“The Garden of Earthly Delights”: Hell or Twisted Celebration?

The Garden of Delights is a triptych oil painting created between 1490 and 1510 by the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. You’ve probably seen it somewhere on the internet before. The painting’s three panels are filled to the brim with scenes so absurd as to be difficult to describe.

Most are naked people. Naked people romping through lush green fields and fornicating in cubist fountains. Naked people stuffing flowers in each other’s rectums, gathering under giant strawberries, or emerging from equally massive eggs. Naked people being consumed by a creature with the head of an owl wearing a cauldron for a hat.

The Garden of Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. (Source: Wikipedia / Museo del Prado)

Despite its bright colors and smiling motifs, The Garden of Delights seems to us like a deeply disturbing painting. His nonsensical imagery and realistically rendered dreamscapes resemble the works of the surrealist painter Salvador DalĂ­ or the images generated by Google’s DeepDream algorithm. These qualities made Bosch’s masterpiece a must-have in its day and explain its enduring popularity in our day and age. But what does it mean?

The Mysterious Life of Hieronymus Bosch

Part of the fascination of The Garden of Delights comes from the fact that we know very little about its creator. The life and career of the painter Hieronymus Bosch had to be assembled from a collection of 53 historical documents. Some were written by Bosch himself. Some were written by others and only mention him in passing. Most are simple bills and tax receipts.

Bosch was born Jheronimus van Aken in 1450. “Hieronymus Bosch” was his stage name. He borrowed it from his place of birth, the Dutch town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Den Bosch for short. Both of his brothers were painters. So did his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

An engraving of Hieronymus Bosch by his contemporary Dominicus Lampsonius. (Source: Wikipedia / courtauld)

A document from 1481 shows that Bosch was married to Aleid van de Meervenne, whose wealth and status gave him access to Den Bosch’s most exclusive social circles. Among them was a quasi-religious organization called the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, whose members included heirs of large European families. The purpose of the Brotherhood was charity. However, documents show that in the company of his sworn brothers, Bosch usually threw lavish dinner parties at which they ate expensive Dutch delicacies such as swan meat.

Devils, buttocks and cod pieces

Because Bosch’s personal beliefs were unknown, his paintings were often taken at face value. Not seen The Garden of Delights A depiction of the Garden of Eden (the title was retrospectively attributed by critics), contemporary viewers confused the work’s religious imagery with meaningless fantasy, a categorization later scholars readily adopted.

In his 16th century book Description of the Netherlands, the Venetian merchant Ludovico Guicciardini declared Bosch the “noblest and most admirable inventor of the fantastic and bizarre”. His contemporary Giorgio Vasari called Bosch’s paintings “capricious” which, in the Italian tradition, referred to images of the imagination rather than reality. Vasari’s comment was positive, but the poet Francisco de Quevedo was more critical when he wrote that Bosch’s work could be reduced to “devil, buttocks and cod”.

hieronymus bosch

Extract from The Garden of Delights. (Source: Wikipedia / Museo del Prado)

Bosch seems to have embraced his reputation as a medieval imaginator. His notebooks contain several sketches of monsters. These look more like doodles than preparations for paintings. In other words, Bosch created them for his own amusement rather than emphasis. In his table John on Patmosone of Bosch’s monsters also appears to be interacting with his own signature, betraying a loving connection between the man and his Frankenstein inventions.

Monsters in Medieval Manuscripts

Art historians have likened these inventions to drolleries, a term used to describe the peculiar drawings that populate the illuminated manuscripts of medieval Europe. Drolleries vary greatly from site to site. Some are faithful representations of animals and real-world objects. Others are chimeras – combinations of elements that don’t belong together, like penises on legs.

The logic behind and the meaning of drolleries has continued to elude medieval scholars. The only apparent similarity is the placement in the margin of the text. This suggests that they serve a purely decorative purpose and have nothing to do with the content of their manuscripts. A 2014 article referred to drolleries as “a spatial carnival where anything goes.”

Example of a drolly from the Book of Hours. (Source: Wikipedia)

As with Bosch, the art of the drollery was not without criticism. Horace rejected them because, according to him and other Roman writers, art should imitate nature. Since imagination mocked nature, it should not be taken seriously. Horace’s opinion survived into the Middle Ages, where it acquired a new and decidedly religious meaning, when clergy began to fear that people were more interested in the margins of illuminated manuscripts than in the manuscripts themselves.

decoding The Garden of Delights

Subsequent generations of art historians recognized Bosch’s paintings for the sophisticated and layered visual commentary they (probably) are. The Garden of Delightsin turn, has been reexamined through the lenses of alchemy, astrology and folklore, offering a number of possible explanations for the seemingly nonsensical scenes.

As its title suggests, the triptych is now widely interpreted as a condemnation of lust. Such a conclusion was reached through iconography, the study of the symbolic meaning of objects and how that meaning changes over time. The central panel, for example, is filled with objects that, in the 16th century, represented the transience of earthly beauty and sexual appetite, including bulls and hollow fruits. The owl, on the other hand, was a symbol of witchcraft, also used effectively by Goya.

Some believe The garden is a celebration of sexuality. (Source: Wikipedia / Museo del Prado)

There are also other interpretations. The famous art historian Ernst Gombrich once argued that the triptych “represents the state of mankind on the eve of the Deluge, when men were still pursuing pleasures without thinking about tomorrow”. The most radical hypothesis comes from Wilhelm Franger, who believes The Garden of Delights is not a condemnation of lust, but a celebration of it. Bosch, he writes, may have been commissioned or inspired by the Adamites, a Christian sect that proclaimed that, like Adam and Eve, humankind should not be ashamed of its humanity.

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