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The Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights is the modern title given to a triptych oil painting on oak panel painted by the Early Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch, between 1490 and 1510, when Bosch was between 40 and 60 years old. It has been housed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain since 1939.

As little is known of Bosch's life or intentions, interpretations of his artistic intent behind the work range from an admonition of worldly fleshy indulgence, to a dire warning on the perils of life's temptations, to an evocation of ultimate sexual joy. The intricacy of its symbolism, particularly that of the central panel, has led to a wide range of scholarly interpretations over the centuries. Twentieth-century art historians are divided as to whether the triptych's central panel is a moral warning or a panorama of paradise lost.

Bosch painted three large triptychs (the others are The Last Judgment of c. 1482 and The Haywain Triptych of c. 1516) that can be read from left to right and in which each panel was essential to the meaning of the whole. Each of these three works presents distinct, yet linked themes addressing history and faith. Triptychs from this period were generally intended to be read sequentially, the left and right panels often portraying Eden and the Last Judgment respectively, while the main subject was contained in the center piece. It is not known whether The Garden was intended as an altarpiece, but the general view is that the extreme subject matter of the inner center and right panels make it unlikely that it was intended to function in a church or monastery, but was instead commissioned by a lay patron.

Interpretation Because only bare details are known of Bosch's life, interpretation of his work can be an extremely difficult area for academics as it is largely reliant on conjecture. Individual motifs and elements of symbolism may be explained, but so far relating these to each other and to his work as a whole has remained elusive. The enigmatic scenes depicted on the panels of the inner triptych of The Garden of Earthly Delights have been studied by many scholars, who have often arrived at contradictory interpretations. Analyses based on symbolic systems ranging from the alchemical, astrological, and heretical to the folkloric and subconscious have all attempted to explain the complex objects and ideas presented in the work. Until the early 20th century, Bosch's paintings were generally thought to incorporate attitudes of Medieval didactic literature and sermons. Charles De Tolnay wrote that

The oldest writers, Dominicus Lampsonius and Karel van Mander, attached themselves to his most evident side, to the subject; their conception of Bosch, inventor of fantastic pieces of devilry and of infernal scenes, which prevails today (1937) in the public at large, and prevailed with historians until the last quarter of the 19th century.

Generally, his work is described as a warning against lust, and the central panel as a representation of the transience of worldly pleasure. In 1960, the art historian Ludwig von Baldass wrote that Bosch shows "how sin came into the world through the Creation of Eve, how fleshly lusts spread over the entire earth, promoting all the Deadly Sins, and how this necessarily leads straight to Hell". De Tolnay wrote that the center panel represents "the nightmare of humanity", where "the artist's purpose above all is to show the evil consequences of sensual pleasure and to stress its ephemeral character". Supporters of this view hold that the painting is a sequential narrative, depicting mankind's initial state of innocence in Eden, followed by the subsequent corruption of that innocence, and finally its punishment in Hell. At various times in its history, the triptych has been known as La Lujuria, The Sins of the World and The Wages of Sin.

Proponents of this idea point out that moralists during Bosch's era believed that it was woman's-ultimately Eve's-temptation that drew men into a life of lechery and sin. This would explain why the women in the center panel are very much among the active participants in bringing about the Fall. At the time, the power of femininity was often rendered by showing a female surrounded by a circle of males. A late 15th-century engraving by Israhel van Meckenem shows a group of men prancing ecstatically around a female figure. The Master of the Banderoles's 1460 work the Pool of Youth similarly shows a group of females standing in a space surrounded by admiring figures.

This line of reasoning is consistent with interpretations of Bosch's other major moralising works which hold up the folly of man; the Death and the Miser and the Haywain. Although according to the art historian Walter Bosing, each of these works is rendered in a manner that it is difficult to believe "Bosch intended to condemn what he painted with such visually enchanting forms and colors". Bosing concludes that a medieval mindset was naturally suspicious of material beauty, in any form, and that the sumptuousness of Bosch's description may have been intended to convey a false paradise, teeming with transient beauty.

In 1947, Wilhelm Fränger argued that the triptych's center panel portrays a joyous world when mankind will experience a rebirth of the innocence enjoyed by Adam and Eve before their fall. In his book The Millennium of Hieronymus Bosch, Fränger wrote that Bosch was a member of the heretical sect known as the Adamites-who were also known as the Homines intelligentia and Brethren and Sisters of the Free Spirit. This radical group, active in the area of the Rhine and the Netherlands, strove for a form of spirituality immune from sin even in the flesh, and imbued the concept of lust with a paradisical innocence.

