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#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 36

Today's Issue claims only a wispy connection with China, so please indulge me while I digress to explore a mind-bending, early sixteenth-century painting by Hieronymus Bosch.

A Bold Triptych in the Heart of 16th Century European Globalism

Temptation of St. Anthony

The Preamble. Shortly before heading to Portugal earlier this Fall to give a lecture, I read A History of Water by Edward Wilson-Lee. The book’s subtitle is Being an Account of a Murder, an Epic and Two Visions of Global History. The story follows two sixteenth-century Portuguese men with very different views of how to approach and describe the growing globalization of the age.

Damiao de Gois (1502-1574) was a philosopher who became the keeper of the Portuguese Royal Archive in Lisbon. Luis de Camoes (d.1580) was a youthful slacker who became, among other things, an esteemed poet capturing a nation’s essence in epic verse. Damiao was eventually arrested and tried by the Inquisition. Luis, who spent years in jail stretching from Lisbon to Goa and lived in Macau, was an integral part of my lecture on Portuguese links to Asia and China and why I was drawn to the book.

Portrait of Damiao de Gois, made possibly by Jan Gossaert based on 1587 Philips Galle engraving inspired by 1520-21 Albreccht Durer drawing

Damiao de Gois and the Dutch Painter. Damiao oozed an “infinite, polyphonic vision of history” (Page 254). He gravitated to the broadly unconventional. In this regard, he was known to own three spectacularly exorbitant paintings in his personal collection by Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch (1450?-1516). One of them was the c.1500-10 triptych, Temptation of St. Anthony (Tentacoes de Sto. Antao).

Why did Damiao like these paintings? He was said to be struck by their “unparalleled originality, invention, and perfection.” A friend of his once came upon him “…prostrate and in tears at the power of what he saw.”. It is “…hard to imagine that Damiao did not see in them a master laying himself open to all the wonders of this many-splendoured world” (Pages 56-57).

Serendipity. While in Lisbon, we visited the National Museum of Ancient Art. As I was sitting with friends talking on the lower level, one of them said that there was a Bosch painting on the main floor at the far end of the long museum building. Damiao popped into my head as I immediately excused myself and headed there directly. Upon walking into the rear space commanded by the painting, I caught my breath. Here was Damiao’s prized possession.

The Triptych. I cannot say that I like the Temptation of St. Anthony, but I could not look away. I struggled to process what I was seeing in this recounting of St. Anthony’s flight and fall, trials and temptation, and finally contemplation and triumph. It would explain a great deal if we learned that Bosch was high on magic mushrooms as he created this painting.

The Panels. Wilson-Lee includes a detailed description of the painting (Pages 55-56) beginning with, “This prized picture was not a portrait but rather a scene that defied explanation.”

“A man kneels in prayer outside a ruined chapel; in front of him is another man who has no body, is merely a head set upon bare legs. Behind the back of the kneeling man a table of drinkers carries on: one with a pig’s face and an owl perched above his snout, a woman made apparently of stone, and a cowled figure who has the eyes and cheeks of a bird, but a bird whose beak has transformed into a sackbut or oboe.

In the background a city is burning, and there is a house on a hill that is entered through the spread legs of a giant person bending over; in the sky various frogs and people ride airships through the blue, machines that are themselves made from birds and fish and ropes and planking.

In the foreground a wading bird wearing a funnel for a hat ice-skates across a pond to deliver a letter, and a man who is partly a tuber rides a saddled mouse past another creature which is made up of animal hindquarters and a jug.

At the front of the scene, a monkey slowly rows an armoured fish across the water, guiding it past a horned mouse with his spoon-oar.

I moved slowly to the back of the open panels (which formed the front covering when the triptych was closed) and examined two scenes depicting obstacles along Christ’s final journey to Mount Calvary.

The Temptation of St. Anthony is vibrant, surreal, mesmerizing, playful. and disturbing. I was uncomfortably giddy. 500+ years on, this triptych remains displayed in a place of honor within the halls of Portugal’s former global capital.


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