Thursday, October 2, 2008

Bavo, Bosch and a Hollow Tree Trunk

Like many people we know, Saint Bavo of Ghent (589-654) led what Butler understated as an “irregular” life before he cleaned up his act, that is to say, was converted by a stirring sermon of Saint Amand. Actually, Bavo’s early misdeeds are worse than those of anyone I know: he actually sold his servants into slavery. Pretty unforgivable, you would say?

But as we have seen time and time again, a checkered past, a feckless youth, a prodigal adolescence, even a criminal record, can all be expunged by a timely conversion.

Which would explain why Bavo’s conversion makes such an excellent subject for painting, such as Rubens’ huge painting in the cathedral in Ghent. (For art’s sake, rather than verisimilitude, Rubens includes several semi-nude bodies in all sorts of torqued positions.)

But the painting I want to mention, because it is so unexpected, is Bavo’s singular appearance, in grisaille, on the exterior right wing of Hieronymus Bosch’s Triptych of the Last Judgment. (The one in Vienna. Not Bosch’s only Last Judgment, not by a long shot.)

The falcon on his left wrist, the spurs and elegant robes are all emblematic of the luxurious life led by Bavo, pre-conversion. Conversely, the open purse in his right hand signifies the alms he dispensed so graciously to the poor, post-conversion. The midget, the amputated (or mummified) foot, the child balancing a bowl atop his head, these are all pure Boschian enigmas. I read that both the foot and the bowl on the infant’s head appear in Bosch’s Lisbon Triptych, in a sinister context.

The other thing you must know about Saint Bavo is that after some time in the monastery he decided he wanted more of a hermetic life, and took up residence in the hollow trunk of a large tree. One hopes it was a very large tree. Since hollow trees are favorite places for a swarm of bees, I wonder whether he had to evict 60,000 odd honeybees and their queen before settling in.

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