The Garden of Earthly Delights

Hieronymus Bosch, the artist who painted The Garden of Earthly Delights, was born, we think, about 1450 and died in 1516. He was born and worked his whole life in a place called “s’-Hertogenbosch”—today, a quiet city in Holland near the border with modern Belgium. Bosch lived when the Netherlands was still a unified state and ‘s-Hertogenbosch (which means “the Duke’s Woods” and is the source of his name) was then one of the four largest cities in Brabant, an important duchy under Burgundian control.

pencil drawing of Hieronymus Bosch
Hieronymus Bosch, the Dutch painter

Religious life flourished in the city, and throughout his adult life Bosch belonged to a brotherhood of lay and religious men and women called the Brotherhood of Our Lady, for whom he fulfilled some artistic commissions, and which shared the ascetic, spiritual, reforming ideas of the more important, and larger, Brotherhood of the Common Life. His own life was lived entirely in the immediate pre-Reformation period, and numerous passages in his work make clear some of his criticisms of the church.

None of this satisfactorily explains the enigmatic, fanciful, vivid imagination of this artist. We still know too little about him, but now we know that his patrons were frequently from the nobility, and his extraordinary works were as well known to important collectors in the later 16th century as they are to a wide public today.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

painting of Henry III of Nassau, who once hung The Garden of Earthly Delights in his Palace.
Henry III of Nassau once hung ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ in his Palace.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, his most famous masterpiece, hangs today in Madrid in the Prado. It was probably painted between 1505 and 1510, but it is not known for sure who commissioned this large triptych. It is now certain that it was not intended for a church. Its triptych format and size, so often associated with altarpieces, has misled writers and historians for generations. Instead, we know now that in 1517, a year after Bosch died, the painting was in the Palace of Henry III of Nassau, who was Regent of the Netherlands, and it stayed in the possession of the Orange and Nassau family until the occupying Spanish troops took it to Madrid in 1568. By 1593, it was in the Escorial, the royal monastery and palace outside Madrid, and since King Philip II’s passion for Bosch’s paintings is well-known, it was probably acquired by him.

The Rarely Seen Exterior

closed view of Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights altarpiece
‘Creation with Earth Uninhabited’, the rarely seen, closed view of the altarpiece (click to enlarge)

The exterior of this triptych is rarely reproduced. A closed view of the altarpiece painted in gray tones, Creation with Earth Uninhabited, shows a vast panorama of the Earth, sky, and water enclosed in a transparent globe. The Earth seems to be surrounded by water. Nothing living, perhaps, but some strange things seem to appear. For instance, in the left foreground of the painting are horn shapes projecting from rocks, among other fantastic shapes in this just-created world. This is considered to be the Third Day of Creation as described in Genesis: “Let the waters under the heaven be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas.” God is in this painting. The Creator, holding a book, is seen in a break in the darkness of the upper left-hand corner of the panel, a very small figure presiding over this, and across the top of the two panels is a Latin quotation from Psalm 33:9—“For He spake and it was done: He commanded and it stood fast.”

The Left Panel of the Triptych

image of the left panel of 'The Garden of Earthly Delights'
The left panel of ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ (click to enlarge)

When the wings, the shutters, are open, one can see the extraordinary and famous full view of the interior of this triptych. Its three panels consists of Eden on the left, the Garden of Earthly Delights in the center, and Hell on the right. We are not certain that the Garden of Earthly Delights is Bosch’s title, but it has been associated with the painting for a very long time.

The left panel, Eden, is reminiscent—in terms of the freshness of the landscape—of Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Lamb in the Ghent altar. It is the Creation of Man; Man has been created. Adam sits on the ground with God beside him, and God has just created Eve to match him on the right-hand side. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is on the left. There are also foreground creatures scurrying about, including, just near Adam, a cat carrying off a mouse and a not fully evolved creature who seems to be crawling out of the foreground pool—and a flying fish in the middle, who looks as if it is about to exit the water on its wings.

Detail of animals in the 'Eden' portion of Bosch's Triptych
Detail of animals in the ‘Eden’ portion of Bosch’s Triptych (click to enlarge)

In the middle-ground animals of this panel there are also animals including a giraffe on the right-hand side, and an elephant to the left. You will not find giraffes and elephants in the Netherlands, unless you find them in zoos, and that is where they were found in the 16th century as well. Therefore, Bosch saw them in zoos if not in illustrations of one sort or another. On the other hand, the unicorn drinking from the water at the far left is not to be found in zoos then or now, but always appears, it seems, in Creation scenes.

