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Book Report: The Garden of Earthly Delights

Peter S. Beagle evidently wrote a book called The Garden of Earthly Delights, which is a sort of examination of the titular painting and several other works by Heironymous Bosch. Mr. Beagle is not an art historian, nor yet a critic. His grasp of the iconography is pretty good, but he rarely attempts to talk about the technical or formal aspects, other than to call them wonderful or brilliant. He restricts himself, mostly, to pointing out some of his favorite images from the multitude of mini-paintings within the big triptychs and delineating their significance.

This is too bad, because at the beginning of the book, Mr. Beagle talked about his own connections to the artist, how he came across the images (on pulp illustrators’ homages), and the connection in his youthful mind to Hiroshima and Auschwitz. I wish he’d gone on like that, talking about himself and his own reactions and connections to the art.

There are lots of art historians who know more about Mr. Bosch and his art than Mr. Beagle does, but few of them write as well as he does. In trying to write their book, he’s mostly just come up with a well-written but weak art history book. If they had tried to write his book, they would have come up with (one imagines) a poorly-written but strong art history book. If he had written his own book, he might have come up with something really powerful indeed.

The other thing to be a bit wistful about with this book is the images. Viking did a very good job, within the limitations of the book, but Mr. Bosch’s works cry out for a computer screen and a readers’ ability to zoom in and out on the high-resolution images while reading the text. It was hard for me to connect the details to the full images, to connect one group to another, or think about how its placement affects its meaning, or to go from one group to the one next to it or above it, rather than following Mr. Beagle’s (perfectly reasonable) scheme. Also, it would be good to be able to compare panels side-by-side, to compare versions of the Haywain or the Crowning with Thorns, or to compare one grotesque with another. If there is one area where you can argue that the book is obsolete, the presentation of detailed images is it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,