Paradise lost and found in three old panels

LEAP By Terry Tempest Williams Pantheon Books 330 pp., $25

The 15th-century Flemish masterpiece "The Garden of Delights," by Hieronymus Bosch, is arguably one of the most extraordinary and puzzling paintings in the annals of art history.

Created by an artist who was both naturalist and visionary, the darkly pessimistic three-part medieval altarpiece, oil on wood, depicts "The Creation of Eve," "The Garden of Earthly Delights," and "Hell" in fantastical imagery ranging from transcendent to horrific.

As a child, Utah-based author Terry Tempest Williams slept underneath a print of the wings of this painting - "The Creation of Eve" (which she calls "Paradise," at right) and "Hell" - every time she went to visit her grandparents. Its vivid imagery of good and evil seeped into her subconscious, infusing her dreams and feeding her nightmares.

However, it wasn't until she was an adult that Williams first saw the full painting, with "The Garden of Earthly Delights" as the center panel. Standing before the original in the Prado Museum in Madrid, she became obsessed with the mysteries and secrets the painting suggested.

For the next seven years, she "traveled in the landscape of Hieronymus Bosch," diving into the artist's symbol-laden tableau with a fanatic's fervor and using the painting as a springboard for an intensely introspective examination of her own Mormon faith.

In the newly released "Leap," Williams chronicles her journey in a remarkable book that is part religious quest, part artistic investigation, and part psychological reflection. "Let these pages be my interrogation of faith," she urges.

"Leap" includes a small but clear fold-out reproduction of the painting in the back, and as Williams takes us through each panel, she draws connections between Bosch's 15th-century vision and the time in which we now live, personally identifying with its provocative images. "I am the woman in Bosch's Hell who is balancing one die on the top of her head.... I am the figure walking the tightrope between two volcanoes.... I am the heretic in Hell who is weeping."

In "Paradise," she recalls the orthodox foundations of her childhood, her passionate study of the Scriptures, and her religious vision at the age of 17.

In "Hell," she confronts not only her own demons, but the dualities of good and evil, right and wrong, heaven and hell. She puts herself inside the painting - "I follow El Bosco's soldiers in Hell over the charred bridge," she writes, describing her imaginary journey in vivid, wrenching detail.

In "Earthly Delights," Williams embraces the center panel of Bosch's painting as "a hymn to sensual pleasures on earth," prompted by the imagery to transform, adapt, and personalize the strict canons of her faith to relate to her immediate life. "Personal engagement is its own form of prayer," she writes.

In the final chapter, "Restoration," Williams meets the two sisters who are charged with restoring the painting to its original clarity, an act that becomes a metaphor for Williams's spiritual restoration and the ultimate realization that faith can be living and active - "a faith of verbs." She claims, "Faith is the belief in our capacity to create meaningful lives."

"Leap" is not an easy book to read. Episodic and digressive, it blends straightforward recollections with metaphorical ramblings and philosophical ruminations, often in the poetically florid language of self-induced hallucinations.

Williams's phantasmagorical stream of consciousness, with its fanciful wordplay and colorful imagery, bounds through time and space in sometimes disconcerting fits and spurts. Often visual images spur diatribes on a range of topics, most reflecting on social and ecological responsibility. (And speaking of digressive, there are 47 pages of notes that make fascinating reading in and of themselves.)

Many times during the book, one wonders how Williams managed to make it through the day with her hyper-awareness and heightened sensitivity. There are also allusions to bipolar disorder; she writes of suffering a panic attack while sitting in front of the painting in the museum. Yet she goes back day after day, examining, re-examining, opening her heart and racking her brain. This is a woman who does not move through life lightly.

"Life is a process of being broken open," she maintains. And she lives by that definition.

"The greatest sin is the sin of indifference." Bosch's painting becomes the catalyst for the kind of cataclysmic emotional and spiritual upheaval that could paralyze a lesser mortal. But hers is a divine journey that acts as a call to arms. "We have forgotten the art of a living theology. Look at Hieronymus Bosch to remember. His language of images, visual poetry, is a lyrical meditation."

*Karen Campbell is a freelance writer in Boston.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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