Williams examines this vibrant landscape with unprecedented acuity, recognizing parallels between the artist's prophetic vision and her own personal experiences as a Mormon and a naturalist. Searing in its spiritual, intellectual, and emotional courage, Williams's divine journey enables her to realize the full extent of her faith and through her exquisite imagination opens our eyes to the splendor of the world.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Edition description:||1st Vintage Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I once lived near the shores of Great Salt Lake with no outlet to the sea.
I once lived in a fault-block basin where mountains made of granite surrounded me. These mountains in time were hollowed to house the genealogy of my people, Mormons. Our names, the dates of our births and deaths, are safe. We have records hidden in stone.
I once lived in a landscape where my ancestors sacrificed everything in the name of belief and they passed their belief on to me, a belief that we can be the creators of our own worlds.
I once lived in the City of Latter-day Saints.
I have moved.
I have moved because of a painting.
Over the course of seven years, I have been traveling in the landscape of Hieronymus Bosch. A secret I did not tell for fear of seeming mad. Let these pages be my interrogation of faith. My roots have been pleached with the wings of a medieval triptych, my soul intertwined with an artist's vision.
This painting lives in Spain. It resides in the Prado Museum. The Prado Museum is found in the heart of Old Madrid. I will tell you the name of the painting I love. Its name is El jardón de las delicias.
The doors to the triptych are closed. Now it opens like a great medieval butterfly flapping its wings through the centuries. Open and close. Open and close. Open. Hieronymus Bosch has painted, as wings, Paradise and Hell. The body is a por- trait of Earthly Delights. The wings close again. Open, now slowly, with each viewer's breath the butterfly quivers, Heaven and Hell quiver, the wings are wet and fragile, only the body remains stable. The legs hidden, six. The antennae, two. The eyes, infinite. The artist's brush with life, mysterious. Close the triptych. The outside colors are drab. Black, grey, olive blue. The organism is not dead. Hear its heart beating. After five hundred years, the heart is still beating inside the triptych. The wings open.
I step back.
Red. Blue. Yellow. Green. Black. Pink. Orange. White. Gold.
Paradise. Hell. Earthly Delights.
As a child, I grew up with Hieronymus Bosch hanging over my head. My grandmother had thumbtacked the wings of Paradise and Hell to the bulletin board above the bed where I slept. The prints were, in fact, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's series of discussions designed for home education. The Garden of Eden to the left with Christ taking Eve's pulse as Adam looks onoppositeHell, the bone-white face of a man looking over the shoulder of his eggshell body as the world burns: these were the images that framed the "oughts and shoulds" and "if you don'ts" of my religious upbringing.
Whenever my siblings and I stayed overnight, we fell asleep in "the grandchildren's room" beneath Truth and Evil.
Standing before El jardón de las delicias in the Prado Museum in Spain, now as a woman, I see the complete triptych for the first time. I am stunned. The center panel. The Garden of Earthly Delights. So little is hidden in the center panel, why was it hidden from me?
The body of the triptych.
The bodies of the center panel, this panel of play and discovery, of joyful curiosities cavorting with Eros, is not only a surprise to me, but a great mystery.
I stare at the painting. My eyes do not blink. They focus on the blue pool of bathers standing thigh-high in the middle of the triptych.
Bareback riders circle the black and white women bathing in the water, the black and white women who are balancing black and white birds on top of their heads. Cherries, too. Faster and faster, the bareback riders gallop their horses and goats and griffins; bareback riders, naked men, riding bulls, bears, lions, camels, deer, and pigs, faster and faster, circling the women.
The triptych begins to blur. My eyes begin to blur. I resist. Focus. I rein my eyes in from the pull of the bodies, the body of the triptych, the bodies bare, bareback on animals, circling, circling, circling them, circling me, black and white bodies, my body stands stoically inside the Prado determined to resist the galloping of my blood.
I feel faint. I turn from the painting and see a wooden chair shaped like a crescent leaning against the wall. The wall is white. I sit down, stare at the floor, the granite floor, and get my bearings.
I begin counting cherries in Bosch's Garden. I lose track, they are in such abundance. I stop at sixty. Cherries are flying in the air, dangling from poles, being passed from one person to the next, dropped into the mouths of lovers by birds, worn on women's heads as hats, and balanced on the feet as balls.
