In Leap, Utah naturalist Terry Tempest Williams enters the world of the visual imagination in an unusual, book-length meditation on the meaning of the painting The Garden of Delights by the medieval Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch. The painting is a triptych, or three-paneled oil on wood, whose center panel measures approximately seven feet by six feet and whose side panels are seven feet by three feet. The three panels depict richly animated and complex images of paradise, earthly delights, and hell. The painting, possibly commissioned by Hendrik of Nassau in Flanders as an altarpiece, resided in the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain, during the seven years Williams researched Leap; Williams returned repeatedly to contemplate its enigmatic meaning over that seven-year period. A foldout reproduction of Bosch’s painting is included at the end of Leapfor the benefit of the reader, since Williams refers to details in each panel.
For Williams, Bosch’s painting became a visual sermon on her childhood, her Mormon faith, her marriage, and her career as a natural history writer. The title of her book, Leap, becomes a metaphor for the leap of faith and imagination that she employs to make sense of her world through art and nature. Perhaps originally conceived as an elaborate allegory about the consequences of human concupiscence, Bosch’s three panels tell much about the late medieval European religious imagination. What is paradise? What do humans desire? What do they fear? What does this masterpiece say to people who view it over five hundred years after its creation? What is the relationship between art and nature?
Williams’s Leap is organized in three sections that reflect the three panels of Bosch’s painting, along with a fourth section entitled “Restoration.” Bosch’s Garden of Delights is heavily influenced by biblical mythology. In the “Paradise” panel, Adam and Eve kneel in the foreground before Christ, perhaps about to be married. A menagerie of birds and animals wander about in a dreamlike environment, with a surrealistic fountain and mountain range in the background. This panel evokes childhood memories for Williams of a Metropolitan Museum of Art reproduction of Bosch’s Paradise and Hell that hung on a bulletin board over the bed where she slept in her grandmother’s house. Why, she now wonders, was the center panel on earthly delights omitted? She also recalls the occasion of her baptism into the Mormon Church, when, at the age of twelve, she was accompanied by her father to the baptismal font and immersed backward into the holy waters. She describes the intense fervor of her adolescent faith that led her to a careful study of Mormon scriptures, especially the accounts of the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith, who described visitations by the angel Moroni. During the summer after her high school graduation, while Williams worked at a ranch near Yellowstone National Park, she fasted and prayed for two days, hoping for a vision to affirm her faith. When, at the end of the summer, she received a vision of a figure clothed in white, she turned, overwhelmed, to her mother and grandmother for support to help her understand what the apparition meant. In her adult life, having left the “paradise” of childhood, she struggled with the implications of a faith to which she felt great familial and personal loyalty, yet which she also found personally restrictive. Formal religion and spirituality are not identical for Williams, an idea she explores through the analogy of the owl and the rabbit. If the rabbit represents faith and community and the owl solitary spirituality and conflict, the owl will eventually overtake the rabbit, as in one’s adult life the personal spiritual quest may grow beyond the constraints of formal religious tradition and community. Williams contrasts the religious genius of Smith with what she perceives as the institutional rigidity of the contemporary Mormon Church with its fear of eros and its condemnation of homosexuality.
In the second section of Leap, Williams considers the meaning of Bosch’s opposite panel, “Hell,” in terms of contemporary environmental destruction and the excesses of consumer cultures, which she likens to the torments depicted by Bosch. Williams compares Bosch’s work with that of contemporary British conceptual artist Damien Hirst, who, in 1999, exhibited a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde in the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Hirst’s dead shark, mounted butterflies, and severed cow’s head forced the audience to confront the question of the distinction between art and nature, particularly in a...
(The entire section is 1920 words.)