|Garden of Earthly Delights (central panel), 1505-1510, Hieronymus Bosch|
There's always to be found a lot of uncertainty regarding famous artists, their lives, their students, and their thought processes as they completed various masterpieces. Some, such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Dali, or Warhol, these we know quite well from their own writings and that which was observed and reported by their biographers. However, no painter in history has greater mystery surrounding them then than the Dutch painter, Hieronymus Bosch. Moreover, one of his paintings sits at the top of the list of his mysterious works. His Garden of Earthly Delights. painted between 1505 and 1510. The center panel of the triptych is pictured above. No artist at the time had ever incorporated so many individualized figures in a single work.
|When opened up on each side, the aura of mystery grows even stronger.|
With so little known about Hieronymus Bosch or his intention for creating what has become one of the best-known paintings today, interpretations of the triptych have greatly varied in its symbolism and message. That in itself might be what gained it such fame. Ostensibly a religious painting depicting man’s descent into sin, but never commissioned for any known church, The Garden of Earthly Delights hints at many things that just don’t add up. The blatant sexuality, the hidden symbolism, and the surrealistic execution of the triptych (above) all subtly point to a place much deeper and darker than pure Christian allegory. When closed (as seen below), the exterior panels of Bosch’s triptych show a darkened world in the throes of genesis. A world without enlightenment. The center panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights is a visual explosion of chaotic lust. Bodies writhe in the throes of ecstasy, gluttonizing on an assortment of fruit and flesh. Here, man and beast are one and the same. Cattle, bears, horses, and swine are ridden bareback by unclothed denizens of a world fallen like Lucifer. The tree of knowledge can be found in this central panel, being swiftly plucked bare.
|The three panels of Garden of Earthly Delights opens us like a book|
The left panel (below) of Bosch’s masterpiece (also known as the Joining of Adam and Eve) at first glance appears to be a typical scene of Eden. As Adam wakes from slumber, he is greeted by the sight of God offering Eve by the wrist and giving the sign for his blessing of the union. While Eve is the picture-perfect definition of demure, Adam is looking very expectant indeed at the presentation of his new bride. Eyes widened and lips curving into a smile, his countenance barely contains a lurking lecherous desire, as to his left a wildcat struts away with fresh kill. In contrast, Eve is timid, eyes cast downward, in frightened submission to God’s will, while in the background to her right sits a black rabbit, an age-old symbol of fear of intimacy. To the north, in the first of a series of strange, flesh-colored dwellings, a small owl is perched in a circular cavity. And like the unsettling architecture, it won’t be the last time that we see this winged creature, whose importance in Bosch’s garden is paramount.
|Garden of Earthly Delights (left panel detail)|
There is also an abundance of symbolism here pertaining to fertility and the female reproductive organ. The flesh-colored edifices are at times extremely vaginal in appearance, and ovary-shaped orifices are entered at every opportunity. Bosch painted this panel with much more zeal than is typically found in a religious portrayal of the sins of the flesh, and this is what sets it apart from mere allegory.
|Detail of central panel--Knowledge|
|Right panel detail|
A nightmarish wonderland awaits those who gaze upon Bosch’s right panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights. This sadistic portrayal of Hell is in sharp contrast to the center panel and is ripe with mockery of Christianity. In this panel, the pleasure of fornication is usurped by pain, no longer an act of ecstatic creation, but torturous punishment. While the former panel was more feminine in its depiction of the sensual and sexual, this panel is more masculine. It screams rape and conquer, cities fallen into flame, Lucifer reaping what he had previously sown. No stranger to painting depictions of Hell, Bosch lets loose with surrealistic glory on the right panel of the garden. Bodies lay strewn naked beneath a set of ears with a blade protruding from between. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see the resemblance between that and the male genitalia when erect. One can also find the most blatant example of how the painting is no ordinary religious triptych, in the depiction of a swine nun leaning in to plant a kiss on the cheek of a wretched sinner. No matter how despicable and torturous the infernal depths may be, to dress a pig in a nun’s habit would be far too sacrilegious for any halfway-serious congregation. In the background of the right panel, behind the bodies writhing in pain and surrealistic imagery of torture, a city can be seen crumbling into inferno with beams of light shooting skyward. Lucifer is triumphant.
|Portrait of Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1550|
Jacques Le Boucq
What Bosch’s true intentions with his masterpiece were, we will never truly know. But one thing is for certain: The Garden of Earthly Delights is one of the most complex and nightmarish paintings in existence today. A paint-ing that is both extremely attractive and immensely repulsive, a painting that causes something to resonate deep within oneself, like bells tolling in the cavity of the chest. And that is the purest response to an artwork that can be achieved, whatever its original intent.