Of Swans and Swine
Chapter 8; Part 2
Only nine months previously, Suleiman had taken Rhodes and all of Venice’s eastern Mediterranean posts were under threat. With the capture of Serbian Belgrade the previous year, the gateway to Hapsburg Europe was open and with the addition of the sweeping victories in the east and south of Asia Minor, the Sultan’s intentions to expand the empire as rapidly as possible, were crystal clear. No one understood better than Venice that he had the resources to do it. Apart from that, Grimani admired Suleiman’s diplomatic skills. He had allied himself to Francis the first of France, in a clever ploy to keep the Emperor Charles busy in the North and West and was known to be courting the English throne too. Grimani couldn’t understand the short-sightedness of certain states. The Ottomans had always been the enemy; they were infidels and a Christian king had no right to be allying himself with them against other Christian kings. Could they not learn from history? The Ottomans were never to be trusted and were relentlessly ambitious in the expansion of their domains. Venice had every reason to fear them as the devil, though at the same time, trade was always possible except at times of open warfare. Both powers recognised the pragmatism of keeping trade and diplomatic links open; it was mutually beneficial. Suleiman was a new force however and the cardinal feared his energy and intelligence. This was a Sultan whose ruthless ambition extended further than the palace walls and Grimani had little doubt that Venice was an eventual prize on his list.
“I have a small knowledge of your position but what is it you want from us? You can appreciate that we are somewhat wary of approaches Constantinople; Suleiman shows every sign of expanding his interests to overlap with our own; a situation that can only lead to direct conflict I fear. Our mutual trading concerns would then be in jeopardy and that would be harmful to us both. The history between us is littered with broken promises and warfare and even if the Sultan were prepared to offer a treaty, I feel it would be met with some scepticism here.”
The Pasha laughed,
“I shall be brutally honest with you cardinal. If the Sultan did decide to turn his energies towards Venice, there is little you would be able to do to stop it. You have a powerful army and a stronger fleet but eventually, through sheer force of numbers, you would lose. Your city is becoming fat and lazy on its profits; do you really think you could resist us?”
Shuddering at the thought, Grimani privately acceded that Venice could probably not survive a full invasion and extended siege.
“It is fortunate for you that the Sultan’s ambitions lie elsewhere at the moment. We have to subdue the Safavids in the east but will eventually succeed. Azerbaijan, and Iraq will be ours and Baghdad and Tabriz will fall. The Persian Gulf is his aim. Once that is secure, uncountable trade possibilities will open up for us. Then Venice and all the Italian states must look to their borders, for we will have no further use for a balance of power in the Mediterranean.
With the fall of Belgrade too, we can bypass Venice and strike directly into the heart of the Hapsburg Empire. Hungary and Austria are targets and he has more than once announce his plans to dine in Vienna. He understands the emerging schisms in the Christian church and will do his best to encourage them; in that way it will be easier to attack single states. Princes who break away from Rome will receive financial support; that is his policy. You must also understand that he is only responding to the aggressive expansion of Christendom. The Portuguese, the French, the Spanish and the Dutch are all making inroads in the Islamic east; he must respond and is in a position to do so. In this way, he earns the gratitude of other Islamic states. We do have a small but growing problem with the Muscovites from the north but that can only be temporary; otherwise, we are secure and strong. At only twenty-eight, Suleiman is a leader with sufficient drive and ambition to make the Ottoman Empire the greatest the world has ever seen. This is not a threat Your Eminence, this is a fact but unfortunately, internal politics mean that I will possibly not live to see it. My rivals are everywhere and I foresee my own fall from grace, though in comparison to the great achievements to come, my demise will not feature in the history books. Suleiman the lawgiver will earn the title of Caliph of Islam, for he is the future saviour of the religion.”
Grimani clasped his hands and pondered before answering. Piri Mehmed had been surprisingly honest and forthcoming. Much of what he said merely confirmed what Venice already knew or suspected but it was a chilling prospect. No one underestimated the threat from Suleiman but what did the Sultan want from Venice and perhaps more interestingly, what did the Grand Vizier actually want for himself?
“We are fully aware of Sultan Suleiman’s growing power and ambitions and are respectful of what he has achieved so far. The fall of Rhodes was a blow for Christendom and from your perspective; a great military achievement and I can appreciate the strategic value in taking Belgrade. He has also earned our respect for his leadership in battle; few Christian kings are prepared to lead their armies from the front as he does. What we found most remarkable however, was the respect he showed for the Grand Master in Rhodes. I believe Suleiman congratulated him personally for the defence of his land and later publicly regretted forcing a brave man from his home. His terms of surrender were also unusually generous; I have heard that the Christian citizens in Rhodes were given up to three years to leave; unheard of! That form of chivalry has gained him many reluctant admirers and makes him morally difficult to criticise. We can all see, however bitter the medicine, that Rhodes stood in the middle of the routes to Egypt and from an Ottoman viewpoint had to be taken. The logic of the Sultan’s tactics and the fairness of their implementation make him difficult to hate. However, despite your conviction that we are facing inevitable defeat, Venice is determined to resist any incursion in its areas of interest. Make no mistake, we will not lie down and let Suleiman trample over us. If Venice were attacked, the Sultan would be foolish to think that the divisions in Christendom will result in us being left to fend for ourselves. Venice is of importance to the whole of Christendom; petty squabbles will be forgotten and the whole of Europe will rise up in our defence. I am certain that is a prospect the Sultan will not take lightly.”
