Rerun Week: Visions of Hell

Reruns this week while I close up shop on some projects; I’m reprinting pieces from my “That Was The Millennium That Was” series from 1999. Here’s today’s.


It comes from Hieronymus Bosch, the Dutch painter who lived in the 15th and 16th Centuries (although assuredly, not through them both entirely). Other people wrote about Hell, lectured about Hell, or simply feared it as the inevitable end to their sinful ways. Bosch saw Hell, like Walker Evans saw the Depression, and then reported on what he saw. It wasn’t a very cheerful report, but then, what would you expect. Hell’s not a resort filled with Payday bars and happy kittens. Unless you’re allergic to nuts and cat dander. In which case, that’s exactly what it is.

How did Bosch get this preview of Hell? It’s not that hard to imagine. Sartre famously said that Hell is other people, and while he was probably directly referring to some annoying waiter at Deux Magots, the line has broader implications. People are flawed, and not in the Japanese sense of wabi, in which a slight imperfection merely accentuates the fundamental perfection of a thing. Wabi is the mole on Cindy Crawford’s lip, the wheat bits in Lucky Charms, or the fact that Bill Gates’ fortune is owned by him and not you.

No, we’re talking about deep-seated incipient screw-upped-ness, the kind that puts you on the news as the helicopter gets a top down view of the police surrounding your home. For most of us, fortunately, it expresses itself in less virulent form, usually a furtive, opportunistic violation of one or more of the seven deadly sins when we think we won’t get caught. Coupled with this is the dread knowledge that, not only do we know what we’re doing is wrong, but we’ll probably do again the next time everyone else’s attention is back on the TV. We’re all a country song waiting to happen. With that realization comes the grinding sound of Satan’s backhoe scraping out space in our brain for another yet Hell franchise (six billion locations worldwide!). Hell is in all of us, not just the ones who use cell phones when they drive. All you have to do is look.

Bosch looked. A pessimist and a moralist (one can hardly be one without being the other), Bosch saw what evil lurked in the hearts of men, and then hit the paint. His friends and neighbors were no doubt unhappy to learn they were the motivation for Bosch’s horrifying and fantastical canvases; It’s difficult to live near someone who might paint your face onto a damned creature with Hell’s staff fraternizing in what used to be its butt. But there’s a story about another painter which could shed some light on what Bosch was doing. Pablo Picasso once painted a portrait of Gertrude Stein, only to have someone comment that Stein looked nothing like the painting. Said Picasso: “She will, soon enough.” (And she did). Apply this same reasoning to a picture of yourself with imps in your ass. It might make you think.

Beyond the existential and theological nature of Bosch’s work is the fact that, as paintings, they are just so damned cool. Bosch’s paintings of Hell influenced two great schools of art: Surrealism and Heavy Metal. Surrealism got off on Bosch’s vibrant and innovative use of color and his ability to combine the mundane and the fantastical to make bitter and intelligent social commentary. In fact Bosch had one up on most of the Surrealists in that he actually believed in something; unlike the surrealists and their kissing cousins the dadaists, Bosch’s work is rooted in morality rather than running away from it. Bosch wouldn’t have painted a mustache on Mona Lisa; he’d’ve had her devoured by a fish demon as a pointed warning of the dangers of vanity.

Heavy Metal artists dug Bosch, because, dude, he totally painted demons. Without Bosch, we’d have no Boris Vallejo airbrushings or Dio album covers, and it’s debatable whether Western Culture would be able to survive their lack.

Some ask, does Bosch’s work show Hell as it really is? No less an authority than the Catholic Church suggests that Hell is not so much a location as it is a state of being, an eternal absence of God’s grace rather than a place where pitchforks are constantly, eternally and liberally applied to your eyeballs. In which case, Bosch’s turbulent colors and troublesome devils are just another picture show, a trifle used to scare the credulous and the dim from indulging their baser instincts, like sex and thoughts on the possibility of even more sex.

It’s the wrong question. It’s not important that Bosch shows Hell as it truly is; it’s entirely possible that, other than a useful philosophical construct, Hell doesn’t exist at all. (This does not change the fact that the Backstreet Boys must somehow be eternally punished for their crimes.) But whether it truly exists or not, humans need the idea of Hell, whether it be to scare us into a moral life, comfort the smug ones who believe everyone else is going there, or simply to remind us that the actions of our lives, good or ill, live beyond those lives themselves, and the accounting of them may occur past the day we ourselves happen to stop. Bosch saw the importance of the idea and put it down in oil.

The question is not whether Hell exists, but rather: If we could see our souls in a mirror, rather than our bodies, would they be as Bosch painted them? If they were, we wouldn’t have to wait until the next life for Hell. It would already be here.