Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Bosch's spoonbills

Hieronymus Bosch had a thing about spoonbills. They appear in both The Garden of Earthly Delights and The Last Judgment. Mind you, Bosch had a thing about disembodied ears and Swiss army knives and hybrids between humans and musical instruments, so spoonbills are agreeably normal.

But in The Last Judgement, one of his spoonbills* — somewhat more anthropomorphic than the others — carries a human trussed up and slung from a pole**. It's not clear what the bird intends to do with its captive but no good is going to come from it. That much is obvious.

It seems like a slander on spoonbills, which, despite being decidedly shirty birds, aren't known for their homicidal tendencies. In my experience, that is. Your mileage may vary. (And if it does, I'd really like to know.)

This musing on Bosch came about as I was watching some (slightly aggressive) yellow-billed spoonbills (Platalea flavipes) at Serendip Sanctuary and was struck by the sheer whiteness of those feathers. They were the sort of brilliant white you could see from the moon.

And it occurred to me then that if you were going to paint an angel (that is, do a painting of an angel, rather than slapping an acrylic top coat on a seraph) that you could easily ditch the traditional mute swan wings and replace them with a pair from a spoonbill. Not only would they be as pristine and fluffy, they wouldn't be so bloody hackneyed.

And that led me to thinking about Bosch's motivation in including such a bird in The Last Judgment. Because his paintings feature so many fusions of nature and artifact, could it have been the ready-made combination of angel and cutlery that attracted him?

And if so, why is it wearing a coat?

And then I thought, I should really stick to studying snails. I never ended up ruminating pointlessly about the inspirations of Early Netherlandish artists when I was dissecting gastropods.

But I'd still like to know ...

* I'm not entirely convinced this one is a spoonbill, to be honest, but that's what they say.

** It's down at the bottom of the picture, just to the left of centre.


Dave Coulter said...

When I was in Spain years ago I went to see the Goya paintings at the Prado. There were a few by Bosch too (maybe the one you profile?).

His work was also favored of the Spanish royal family. Apparently those images of people being stuffed into hell cheered them up, lol...

PS, the spoonbill photos are awesome!

Duncan said...

That new camera is doing a great job Snail, not a hint of clipped highlights, white birds can be so hard to photograph. Lovely detail in the feathers, I'm impressed.

Cephalopodcast said...

Bosch action figures. What bird is this?

Snail said...

Envy @ Dave. I would love to go to the Prado!

Duncan, I was going to read the manual but I think I might just let the camera take care of things. At some point I'm going to have to come to terms with all that histogram business ... Tomorrow, maybe!

Jason, I think it's a handy can opener bird but I'll see what the consensus is!