Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516), a master of the Early Netherlandish school of painting that flourished during the Northern Renaissance (a cultural movement contemporaneous with but independent of the Italian Renaissance) in what are present-day Netherlands and Belgium, is known for his highly exhaustive, richly fantastical – even mischievous and confusing – scenes of religious narratives.
Arguably, his most ambitious and interesting accomplishment is The Garden of Earthly Delights, a triptych painted between 1490 and 1510, housed at the Prado in Madrid since 1939. By physical design, it mimics an altarpiece – art usually intended for public worship. Although heavy in its spiritual import, owing to its licentious nature, the painting is more likely to have been commissioned by a patron for private purposes than for communal, ecclesiastical use.
The painting has both interior and exterior components. The two wings or shutters of the triptych, when folded, display a “grisaille” painting (executed entirely in shades of grey) generally thought to be demonstrating the ‘third day’ of the biblical account of Creation (Genesis 1:1-31).
Inside, the viewer is confronted with a dizzying explosion of colour and energy rife with some very intricate symbolism that has obsessed and challenged scholars for centuries.
On the left panel, we find a verdant and tranquil landscape populated with all manner of beasts and birds. Twisted hills extend across the background while a light coral fountain redolent of equipment in an alchemy lab dominates the middle ground (see “Alchemy at work in the garden” in Times Higher Education by Professor Laurinda Dixon of Syracuse University, NY). The main action here is concentrated in the foreground, wherein the Creator God, anthropomorphised in a younger guise, presents Adam with Eve (Genesis 2:20-25).
The most prominent part of the triptych is its central panel, from which it also derives its title. Here, humans, stark naked, run riot amid tiny and gigantic animals and eatables. Towering and globular structures of stone and glass – sometimes blended with organic matter – are interspersed throughout the panorama. While there is certainly no explicit or violent sexual activity, youthful males and females cavort in an intoxicated atmosphere. Either ignorant or defiant of ethical precepts and rules of decorum, they greedily consume berries (a hallucinogenic?), bathe in water, ride on four-legged creatures or just engage in a host of foolish activities. Too deeply merged with nature, humans are hardly distinguishable as beings of a higher order that have been especially endowed with the faculty of reason and conferred with the agency of freewill by their Creator.
The final right panel of the triptych depicts a hellscape – an arena of damnation. Far away, a prison-like city with high walls is set on fire, before which humans are subjected to all sorts of torments at the hands of strange figures. They appear devoid of that erotic confidence and are, instead, wracked with a sense of shame. There is ingestion, excretion, ejection. Some climbing and drowning. People are punished for and purged of their sins. Musical instruments lie defunct and a pair of giant human ears is pierced with a large and sharp knife – allusions to the deceptive and dooming aspect of sensory appeal. The focal point of this hellscape is a pale white human face with a body that is part broken shell, part tree (which the German art historian Hans Belting has called a self-portrait of Bosch). A round pink bagpipe on his head is reminiscent of phallic symbols and is possibly an admonition against uncontrolled lust.
The Garden of Earthly Delights is, for many, a powerful example of didactic art. On the surface, it could easily be interpreted as a straightforward exposure of the perils that come with unrestrained pursuit of sensual pleasure. But upon closer inspection, additional meanings slowly emerge.
- The presentation of Eve is highlighted in the first panel. Next, we find a group of maidens right in the middle of a gambolling society. Is this a rather misogynistic piece implying that all temptation and chaos was unloosed upon the world with the introduction of women?
- Is the central panel full of corrupt humanity on the eve of the Flood? (In which case the exterior grisaille depicts not the third day of Creation but cleansing waters that came later?)
- Is this a pessimistic meditation on the human condition? Humankind is only shown going to hell. An alternative state of affairs illustrating acts of rectitude being rewarded with heavenly bliss is oddly absent.
- Does the central panel portray a pure and peaceful human society in a pre-Fallen or utopian condition? Is this our ultimate aim and desire, something we want to strive for rather than avoid?
So on and so forth. One can go on and on. Some think that Bosch was a madman under the influence of drugs, others affirm his piety and level-headedness. The painting remains ambiguous, enigmatic and above all, influential – having inspired painters like Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and more recently, Raqib Shaw.
Interestingly, Dr. Sandy Hickson of the University of Guelph in Ontario opens her essay on the triptych on Khan Academy with an epigraph from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In Chapter VI: Pig and Pepper, when Alice encounters the famous Cheshire Cat, the following dialogue ensues:
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, or you wouldn’t have come here.”
Hickson fittingly (and funnily) applies this to the painting, remarking that to write about The Garden of Earthly Delights “is to attempt to describe the indescribable and to decipher the indecipherable—an exercise in madness.”