Grimani hoped his words carried authority and were convincing enough to dissuade Suleiman from expanding in the Adriatic. He was by no means sure that Venice would receive the support he claimed and knew that Suleiman’s spies would be aware of that too. However, if Suleiman was convinced that the Councils of Ten and Forty had sufficient backbone to launch a vigorous defence of the republic and its interests, that might dissuade him for long enough for men such as Grimani to work their diplomatic magic and acquire definite alliances. It was true that Christendom would quake if Venice fell, not only because of the loss of vital trade links but also because it would be a symbolic blow to Christianity itself. Belgrade was one thing but Venice! It was unthinkable.
Now the Pasha took a moment to think before spreading his hands in a gesture of openness and asking the question Grimani wanted to hear.
“The Sultan has heard of your own ambitions Your Eminence and wishes you to know that should you eventually realise your dreams in Rome, you would have an admirer in Istanbul. He sees it as a just reward for your life’s work and would certainly seek to ally himself with a Grimani Papacy. After all, the ruler of both Rome and Venice and spiritual leader of much of the Christian world would be a very powerful person indeed. He wishes me to ascertain whether your ambitions are still active after your setback earlier this year?”
‘So that’s it,’ thought Grimani, ‘well at least in this matter I can answer honestly.’
“Firstly, I am flattered by the Sultan’s attention, though Venice is never ruled by just one man and I am not even the present Doge; as you know that honour belongs to my father.”
He knew that the Pasha would understand that the implications of his statement signified no lessening of his personal power, should he ever become Pope.
“Secondly, I can’t see myself reopening my candidature for the Holy See in the foreseeable future; we have an admirable Pope, who is both alive and well.”
It was once more understood that Popes came and went and this in no way ruled out the possibility of Grimani ascending to the highest post.
“I can truthfully say then, that your master’s proposition is a little late. The reality of the situation renders it somewhat obsolete. Maybe he should make representation to
the present incumbent in the Vatican; I’m sure all ears there would be open.”
Piri Mehmed snorted with a distinct lack of diplomatic dignity.
“Your Eminence has answered as I expected. We can assume then that at the first available opportunity, you will assess your chances of success and present yourself for election. Your father will continue to dominate the councils here and the Grimani name will rise above all others in the Christian nations. Which brings me back to the Sultan’s offer. We do not expect you to agree to anything at present, that would be premature but it is important that you are aware of the opportunities the future may bring. In that respect I humbly suggest I have succeeded.”
With an exaggerated bow, the Pasha concluded the formal reason for his visit. Looking up again through hooded eyes, he stared directly at Grimani as if trying to hypnotise him.
“If you will grant me the time, I do have a personal question for Your Eminence.”
Intensely curious, Grimani gestured that he should proceed.
“Should I in the near future, be unable to retire to my villa and tend to my vines in Anatolya, I would ask a personal favour which is only in your power to give.”
The cardinal understood at once. Many high-ranking officials at the Turkish court were not allowed to retire gracefully from public life. They were more often than not violently usurped and faced strangulation, poisoning or interminable prison sentences. Clearly Piri Mehmed feared a similar fate.
“I have a large extended family, of which most have no need for and are not deserving of my love but my wife and first consort and two of my children are very dear to me indeed. Should anything untoward happen to me, I wonder if it would be possible for them to ‘disappear’ and settle here in Venice? It would of course be diplomatically impossible to offer them open sanctuary; the Sultan would take that as a personal insult but if they could possibly live out their lives here incognito, my gratitude would know no bounds. Venice abounds with people of different colours and faiths and here they would be safe from the long noses of the Sultan’s personal guard.”
Grimani looked closely at the man, trying to discover a hidden agenda but there was none, he was clearly desperate and his request undoubtedly genuine. There would be a price to pay of course both financial and in information but the cardinal knew that the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire was good for his money. It was within his power and he decided to grant Piri Mehmed’s request.
“Of course, it is possible that I will live out my years in happy retirement; the Sultan has already substantially reformed our laws and the brutality of earlier times has been replaced the promise of a just and fair beneficence. I may profit from that, or it may already be too late. I don’t believe that the Sultana has a personal grudge against me, though I know of her preference for my rival Ibrahim. He will eventually bring about his own downfall by the way, his arrogance is only barely concealed but I concede that he is a brilliant strategist and it would be wise to keep yourself well informed as to his activities in the future. My personal gratitude to you may never fully be repaid cardinal but that you will take care of my family means more to me than you can ever know. Do you believe they should be disguised in Venice? There are ways of substantially changing appearance; the Venetians are experts in that respect so I hear.”
