements are sometimes almost the only elements of the paintings that register with contemporary viewers. Unfortunate, because behind the vision of human and demonic fallenness is a vision of Christ and heaven and paradise. It’s possible to argue that even the oddest of such portrayals of human folly — as in the cover story on The Cure of Folly — is based on the assumption that folly is not what humans were created for, as well as the assumption that the remedy for human folly lies beyond the powers of strictly human intervention.

But enough about me and my family. It’s your family, too, even if no one in your clan has achieved the eminence of Hieronymous in his clear-eyed view of human potential. And it’s Calvin College, too, and its alumni, even if Spark does not deliberately highlight the grotesques among us. Many of you may remember a recognition scene in a famous Flannery O’Conner short story — she has her own affinities with Bosch. In the story, a woman who is about to die looks into the face of her killer and notices something amazing: “Why, you’re one of my babies!” she exclaims in a remarkable moment of insight. If Hieronymous Bosch can manage to provide such revelations through his paintings, my job becomes that much simpler — and Calvin’s, and yours, too, probably.

Sincerely yours,
Anonymous Bosch