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The garden of earthly delights

Hieronymus Bosch • Painting, 1500-th , 220×390 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Religious scene
Technique: Oil
Materials: Wood
Date of creation: 1500-th
Size: 220×390 cm
Content 18+
Artwork in collection: Triptych James Davis
Artwork in selections: 189 selections
Exhibitions history

Description of the artwork «The garden of earthly delights»

The Garden of Earthly Delights is the best – known work of the great Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. The first mention of the triptych refers to 1517 - The Garden... appeared in the inventory of the property of the Nassau family in Brussels. Later, along with many other Bosch’s works, the painting was moved to Madrid. It was in the collection of the Spanish king  Philip II. In 1936, with the beginning of the civil war in Spain, The Garden of Earthly Delights was moved to the Prado with the aim of its conservation. It is now on view in one of the upstairs galleries of the Prado in Madrid.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is preserved better than other triptychs by Bosch. It is characterized by the uniform light distribution across the surface, accurate rendering of shapes, vivid and rich palette.

From 2014, The Garden of Earthly Delights along with another three works of Bosch, became the subject of dispute between the Prado and the Museum of the Royal collections, which filed an official request for the return of these works to the Royal collection.

The Outside Shutters

The outside shutters of The Garden of Earthly Delights as all those of the other Bosch's triptychs (1, 2, 3) are executed in grisaille technique (with various shades of one color). In this case, the artist used a greenish-gray scale. The artistic effect is created by the unexpected transition from the monochrome outside shutters that are devoid of human presence to the multi-figured and colorful inside shutters.

A huge translucent sphere symbolizes the moment of the creation the world as described in Genesis – the first of the books of the old Testament: when God created heaven and earth, separated light from darkness, and waters from the firmament. The Creator is shown between clouds in the upper left. Interestingly, in the same historical period when Bosch created The Garden of Earthly Delights, Michelangelo painted the vaults of the Sistine chapel. Michelangelo presented the Creator as the great sculptor who was giving the form to the primordial chaos, while Bosch’s God, in accordance with the biblical text, creates the world without hands, with the help of his words. Sitting on the throne, the Creator holds a book in his hands, and next to it Bosch puts the words of the Psalm: "For He spoke and it was done; He commanded and it stood fast" (PS.32:9). 

Inside Shutters: Interpretation, Evaluation and Meanings

Between the garden of Eden (left wing) and hell (right) is The pleasure garden – the image of the earthly world, which gave the name to the whole triptych.

Unique panorama that was created by the imagination of Bosch seriously violates traditional Christian iconography, so there were numerous attempts to explain it from the standpoint of astrology and alchemy, philosophy and numerology. The researches were looking for allegories and symbols, prophecies and hidden meanings. the image of the earthly world, which gave the name to the whole triptych.

In the twentieth century, after the Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, the interest in half-forgotten by the time Bosch has flashed with new force. A theorist of surrealism André Breton insisted that Garden of Earthly Delights and other works of Hieronymus Bosch are filled with the phantoms, the nightmares of the unconscious. He claimed that Bosch with his hallucinatory imagination was the first surreal artist, as the deepest human instincts took the visible forms in his works.

Earlier, Wilhelm Fraenger’s hypothesis created a lot of noise. The art critic suggested that the Central part of the Garden of Earthly Delights is nothing less than the Manifesto of the sect of the Free spirit, Adamites, or, radical movements, collective practice of copulation with the aim to disprove the myth of original sin. Fraenger claimed that Bosch belonged to the secret members of the sect. He convincingly argued that the Central part of the triptych is not a satire or a denunciation of sin and "has nothing to do with hypocritical beliefs of the Church". On the contrary: it is rather an idyll, where naked lovers "peacefully frolic in the tranquility of this garden, finding the innocence of plants and animals, and there is nothing but pure jubilation, no hazy bliss". The hypothesis of Fraegner, which was heated by the press and sounded in tune with the ideas of the sexual revolution of the mid-twentieth century, was very popular among the masses, but no scientific confirmation was found. Serious researchers are convinced that the sect of the Holy spirit ceased to exist in the homeland of the artist in Brabant long before the birth of Bosch.

One of the most significant researchers of Bosch, Dirk Bax set multiple parallels between the images of The Garden of Earthly Delights and Dutch folklore and archaic literature. Bax believed that animals, fruits and corals are erotic symbols that were widespread in the time of Bosch in folk songs, proverbs, slang and idioms. Berries and fruits metaphorically meant sexual organs, fish was considered a phallic symbol, and "gather the fruit" meant intercourse. Around the lake in the Central part of the triptych a whole cavalcade of naked people is riding lions, leopards, wild boar, horses and other animals, many of which are associated in the folklore with lust and rude vitality. The notion of riding in the vernacular was a common metaphor for sexual intercourse.

The first ever interpreter of the painting was a scholar monk José de Sigüenza. When the triptych got at the disposal of the Spanish king, Sigüenza was the first historian and chronicler of the Escorial. Despite unprecedented apotheosis of sensuality that Bosch embodied in the Central part of the triptych, Sigüenza considered The Garden of Earthly Delights a preachy picture. He believed it was a collective image of humanity, which fell into sinful pleasures and forgot the pristine beauty of the lost Paradise. Moreover, de Sigüenza even offered to produce as many copies of the triptych as possible and to distribute them to instruct the believers. Interestingly, after many discussions and several centuries of research, the concept of Sigüenza, which originated at the beginning of the 17th century, is still considered the most relevant.

Modern scholar Linda Harris in her monograph The secret heresy of Hieronymus Bosch brings the idea of the sin , that is penetrating into all things, to its logical extremes. She believes that the evil element, which dominates in The Garden of Earthly Delights, casts its shadow even onto the image of Jesus. "On the one hand, the Savior is threatening Adam and separating Eve from him. On the other hand, you might think that he is the devil himself, who plays a pimp of Adam and Eve. This is evidenced by some strangeness of the face of Jesus," Harris says. 

Walter Bosing, the author of the book "Hieronymus Bosch. Between Hell and Paradise", says that modern viewers tend to doubt that Bosch condemns the carnal impulses of his subjects: the Bosch’s lines are too captivating and the colors are so harmonious. However, the people of the Middle Ages treated the material beauty in much more suspicious way, because they were constantly taught that under the most attractive mask hides a sin, and the pleasure of the body is followed by eternal death. Bosing gives an interesting analogy: in Holland figures of ivory were very popular in the time of Bosch. On the one hand, they depicted naked beauties or the figures of the lovers, but if one turn such figure upside down the figures appeared the images of the half-decayed corpses. Similarly, the scientists says, everything that Bosch shows to his viewers is not real Paradise but its deceptive similarity. Otherwise, it would not have been followed by the punishment in hell, which is so convincingly depicted on the right part of the Bosch’s triptych.

You can read about the symbolism of the details of The Garden of Earthly Delights here.

Written by Anna Vcherashniaya