Grimani was feeling satisfied; this meeting had proved to be extremely useful and after the agreed sums had been paid, would be very profitable too. He could afford to relax and extend more hospitality to a guest he found both likeable and intelligent.
“It may be that they will be recognised in Venice, though I doubt it judging by the way you value the privacy of your women. We can arrange for whatever changes might be necessary but you have my word that they will be able to live here peacefully and undisturbed.
Talking of disguises, just along the corridor I have a room full of paintings and I would be curious to hear your views on one particular panel, as the story comes from Syria. It will only take a short time and as I assume you’ll be leaving on the next tide, you will be safely out of sight until your embarkation.”
The Pasha could hardly refuse but as his mission had also been successfully accomplished, he had no objection. Apart from this, he was also an art lover and was interested in seeing some of the works of such a renowned collector as Domenico Grimani.
“It is called The Crucified Martyr, painted by Hieronymous Bosch from the Duchy of Brabant and is the central panel of the triptych you see before you. The side panels are of less interest and seem to bear little relation to the central theme but there is some controversy over the centre panel; let me explain…”
Grimani was in full flow about his favourite subject. Diplomacy was forgotten and the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman realms found himself swept up in the legends behind a painting. It was a momentary relief for them both from the pressure of international politics.
“It is said to be a depiction of Saint Julia. She was the Christian slave of a Syrian, Mameluke merchant named Eusebius. During a journey to Corsica, Eusebius left her on the beach while he went inland. There she caught the eye of the Governor of Corsica who tried unsuccessfully to seduce her. When it became clear that she wouldn’t succumb to his will, she was forcibly abducted. The Governor then insisted that she make offerings to the same deities as himself and as a good Christian must, she rightly refused. He had her brutally crucified and her remains returned to Brescia, where the relics are to be found to this day. The problem is that the cult of Saint Julia is unknown in northern Europe and the question is why Bosch painted it at all. It is doubtful that he visited Italy in his lifetime, though possible. It is rumoured that he was once seen in Florence and the clothes of the people around the cross are Italian in design. It is also possible that it was commissioned by an Italian living in the north; there are many apparently doing just that and from the portrayals of the donors themselves we can see that they are recognisably Italians. It is a mystery.”
The Pasha interrupted,
“We know of other crucified Christian saints whose stories have parallels in our lands. There’s Febonia and Blandina; Eulalia, Benedicta and…oh yes, Tarbula. Is it not possible that this may represent one of those?”
Grimani looked at him wide-eyed.
“I am deeply impressed; your knowledge of obscure Christian figures is to wonder at. I wonder how many Christian diplomats would be able to name Moslem religious figures and symbols.”
“It’s not so strange really. We are educated to a high standard you know and besides that, I am officially Christian myself, though I don’t practise the religion at all. Religious tolerance is far more advanced in the Ottoman Empire than you might think you know. These names are well known to us but have been adopted by Christians as it suited them.”
Grimani blushed slightly. It had been some time since he had spoken with a politician who was also an intellectual equal and he gave a slight bow in recognition of the fact.
“You may be right though there is persistent talk of one other alternative for this unfortunate woman on the cross. There is an obscure Netherlandish saint called Wilgeforte, also known by the names, Uncumber and Liberata. She was the noble daughter of the King of Portugal, who betrothed her against her will to the King of Sicily. She had previously taken vows of perpetual chastity and was set on being a bride of Christ. Her father’s orders left her in an impossible position and she prayed to God that he make her ugly…”
The Pasha laughed,
“Ah, now I see the reference to my request, though I trust you will do all in your power to maintain my family’s looks? For my wife it may be too late but for my children and consort, I would hate to imagine an unnecessary disfigurement.”
“I am not God and don’t have the power to achieve what happened to Wilgeforte besides which, I think that would draw more attention to them than intended. You see, God heard her prayers and caused a beard to appear which, of course rendered her entirely unfit for marriage. Unfortunately, her father was so angry that he ordered her to be crucified, hence the martyrdom.”
“There is only one problem with that theory. I see no beard!”
Grimani shook his head,
“I know, that would seem conclusive wouldn’t it but every time I talk to the Flemish or the Germans about this picture, they insist it is Wilgeforte and not Julia. It came to me with the provenance that it represented Saint Wilgeforte and of course, that would be entirely in keeping with the artist’s residence. It is frustrating because I like to know everything about the works of art I collect. Most objects will pass to the Venetian state when I die but while I am alive, I get great pleasure from such beauty and variety, as I have heard the Sultan does too. It is good to know that we have that in common.”
“And who knows, maybe that will be the basis of a future relationship between you both.”
He paused and coughed,
“May I speak my heart as regards this painting?”
“Of course, I have asked for your opinion and I would expect nothing less than honesty in return.”
“I find it ugly. It is confusing. Who are all those people seemingly emerging from a tree trunk for instance? Has the man in the foreground fainted? Who is he? Is he the distraught Mameluke trader? I can’t imagine; they would sell their grandmothers for a profit! The saint herself however, is very beautiful. The man has great skill and her grace in the face of death is apparent.”
