Anarchic, free-thinking and heretical, although depicted in The Infidel’s Garden as being a source of evil and responsible for abuse of the innocent, the story of The Brethren of the Free Spirit is in truth, a great deal more complex.
The basic rationale behind the Brethren of the Free Spirit goes something like this : God is good. God is love. God is incarnate/imminent in everything. So that means everything is God. Therefore, everything is good. Which means there can be no such thing as sin.
These strands of thought, upheld through selected Biblical references, were ripe for exploitation particularly in the hands of someone like Archdeacon Solin, who, while outwardly devout, had what we would call today a serious personality disorder.
Some wonder if Hieronymus Bosch was also a secret follower of this heretical sect. We’ll never know but records do show Bosch was a member of The Brotherhood of Our Lady – a highly respected group of lay citizens dedicated to performing charitable acts – so it’s doubtful he also associated with The Brethren of the Free Spirit. However, he probably knew about it which is why it may be depicted in that central panel. Or as Pieter puts it in The Infidel’s Garden:
“Good art. Profound and honest art, expresses truths obliquely, so the ignorant and those in possession of too much power are not threatened and the innocent remain unharmed. But for those of us who are enlightened, the truths it brings to us are as powerful as if the air has been sucked from our lungs.”
Influenced by mysticism, the Brethren of the Free Spirit was in part a reaction against the institutionalized church. With its focus on the divine self and individualism, the Brethren of the Free Spirit helped give rise to Gnosticism and may well have paved the way for a more spiritual, less hierarchical system of worship.
Which all goes to show how good can go wrong in the hands of people with evil intentions, particularly when those people are in possession of unchecked power, have raging hormones and no opportunity for sexual release.
Materially, celibacy (family inheritance goes to church and not offspring) was one of the Catholic Church’s greatest triumphs. Morally, celibacy has been one of its greatest failings. Just my opinion.
More on the whole conundrum here: