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The Garden of Earthly Delights: 15th Century Surrealism of Hieronymus Bosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights is a stunningly detailed triptych by Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. Fascinating, complex, and terrifying, The Garden of Earthly Delights is considered Bosch’s seminal piece. Singulart will be examining each panel of the triptych, as well as Bosch’s history and the various interpretations of his work.  

Who was Hieronymus Bosch?

Portrait of Hieronymus Bosch - Anonymous (Low Countries)
Portrait of Hieronymus Bosch – Anonymous (Low Countries)

Not much is known about Hieronymus Bosch’s life. He was born in the Netherlands during the 1450s, although the exact date is unknown. His date of birth is estimated based on a self-portrait dated 1516. Born Jheronimus van Arken, he later changed his surname to Bosch as an homage to his hometown, which was known as Den Bosch (the forest). 

In 1488, Bosch joined the prestigious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady society, a religious group that praised the mother of God, comprised of around forty influential citizens of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and some seven thousand members across Europe. He was believed to have been a successful artist during his lifetime, garnering commissions from many of the upper class citizens of the Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady.

The History of The Garden of Earthly Delights

The closed triptych of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch
The closed triptych of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

Bosch painted at least sixteen triptychs throughout his life, depicting scenes from the Bible. What sets Bosch’s work apart from his contemporaries is his interpretation of these scenes. Instead of painting a straightforward depiction, he drew heavily on his imagination to create surreal, incredibly detailed artworks. His works served as cautionary tales, showing the consequences of man’s immorality. 

Bosch’s pieces are the first recorded works which strayed so deliberately from the confines of reality. His surreal depictions earned him the title of “the creator of devils.” José de Sigüenza, the religious head of Spain’s Escorial where many of Bosch’s works were collected, stated that “Bosch’s paintings aren’t absurdities but like books of great wisdom and art, and if there are absurdities they are ours, not his; in short, it is a painted satire of the sins and inconsistency of men.” 

Not much is known about the origins of The Garden of Earthly Delights. While it has been suggested that it was painted as an altarpiece, the subject matter- particularly that of the center and right panels – makes it unlikely that it was intended for a church. As Bosch did not date his work, we do not know the exact time he painted The Garden of Earthly Delights, though it is believed it was between 1490 and 1510. The constant theme throughout the panels is the concept of sin, which we can see in the left panel through the depiction of Adam and Eve, in the center panel through the uninhibited subjects, and in the last panel showing Bosch’s interpretation of Hell. 

When closed, the panels depict the Third Day of the Creation of the World. Painted in grey monochrome, we see a sphere representing the world during creation, indicating a time before light was brought to earth. At the top left Bosch has painted a small figure of God, along with two Latin inscriptions: “For he spake, and it was done” (Psalms 33:9) and “For he commanded, and they were created” (Psalms 148:5). The monochrome of the triptych’s outer panels is in contrast to the brightly colored scenes that lie within.

Left Panel

Left Panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch
Left Panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

On the left panel, we see a scene from the Garden of Eden. God stands between Adam and Eve, and it is believed that this panel depicts God presenting Adam to Eve. The panel can be divided into three sections: the top third of the panel representing Heaven, the middle representing the descent of the divine, and the bottom third portraying earth. 

The Garden of Eden is portrayed as a lush, idyllic environment, complete with animals and mythical creatures. It is thought that the rabbits in this panel symbolise fecundity, or population, while the dragon tree represents eternal life. The pink fountain in the center of the panel symbolises the flow of divine energy from heaven to earth, and throughout the triptych Bosch uses pink to represent divine influences. 

In the bottom third of the painting we can see one of Bosch’s surrealistic creatures: a duck-billed creature with human hands, reading a book. Bosch was believed to be highly intellectual, and this image could portray the corruption of man through education. The animals and creatures depicted in the left panel seem to be amusing themselves and following their own desires, possibly foreshadowing the themes of the center panel. 

Center Panel 

Center Panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

The center panel is perhaps the most recognizable part of The Garden of Earthly Delights. It shows a hedonistic, euphoric paradise, with male and female nudes mixing with Bosch’s fantastical creatures and other animals. Everything in this panel has a surreal edge: fruits are engorged to impossible sizes, a large blue orb rises from the lake, nude figures are suspended in a transparent sphere. 

Early descriptions of The Garden of Earthly Delights refer to it as ‘the strawberry painting,’ and fruit is represented often in the center panel- more than one hundred times, in fact. Alluding to Eve and the apple in the Garden of Eden, the fruit represents temptation. In the 16th century, a commentator remarked that once eaten, strawberries leave very little taste in the mouth, and theorized that this was Bosch’s commentary on the transitory, fleeting nature of pleasure. 

Notably, there is no God figure present in the center panel. Instead, the young figures- interestingly, the scene features no children or seniors – embrace their actions, without consequence. 

Right Panel 

Right Panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch
Right Panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

The right panel shows us Bosch’s depiction of Hell. In contrast to the left and center panels, the right panel is dark and chilling. The ornate gardens of the previous scenes have vanished, leaving behind a stark, barren wasteland. In contrast to the center panel, the figures now appear to be ashamed of their nakedness, attempting to cover themselves with their hands. The figures are tortured by terrifying demons, including pigs dressed in religious garb, owls devouring humans, and a monster referred to as ‘The Prince of Hell,’ due to the cauldron he wears on his head and its similarity to a debased crown. 

Bosch continues to portray his surreal creatures, most notably the nightmarish ‘Tree-Man,’ the focal point of the right panel. His torso appears to be supported by tree trunks, which is at odds with the fragile, eggshell-like torso. A disc on his head serves as a stage for demons and victims. The face is incredibly human, leading historians to theorize it could be a self-portrait of Bosch. 

The various musical instruments portrayed in this panel could be an allegory for gluttony. Most notable are the bagpipes evident on the Tree-Man, the bagpipes being a symbol of sexual lust and pleasures of the flesh. 

But what does it all mean?

There can be multiple interpretations garnered from The Garden of Earthly Delights. Of course, they are all speculative- Bosch did not record much of his life or even write letters, so we have no way of knowing his motivations behind the painting. However, it is thought that Bosch produced The Garden of Earthly Delights as a warning against the immorality of man, and as a warning against lust. 

However, German art historian Erwin Panofsky wrote, “…I cannot help feeling that the real secret of [Bosch’s] magnificent nightmares and daydreams has still to be disclosed. We have bored a few holes through the door of the locked room; but somehow we do not seem to have discovered the key.”

See similar artworks in Singulart’s Inspired by Hieronymus Bosch Collection.

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