“I do take your point, though this sort of gathering is traditional in paintings of this nature. If you see paintings of our Lord’s crucifixion for instance, there will always be depicted a necessary group of witnesses the scene. Our great Italian artists are beginning to paint figures much more in isolation and with much more attention to the form of the body and the facial expressions; the focus then falls on the subject of the picture and not the hangers-on. I particularly favour these northern artists however because they represent the last vestiges of an artistic period that is now disappearing. The beauty of the classical revival is undisputed but it often says more about the skill of the artist than the subject they are painting. These paintings are perhaps more naïve but to my mind more honest. They are historical documents. If these works still exist five hundred years from now, people will be able to see life exactly as it is now and in such detail.”
“Our art is more stylised I believe. Portraiture exists of course and scenes of battles have more detail than the eye can take in but in general, our artists give more credence to the abstract form and the symbolism of design. You may have noticed Suleiman’s monogram at the head of his letter for instance. Is it not a thing of great beauty? It is unique to him and yet expresses a thousand words in its simplicity and elegance. Patterns and form are of the utmost importance in Islamic art. The eye must surely be bathed and not attacked.”
“You are absolutely right. I have several pieces of Eastern art in my collection and especially prize the calligraphy examples. I do not understand it but can look at it for hours because it brings me such peace. However, I have heard that the walls of the Topkapi and other palaces are swarming with geometric designs and patterns of the brightest hues; is this not also a little too much for the eye and liable to give one a headache?”
Chuckling, Piri Mehmed spread his hands wide and bowed deeply.
“Even in discussions about art Your Eminence plays a skilful game of chess and I truly wish we had longer to challenge each others perceptions. There must be room in the world for all styles don’t you think? Although I have seen but one piece, from what I have heard, your collection is eclectic to say the least, thus proving that you appreciate art for its beauty and claim no allegiance to one particular movement. Men like you are guardians of culture and if as you say, you will bequeath your bounty to the state then future generations can only benefit.
Unfortunately cardinal, time is pressing. As you know, it would not be safe for me to dally too long in Venice. I have a boat waiting but you can be assured that I will bring the Sultan information that is untainted by bias and recommend that whatever the outcome of your career ambitions, he would be wise to cultivate the contact we have begun. Of course, on a personal level, I am immeasurably grateful for your generosity; that is understood. All the details will be communicated as and when necessary but until our next meeting, should Allah will it, I remain in your debt.”
Long after Pasha Piri Mehmed had departed and the details of their discussion had been committed to memory, Cardinal Domenico Grimani studied his triptych yet again, for definitive proof that it was of the one saint or the other; it made his life worthwhile.
The Dutch Series
Margaretha of Austria
All Mechelen lay beneath her, yet there was little to be seen from its tallest tower. What hadn’t already been blanketed was masked from view by the relentless fall from above. The street below was patchily visible from the lights of scattered, sheltered torches and she watched a death cart trundling past; its wheels muffled on the compacted snow. The driver stooped hunched over the reins, a dark and shapeless form that could have been death himself gathering his crop. She gasped as the horse suddenly shied, seemingly for no reason; perhaps meeting its own ghosts. The cart tilted and the stiffened limbs of a corpse slid from under the cover, swaying like a fulcrum before being deposited onto the ground. Noticing nothing, the man stilled the animal’s restlessness and urged it forward, doubtless thinking only of a warm fire, a full belly, or his crone’s warmth next to his. The abandoned and twisted corpse, like a scarecrow in a field, thrust a stiffened and accusing arm towards her. Shuddering and crossing herself with a muted prayer, she stared unblinking until her eyes stung and the snow began to camouflage its form. Another prayer wished that a child should not be the first to stumble over the cadaver in the morning light and she turned away.
Looking up, the flakes plunged out of the night sky towards her face, like thousands of bewildered Lacewing flies attracted both to light and death. She let the dizziness wash over her; it seemed fitting; it suited her mood. It wasn’t bearable for long though and she bent her head to avoid an inevitable tumble over the parapet. Once again the urge to let that happen surged through her mind. As the body in the street became shrouded in white she acknowledged there were many ways to die in this world, some nobler than others but nobody, not even the meanest beggar, would condone her throwing herself from a tower. Concluding that she was by no means ready for a martyrdom to sin, she once again dismissed the temptation. Yet even in the relative freedom of the rooftop, where nothing solid stood between her and the lowering sky, she felt like the animal in whose pelt she was wrapped; hunted, haunted and denied escape. Frustrated that the weather had thwarted her need for space to breathe, she abandoned the tower and made her way gingerly down the cold stone steps and along the dimly lit corridor to her rooms.
Sleep was then elusive. Pulling the expensively acquired but uncomfortably stiff linen around her shoulders and rearranging the quilt so that she was cocooned against intrusive draughts, her mind raced through the events of the day. Though she knew she should, there was no concentrating on the various affairs of state, tedious meetings with local officials, or arguments with the judiciary. Her mind was beset with vivid images and everything else faded into insignificance. Lack of control, was not a weakness she tolerated easily in others. Her reputation was based upon her dependability; upon the ability to put things into perspective and deal calmly and efficiently with a thousand administrative tasks. She was a consummate politician who men respected and admired and a cultural inspiration in an otherwise arid and dangerous landscape. She was, after all, the daughter of one emperor and been influential in the development of another.
