The Garden of Earthly Delights - A Painting By Hieronymous Bosch Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Garden of Earthly Delights - A Painting By Hieronymous Bosch

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The Garden of Earthly Delights was painted by Hieronymus Bosch in around 1505. The exact date is unknown because Bosch never dated any of his pieces. It is currently displayed in the Prado Museum, Madrid.

A very striking painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights was very unusual for its time. In the 1500s, most pieces depicted Bible stories and consisted of a few very realistic and detailed characters, unlike this painting, which portrays hundreds of different people and dozens of 'monsters' all in perfect, but sometimes simplistic, form. This famous and surrealistic piece takes the form of a triptych - a painting that has three side-by-side panels or canvases. It usually has three hinged sections; the two outer parts can be folded inward covering the entire work. This is very typical of the time; many triptychs were created for display in churches as altarpieces.

In itself, The Garden of Earthly Delights is a very remarkable and revolutionary piece: nothing like it had ever been seen before. There are few pieces like it in style and very few like it in stature. It opened the gateway for new ideas and styles to come through. However, at the time, Bosch faced much controversy because of this work, and for quite a while after his death he was known as 'The inventor of monsters and chimeras'.

At first, Bosch's paintings were taken seriously by many, but as time passed people started to place his pieces in the context of their own time instead of remembering them as revolutionary forms of art. They saw his depictions of monsters and chimeras as conventional, instead of as interesting, fresh and innovative. Many people had drawn inspiration from his style and created conventional imitations, so his pieces no longer stood out.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights is a very complicated piece and almost everyone has a different opinion about its cultural symbols and references to great works of literature. To try to understand it fully, each section of the piece must be discussed in turn.

Outer Wings

The fantastic detail on the reverse of the outer wings in subdued tones of grey with tints of green represents the world on the third day of creation. The world appears as a flat disc covered by a spherical atmosphere and enclosed by the heavens. This was probably a very popular perception of Earth at the time.

This image of the Earth on the third day of creation is itself very bizarre. The mist reveals a looming heaven and a landscape populated with half-mineral and half-vegetable objects. Though the third day of creation is considered to be a time when the world was still pure, it has an evil, menacing feel about it.

In the top-left of the image is God, holding a book. This element links with the Latin words at the top of the piece, which translate as 'For he spake and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast' (Psalms 33:9). This creates an image of a passive God, according to the traditional idea that God created the world through words and not actions. In this way it is the opposite of the images Michelangelo painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. While Michelangelo's God is vibrant, Bosch's seems more grandfatherly; while Michelangelo's God is impressive and immediately draws the viewer's eye, Bosch's God subtly blends into the picture. This difference in images of God could show their differing opinions on God. Equally, this could show that although Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights is externally very unusual, the ideas behind it were orthodox for the time.

First Panel

In contrast with the subdued tones on the outside, the inside bursts with a startling amount of colour. On the left-hand panel there is an antediluvian landscape, but unlike in the 'Haywain' (another painting by Bosch) where we see the temptation and expulsion of Adam and Eve, in this image we see God uniting Adam and Eve. What is unusual about God in this image is that he is no longer an old being but a more youthful deity; this could be Him as Christ, the second member of the trinity.

Another significant fact is that Adam and Eve are not touching. This is quite normal for paintings of Adam and Eve at that time; Albrecht Durer painted them on separate panels in 1504. Although we know that the purpose of Adam and Eve was to 'Be fruitful and multiply' (Genesis 1:28), painters at the time did not want to imply that there was any sexual attraction between them. Bosch's interpretation follows this convention as well.

The most significant image in this section is the eye-catching fountain in the centre and the owl in the centre of the fountain. The owl, commonly regarded as a symbol of wisdom, can represent several cynical ideas in Christian imagery.

Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Romans 1:22-23

The owl can represent those who, preferring darkness to light (like the owl), reject Jesus and God; this could be significant since Adam and Eve go on to reject God by eating the forbidden fruit. More likely, the owl here is viewed as a robber-bird, which stands for foolishness, blindness (as he cannot see in light, or see the light of Christ) and a bird which accepts the fact that there is evil in the world and does nothing to prevent it. The owl's significance in this piece warns of the evil that is to come, as if the owl knows at the time. Additionally, the fact that the owl is often regarded as a bird with psychic abilities should not go unnoticed here.

