St Anthony’s Fire by Scott Skipper
Because Shakespeare’s letters are as rare as hens’ teeth, some say to know the man, read his plays. About a century before the Bard, across the English Channel in the Netherlands, a painter put oil on wood but left little information about his life. One could say the same thing; to know the man, study his paintings.
Faction is an historical novel rooted in fact, where a real person or event is used in fiction. Hieronymus Bosch, a real person, was a Dutch/Flemish painter in the 15th century famous for producing remarkable works of art. Religious themes dominated and nudity often featured in his paintings as did animals in surprising situations such as birds flying out of a human’s rectum.
St Anthony is the patron saint of lost causes and when people caught Erysipelas, a nasty skin complaint caused by eating bread made with contaminated flour, the disease was called St Anthony’s Fire.
Bosch caught the condition which brought on great physical pain – he lost some toes – but also suffered vivid nightmares or visions. These mental apparitions inspired his remarkable paintings.
In Scott Skipper’s novel, a couple of Spanish teenage boys visit an art gallery in Madrid today and laugh at the sight of Bosch’s art. A gallery guide takes it upon himself to educate the boys about the life and work of the artist.
We then travel back hundreds of years and meet Bosch and learn about the man. He’s in his twenties, religious, is recovering from St Anthony’s Fire, and painting. He and some fellow travellers (pilgrims) set out to walk, that’s right, walk from Holland to Spain via France and the Pyrenees.
From adventure to adventure he goes, his life experiences being dramatic, joyful, tragic and inspiring. Throughout the journey, we pop back to 21st century Madrid where the two teens make comments and ask questions, and the long-suffering but wise guide relates the next chapter in the painter’s life.
One test of an historical novel is that it captures the nitty-gritty of daily life of the period. Skipper’s novel does this and more. His vision of Bosch brings the painter to life revealing his inner thoughts, personality and dreams. The novel’s details breathe life into the journey as the reader joins the pilgrims en route. You are there with the characters, and your knowledge of art and disease will increase overnight.
(review of free book)