It was that very upbringing however, that had enabled her to study the arts and that very status that had allowed her to encourage development and study in others. Thanks in large part to her efforts; Mechelen was now a centre for fine art, music and poetry, virtually unrivalled in northern Europe. Sensitive souls with a creative passion flocked to her court in search of patronage and she had every reason to be proud of her cultural oasis, despite the fact that it lay surrounded by poverty, war and pestilence.
‘Then again, where in the world is not beset by turbulence?’ she mused.
Yet it was also the breadth of her education that had stimulated the richness of her imagination and the vividness of her dreams. Unable to settle, she slipped out of bed and tried to still her racing mind by selecting a robe, reasoning that focussing on the mundane might bring order to her thoughts. Her choice however, was by no means mundane; its Moorish silk and design were exotic in a winter’s setting in northern Europe and she felt that the swirling patterns and symbols were appropriate for a visit to her paintings; one in particular.
When the everyday world gave her no rest, she liked to look at worlds created by others. She loved all her paintings but was both fascinated and in awe of, ‘The Temptation of St. Anthony,’ by Jeroen van Aken, commonly known as Bosch. The triptych had been an extravagant purchase but she had seen it as an investment, both financially and for her soul.
This was no simple and devotional work as so many others but ingenious and grotesque, complex and disturbing. She had twice travelled to Italy and marvelled at the revolutionary realism displayed by the artists there, especially the newest sculptures and murals that harkened back to the antiquities of Greece and Rome but the local works of Bosch fascinated her most. His visions of Paradise and Hell, inhabited by all his fantastic creations, reflected not only the everyday world in which she lived but also the world of her nightmares. She knew Bosch’s people; she saw them every day in the streets of Mechelen and she feared Bosch’s demons that came to her at night.
Her eyes hurt and her head throbbed but nevertheless, she lit two altar candles and carried them from her bedchamber into the anteroom where the panels hung alone, without distractions against a bare wall. Putting them on the floor on either side of the triptych, she pulled the robe closely around her shoulders and sat on the bench deliberately set a short distance away. Gradually the flickering light began to imbue the characters with life and as always, she sat entranced and allowed her thoughts to drift into the activity before her.
It was a journey, always a journey from left to right, from panel to panel. Sometimes a distant observer but much more frequently a participant, she needed to abandon reason in order to let her imagination soar. A sophisticated and faithful devotee of the true church would never indulge in such flights of fancy she reasoned; it surely bordered on the blasphemous but a child’s spirit wouldn’t hesitate to explore, so she summoned the childlike curiosity within her to gain access to the worlds of the wooden panels. As a sop to her conscience, she would begin by imagining herself as an invisible angel, lending support to the tormented saint; an heroic holy soldier battling the demons who so beleaguered the man. In the guise of an angel, she would drift back in time to watch over the devotions of the holy hermit in the Egyptian desert. She could only imagine such fortitude and she would sit beside him and share his privations in the heat of the day and icy temperatures of the night. She wondered at his single-minded devotion to finding truth and the ways into Heaven. Entering his body she found that he felt neither the heat nor the cold; he was immune to physical effects and influence; only his mind was open to God’s beneficial light and that streamed from Eternity through the tiniest of funnels to illuminate the man’s spirit. She saw that it took immense power of the will, to create even that tiny opening: immense denial of the worldly to receive the smallest of benefits and she knew she was not remotely worthy or able. That he was then surrounded by flying demons that bore him aloft and beat and tore at his body bore further testament to his spiritual strength. His goodness was a beacon to attract them and yet all they could do was mutilate the physical frame; the light of God’s love kept his essence intact.
Shadowing the men who had found his broken body where it had been flung to the ground, she crossed the wooden bridge over an ice-covered stream. It was a strange and wintry landscape, filled with sulphurous odours, fiendish creatures and abominations. Although summer leaves still clung to the sparsely scattered trees and boats still sailed in the bay, the shores were lined with the corpses of the crews, whose boats had been lured onto the rocks by the infernal lighthouse on the hill.
The rescuers were other wandering hermits; less strong, less holy but with the intent to bring one of their own back to life. Although she had never met him, it was said that one of them was the artist Bosch himself and she always studied his face for inspiration. As they half carried, half dragged the saint towards what they thought was safety, they could hear a fallen priest, whispering temptations to buy indulgences from where he crouched under the boards. A bird demon with pendulous ears, resplendent in red cloak, skated towards him, a message sealed with red wax skewered by its beak. The message was a castigation of the ‘grasso’ priest from the artist himself; a criticism of the profligacy of a church that lavished dispensations in return for gold. It was true that indulgences were widely sold by unscrupulous men in Flanders too but the thought made her feel disloyal and uncomfortable so she turned her attention to another twisted avian swallowing a toad and squawking as its mewling young burst out of a stinking shell.