Detail of the owl found at the center of the fountain in the 'Eden' panel
Detail of the owl found at the center of the fountain in the ‘Eden’ panel (click to enlarge)

Eden was watered by four rivers, perhaps suggested by four streams of water coming from the central fountain, but it could also be a reference, by the way, to the Book of Revelation, where the Fountain of Life is the source of the Rivers of Paradise. If it is the Fountain of Life, then the presence of an owl, found in the eyelike opening at the center of the fountain, is very disconcerting because the owl, as a symbol of night, is also a symbol of death—even in Eden, even in the midst of life, even in the midst of the creation of life. In the fanciful background rocks there are wonderful details, particularly the flight of birds circling the conical rock at the left. They fly though it and around it and spiral up and off into the sky.

The Center Panel of the Triptych

The center panel of 'The Garden of Earthly Delights'
The center panel of ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ (click to enlarge)

The center panel: When looking at the Garden of Earthly Delights of Bosch, we must not allow Freudian fantasies or the Surrealist art of the 20th century to mislead us when looking at the various details here. Our modern reading might be of some relevance, but not as relevant as the knowledge that Bosch and his contemporaries lived their lives in the presumption of damnation. Sin surrounded them, and they would inevitably succumb to it, and, if they did not die absolved of their sins, the certainty of damnation faced them. This certitude must have been especially intense in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where the large number of religious institutions was notable—by 1526, it was estimated that one of every 19 persons in the city was associated with a religious order of one sort or another, whether lay or sacred. This was the apocalyptic atmosphere in which Bosch lived, and it seems to have been a rather circumscribed life. His art has a unity—and intensity—of subject and style that supports that presumption.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of European Art. It’s available for audio and video download here.

This densely packed painting is full of symbols—the habit of reading the world symbolically was second nature to contemporaries, as it had been for centuries and would continue to be for a while longer. A fish, for instance, was an understood phallic symbol: There is one lying on the ground, bottom center of the painting; another is flying through the air in the sky in the top-left corner of the painting, and other fish are scattered about.

Detail of a strawberry from the 'Paradise' center panel of Bosch's triptych
Detail of a strawberry from the ‘Paradise’ center panel of Bosch’s triptych (click to enlarge)

Fruits are very notable in this large panel: principally cherries and berries and, especially, strawberries. It was pointed out by a 16th-century Spanish commentator on this painting, that strawberries, once eaten, leave little taste behind in the mouth—and that, of course, is an allusion to the transitory nature of physical pleasure. Notice especially the giant strawberry at the bottom of the panel, just right of center, which a man gnaws at almost lustfully. His arm is around it: “This is my strawberry, don’t bother me!”

Detail of a strawberry from the 'Paradise' center panel of Bosch's triptych
Detail of a blackberry from the ‘Paradise’ center panel of Bosch’s triptych (click to enlarge)

Further up in this lower section, by the way, in the water to the left, we see a couple floating in a shell-like vessel here, reaching out to grasp the giant bunch of blackberries, which is also floating in the water already surrounded by figures in the water who are gobbling away at the giant blackberry.

Detail of riders from the 'Paradise' center panel of Bosch's triptych
Detail of riders from the ‘Paradise’ center panel of Bosch’s triptych (click to enlarge)

There is a large group of riders circling the small pool in the center. They ride all sorts of animals, horses (at  about 11 o’clock is a white horse), there is a camel (right beside that horse), and toward the bottom of this circle of figures, a man riding a griffin (a mythical beast that is half eagle on the front and half lion on the back). Then, going around the clock again, back up to about one o’clock, a man riding a white unicorn. In front of the unicorn, a bear, an ox, and a pig all serve as mounts. Well, this bestiary is full of sexual symbolism; indeed, the very act of riding was a colloquial synonym for sex, as indeed it still is today.

Detail of a transparent bubble from the 'Paradise' center panel of Bosch's triptych
Detail of a transparent bubble from the ‘Paradise’ center panel of Bosch’s triptych (click to enlarge)

There are numerous egg shapes and globular shapes, and some transparent bubbles or domes. For instance, there is an amorous couple at the left edge near the bottom of the painting, enclosed in a bubble that looks as if it had emerged like a blossom from a plant, which, in turn, issues from an egglike shape below it. Through a hole in that egg, we see a man’s face. A transparent tube extends from the hole, and is faced outward, and a mouse or rat is entering from the other end, and there’s a kind of standoff there, which is noticeable.

