In one of his most famous triptychs, the Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch uses a linear and chronological order to represent a gradual fall of man into sin. In a world where ‘bad’ has existed in small amounts since the creation of the world, man grows to indulge in earthly delights and physical pleasures, which over time leads to his eternal suffering and the loss of control over that which he once ruled. While many other great triptychs of the fifteenth century utilize the three separate panels and the outside image as just that – three or four separate images united thinly by a theme – Bosch presents the images in a linear narrative to tell his story.
The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch circa 1450-1516.
For a great length of time, triptychs were used as a way for artists to represent biblical and religious scenes and stories that would most likely be placed near or over an altar. In 1480, Netherlandish artist Hieronymus Bosch began working on a very different type of triptych. The Garden of Earthly Delights uses the form of the triptych to illustrate a more secular and narrative story of sin and judgment. Rather than showing a scene of monks and nuns, or of an Annunciation or Deposition, Bosch focuses on figures with no holy or saintly distinctions. Done in oil on panel and finished around 1490, Bosch’s work was intended for the audience of the court of Philip II (and the work was ultimately appreciated by the audience there). The king’s spiritual counselor considered the work to be powerful, deep, and worthy of study (Beagle 20). It was an innovation of the triptych form, both in its subject matter and its presentation.
Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights consists of four images. When the panels are all closed, the front of the triptych shows the viewer Bosch’s Creation, a gray-tone image in which God sits at the top left corner, watching over the world encased in a glass globe on the third day of creation, just as plants are beginning to come to life. Once opened, there are three additional images. The very left panel, Paradise, shows the sixth day, when God created man and woman. Specifically, in this scene, he is presenting Eve to Adam, as animals run around in the rest of Paradise. The central panel is Imaginary Paradise, in which a plethora of nude figures ride animals, eat fruits, and run around in general carefree celebration and acts of passion. The right panel, Hell, shows figures being eternally punished in all sorts of ways by animals and strange hybrid creatures, with a city just visible in the background through the dark of the night.
In their discussion of the Garden of Earthly Delights, many scholars focus on the plethora of symbols in the central Imaginary Paradise panel, but often neglect to consider it in relation to the other three images that make up the triptych. Some scholars argue that, like the tendency of many triptychs before Bosch, these four images do not necessarily read in a particular chronological order, or follow a clear narrative, but rather just show four separate images that have a common theme uniting them. Hans Belting insists that the piece cannot be read chronologically because, since Eve is not depicted eating the forbidden apple in Eden, any continuity between Paradise and Imaginary Paradise do not follow the biblical stories of the Fall of Man (86). Because the Fall is not depicted, some scholars argue that the images cannot be read to follow the biblical story. But just because a different part of the story is depicted, in this case the union of Adam and Eve rather than the moment when Eve eats the apple, it does not mean that the triptych is not a chronological narrative. For example, Lynne Jacobs discusses the possibility of a chronological reading that shows the ‘unfolding of world history’ due to divisions within each scene that could imply a passing of time (1038-40). Alternatively, as this paper proposes, the triptych reads the panels in a linear narrative, beginning at the outside and then from left to right, rather than as a passing of time from one panel to the next. Read this way, the images on the inside can still be read in an order that depicts the beginning of man, the sinning of man, and the punishment of man in a logical narrative sequence. Just because Bosch’s omitted a crucial moment (Eve eating the forbidden fruit) does not mean that the chronological flow of the triptych is hindered.
The Garden of Earthly Delights (exterior panels), Hieronymus Bosch circa 1450-1516.
In fact, Bosch avoided the most traditional features of the story in his creation of the Garden of Earthly Delights. At the time Bosch was working, there were three typical features of a Netherlandish triptych: the first of these features was a devotion to religious subject matter (Jacobs 1009). Most triptychs were meant to be displayed as altarpieces, and therefore often included religious and biblical scenes, appropriate for being viewed and contemplated in a church, as they would provoke religious and devotional thought in a place of worship.
Another common feature of most Netherlandish triptychs of Bosch’s time was the sense of a hierarchy between the images. Most triptychs emphasized the importance of the inner panels, placing less significance on the outer image. Once the triptych was opened, the central image was meant to be the most prominent, and the wings were inteded to be read secondarily and after the central panel had been read (1010). Shirley Blum expands upon this view held by Early Netherlandish artists when working with triptychs. They executed their works following the idea that the viewer contemplates the exterior first, since it is “less complex than the interior because it is smaller in size and simpler in iconography… The spectator must move through the central panel and then through the two wings” (4). In this way, everything compliments the center image. In her book “Early Netherlandish Triptychs” Blum discusses some of the more well-known artists and their triptychs, each which followed this formula. For example, Rogier Van der Weyden, in his work on the Bladelin Triptych, emphasizes the nativity scene in the central panel. All the figures in the wings look towards to center panel, where the most important event is occurring. Dieric Bouts’ Altarpiece of the Blessed Sacrament works in a similar manner, the central image being the focus and namesake of the work. Rather than being read in a linear manner, it was as if opening the altarpiece would show the viewer the heart of the triptych, and all that was read before and after were supporting images to the center panel. Bosch’s triptychs do not tend to follow this manner of reading and hierarchy.
