By William Kloss, Independent Art Historian
Nothing can satisfactorily explain the enigmatic, fanciful, and vivid imagination of Hieronymus Bosch. While we know too little about him, we now know that his patrons were frequently from the nobility, and his extraordinary works were as well known to important collectors in the later 16th century as they are to a wide public today.
Hieronymus Bosch, the artist who painted The Garden of Earthly Delights, was born about 1450 and died in 1516. He was born and worked his entire life in a place called “s’-Hertogenbosch”—today, a quiet city in Holland near the border with modern Belgium. Bosch lived when the Netherlands was still a unified state and ‘s-Hertogenbosch (meaning “the Duke’s Woods” and is the source of his name) was then one of the four largest cities in Brabant, an important duchy under Burgundian control.
The Garden of Earthly Delights, his most famous masterpiece, today hangs in Madrid in the Prado. It was probably completed between 1505 and 1510, but it is not known for sure who commissioned this large triptych. It was not intended for a church. Its triptych format and size, so often associated with altarpieces, has misled writers and historians for generations. In 1517, a year after Bosch died, the painting was in the Palace of Henry III of Nassau, who was Regent of the Netherlands, and it stayed in the possession of the Orange and Nassau family until the occupying Spanish troops took it to Madrid in 1568. By 1593, it was in the Escorial, the royal monastery and palace outside Madrid. It was likely acquired by King Philip II, who had a well-known passion for Bosch’s paintings.
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The Apocalyptic Atmosphere of ‘s-Hertogenbosch
When viewing the Garden of Earthly Delights, do not allow Freudian fantasies or the Surrealist art of the 20th century to mislead you when analyzing the various details here. A modern reading might be of some relevance, but not as relevant as the knowledge that Bosch and his contemporaries lived their lives in the presumption of damnation. Sin surrounded them, and they would inevitably succumb to it. If they did not die absolved of their sins, the certainty of damnation faced them. This certitude must have been especially intense in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, which was home to a large number of religious institutions—by 1526, it was estimated that one of every 19 persons in the city was associated with a religious order of one sort or another, whether lay or sacred.
Religious life flourished in the city, and throughout his adult life Bosch belonged to a brotherhood of lay and religious men and women called the Brotherhood of Our Lady, for whom he fulfilled some artistic commissions. The order shared the ascetic, spiritual, reforming ideas of the more important, and larger, Brotherhood of the Common Life. His own life was lived entirely in the immediate pre-Reformation period, and numerous passages in his work make clear some of his criticisms of the church.
This was the apocalyptic atmosphere in which Bosch lived, and it seems to have been a rather circumscribed life. His art has a unity—and intensity—of subject and style that supports that presumption.
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The Rarely Seen Exterior
The exterior of this triptych is rarely reproduced. A closed view of the altarpiece, painted in gray tones, Creation with Earth Uninhabited, shows a vast panorama of the Earth, sky, and water enclosed in a transparent globe. The Earth seems to be surrounded by water. Though there is nothing living, some strange things seem to appear. For instance, in the left foreground of the painting are horn shapes projecting from rocks, among other fantastic shapes in this just-created world. This is considered to be the Third Day of Creation as described in Genesis:
“Let the waters under the heaven be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas.”Genesis 1:9
God is in this painting. The Creator holds a book, a small figured presiding over the world, seen in a break in the darkness of the upper left-hand corner of the panel. Across the top of the two panels is a Latin quotation from Psalm 33:9—“For He spake and it was done: He commanded and it stood fast.”
When the shutters are open, one can see the extraordinary and famous full view of the interior of this triptych. Its three panels consist of Eden on the left, the Garden of Earthly Delights in the center, and Hell on the right. It is not certain that the Garden of Earthly Delights is Bosch’s title, but it has been associated with the painting for centuries.
The Left Panel of the Triptych
The left panel, Eden, is reminiscent—in terms of the freshness of the landscape—of Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Lamb in the Ghent altar. It is the Creation of Man: Adam sits on the ground with God beside him, and on the right-hand side, God has just created Eve to match him. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is on the left. Creatures in the foreground scurry about, including near Adam: a cat carries off a mouse, an un-evolved creature crawls out of the foreground pool, and a flying fish surfaces in the middle, who looks as if it is about to fly out of the water.
The animals in the middle ground of this panel include a giraffe on the right-hand side and an elephant to the left. Giraffes and elephants were only found in zoos in 16th Century Netherlands. Therefore, Bosch saw them in zoos if not in illustrations. On the other hand, the unicorn drinking from the water at the far left is a mythological creature, which often appears in Creation scenes.
Eden was watered by four rivers, suggested by four streams of water coming from the central fountain. This could also be a reference to the Book of Revelation, where the Fountain of Life is the source of the Rivers of Paradise. The presence of an owl, found in the eyelike opening at the center of the fountain, is disconcerting. The owl as a symbol of the night is also a symbol of death. Even in Eden amid the creation of life, there is death.
In the fanciful background, there are wonderful details, particularly the flight of birds circling the conical rock at the left.
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The Center Panel of the Triptych
This densely packed painting is full of symbols; it was second nature to Bosch’s contemporaries to read the world symbolically. For instance, a fish was an understood phallic symbol: one lies on the ground, bottom center of the painting; another flies through the air in the sky in the top-left corner of the painting, while other fish are scattered throughout.