‘Accept the inevitable,’ she told herself, ‘If the struggle for purity is so great that you cannot even begin; that the holiest of men cannot survive and almost always fail in the effort, then what chance for a woman such as you?’ With the perverse strength that came from acceptance of her weakness, she was able to journey through this landscape and meet with the creatures on the way. It was easier to consort with the demons. They would not sully her purity because she was already impure.
Not far away and thrust into a hillside, was a brothel, whose entrance was a man’s arse and widespread legs. A nun enticed demons and passers by alike to pass through and into what Margaretha assumed was a lascivious den but the bearers were unaffected, being intent on bringing the saint back to the tomb where he’d kept his vigil for so long.
The hermit Anthony lived, that much was certain but after the Samaritans had gone, demons returned to the attack and buzzed around him like frantic insects, flinging him once more into the sky.
Margaretha knew what would happen next; she had lived through the story so many times but it still filled her with optimism; a great, uplifting relief, as if she were also saved. That rush of light that blasted forth from the cave scattered the demons like chaff in the wind but they were nothing compared to the trials the saint was yet to face. The salvation was but temporary and swarms of devilish beings quickly overran the area round the tomb until it became Satan’s territory.
Dropping her concentration for a moment, she used the hem of her wimple to wipe away the beads of sweat on her forehead and upper lip. It was always so. No matter how cold the room was, her interaction with the paintings always left her breathless and flushed. It was an experience she had long practiced and one that at first had brought shock and fear and left her praying for her immortal soul. After many sittings, she learned to use her time with the saint to give her courage, not only spiritually but in everyday life too. After in a moment of weakness she had explained what she did, Damião de Góis had told her that she was fortunate; that what she experienced was akin to a vision and that maybe God was giving her the opportunity to explore her humanity in relation to her status. She shouldn’t be afraid but should embrace it as if it were a religious experience. She took the Portuguese emissary’s advice in the full knowledge that he coveted the triptych for himself, though he was a renowned humanist and a friend of Erasmus of Rotterdam, so his opinions carried weight .
Despite the soreness from straining to see in the candlelight, she took a deep breath, closed her eyes and opened them once more to fix her gaze on the central panel.
Here she could be anything she wanted to be. During early visits such as this, she had clung to the side of the saint and kept her fears under control by sharing his resistance and revulsion for the scenes around her. Her eyes always remained fixed on the tiny altar deep inside the fallen tomb, where an almost insignificant Christ figure pointed to a statue of the crucifixion and silently reminded them that goodness still existed even in the depths of Hell. That point of focus allowed her to let her attention eventually wander to other parts of the panel until now she was able to roam its depths and examine its apparitions, cloaked in a protective beneficence reflected by that small symbol of hope. Not truly understanding how the saint was able to resist the temptations of Hell, her faith in his strength was enough to share the test with him. It was her ambition to discover the source of his willpower; to find out how, despite the greatest depravations, he was able to pass all the trials he was set. She was prepared to spend a lifetime in the quest but for now, she looked at his face and accepted his implicit invitation to enter a world where, the Devil seemed to rule unchallenged.
The atmosphere around the tomb was thick with the stench of smoke from a burning town in the distance, which she could always imagine to be Mechelen itself. That particular smell stung the eyes and the nostrils but only served to hide the fouler odours of decay and defecation that emanated from the surrounding creations of evil. Here could be found countless abominations: Satan’s spawn from the darkest places in her nightmares and here too began her struggle against fascination with everything she saw.
It was amazing how quickly the stench of death became familiar. She knew it from charnel houses and plague graves and from battlefields but here; it was cloyed with a sickly sweetness that still made the stomach retch but could be tolerated. The smell of the giant rotting fruit lying before steps of the tomb permeated the air. It was seductive and perfumed but undercut with the faintest whiff of poison and only the mutated could feed on its flesh. She’d been drawn to it before; longing to plunge her hands into its softness and gorge on the flesh to assuage her thirst but had always resisted. The quince however, was a far easier temptation to ignore than the music. A demon with a harp played angelic melodies beside the fruit and music was her first love.
As daughter of the Emperor Maximilian and aunt of Emperor Charles V, she had been surrounded by court life since childhood and had received an education of the highest calibre. She was brought up in the French court while engaged to Charles, son of Louis X1 and despite the broken engagement that was none of her doing, she took full advantage of the learned men and their facilities in France. Marriage wasn’t meant for her it seemed and after the premature deaths of two husbands, she was able to devote most of her time to her studies. As a result, when her father made her regent of the Netherlands in 1506, she moved her court to Mechelen and made it the centre of culture and the arts it now was.
Her favourite subject had always been music and she undertook a serious study of instrumental and vocal music; so much so, that she was renowned for her skill on the keyboard. Offering patronage to brilliant musicians; Antoine Brumel, Perrequin de Therache and Pierre la Rue, amongst others, she was inspired to seek out books of music and even had a book of her own compositions printed, inscribed with her own coat of arms and sent to the Pope. All this was unusual for a woman and attracted much comment but then Margaretha of Austria was no ordinary woman and strong enough to stand up for herself. It was little wonder that artists from all over Europe flocked to Mechelen, where they could be sure of a warm and rewarding welcome.
