A Triptych on Hieronymus Bosch, Love, and Madrid

Atocha Station

Part I: Bosch

Over the years, I have relied on Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights to explain my writing process, and also to hint at how I see the world. This early 1500s painting is a triptych (composed of three panels): the left depicts Eden; the center displays a whimsical orgy of nude figures, creatures, and surrealist iconography; and the right panel, dark and moody, depicts hell.

Garden of Earthly Delights
The Garden of Earthly Delights, via Wikipedia.

Separately, Bosch’s characters, scenes, and iconography are nonsensical. The canvas is made up of fragments, all quite powerful, and without them—even the absurd ones—the piece won’t work. As a whole, The Garden of Earthly Delights is cohesive: the chaos, ultimately, makes sense. The first time I looked at it, in my art history class in high school, I was perplexed—even uneasy. Since then, this painting has become a metaphor for how I put things together, as a memoirist and thinker.

How I read this painting is how I write: moments, scenes, even entire chapters of a narrative don’t quite make sense during the writing process. Inspired by nonlinear scripts—The Usual Suspects, Memento—I write in fragments, hoping to see light pushing through the cracks in the deep, dark cave that is my mind; betting that these narrative threads connect in the end.

But this rarely happens, and I leave my threads hanging. To date, my arsenal of unfinished pieces is my greatest accomplishment. And so, I thrive on writing story fragments; I rarely craft endings. I recognize and am comforted by themes that guide my life—from juxtaposition to unreliable memory—but don’t understand why they’re significant.

Part II: Love (Or, At Least Fragments of It)

And in regard to love, I’ve figured out that I won’t ever figure things out. My closest friends are pairing off, falling in love—true, honest, romantic love—and agree to support one another for a lifetime. I don’t think this type of love exists for everyone, and while I’ve been in love before, long long ago, I have yet to find a partner today who complements me.

The colors of Wat Arun in Bangkok. Fragments create my world.
The colors of Wat Arun in Bangkok. Fragments create my world.

As time passes, I am increasingly drawn to modesty—to a quiet, strong confidence. Not many people impress me, but when I come upon someone who does, they usually don’t hit me in the face with it; I peel their layers as I go, with every encounter, and in return, I allow this person to do the same to me. In the past, the more I’ve peeled, the uglier we both get.

Still, I accept my flaws. My search for the “perfect” person is more a search for an individual with imperfections I can handle, and with leftover fragments that can be stored with my own in harmony—in a big glass jar that we can shake to create a haphazard, eclectic mix that works. While this is not love in the conventional sense, it makes perfect sense to me.

Part III: Madrid

My slowly developed love for Madrid—10 years in the making—reflects this search for a lifelong mate. I first wandered Madrid when I was 20, in the spring of 2000. Aside from the quiet, intense moments between me and The Garden of Earthly Delights inside the Prado Museum, Madrid was forgettable.

That spring, I also wandered the streets of Barcelona, Florence, Interlaken, London, Paris, and other cities, and while I’d filed clear snapshots of La Pedrera, the Florence Cathedral, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and other landmarks in my mental photo gallery, I could not recall anything concrete about Madrid after my trip other than Bosch’s surreal, chaotic landscape. I know I walked around and saw massive monuments, but the city was a blur. For a decade, Madrid was a blotch in my mind.

My trip to Madrid this past August, then, was surprising. I fell in love with it. I lingered a lot, spending hours in its plazas sipping wine, nibbling on tapas, and talking about life with my dear friend Ben and his sister Nicole. I wandered quieter streets of La Latina, studying the mundane and the crumbling facades; I sat on benches on a tree-lined street to watch sellers of El Rastro market set up their booths. I lingered at fountains; I explored the city’s parks. I returned to my favorite plazas, sitting for longer, sipping more wine, indulging on more plates of food.

Friday Night Plaza Bustle, Madrid.

I wondered why I didn’t experience this 10 years before, and I realize I have absorbed Madrid differently than other cities. When I was 20, I was attracted to the obvious beauty and grandness of cities like Barcelona, but on this recent trip, Barcelona felt superficial—the city was fleeting, but not in a pleasurable way. I could not identify with or grasp anything in Barcelona. Gaudi’s monuments were jaw-dropping, of course, but I couldn’t scratch the surface of the city. I left unfulfilled.

But Madrid’s beauty is unassuming. It simmers just under the surface. And it’s not that Madrid lacks iconic symbols to hold onto, but rather the city reeled me in and captured my heart in a quiet, gradual way. It’s a mature, sophisticated love: despite its flaws, and even though it’s not postcard-perfect, I love it all the same.

And that’s how people generally win me over. Love has never bonked me over the head with a hammer: it creeps up on me, it lingers…it pulls me closer bit by bit, moment to moment. It takes many pieces, and a good amount of time, for me to feel. For me to create something whole.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

2 thoughts on “A Triptych on Hieronymus Bosch, Love, and Madrid

  1. Love this post! I spent six months living in Madrid; my apartment was about halfway between the Prado and the Reina Sofia, and I would go to one of these on any weekend that contained a free moment (RS free on Saturday afternoons, Prado free on Sundays, I think). I was shocked and delighted to find so much Bosch in Madrid – I’d also studied him but didn’t make the Hapsburg or whatever connections that sent him to Madrid. I also spent long, long moments staring into Goya’s Black Paintings. Goya and I have a thing.

    I spent 6 months in Madrid and it took all 6 months to learn to love the place. Barcelona was young, brash and welcoming; it had Gaudi. Madrid was slow, and there just wasn’t that much famous stuff around. I was 22 and that, I suspect, is what it came down to. By the time I left though, I loved it, and some of the places you mentioned were my regular haunts.

    AND this comment is already far too long, but I’m glad there are other people out there for whom love just doesn’t work in the way it’s “supposed to” (ie bonking over the head).

    Your writing is so different to most other blogging (at least that I read). It’s a great strength, i think, and is a delight to read.

    ps… see what you mean when you say that paintings/art for you are often the key to a place.

    1. That’s cool you lived in Madrid for a while — it’s a city I could spent time in, a lingering city for sure. “Young, brash, and welcoming” is a great place to describe Barcelona! I see now why my 19-year-old self preferred Barcelona over Madrid (and how it’s the opposite today).

      Thanks so much for your comment on my writing — I tend to write for myself here, which may make the writing different, but it’s also less focused and accessible, which turns off some readers. So, thanks for returning to read stuff!

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