Detail of a bird feeding humans from the 'Paradise' center panel of Bosch's triptych
Detail of a bird feeding humans from the ‘Paradise’ center panel of Bosch’s triptych (click to enlarge)

An intriguing motif is the feeding of humans by giant birds. To the right of center, below the riding procession, is a red conical tree. On one of its branches, a bird perches, berry in beak held above the straining upturned heads of a large group of human supplicants.

Detail of a a blue sphere with turret from the 'Paradise' center panel of Bosch's triptych
Detail of a blue sphere with turret from the ‘Paradise’ center panel of Bosch’s triptych (click to enlarge)

In the top section of this painting, in the center, is a blue sphere with a turret that is reminiscent of the Sphere of Creation on the outside of the triptych. But here it is also a fountain, a variant of the one in Eden, but serving here as a sort of swimming or diving platform in some sort of 16th-century amusement park.

There is an enormous amount to look at. The problem, if it can properly be called a problem, with pointing out all these incidents and attributes of sin, is the naïve, unself-conscious indulgence in carnal pleasure that most of the hundreds of persons in this Garden exhibit. It is true that their facial expressions are very often neutral rather than smiling or leering. But it is also noticeable that many of the presumably pleasurable activities depicted here are pursued with a compulsive and often effortful frenzy that leaves no time to enjoy the sensual worldly pleasures in which these people indulge.

Detail of an owl from the 'Paradise' center panel of Bosch's triptych
Detail of an owl from the ‘Paradise’ center panel of Bosch’s triptych (click to enlarge)

Another prominent owl, larger than the one in Eden, is on the right side. That prominent owl serves as a kind of headdress for two dancing nudes, and is immediately below half a dozen figures in a small grove that seems to be intentionally suggestive of Eden and innocence.

The Right Panel of the Triptych

The right panel of 'The Garden of Earthly Delights'
The right panel of ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ (click to enlarge)

The right wing of the triptych is unmistakably hell. In the lower left-hand corner is an overturned table, and there are cards and large dice. Gambling has been going on, and it has involved, finally, violence. There is an emphasis on the violence associated with gambling and vice.

Detail of a sow from the 'Hell' center panel of Bosch's triptych
Detail of a sow from the ‘Hell’ center panel of Bosch’s triptych (click to enlarge)

Tucked into the lower right-hand corner, there is a sow, but the sow wears the veil of a mother superior. The sow tries to convince a man to sign a legal document (the inkwell supplied by a demon in front of him), which undoubtedly conveys his property to the monastery. There was a strong criticism of the worldly abuses of the church at this particular moment.

Detail of the Devil and musical instruments from the ‘Hell’ center panel of Bosch’s triptych (click to enlarge)

Just above them, we find the devil, who devours the damned and then evacuates them into a pit of hell below his “throne.” To his left is a remarkable group of large musical instruments. From the left, there is a lute, a harp, a hurdy-gurdy, some long wind instruments, and a drum. Normally, in the Renaissance and before, musical instruments were associated with angels and spiritual harmony, but Bosch associates them with lust and, therefore, turns them into instruments of torture. Note particularly the harp, on which a man is impaled most painfully.

Detail of a figure with tree-trunks for legs from the 'Hell' center panel of Bosch's triptych
Detail of a figure with tree-trunks for legs from the ‘Hell’ center panel of Bosch’s triptych (click to enlarge)

The middle section is dominated by a composite figure whose legs are tree trunks (they are white, but again bark and branches); his torso is a broken egg, and he has a very human head that turns back to look at us. He has a hat decorated with a bagpipe. A bagpipe, of course, is a phallic symbol and always treated as such. This face under that hat is so human, so much larger than any of the others and so specifically personalized in looking at us, that it has been suggested to be a self-portrait. There is no proof of that, but it is certainly a logical suggestion.

Above him in the top level (or the distance, if you will), you find individuals in the tortures of damnation, for instance near the pair of giant ears sandwiched around a knife blade. Then the hellfire in the dark but blazing city at the top, like a city under bombardment. Frankly, it is indeed Apocalypse Now.

A Moralizing Commentary

Since it now seems that this huge painting was commissioned for the private enjoyment (if that is the word) of a nobleman, then the overall theme of the painting could be seen as a moralizing commentary on sexuality and the relations between the sexes, from Creation to Damnation, with a life of dubious pleasure sandwiched between. In that case, it has been suggested that it might have been commissioned on the occasion of a wedding. One can only hope that it was a happy marriage. At least the knowledge that it was not a church altarpiece makes the alluring excess of the central Garden of Delights—this false paradise of sensuality—comprehensible, and is something of a relief besides.

From the lecture series A History of European Art
Taught by Professor William Kloss, Independent Art Historian