In Utah, my home, cherries are a love crop. They are also our state fruit. They grow in well-tended orchards along the Wasatch Front. Cherry picking was a large part of our childhood. Our parents, aunts, and uncles would load up their station wagons with kids and drop us off in one of the orchards alongside Great Salt Lake with empty buckets in hand. Sometimes we were paid by the pail or given bags to take home for our families. Once we were up in the trees, out of view, we could eat as many as we wanted.
One day, my great-uncle was standing on a ladder picking cherries with my cousin and me. We were perched on sturdy branches above him, ten-year-old girls unafraid of heights.
"What principle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ means the most to you?" he asked, filling his bucket.
Mormon children are used to these kinds of questions practiced on them by their elders, who consider this part of their religious training.
"Obedience," my cousin replied, pulling a cherry off its stem.
"Free agency," I answered, eating one.
It is early morning on my way to the Prado. Pink camellia petals cover the path inside the Real Jardón Botánico adjacent to the museum. I love coming here first before watching the painting. Flocks of white butterflies appear to have lit on bare branches. Up close, I recognize them as magnolia trees in bloom.
It is difficult not to touch everything. Blue hyacinths line the walks. Daffodils and narcissus tower above them. Red and yellow striated tulips are now cups holding last night's rain.
The gardener's hand is evident. There is an overall narrative to be followed, nothing is random. Each hedgerow, each bed now flowering was an idea before it took root in the land. The leaves of each plant express themselves rhythmically. Iambic pentameter. Blank verse. A sonnet. The arrangement of leaves can be read as poetry.
The miniature rock garden stops me. Sage grows next to verbena. I bend down and rub its blue-grey leaves between my fingers and smell the Great Basin of home.
The Tree of Life stands behind Adam. Vines of raspberries wrap around its trunk. Christ, who appears to be staring outside Eden, is dressed in a pink robe. He holds Eve's wrist. Eve kneels. Adam sits. Neither is clothed.
Focus on Eden. Remain in Eden. Today it is Christ's hand on Eve's that holds my attention. Eve's head is bowed. Her eyes are closed. Her knees are tight against each other. Eve's obeisance becomes my own baptism and confirmation.
I am dressed in white and descend into the warm waters of the baptismal font accompanied by my father, also dressed in white. We stand in the center of the pool and face family witnesses. My father raises his right hand to the square, fingers pointing toward heaven. He delivers a prayer, then holds my wrist as I hold my nose and with bended knees, I am leaned back into the holy waters. With one quick swoosh through the process of immersion, I am happily declared a Mormon.
I am eight years old.
The following Sunday, I wished I had not worn the white headband to keep my bangs out of my eyes. Even before the confirmation began, the weight of the men's hands on top of my head was forcing the plastic teeth to bite into my scalp. I opened my eyes seconds before the blessing to see the varied shoes pointing toward me around the circle: wing tips, Hush Puppies, and boots. I recognized the black polished cowboy boots as my father's, the wing tips belonged to the bishop, the slip-ons were his counselor's shoes. I couldn't wrap my eyes around far enough behind my ears to see what shoes my uncle or the remaining priesthood bearers were wearing.
The pressure of the warm hands on my head increased. I quickly closed my eyes. My father began, "Our beloved daughter of Zion, by the authority vested in me . . ."
And then the words "Receive the Holy Ghost."
The hands lifted. My eyes opened. I stood up and faced the congregation as the bishop congratulated me on becoming a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All the men in the circle shook my hand. My father put his arm around me as we walked back to where my mother and her mother and her mother's mother were sitting.
I sat down on the pew. My grandmother took my hand and patted it.
"I am possessed," I thought. "I am possessed by the Holy Spirit and protected from evil. I am a clean slate. There are no sins on my record before God."
The Paradise of childhood.
"Bosch is rubbish," I hear a British guide say to her group. She is wearing a brown wool suit just below her knees. "He ate rye bread that was rotten, which most certainly brought on the cruelest of hallucinations."
My view of Paradise is often blocked by other visitors. I have no choice but to watch them interact with the painting.