Demons and Daydreams: How Hieronymus Bosch Got Me Writing

I had a really hard time choosing a major in college. I went from Business Administration to Retailing, to Fashion, and finally landed in Art History – a perfect place for people like me who love art, but lack all artistic ability.

Art History was a really fun major, and I enjoyed my classes tremendously. We’d scrutinize paintings, paying attention to style, technique, and symbolism, and listen to stories our professors told about the lives of the artists and the different historical events going on when the paintings were created. My favorite artists were from the Northern Renaissance – Dutch, Flemish, French, and German painters from the 15th and 16th centuries. You could feel the chill coming off the winter landscapes of Pieter Brueghel, as well as the cold piety of the stiff figures in Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.

They couldn’t look less enthusiastic about getting married, could they?

I’m a prolific daydreamer, which isn’t surprising given that I’ve decided to write stories for a living. I can pay attention if I really want to, but it’s also so much fun to give into temptation and let my brain drift away into other worlds that are a lot more exciting than a chilly lecture hall at 8 a.m. One of my favorite things to do during lectures was dream up stories about the paintings my professors showed us. And no one got my imagination cooking more than Hieronymus Bosch.

If you’re not acquainted with Bosch, he’s the artist who created The Garden of Earthly Delights, a bizarre and fanciful triptych currently in the Museo del Prado in Spain. Garden of Earthly Delights not ringing a bell? It’s the “knife between the ears picture”:

Also the one with the “nun-pig”

As well as what Huffington Post labeled, “Diabolical Bird on Potty Chair”:

Centuries of scholars have maintained that the three panels depict Adam and Eve, the moral depravity of their descendants, and the resultant torments of Hell – all of which makes sense as Bosch was a very pious man living in a society where basically everything was governed by the Church. But my former professor, Laurinda Dixon, maintained in her excellent book that Bosch actually created the painting as a tribute to his work in alchemy. I won’t get into all the details, but Christianity and alchemy were not opposed to one another in the 15th century, and in fact, learned and devout men like Bosch practiced alchemy in order to return the world to a new Garden of Eden.

Being the kind of twisted person whose eyes light up at pictures of bird demons torturing people, and whose ears perk up when I hear occult-sounding words like alchemy, this freaky Bosch stuff was right up my alley. Prof. Dixon spoke to us about the parallels between Christian dogma and alchemical processes, one of which is the Philosopher’s Stone – a legendary alchemical substance that could turn metals into gold as well as grant eternal life – and its analogue, God’s creation of Earth. This got me thinking:

What if Bosch had written the instructions for creating the Philosopher’s Stone into the painting itself? What if a person could decode his arcane pictorial language, assemble the right materials, and use the painting as a guide to create everlasting life?? 

I should pause this flight of fancy to tell you I got a B in Prof. Dixon’s class, not for lack of enthusiasm, but for poor listening and bad note taking. Turns out daydreaming about art history is not the same as learning art history.

I scribbled notes about turning the idea into a screenplay. I wanted Anthony Hopkins. I wanted Frida meets The Red Violin. And let me say, too, that this was a few years before Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code took over the world, so I was really at the vanguard of the “old masterpieces containing hidden clues about cool magic stuff” genre of Hollywood thrillers.

But I was twenty years old, I’d never taken a writing class, I was highly distractible, and y’all…screenwriting is hard! I’m sure I tossed the notes into the recycling bin along with all my other papers as soon as the semester was over. My Northern Renaissance class had finished, and new artists demanded my attention: Winslow Homer, Paul Gauguin, Fernand Leger. I got a waitressing job. I got a boyfriend. I started making plans for after graduation. And I forgot all about Bosch and his weird knife-ear monsters.

But though I moved on past Bosch, the writing bug had bitten me and wouldn’t let go. A year later I attempted a new screenplay about a young woman caught in a love triangle at her supermarket job, and a year after that, I finally enrolled in a screenwriting class and wrote 25 pages of a mockumentary about vampires forming a political party. I wouldn’t start writing in earnest for another six years, and I wouldn’t start my novel for another year after that, but I knew, sitting in Prof. Dixon’s class all those years ago, that I was pretty good at coming up with stories. And that I loved it.

I actually got to see The Garden of Earthly Delights two years ago when I visited Spain. And just as I’d imagined, it was remarkable. Truly, words fail when standing in front of something so exquisite. And as I circled around the painting, taking in the three panels on the inside as well as the grey orb on the outer two, all the old ideas came rushing back. I took out my phone and started taking notes, just as inspired as the first time I laid eyes on it. I wasn’t ready to tackle such a big project when I was twenty years old. But maybe the elements have aligned for me now.

Inspiration never really leaves us. It’s always there in the background, waiting for you to turn around. When you see it, it’s like seeing an old friend. Even if the old friend is a diabolical bird on a big potty chair.

Author: Elizabeth Gonzalez James

Before becoming a writer Elizabeth was a waitress, a pollster, an Avon lady, and an opera singer. Her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares Blog, The Idaho Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and have received multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. Her debut novel, MONA AT SEA, was a finalist in the 2019 SFWP Literary Awards judged by Carmen Maria Machado, and is forthcoming, Summer 2021, from Santa Fe Writers Project. Originally from South Texas, Elizabeth now lives with her family in Oakland, California.