Another significant section of this piece is the pool to the left of the fountain, which contains many different amazing animals, the most significant of which is the unicorn. In Christianity, the unicorn symbolises chastity. In the Age of Faith, it was common for a unicorn and virgin to be pictured together. This image shows us that Bosch, although he creates a very negative picture of humanity, provides elements of hope in the first panel.

Central Panel

The central panel is perhaps the most difficult to understand: is it meant to be a 'garden of earthly delights', or is it a representation of the sins that came about due to Adam and Eve's sins - sins that will result in the fate represented on the third panel? Whichever way we interpret it, we can't deny that it is bursting with colour and imagery, not all of which is easy to comprehend.

The setting for the centre panel is a conventional love garden. A conventional love garden is a garden with flowers, singing birds and a fountain in the centre where lovers gather to stroll or sing. The fountain is usually made out of gold and gems. The most famous description is in The Romance of the Rose a very long - and in its time, famous - allegorical poem about love, which states:

When I had gone a little further,
I saw a large and extensive garden,
Entirely surrounded by a high, crenulated wall,
Which was decorated on the outside with paintings and carved with many rich inscriptions.

Although Bosch's representation contains the essence of such a love garden it differs in many respects. Firstly, the people in Bosch's painting are far more open and frivolous about their relationships, whereas at that time it was considered bad taste to be so obvious. Secondly, the fountains were usually made of gold and gems, while Bosch's are clearly made of ivory and horns. This may be because Virgil expressed the idea that true dreams are made of ivory and horns in many of his works. Virgil's poems also frequently play host to the idea of yielding to love:

Love conquers all things; let us too surrender to Love.
- Eclogue X - Gallus

Many doubt that Bosch intentionally created these fountains in accordance with Virgil's writing, but perhaps these works contributed subconsciously.

Since the Earth in this panel is fully populated, it suggests that it is a time following the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. This idea is supported by a couple in the cave in the left-hand corner of the painting that may be Adam and Eve from the first panel. However it is unknown whether it is in a time before or after the Great Flood; some believe the man behind Adam is Noah, suggesting either a time before the great flood, or after, when mankind has reverted to their original ways. The second idea seems more likely because of the hellish scene in the last panel. Either way, this is clearly a time when God has been forgotten: men and women are frolicking about, the young men and women are mainly interested in kissing, embracing and stroking one another. It is notable that there are no children in this image; this demonstrates that they are going directly against God's wishes of 'Be fruitful and multiply' (Genesis 1:28). Man has abandoned heavenly paradise for a garden of earthly delights.

It is believed that the enormous quantities of fruit in this image are ironic; Bosch may have meant it as a pun on God's words. Certainly 'to pluck fruit' in Bosch's time was a euphemism for the sexual act. Another irony is that it was the fruit from the tree of knowledge that brought the fall of man. The skin of fruit also bears its own connotations: in Dutch the rind of a piece of fruit was called the 'schil', which also meant controversy. Furthermore, to be in a 'schel' was to be in a struggle with an opponent or to engage in the conflict of love. Since many of the couples are inside the peel of giant fruit, that may be the implication.

The main theme in this central panel is that of lust as the root of all evil. This theme is echoed through the images in the centre of the panel. There are three lakes: the front and back lakes contain both men and women, and the central lake contains only women, while men ride around it. This was a traditional way of showing the power of women, though usually it was portrayed with one woman in the centre of a circle of admirers. The men riding on animals are symbolic because animals symbolise the baser urges of mankind. Furthermore, a man riding was a metaphor for the sexual act. This scene also harks back to Eve, since one of the women is already climbing out of the pool and tempting the men - demonstrating that it was woman who took the lead in sin.

However, with Bosch nothing is simple: every theory has its contradiction. Wilhelm Fraenger views the work more positively than other critics. He states that the left-hand panel is not depicting the fall of man due to Eve's tempting but rather God uniting man and woman. His interpretation of the second panel is somewhat different: he claims the people in the second panel were Adamites, a cult that wished to return to the innocence of Adam and Eve before the fall:

...are peacefully frolicking about the tranquil garden in vegetative innocence, at one with animals and plants and the sexuality that inspires them seems to be pure joy, pure bliss.

This theory is very unusual, but may be based on Fraenger's theory that Bosch belonged to the Adamites, and maybe The Garden of Earthly Delights is where he supports this theory.