The music of the Devil then, was particularly seductive and she had spent many hours wandering through the musical references in Bosch’s triptych; there were enough to find.
It was evident that the devil loved his music but it was often discordant and an assault on the ears. She could still hear the skirl of the bagpipe that the one armed creature by the bridge played; a shrill and tuneless homage to sin but the harp player was different. She also played an eleven-string harp but it had a sound box with which to amplify the strings; this demon played with just a board so she should have heard nothing, especially above the surrounding noise. The fact that she heard angelic music seemingly composed just for her made her realise that temptation was not for the saint alone. Those who ventured into these images were also subject to seductions from which it was difficult to break free. She allowed her attention to wander and watched as demon after demon emerged from the fruit, each more repulsive than the last. While marvelling at the artist’s skill, she attempted to resist the fascination for the creatures. They could not harm her so long as she remained conscious of where and who she was: as long as she remembered that she was outside the painting looking in. It was difficult; the music was almost divine and led her to the scene at the altar where a parody on the reading of the Holy Mass was taking place. The problem with parodies though is that they are most successful when there is more than a grain of truth behind them. To remind herself of the true nature of things, she focussed on the saint kneeling in supplication to the true altar beyond and gazing at her with such a beneficent expression that she was comforted and fortified. He was surrounded by numerous cruel and revolting demonic temptations, where licentiousness was just one of the vices offered. Here too music played a role. The ruined pillar to his right displayed scenes where dancers performed a frenzied Moresca, an erotic dance that strongly appealed to her subconscious. She suppressed a sudden desire to leap into the dance or at least begin one of her own. She knew that if she began, she would be joined by countless demons who would recognise her fall and rejoice in her sin; she was certain she’d be unable to resist but oh how she wanted to dance!
One of the attendants at the satanic altar was a figure with a hog’s snout and an owl on his head. He had a lute wedged under one arm and it was of such quality that she desired it immediately. She gazed at the bridge and the rosette on the front; the frets on the finger board and the back-angled peg box; it looked Italian to her and the quality was exquisite and she desperately wanted to play it until her reason once more reminded her of the truth. From that moment, the instrument became sketchy and commonplace. Behind the altar stood a creature whose nose had been extended to form a Pommel but despite the lilting tune that emerged, there were no finger holes and she knew it was yet another impossible instrument of the devil.
Every time that she studied the panels she was proud that she was able to isolate details, examine them, recognise the falseness of their attraction and then reject them as devil’s work. The whole scene, like a book, was easy to read but dangerously appealing and she questioned herself constantly. Was the study of these paintings bad for her soul? Each time, as she crossed another small boundary and delved deeper into the subject matter, was she not succumbing to the very temptations that Saint Anthony was able to resist? Wasn’t the very act of investigation by definition sinful. Then again, God hadn’t given her an intellect so that she could waste it. Wasn’t it absolutely right that she should question the very nature of things providing she reached the right conclusions? It was a struggle between desire and prohibition, between her better and her worse selves. The more enticing the temptations, the greater the test of one’s resolve and the more satisfying the defeat of the Devil as a result, yet she worried that without being aware of it, she would one day give in to something so simple that it would lead to her downfall.
This time for instance, her gaze fell upon the scene where a sort of tree-woman with the tail of a lizard, almost lovingly cradles a baby while riding on the back of a rat. ‘How clever of Bosch…’ she thought, ‘…to recreate the Flight into Egypt in such a way. It is once again, certain proof of his genius. Even the simplest peasant could understand the reference but then again, the simplest peasants will never see this; that is such cruel irony.’ Her dilemma was that it was admiration of a man’s skill but it was also admiration of the portrayal of blasphemy. She could hear Satan’s laughter as, because of one simple indiscretion, she was impaled by harp strings and led into the jaws of Hell itself. It was always a dangerous exercise therefore but always irresistibly exciting. She acceded that such excitement was sinful in itself, asked for forgiveness and was able to move safely through to the last panel.
The right hand panel was distinctly less crowded but no less obscene and no less dangerous for Margaretha of Austria. The temptations of the flesh were still evident, perhaps even more pronouncedly so but Saint Anthony remained impervious and had entered this landscape to meditate. He gazed upon the remaining scenes of depravity with the air of a man for whom it had absolutely no effect. He had passed his tests; had resisted all the devil’s offerings and could concentrate on the holy texts in the knowledge that his purity of spirit was strong enough to remain untouched.
Margaretha was always less sure. At first, the relief at having left the chaotic scenes of the centre panel was palpable and she would relax and look around at the wide panoramas of the right wing but it soon struck her that this left her vulnerable to more subtle temptation and influence. There was nothing peaceful in this scene either, except for the goodness of the saint himself. The rest was just as evil, just as obscene as the others and her objective interest in the various activities became subjective evaluations which stimulated those latent desires she wished to avoid.
