Garden of Earthly Delights is a series of superlatives: the best-known work of Hieronymous Bosch (ca. 1450-1516), one of the most famous paintings in Western art history, and one of the most influential, inspirational works for Surrealist painters of the 20th century.
Hieronymus Bosch (also spelled Jheronimus Bos) was born Jerome van Aeken in the small Netherland town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, from which his name is derived. A member of the third generation of a family of painters, Hieronymus Bosch was an orthodox Catholic whose style was anything but orthodox — over five centuries later, it remains baffling how Bosch crafted a style so remote from the leading Netherlandish painters of his time, Jan van Eyck (ca. 1370/90-1441) and Rogier van der Weyden (ca. 1400-1464). Forty Hieronymous Bosch paintings are known to exist; none is dated, and only seven, including Garden of Earthly Delights, are signed.
Although painted in the triptych format often used for altarpieces, Garden of Earthly Delights is clearly a secular work – the imagery is (and remains) inappropriate for religious settings.
When the wings of the triptych are closed (see bottom left), it shows a massive sphere depicting the world on the third day of Creation, before life began.
When opened, though, Garden of Earthly Delights is a dizzying, dazzling array of enigmatic and provocative scenes best contemplated through the beliefs of its creator. Hieronymus Bosch was a fundamentalist moralist who believed that mankind has been flawed and damned since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden.
Let’s examine each of the three panels.
Here, Hieronymus Bosch portrays his vision of Paradise and the Garden of Eden on the last day of Creation.
From top to bottom, one sees the first animals God fashioned and in the center, the Fountain of Life. Eve has just been created from Adam’s rib; they are surrounded by a verdant landscape populated by imaginary and real animals including unicorns, giraffes and a three-headed bird, lingering by the pool. Half way down on the right is the Tree of Knowledge, with a snake coiled around its trunk; this was the sole source of forbidden fruit in a landscape laden with other varieties.
Note the hints of dissonance, even in Paradise: in the foreground, animals prey upon and devour those who are smaller and weaker.
This panel in Garden of Earthly Delights is indisputably the most cryptic and baffling.
The world’s four rivers are on the horizon, grounding this scene on Earth; note how the landscape is continuous across all panels of the triptych.
The overarching theme appears to be hedonism, especially the seeking and satisfaction of sexual desires. In the center is the Bath of Venus, a pool filled with naked, bathing women. Encircling them is a procession of naked men and women who are gawking shamelessly while astride deer, camels, unicorns and horses.
In medieval times, the phrase “riding a horse” was a metaphor for having sexual relations, while the “bath of Venus” referred to being in love.
Overlooking the Bath of Venus is a fantastic castle-like tower housing five turrets. Throughout, miniature, naked humans frolic, kiss and cavort among themselves and with marine animals, gigantic birds and flowers. The landscape is populated by enormous strawberries and succulent grapes, some of which are being plucked and devoured. Imaginary beasts wander around, seemingly oblivious to the carnality around them.
In the bottom right corner are the sole clothed figures; they are Adam and Eve, seemingly hiding from the chaos around them.
The rampant imagination of Hieronymous Bosch is on full display in this vision of the land of the damned. This depiction of an inferno – perhaps Hell itself – shows tiny humans receiving punishments and tortures matching their sins; they suffer below a sky filled with fire and brimstone.
About mid-ground on the far right, for instance, is a rodent-bird-like creature sitting in an elevated chair and sporting a cauldron as its cap (see bottom right); it devours sinners, and later expels their remains into a pit of human waste and vomit.
Such was the fate of those committing the sin of gluttony.
Those who indulged the pleasures of the flesh are impaled and crucified by musical instruments, classical symbols for lust and love. Soldiers are impaled on spears; one in armor is consumed by a dragon. All are suffering and are on the brink of death, but will suffer eternally because no one dies in Hell.
In the center is an off-white-broken-eggshell monster with a hauntingly evil human face and stubby legs; he appears to be the ringmaster orchestrating the suffering of these sinners.
Interpretations of Garden of Earthly Delights
The lack of information about Bosch’s life has done nothing but fuel speculation about the meaning of Garden of Earthly Delights.
To the extent that one can interpret Hieronymous Bosch at face value, Garden of Earthly Delights seems to be about the perils of hedonism and most particularly, the sin of lust. Given that Bosch was a fundamentalist moralist, this is one compelling interpretation.
But various other interpretations abound. Some consider Bosch a heretic guilty of horrific immorality, while others believe that the meaning of Garden of Earthly Delights was known only to the elite of Bosch’s era. Or that Hieronymous Bosch belonged to a secret sect of atheistic nudists.
A more recent interpretation is that Hieronymus Bosch, like Leonardo da Vinci, blended science and piety in his paintings. In medieval times, the practice of science was considered a means of attaining salvation; alchemy, a precursor to chemistry, strove to transform matter through distillative processes into a perfect form, with divine intervention.
Considering the bizarrely shaped vessel-objects in all panels of the Garden, it is plausible that they are flasks and funnels used in the distillation processes of alchemy. Add that to the prevalent fear in 1500 that the world was coming to an end, as detailed in the Book of Revelation, and you have another interpretation: Bosch believed that alchemy could “distill” the human race back to the innocence of Adam and Eve.
What is certain about Garden of Earthly Delights is this: although its enigmas have fascinated viewers (and baffled art historians) for over five centuries, definitive answers are unlikely to ever be known.
Was Hieronymus Bosch such a genius that he intended this? Which interpretation of Garden of Earthly Delights do you find most persuasive?
UPDATE: In May 2015, the Museum of Royal Collections, also in Madrid, demanded that the Prado give it Garden of Earthly Delights and Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross, citing their royal provenance. Because these two famous paintings are the top draws at the Prado… this promises drama. Stay tuned!