Final Panel

The image of hell on the right-hand panel is one of Bosch's most violent hells, contrasting with one of Bosch's lushest paradises, which precedes it. This insinuates that the more sinful happiness people enjoy in their lifetime, the worse the experience will be afterwards. In Bosch's less violent hells the buildings burn; here they seem to explode. From the fires to the icy lakes, this is a depiction of extremes. The world has been turned upside down. Normal objects have grown to enormous proportions. In the central lake water is being turned to blood, and massive musical instruments are torturing their victims.

Bosch's use of imagery helps the viewer realise how horrifying this scene actually is - in particular, his use of musical instruments as implements of torture. In Bosch's time, musical instruments were not only used to play music, but also played a role in literature and art. Different instruments have different connotations:

  • The pink bagpipe in the centre above the tree-man has several connotations: the bagpipe was considered a very aggressive instrument because of the loud sound it makes, and may represent those that play it who are now being punished in this hell. The bagpipe was also a symbol of the male sex organ.
  • The pommer is an early form of the oboe. It played a sharp sound and was common in Bosch's time. The pommer was a phallic symbol, a connotation expressed in this painting.
  • Below the pommer is a drum with a man trapped inside. The drum symbolises victory over the lust in the world, so it seems right that the drum traps inside it a lustful man.
  • Currently, the harp is a symbol often linked with royalty and noble, but here it is torturing a man caught up in its strings. In the past the harp was a symbol of the female sex organ, and many Dutch sayings refer to this symbolism.
  • The lute was used very often in medieval art to represent music, and in many paintings the angels played it. However, here Bosch is drawing on another symbolic connotation of the lute, which is that of seduction. Here the lute is overcoming people with pain.

Somewhat ironically, lust was also known as 'music of the flesh'. Therefore the musical instruments here suggest that the victims are paying for their lust in their previous life. Bosch is also implying that things that cause people pleasure in life, like musical instruments, can and will cause them pain later on.

The people are not paying only for their lustfulness but also for all manner of sins: idleness is illustrated by the man in his bed being looked upon by demons. The punishment for gluttony is illustrated by the man being forced to vomit his food, and in the centre of the tree-man, an image of a tavern illustrates the sin of gambling. Several people around the panel are guilty of the sin of anger.

In this hell normal relationships are being turned upside down: the hunters have become the hunted and the animals that are hunting them are grotesque. The animals within this piece are some of Bosch's greatest creations. Visual representations of man's faults are illustrated in creatures of all shapes and sizes, from rabbits to gnomes. The illustration of monsters was not unusual in Bosch's time; several books were written describing actual or fictional animals, and many people took inspiration from these books, as Bosch likely did.

One interesting creature is the bird in the left-hand corner, very similar in appearance to the Egyptian God Horus. Horus, a man with a head of a falcon, was one of the oldest gods in Egyptian culture. Horus was the God who saw all with sharp eyes, and here he is punishing those he has seen sinning. In this piece, the bird represents the devil torturing souls. The devil eats his victims and excretes them into a pit below his throne. The image of the devil as a beast that sits on a throne is a direct lift from The Vision of Tundale by St Vincent of Beauvais: 'Bestia sedebat super stagnum'. This poem lists many different tortures in hell and all the various punishments.

As usual for this piece, the most important feature is in the centre; two boats support a pair of rotting tree trunks, which in turn hold up the egg-shaped torso of the tree-man. This tree-man is so important to Bosch that he drew a pen drawing of his idea before he started the painting. The face of this man glances back as if to look the viewer directly in the eye. It is unclear if this tree-man is a monster or a victim like the other people in this gruesome depiction of hell. Many people believe that this face is Bosch's warning to the viewer, a moral guide trying to lead the viewer onto a path free of sin. Also possible is that Bosch is implying that even he himself will have to endure the travails of hell because he was one of the sinners in the central panel, a theory which concurs with Wilhelm's idea that Bosch was an Adamite.

With all the symbolism entwined in the surreal Garden of Earthly Delights, it is difficult to understand Bosch's true meanings. Did he mean to pre-date Freud and Dalì, or did he just express his thoughts on panels? Even now, five hundred years after its painting, we do not understand all of the symbolism within The Garden of Earthly Delights; however, the one thing the viewers do know is that they do not want to sin like the people in the central panel if it means they will end up in the right-hand hell scene. Which was probably Bosch's intention.

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