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Fruits are notable in this large panel, principally cherries, berries, and especially strawberries. It was pointed out by a 16th-century Spanish commentator on this painting that strawberries, once eaten, leave little taste behind in the mouth. This is an allusion to the transitory nature of physical pleasure. Notice the giant strawberry at the bottom of the panel right of center, which a man gnaws at almost lustfully. His arm is gripped around it possessively: “This is my strawberry, don’t bother me!”
Further up in this lower section, to the left in the water, a couple is seen floating in a shell-like vessel, reaching out to grasp the giant bunch of blackberries, already surrounded by figures in the water who are gobbling away at it.
Directly in the middle of the painting is a large group of riders circling the small pool in the center. They ride all sorts of animals: at 11 o’clock is a white horse, a camel, and toward the bottom of this circle of figures, a man rides a griffin. Going around the clock again to about one o’clock, a man rides a white unicorn. A bear, an ox, and a pig all serve as mounts. This bestiary is full of sexual symbolism; indeed, the very act of riding was a colloquial synonym for sex, as it still is today.
There are numerous egg shapes, globular forms, and transparent bubbles or domes. At the left edge near the bottom of the painting, an amorous couple is enclosed in a bubble that appears like a blossom from a plant, which, in turn, issues from an egg-like shape below it. A hole in the egg reveals a man’s face peering through a transparent tube that extends from the hole facing outward; a mouse or rat enters from the other end, with some kind of noticeable standoff between them.
An intriguing, recurring motif in The Garden of Earthly Delights is the use of birds, specifically giant birds feeding humans. To the right of center, below the riding procession, is a red conical tree. A bird perches on one of its branches, berry in beak held above the straining, upturned heads of a large group of human supplicants.
The owl appears again in this panel, prominently. This one is larger than the specimen featured in Eden, perched on the right side. The owl serves as a kind of headdress for two dancing nudes, located immediately below half a dozen figures in a small grove that seems intentionally suggestive of Eden and innocence.
In the top and center section of this painting is a blue sphere with a turret reminiscent of the Sphere of Creation on the outside of the triptych. But here it is also a fountain, a variant of the one in Eden, serving as a sort of swimming or diving platform in some kind of 16th-century amusement park.
There is an enormous amount to look at. The problem with pointing out all these incidents and attributes of sin is the naïve, unself-conscious indulgence in the carnal pleasure that most of the hundreds of persons in this Garden exhibit. It is true that their facial expressions are often neutral rather than smiling or leering. But it is also noticeable that many of the presumably pleasurable activities depicted here are pursued with a compulsive, often effortful frenzy that leaves no time to enjoy the sensual worldly pleasures in which these people indulge.
The Right Panel of the Triptych
The right wing of the triptych is unmistakable as Hell. In the lower left-hand corner is an overturned table, with the remains of cards and large dice. Gambling has been going on, and it has finally involved violence. The scene emphasizes the violence associated with gambling and vice.
Tucked into the lower right-hand corner, a sow wears the veil of a mother superior. The sow tries to convince a man to sign a legal document (the inkwell supplied by a demon in front of him), which undoubtedly conveys his property to the monastery. There was strong criticism of the worldly abuses of the church in Bosch’s time.
Above them, we find the devil, who devours the damned and then evacuates them into a pit of hell below his “throne.” To his left is a remarkable group of large musical instruments. From the left, there is a lute, a harp, a hurdy-gurdy, some long wind instruments, and a drum. Normally, in the Renaissance and before, musical instruments were associated with angels and spiritual harmony; instead Bosch associates them with lust and turns them into instruments of torture. Note particularly the harp, on which a man is painfully impaled.
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The middle section is dominated by a composite figure whose legs are white tree trunks with bark and branches; his torso is a broken egg, and he has a human head that turns back to look at us. He has a hat decorated with a bagpipe, always treated as a phallic symbol. The face under the hat is human, larger than any of the others, and so specifically personalized in looking at us, that it has been suggested to be a self-portrait.
Above him, you find individuals in the tortures of damnation, for instance near the pair of giant ears sandwiched around a knife blade. The hellfire in the dark but blazing city at the top appears like a city under bombardment. It is indeed Apocalypse Now.
A Moralizing Commentary
Since it is now believed that this huge painting was commissioned for the private enjoyment of a nobleman, the overall theme of the painting could be seen as a moralizing commentary on sexuality and the relations between the sexes, from Creation to Damnation, with a life of dubious pleasure sandwiched between. Art historians have suggested that it might have been commissioned on the occasion of a wedding. At least the knowledge that it was not a church altarpiece makes the alluring excess of the central Garden of Delights—this false paradise of sensuality—comprehensible, is something of a relief.
Common Questions About The Garden of Earthly Delights
There have been many interpretations of The Garden of Earthly Delights, but the most common interpretation is that the painting is a warning to mankind about the dangers of overindulging in sensuality and general excess.
Hieronymus Bosch is famous for his intricate, large-scale paintings that depict the hedonism of mankind which can often lead to depravity.
The Garden of Earthly Delights can be found at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.
It took Hieronymus Bosch twenty years to paint The Garden of Earthly Delights, beginning in 1490 when he was forty-years-old.