The wonders of biology meet the mysteries of Mormonism in Terry Tempest Williams's spiritual evocation of Hieronymus Bosch's El Jardin de las Delicias
. Williams is mesmerized by the painting, and there is much to be fascinated by, including her own stream-of-consciousness exploration of its images and symbolism.
The Garden of Earthly Delights, as it's known in English, is part of a triptych, surrounded by wings of paradise and hell. Williams visits the painting daily in the Prado Museum in Madrid, reveling in the gestalt and concentrating on the nuances in the elaborate and extraordinarily detailed masterpiece. One day she'll devote hours inspecting the cavorting, joyous figures, "the blue pool of bathers standing thigh-high in the middle of the triptych," the cherries "flying in the air, dangling from the poles, dropped into the mouths of lovers." Another day she's there with binoculars, cataloguing the birds Bosch chose to place in the garden of earthly delights (she finds 35 of them, including the gadwall, the wagtail, the great white egret, and Tengmalm's owl--a bird who sings "poo-poo-poo," which she considers a bit of prime Bosch paradise humor). Her insight, however, is not limited to the painting. She looks inward and outward, her probing artistic analysis inspiring childhood memories, worldly observations, and universal questions about love and faith.
Williams's leap into Bosch's garden is an unusual blend of academic rigor and unfettered artistic license, studying the painter's world with erudite discipline, then soaring into lyric associations that'll charm your poetic soul or curdle your objective sensibilities, depending on the latitude you grant in works that mix art history with personal memoir and spiritual exploration. --Stephanie Gold
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From Publishers Weekly
When naturalist writer Williams was a child staying over at her grandmother's house, she would sleep beneath images of Paradise and Hell thumbtacked to the wall above her bed, symbols of the "oughts and shoulds and if you don'ts" of her Mormon upbringing. Years later, as an adult, Williams rediscovered those prints in Madrid's Prado Museum--they are the wings of Hieronymus Bosch's 15th-century triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. But why had the erotic center panel been hidden from her childish eyes? The question leads Williams on a prolonged meditation contemplating the painting's meaning, her own childhood and the place of religion in life. In rich, poetic prose interspersed with scripture, news items and anecdotes, she builds a monument to the richness of Mormon culture in the life of a woman who is fiercely environmentalist, feminist, aware. But Williams also mixes her philosophical musings with the quotidian events of her trip to Spain and quotations from writers as diverse as Virginia Woolf and Charles Darwin, burdening her work at times with excessive detail. The hundreds of cherries in Bosch's garden remind Williams of picking cherries as a child in the orchards along the Wasatch Front. "What principle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ means the most to you?" asked her great-uncle as she and her cousin perched high on a ladder. "Obedience," the cousin replied. "Free agency," answered Williams, savoring a cherry. Her memoir searchingly explores the distance and tension between these answers. (May)
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