I still say it was the fault of that damn painting.
I had flown to Madrid from the West Coast — six hours across country, with the obligatory four hour layover at JFK, then seven hours over the Atlantic — and gotten in about 10 in the morning. I and the friend I flew with were retrieved by my husband and a friend and coworker, with the plan being an afternoon in Madrid, followed possibly by tapas, and an early night at Torrejón de Ardoz, where we were staying. The theory was that staying up without napping would help our bodies acclimate to Spanish time (nine hours later than home). This would mean that we would have stayed up for close to 24 hours straight by the time we went to bed.
I was in Spain as consolation prize for having a husband who is on the road roughly four months a year. Every couple of years, I go abroad with the saved frequent flyer miles — that year (2004), to Spain. After a short stay in the vicinity of Madrid, his project was heading south to the the Spanish hill country north of Seville, to a small mining town called Rio Tinto. I was along for the ride.
After my husband and the fabulous Sarah Huffman (see sidebar) met me and my friend at the airport, we went into town. After the first of what would seem like innumerable dinners of jamón (Spanish ham — similar to proscuitto) at the Muséo de Jamón (a chain restaurant with walls covered completely with dried hams — a little like dining in Norman Bates’s parlor), we headed for the Prado. Since I don’t care much for jamón, I didn’t eat very much.
The Prado is one of the world’s most magnificent musems. In addition to an unparalleled collection of Spanish art, it contains masterpieces of Italian, German, Dutch, and Flemish art. While I was eager to see the Goyas and Velazquezes (although not the Picassos — they are at the Reine Sofia, and at that point in time I was not interested in Picasso anyway), I was dying to see one of the most bizarre works of art ever created: Heironymous Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”.
There is an unfortunate tendency today to attribute anything unusual or extremely imaginative to the impact of either drugs or mental illness. This is rubbish — there is very little that the healthy human mind cannot come up with independent of outside influences. However, having seen Bosch’s work, I think ergotism is about as good an explanation for it as anything else.
“The Garden of Earthly Delights” is not a very large painting, as these things go, especially considering the triptych was designed as an altarpiece: the central panel is roughly 7′ x 6′, the side panels half that width. The three panels are “The Garden of Eden”, on the left, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, in the middle, and “Hell”, on the right.
No matter which panel you start with, it is a strange work of art. “The Garden of Eden” is the calmest, most reassuring, but even there you see trees with strange, fleshy limbs, and an odd fountain that looks almost alive. Bizarre creatures inhabit the pond near the front, including what looks to be a half duck-half fish with arms. Still, compared to what is to follow, this panel is sanity itself.
The central panel is where things get seriously trippy. The panel is crammed full of people and creatures engaged in various sexual and other activities. Giant fruit litter the landscape. People are trapped inside clams. There is a big circle of people on animals towards the back. Presumably, at least some of this made symbolic sense to its intended audience in the 16th century. As I don’t live in the 16th century, however, it was all lost on me.
It was sometime while looking at the middle panel that I started to feel strange. A sense of dizziness and disorientation began to set in. I felt creeping nausea. An intelligent person would have stopped and gone elsewhere, but, well, I was there to see this painting, by God, and I was going to see this painting thoroughly if it killed me.
I then started looking at the end panel.
Every college dorm in America has at least one copy of “Hell” posted up on a wall somewhere. It’s just the sort of thing you need to contemplate during acid trips. But as often as I had seen prints of the damned thing, it was worse in person.
It is bizarre and fascinating and dark. It is filled with fantastic creatures — the most notable being the “tree-man” at the center — who either are torturing or being tortured. A woman being sucked by leeches. A bird-like creature consuming people and shitting them out. People strung up on harps like crufixes. The knight pinned down and eaten by dogs. The ears — nothing but ears — with the knife-blade between them.
I couldn’t look away.
I started feeling seriously disoriented. I felt like I was losing my sanity. I was going to fall into the painting. My nausea went from “creeping” to “jumping”.
I walked away and looked at some of Bosch’s other, less strange (but still rather odd) work. When that didn’t make me feel better, I went and sat down in the room next door with the Breughels. The nausea subsided, but the dizziness and disorientation did not. What happened next is still quite hazy. At some point, I made my way down to the ladies room on the ground floor, which has nice cool marble tile floors and walls. I leaned against them…
Only to be shaken awake by a guard. Other museum patrons had called the guard because I appeared to have passed out. I was unable to communicate with the guard because my extremely limited Spanish fled, leaving me with only “no habla Español” which I mumbled over and over.
The guard took me to the museum infirmary, where I had better luck communicating with the doctor, who spoke English. The doctor at first thought she must be having trouble understanding me — after all, I had said I had just arrived that day? Surely, that was not right. No, I said, that was right — I had just gotten off the plane. She looked at me for a moment, shook her head, and gave me some apple juice.
After lying down, and having more apple juice and some glucose gel, I felt somewhat better. The doctor diagnosed severe jet-lag and low blood sugar, and ordered me to go back to my hotel and sleep. Which I did, after my friends (who had gone to security when I disappeared) retrieved me from the infirmary.
Two days later, when I came back to the Prado, I had no desire whatsoever to see anymore of Bosch’s handiwork. I avoided the Bosch room completely, and instead concentrated on the Spanish painting on the upper floors, including the heartrending “Third of May” by Goya. (Goya himself had a few strange episodes: there is a room devoted to the “Black Goyas”, which are bizarre and grotesque paintings Goya did toward the end of his life. The most well-known of these is probably “Saturn Devouring One of His Children“.)
I would have thought no more of it, except “Prado moment” became a byword on that trip. A couple of weekends later, when I finally returned to the group after getting lost looking for restrooms at the Alhambra, my husband remarked, “Thank goodness. I thought you were having another Prado moment.”
Of course not, silly. There are no Bosches at the Alhambra.