El Bosco, The Prophetic Imagination and Aunt Jennifer's Tigers.

Garden of Earthly Delights, detail.

Garden of Earthly Delights, detail.

The Bosch exhibit at the Prado did three things for me.

1. Reminded me how much I love Art.

2. Emphasized how much I love the imaginary world.

3. Confirmed that the imaginary world is the skeleton on which I build the body of my feelings and emotions.

Walter Brueggemann (religious scholar) uses a term, Prophetic Imagination, to talk about the necessity of implementing new and effective language when talking about the invisible world. When I say the invisible world, I’m not talking fairies and dragons although at one time (perhaps Boschs’ time?) fairies and dragons were a perfect metaphor to describe delicacy and power.

Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann

The invisible world is the subtle place. The quiet place where the acedemic could argue till the cows come home about whose word is correct - but the poet would whisper attempts at perfection again, and again, and again. She would write, speak or sing her work; all the while knowing that the word is not quite right, or will it ever be. 

El Bosco

El Bosco

Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers

By Adrienne Rich

Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen,

Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.

They do not fear the men beneath the tree;

They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.


Walter Brueggemann, a guest on Kristen Tippet’s On Being, author of The Prophetic Imagination and more recently, Another Kingdom, (a moving work advocating something other than capitalism as purpose for a driven life) says the metaphor must remain alive and must transform to be apt for our times. His 1978 work, the Prophetic Imagination, like Bosch's paintings transcend its era. America was emerging from the 1960’s and despite the decades that have passed since it’s publication; I feel his writing and Bosch's paintings are applicable to the inquiry into yoga and its philosophies today.

The Bosch exhibit at Museo del Prado, helped me recognize the artist, though working with the visual world, as an accomplished poet. His metaphors are still illuminating our collective imaginations today. Bosch, though the researchers have tried, cannot be deciphered literally. Is he pro-church? His affiliations with the Illustrious Brotherhood of our blessed Lady, imply yes, but a nun personified as a pig seems contrary to that idea. Was he a humanist? A rebel? A critic? Some of this or that contradicts every label we try to put on the painter.

“.. Energy comes from the embrace of the inscrutable darkness.” WB, The Prophetic Imagination

The Haywain

The Haywain

In his new preface to The Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann draws the conclusion that texts (and perhaps Bosch’s paintings) 

"are acts of imagination that offer and purpose “alternative worlds” that exist because of and in the act of utterance.”WB, The Prophetic Imagination


“…..Aunt Jennifer’s fingers fluttering through her wool

Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.

The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band

Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.”

Hieronymus Bosch was a poet in his prophecy. Labeling the work as anything more than an indescribable experience would be doing the work an injustice. He has not relegated his images to that of candy or that of doom alone but there exists in his alternative world the freedom of divinity and it’s many outcomes.

"Passion as the capacity and readiness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel is the enemy of imperial reality." WB, The Prophetic Imagination

Who cares specifically what he was saying. He went to great trouble to be very exact in his forms but they are like the Divine vision of Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita, so many faceted that they contain everything. “Everything” is beyond our comprehension. Even if we are given the gift of divine sight, the reality is too much; we return to the familiar, to that which we can comprehend in this moment. These paintings work in this way. I can apply the imagery to my life’s work and myself rather than look to the artist for his answers but they offer me other. They - like good poetry - are bigger than I am and offer me another world.

“Imagination is a legitimate way of knowing” WB, The Prophetic Imagination


The Prado exhibition included most of the works actually attributed to Bosch and a few pieces that were of questionable origin and may have been executed by his workshop. The drawings were delicate and sensitive, the painting robust and bold.

Birds hold places for a quality of light and attention. Pigs are heavy yet smart. Fish are agile and furless making the muscle of their being effective, sleek and yet vulnerable. They are vehicles for traveling through the sky no less marvelous than the wildest space ships of today. A hay cart filled with golden straw represents temporality while hybrids of instrument, animal, and human create experiences that are more akin to feeling than thought.

Brueggemann suggests that the work of the prophet is to provide an alternative community. He suggests this was the role of Moses in relation to the tyranny of Royal Egypt. Yoga and art provides us with an alternative community. We are free to feel, grieve, and question. We are encouraged to live in the questions without always demanding answers. We are encouraged to turn to the inner world for truth rather than the temporary outer manifestation.

Bosche creates an alternative world in his paintings. The world - as I visit it - gives me a reality that I can immerse in like a lake on a perfect summer day. There are areas around the edges where I can see through the water to the sand and stones below and there are deep murky places, where, the first time I swim, I worry about monsters being stirred from the deep.

“The task of the prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”WB, The Prophetic Imagination


The Last Judgement

The Last Judgement

Bosch wasn’t bowing down to the dominant culture but he was a part of it. The humor and directness in his work provides a language for alternative community within the world in which he lives. Alternative community, as Brueggemann defines it, is a place where we can think and feel free from the confines of the church or the government or in our times, the internet.

“…. Real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right.” WB, The Prophetic Imagination


Brueggemann quotes Dorothy Soelle when he emphasizes our need to grieve and feel dark emotions as a means of liberation.

“  …Mobilizing people to their real restless grief and in nurturing them away from cry-hearers who are inept at listening and indifferent in response” WB, The Prophetic Imagination


“…When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie

Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.

The tigers in the panel that she made

Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.” Adrienne Rich


Bosch’s paintings provide a portal that creates a sense of new reality as I stand before them. His childhood hell, witnessing a fire that destroyed 4,000 houses before his eyes, is presented again and again. His paintings do not demand cheeriness or content with the status quo. They do not offer 5 easy steps to enlightenment. These paintings offer a mirror through which we may glimpse ourselves with delight and fancy, but also provide us the opportunity to see, feel, grieve and transform.

“ Energy comes from the embrace of the inscrutable darkness……We need not ask whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable” WB, The Prophetic Imagination



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