The flying fish, high in the sky had always fascinated her. It carried a man and a woman sitting astride its back. The man carried a long stick over his shoulder with a pot of fire hanging from the end, the significance of which she didn’t understand at first. It seemed such a pleasurable experience and she envied the woman’s evident pleasure at the flight. What would it be like to fly like a bird? It was only the saint’s voice in the back of her mind that brought her back to reality.
“Do you not take care sister, that your envy and desire blind you to the true meaning of that symbol? The man and the woman are witches can’t you see? With the help of Satan himself, they are flying to a witches’ Sabbath and your envy and excitement at the prospect feeds their enthusiasm for the task. Will you fly with them? Would the pleasure of flight be greater than the price you must pay?”
She thanked him for his intervention and timely reminder of her susceptibility. This was the fascination of her vigils by the triptych; she could share his temptations in the knowledge that she would be safe. Yet always at the back of her mind was the central theme behind Bosch’s work. God does not always protect the weak. Sometimes, as in the case of the saint himself, he puts you sternly to the test and it worried her that reliance on guidance about avoiding fiendish traps was also a false premise. She may suddenly find herself alone and then be found wanting.
The panel was imbued with scenes of debauchery and gluttony. A naked woman peered out from under the shelter of a cloth covered, blasted tree stump as if a storm had just passed and it was safe to come out. Margaretha thought she could see a grotesque reference to Eve in the Garden of Eden; yet this woman had clearly fallen further than Eve ever did. She was clearly lascivious, sexual and promiscuous. Margaretha found her strangely beautiful and allowed her thoughts to stray to her own sexuality before reprimanding herself and fixing her eye once more on the saint. After all, if he was able to resist the clear attempt at seduction, then she must do exactly the same.
More naked revellers frolicked under a table set with wine and bread but just as with the woman in the centre, she could see that they were being tormented by demons. The pleasure was illusory but the punishment was clear. The demon comprising little more than a distended belly and legs was pierced through by a sword lay prone on the ground beside the table; a fitting punishment for gluttony. She had recently read a treatise on this very subject and remembered the phrase, ‘Gulsigher mensche die horen buyck houden voer horen god!’ Several people at her court could do with being reminded not to allow their bellies to become their God and she reminded herself that the lavishness of the feasts she sometimes gave could certainly be tempered in the future. Less quantity but maybe more quality would lead to less gluttony and more appreciation of the bounty on offer.
Beyond the saint was a human-like demon with a large nose, maybe a sinner, maybe a fool but certainly one who had lost his sanity. He walked with the aid of a four-wheeled frame, not an uncommon sight on the streets of Mechelen and had a toy windmill with two vanes protruding from the hood of his cloak. Hanging from the frame was a baby’s feeding bottle and Margaretha always found him sympathetic. She knew he was demonic and knew that his present predicament was that of a fallen soul who had been reduced to gibbering dementia by his sins but found his demeanour appealing and sad. The children’s attributes mocked the weaknesses of his age but she had a strong urge to talk to him, to see if there was anything she could do, or give him something to ease his condition. It was always a struggle of conscience to reject him as a sinner, as a fiend and nothing more but she realised that her sympathy was precisely what Satan required of her. God might ask her to show empathy and forgiveness, even for those who have sinned but here, in this setting, the Devil’s influence was far stronger and she needed to resist everything that may be a trap for the unwary. She never did approach the child-like demon but found his predicament hard to resist nonetheless.
The only surety in Bosch’s masterwork was the saint himself. Even the familiar Flemish city in the distance with its strange almost oriental towers seemed like a mirage and she often wondered if it were created for her benefit alone and if she walked away it would melt into non-existence. Such were the dilemmas she created for herself in the time she spent in front of the triptych. Was it sinful to reflect upon that which should never be reflected upon? The scenes were certainly terrible and nightmarish but the essential message of the saint’s rejection of temptation was surely a salutary lesson to be learned and therefore worth the effort. For her the temptations displayed in the paintings were not the agitations of the flesh deprived of sexual contact but a series of hallucinations induced by strange things. These bizarre apparitions caused her reason and faith to vacillate. For her Bosch had created scenes, which were both familiar and unknown; dream-like, and reflections of reality. His references commented on the troubles of the times and he clearly criticised the church while portraying one of its greatest stories. There were great changes on the way in the wider and corporeal world; she knew it. The church was being challenged as never before but she clung to her faith; in a confusing world it was one of the few constants.
She rose stiffly, suddenly realising how cold she was and ready at last for sleep. Dousing the candles, she pulled her robe tightly around her shoulders and trod a familiar path back to her chamber. The shadows along the corridor were always more alarming after a visit to the triptych but as long as she held an image of Saint Anthony in her mind, she was able to reach her bed and fall asleep in safety. She may have been the daughter and aunt of emperors and one of the most intellectually gifted women of her time but Margaretha of Austria was still terrified of the Devil and his minions and needed to summon up all her faith to resist him.
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