This is the final piece in a series of posts exploring art, literature and numbers in Fifty Shades of Grey. If you have not, I encourage you to go back and read the first post about the connection of all of these, second post where we explore the outside of the Garden of Earthly Delights, in the third post we explored the opening of the triptych, in the fourth post the left panel in the last piece we discussed the middle panel of the Garden of Early Delights. In this post we’ll dive into the right panel.
It is said that Bosch drew himself into the painting. Of course he is not in Paradise given that there are only Adam, Eve and God present. But he also didn’t make himself one of the countless figures in the middle panel who enjoy the pleasures of life without a care. He placed himself in hell.
The figure that is said to bear Bosch’s face takes up a good part of the upper half of the right hand panel. And really it is only half a man. The body is cut off after the torso which is, shaped like a broken, fragile eggshell, empty. No heart, no other organs – just three nude men sitting on a toad in a tavern-like environment while what appears to be a woman draws more wine from a barrel. Instead of a ribcage branches that lance through the flesh keep the cavern open. They grew out of rotten tree trunks that in the place of arms support the torso. The trees again grow out of two boats that float on muddy water. One of the arms sports a barley scrapped over round wound that is badly bandaged.
The only thing intact about this man seems to be his head. On the face he has a wistful, ironic, resigned expression. His head supports a disk on which demons parade their victims in a circle around a bagpipe that looks a lot like a human scrotum and penis and that governs the rhythm of the parade. A ladder leads up to the cavern. A grey hooded figure with an arrow in his butt climbs the ladder while another creature with butterfly wings, claws, and wearing armor makes a demon human pair wait their turn.
Behind the figure in the background, a city is burning. All around the figure we see war and torture and demons. The fire from the burning city illuminates the scene and drenches it into a bloody light with dark shadows. In the foreground mutated animals feed on human flesh while humans are vomiting, excreting, or are crucified by harps and lutes. A choir sings from a score inscribed on a pair of buttocks. While they are just like their counterparts in the first two panels, are all naked, their nakedness has lost all eroticism and they try to cover themselves (a bit like Eve seems to want to in Paradise, but doesn’t).
What seems oddly placed in this panel are objects from the real world of contracts and business – a pen, paper, and a seal.
Before Grey was published I had hunches about where to look for hell in the 50 Shades world. I mean it wasn’t too hard to guess that it had to be connected with Christian. But I didn’t buy the idea that he would suddenly be all religious and fear hell because of his life style. I didn’t think that the third panel was about where he thought he might end because of what he does. It also didn’t make sense to see it as an image of what was going on in his apartment with his subs. It might have been about what society thought of it. But there were details like the pen, paper, and seal – the symbols of the world of mergers and acquisition and all the contracts Christian comes with – they were just too detailed for hell suddenly being just a general idea or view.
But then there was Grey and all fell into place.
One of the first things we hear about Christian, from Christian, is that people who know him well would say that he does not have a heart. He thinks of himself as a hollow man, a monster whose beauty is just a skin deep façade. Beneath it, so he thinks, is only blackness that stirs and raises its ugly head as soon as someone means to touch his torso. And then there is his most beloved body part – his manhood – that beats the rhythm of his life.
In short, the mental image Christian Grey has of himself is that of the figure said to wear Bosch’s face in the right hand panel.
He doesn’t look it, but his formative years, as he calls them, left him as fragile as an egg with a crack. His scars from the cigarette burns could well be the holes where the thorn like branches grew through the torso and remained in place. They painfully remind him wherever he stands and walks of the torture and demons he saw and lived through. And the world is still full of it – all the wars, all the hunger, all the pain, all the ways people endanger themselves with drugs and alcohol and uncaring relationships and shaming of themselves or others. That’s what he sees wherever he looks it seems. He sees the world and himself in the light of the burning city that was his early childhood.
He sees himself filled and surrounded by demons and sinners as well. When I see the grey hooded figure climbing the ladder with the arrow in the butt my thoughts wander to Christian’s idea of punishing Ana with a peeled gingerroot in just the same body orifice but also his fixation on claiming it like it has a target painted on. It is a Machiavellian idea to choose fear over love as means to gain power and control. And as his intellect seems to be the one part that excels it is the way Christian chooses to conquer and heal the destructive chaos around him. It doesn’t work and his music remains as bleak as that you imagine coming from a choir singing a score written on buttocks. Beautiful maybe, but bleak and as torturing as being crucified on a harp or lute.
In the end the whole construction, the whole set up of his life is set on tree trunks, it seems sturdy on first glance, but is as shaky as tree trunks growing on two independently floating ships. One ship, Grace, whose mere existence in his life kept him from suicide. The other ship could either be called Elena or Carrick. I tend to say Carrick. Then place Elena as the butterfly wearing creature with claws, armor and a birds head. She’s regulating access to the ladder leading up into the cavernous torso.
But even in this panel there is hope. As I said, there is no visible heart in the hollow torso. But there is a toad. Toads are one of the animals associated with the Roman god of war, Mars. It means by all means Christian is a fighter. But more importantly, toads in alchemy symbolize the prima materia. Prima material is the name for the stuff alchemists started their work with. It’s mud. But this mud already contains the gold they are looking for. Applied to Christian it means that the hollow shell with the mud inside holds all the potential to shine. All it takes is someone to use a little tender care to unearth the gold that is his heart. Then he can leave hell behind.
Crissy and Aviva