Fränger believed The Garden of Earthly Delights was commissioned by the order's Grand Master. Later critics have agreed that, because of their obscure complexity, Bosch's "altarpieces" may well have been commissioned for non-devotional purposes. The Homines intelligentia cult sought to regain the innocent sexuality enjoyed by Adam and Eve before the Fall. Fränger writes that the figures in Bosch's work "are peacefully frolicking about the tranquil garden in vegetative innocence, at one with animals and plants and the sexuality that inspires them seems to be pure joy, pure bliss." Fränger argued against the notion that the hellscape shows the retribution handed down for sins committed in the center panel. Fränger saw the figures in the garden as peaceful, naive, and innocent in expressing their sexuality, and at one with nature. In contrast, those being punished in Hell comprise "musicians, gamblers, desecrators of judgment and punishment".Examining the symbolism in Bosch's art-"the freakish riddles … the irresponsible phantasmagoria of an ecstatic"-Fränger concluded that his interpretation applied to Bosch's three altarpieces only: The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, and the Haywain Triptych. Fränger distinguished these pieces from the artist's other works and argued that despite their anti-cleric polemic, they were nevertheless all altarpieces, probably commissioned for the devotional purposes of a mystery cult. While commentators accept Fränger's analysis as astute and broad in scope, they have often questioned his final conclusions. These are regarded by many scholars as hypothesis only, and built on an unstable foundation and what can only be conjecture. Critics argue that artists during this period painted not for their own pleasure but for commission, while the language and secularization of a post-Renaissance mind-set projected onto Bosch would have been alien to the late-Medieval painter.

Fränger's thesis stimulated others to examine The Garden more closely. Writer Carl Linfert also senses the joyfulness of the people in the center panel, but rejects Fränger's assertion that the painting is a "doctrinaire" work espousing the "guiltless sexuality" of the Adamite sect. While the figures engage in amorous acts without any suggestion of the forbidden, Linfert points to the elements in the center panel suggesting death and temporality: some figures turn away from the activity, seeming to lose hope in deriving pleasure from the passionate frolicking of their cohorts. Writing in 1969, E. H. Gombrich drew on a close reading of Genesis and the Gospel According to Saint Matthew to suggest that the central panel is, according to Linfert, "the state of mankind on the eve of the Flood, when men still pursued pleasure with no thought of the morrow, their only sin the unawareness of sin."

Legacy Because Bosch was such a unique and visionary artist, his influence has not spread as widely as that of other major painters of his era. However, there have been instances of later artists incorporating elements of The Garden of Earthly Delights into their own work. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) in particular directly acknowledged Bosch as an important influence and inspiration, and incorporated many elements of the inner right panel into several of his most popular works. Bruegel's Mad Meg depicts a peasant woman leading an army of women to pillage Hell, while his The Triumph of Death (c. 1562) echoes the monstrous Hellscape of The Garden, and utilizes, according to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, the same "unbridled imagination and the fascinating colours".While the Italian court painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 1527-1593) did not create Hellscapes, he painted a body of strange and "fantastic" vegetable portraits-generally heads of people composed of plants, roots, webs and various other organic matter. These strange portraits rely on and echo a motif that was in part inspired by Bosch's willingness to break from strict and faithful representations of nature.

David Teniers the Younger (c. 1610-1690) was a Flemish painter who quoted both Bosch and Bruegel throughout his career in such works as his versions of the Temptation of St Anthony, the Rich Man in Hell and his version of Mad Meg.

During the early 20th century, Bosch's work enjoyed a popular resurrection. The early surrealists' fascination with dreamscapes, the autonomy of the imagination, and a free-flowing connection to the unconscious brought about a renewed interest in his work. Bosch's imagery struck a chord with Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí in particular. Both knew his paintings firsthand, having seen The Garden of Earthly Delights in the Museo del Prado, and both regarded him as an art-historical mentor. Miró's The Tilled Field contains several parallels to Bosch's Garden: similar flocks of birds; pools from which living creatures emerge; and oversize disembodied ears all echo the Dutch master's work. Dalí's 1929 The Great Masturbator is similar to an image on the right side of the left panel of Bosch's Garden, composed of rocks, bushes and little animals resembling a face with a prominent nose and long eyelashes.

When André Breton wrote his first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, his historical precedents as inclusions named only Gustave Moreau, Georges Seurat, and Uccello. However, the Surrealist movement soon rediscovered Bosch and Bruegel, who quickly became popular among the Surrealist painters. René Magritte and Max Ernst both were inspired by Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights.

between 1490 and 1500
Oil on oak panel
205.5 x 384.9cm
Image and text courtesy of Wikipedia, 2023

Where you'll find this

Museo Nacional del Prado
Museo Nacional del Prado
Permanent collection