Hieronymus Bosch has been called the Surrealist of northern Renaissance art, and his masterpiece, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” makes clear why. Densely populated with bizarre and amusing hybrid figures and visions of the grotesque, the triptych seems playful and eccentric at first glance, but it actually reflects Bosch’s pessimistic view of the world and mankind’s ability to achieve redemption. His art was highly sought after during his life and after, and among his most avid collectors was King Philip II of Spain. The triptych—and the rest of the oeuvre of Bosch—can be enigmatic because of the fantastic imagery he so often employed, so read on to unlock some of its mysteries.
1. Bosch is a figure almost as enigmatic as his art, as historical sources tell us very little about the celebrated Dutch painter. He spent his entire life in a northern ecclesiastical center of the Netherlands, hailing from a family of painters. Bosch was active in the Catholic Church and a member of a prestigious and conservative religious organization, and the importance he placed on religion and morality is evident in his works. Another influence on his art came from his in-laws. Bosch was married to the daughter of a pharmacist, and he included strange and fanciful interpretations of distilling and boiling apparatus in his paintings. Note, for example, the proliferation of glass cylinder, sphere, and beaker-like shapes in the central panel of “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”
2. “The Garden of Earthly Delights” contemplates mankind’s sin before the time of Noah. The panels on the right and left depict the prelude to and consequences of this sin. On the right, we see Eden, the terrestrial paradise. God presents Eve to Adam in a verdant setting filled with exotic birds and animals, but the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—and the serpent wrapped around its trunk—can be seen towards the middle right edge of the panel. The strange pink structure in the center is the source of the four rivers of Paradise. The panel on the right shows the punishment of sin. In contrast to Eden, it is a nocturnal scene of torture inhabited by demons such as the human/ tree hybrid that anchors the middle of the panel. What was once pleasure is now pain— for example, musical instruments now serve as torture devices in the lower left.
3. How did we get from Paradise to Hell? The central scene, that which gives the triptych its name, provides the transition. The children of Adam and Eve will be destroyed in the Flood and are on the brink of doom, but unwittingly, they indulge in pleasure and lust. The scene is filled with oversized fruits and flowers, reminding the viewer not only of the fleeting nature of their sweetness and beauty, but also of the general ephemerality of pleasure. The amorous couple encased in the glass bubble in the lower left probably references a Dutch adage: “Happiness is like glass: it breaks quickly.”
Image Source and Citations:
Phaidon Press. The Art Museum. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2011.