The Dutch Series
Of Swans and Swine
has as its central theme, the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.
They form a series of riddles for the reader that thread their way through the book and because many of Bosch's paintings show aspects of the daily life of his time, many scenes reflect what can be observed in the paintings.
The identification of the paintings is one of the ways that the book can be enjoyed but the story is written in such a way that knowledge of the actual work of art is not essential. The book can be read as a story on its own. However, the intention is that the paintings can be seen by the reader so that they act as a reference point when necessary.
While the symbolic meanings behind the paintings are important, the story really concerns the daily life and the political and religious manipulations of the early sixteenth century in Europe.
The principle character is a fictitious priest who travels through Burgundy and Flanders in search of information. He works equally but unbeknown to either, for two masters; Cardinal Domenico Grimani of Venice, an art lover and supreme diplomat and the darker figures inhabiting the corridors of the Vatican, who are witnesses to the inception of the Inquisition and fully understand the threats posed by the leaders of the Reformation.
His mission is twofold; to discover all he can about the artist Jeroen van Aken, better known as Bosch and to ascertain just how far the Netherlands have been infected by the heresies of Luther and his followers. On his journey, he meets many ordianry people as well as several key historical figures of the time. Thanks to his experiences, he eventually has to re-evaluate the foundations of his own belief and decide where his loyalties lie.
Extensive research has been done so that all of the events and many of the characters in the book are historically correct but the basis of the book never strays far from the paintings themselves, which reveal so much more than at first glance.
Of Swans and Swine (Chapters 1-10)
‘Mer wi sullense nemen recht of een hont op ons baste ende als niet achten ende wi en sullen ons niet ontsien, mer ons seluen stere maken ende vromelijc striden ende spreken: “Ay, viant, dit syn dyn runinge, dese bekenne ic wel, ic en houder myn niet an.”
Fili accedens, (Anon) Groenendaal, 1500-1525
The late and watery sun tumbled through latticed windows into the room. Vague, shimmering streaks reflecting the waters outside, illuminated the gilt-armed chair and its occupant. An Arabian flute, full of glowing wine, stood alone; a sentry on a table; a witness, should a witness be required, to movement. Motionless and to all intents and purposes unaware of the world, the man in the chair was nevertheless undergoing turmoil within. He may as well have been on a barque in the Adriatic, tossed and battered by the wind, as sitting here in quiet, Venetian splendour; such were the convolutions of his mind, as all he believed in was being cast into doubt and conscience and faith were becoming dubious allies.
The door behind him inched open; its draught sending the dust particles around his head into a flurry of balletic activity. It was enough to stir him from his thoughts.
“Is that you Giovanni?”
“No holiness, it’s me, Baldassare. Am I disturbing you?”
“No, no, you’re rescuing me from my nightmares. Come in. Sit; enjoy the peace. Drink my wine; I can’t; I need clarity.”
The visitor lifted a chair from the back of the room and set it down carefully.
“You’re troubled Cardinal?”
“Oh no more than usual. How can one fail to be troubled? The world is moving too fast for me and all those of my age who have decisions to make. I shall be glad to pass it all on to your generation Baldassare. The future is yours. Though God alone knows what you will make of it. Is your book finished?”
“I have a copy with me my lord. I hope you will approve.”
“I will approve of anything that teaches those buffoons that elaborate airs and graces do not by their nature, create nobility. From what I‘ve already read in your notes, you seem to have struck exactly the right chord at exactly the right time. It’s essential the great families and their progeny, learn that good manners stem from humility and not arrogance. Have they learned nothing from history? The effete and the idle brought about the ancient downfall of Rome and look what happened little more than a year ago! When I think of what those mercenary Germans did in the name of the Spanish Emperor! Civilisation is crumbling around us. I have no love for Rome but such vandalism has no place in this age. How far away is the spectre of barbarism from our door?”
“Not to mention the troubles within the church my lord.”
“No, you should mention those but quietly. This struggle is as fundamental as any before, yet I anticipate failure, fear our demise. The true faith has never been so severely tested and the Devil and his reformist followers gain ground daily. Even the French have signed treaties with the Ottoman so I’ve heard. Is that realism or treachery? Is the world going mad when even our allies are bedding the enemy?”
“May I suggest eminence, between your ears and mine, that the enemy also lies within? When a Papal court is so corrupt and as is suggested, even the Pontiff is a slave to fleshly sins, how can we expect loyalty, either political or religious from those below? Where is the example being set?”
“Only because I know you so well Baldassare and acknowledge your integrity and undivided loyalty to God, will I allow such heresy, even in a whisper. You must be cautious my boy. These rooms have the gossip of history impregnated in their walls and undoubtedly listen to the unwary. Take care that even your most private thoughts are not overheard. I do however, understand and to my shame, agree with you but bringing about change in the highest strata of the church requires the most delicate and dangerous of manoeuvres. In that respect, I am the master and you are the apprentice. Stick to your attempted reform of courtly manners, a worthy cause in which you are more likely to stay alive.”
“It is abhorrent that men like Luther attract such a following but when I see how the profane is so widely idolised; how men’s favours can be bought for so little, even in the highest echelons, I seethe my lord, I can’t control my disgust. The ignorant are duped by the unscrupulous into believing their souls can be saved by the purchase of worthless indulgences, thus sins are compounded by sins and part of me can see how the purity of prayer and spiritual self awareness can be attractive.”
“Take care not to over-simplify the most complex issues Baldassare. Don’t voice these thoughts to others for, coming from you, they are not going to change things in the slightest, just cause you untold trouble. The church has myriad faults and people entrusted with God’s word can be weak and open to temptation but you must remember that the fundamental truth is and always will be greater than the sum of its parts. You must look at the world from a much wider perspective. There are many fronts upon which we must battle. We must repel the Ottomans, or at least ensure that they stay within their borders; we must remain politically stable within our own lands and ensure our independence from the empirical ambitions of petty princes and finally, we must crush seditious thought as represented by men like Martin Luther. Only then, when all is secure both secular and spiritual, can we attend to the failings within the church. We must look outwards not inwards, for the greatest threats come from abroad.
Now Baldassare, my head is aching with such problems, could we talk about something else? I would like your opinion on some paintings I have recently acquired.”
“Certainly my lord, though there are many things I would like to discuss with you, I do respect your need for rest. What paintings are these? You have so many.”
“They are by Jeroen van Aken, better known as Jeroen Bosch and were painted as you might expect in s’Hertogenbosch. There is a panel depicting the martyrdom of a saint and one telling the story of Jonah and the Whale. I find them primitive but compelling and I don’t know why. I wonder if this man is also a seditionist but can’t trust my own judgement. Please, I would value your insight.”
Of Swans and Swine