Thirdly and lastly, triptychs of Bosch’s contemporaries were conceived additively, meaning that, once the piece was opened, it was seen as having three separate images (the central one being the most important), that all came together to form a whole (1010). This additive idea, three panels uniting to form one triptych, runs contrary to what more modern viewers might expect of an image, that all three panels could be meant to be one image from the beginning, rather than three that come together in some sense. This aspect of Netherlandish triptychs adds further to the feature of the hierarchical way of viewing, because, while the inside images unite to form a whole, the outer image is still made secondary, seen as only a prelude to the main event inside.
While these three features- religious subject matter, a sense of hierarchy, and the concept of additive images- were traditional to the reading of most Netherlandish triptychs of the fourteen- and fifteen-hundreds, Hieronymus Bosch’s approach to his triptychs was much more innovative. The first major difference between many of Bosch’s works and those of his contemporaries was the difference in subject matter. While other artists focused on strictly and blatantly religious iconography, Bosch’s work contained much more secular settings to portray themes of virtues and vices. His works, though they often contain some sort of religious or biblical content, “emphasize moral, or more often immoral, behavior in the earthly realm instead of salvation in the afterlife...[they] are secular in the most basic sense of the term because their focus is worldly, not spiritual” (Jacobs 1012-13). For example, the Garden of Earthly Delights, while it does contain biblical images of God and the Creation story, has a much stronger focus on the pursuit and punishment of earthly indulgences and carnal pleasure than God’s role in judging man, or how to reach salvation after committing these sins.
The second major difference between features of Bosch’s triptychs and those of his contemporaries is that, while many other triptychs had the hierarchical order to their images, Bosch broke this hierarchy down. He chose to make the exteriors of his triptychs as important to the overall piece as the interior panels. He achieved this stronger impact on the exterior by use of colors, design, and overall “greater visual and thematic impact” (Jacobs 1012). In the Garden of Earthly Delights, he achieved this breakdown of the hierarchical system by the use of the roundel shape and warm, grisaille color scheme. According to Jacobs, the circular shape of the globe on the front of the triptych creates a strong visual impact, providing the viewer with a “clearer, bolder design compared to the interiors” which allows it to be as visually compelling as the vibrant and busy scene found inside (1029). And despite Bosch’s use of grays in the Creation image, he still includes warm tones, such as a pale pink and creamy, rather than flat, white, in order to add a more lively tone to what would otherwise appear as a stone cold and lifeless kind of grey (1025). These innovations make the outside scene of the triptych more compelling to the viewer, and therefore more significant to the viewing experience and the narrative of the piece.
The third element of Netherlandish triptychs, the additive feature, is also innovated in Bosch’s works. Rather than seeing his work as three inner panels coming together, Bosch approached his triptychs by stressing the unity of the whole between all the panels (1012). His works seem to stress unity between the whole of all three images, plus the exteriors. In the Garden of Earthly Delights, all three inner panels are visually stimulating, and provide plenty for the viewer to discover upon repeated observations. Building from Jacob’s observations on this sense of unity, one can conclude that this work is designed with a chronological narrative. Since Bosch’s work includes a smooth unity of images, one can see that the exterior Creation image provides the beginning of the story, connecting itself with the inside panels to form one work, rather than four separate images that unite after the central panel has been viewed. In Bosch’s work, contrary to that of his contemporaries, one panel cannot reign prominent and more significant than any of the other panels- they must be viewed together in order for the triptych to reach its true intention to convey a chronological story in an understandable order.
Bosch seems to be stating through this piece that the world has in it inherent evil, and that without rational thought and moderation over their actions and indulgences, humans will ruin themselves by giving into its temptations.
With this general understanding of how Bosch approached the design of his triptychs, one can look more specifically at the Garden of Earthly Delights, using these features of his work to gain a better understanding of the message behind this vibrant and captivating piece. As was stated earlier, this work seems to lay out a narrative that follows through the four images, starting at the Creation on the exterior, and working its way from left to right on the inner panels, going through the creation and union of man and woman, through the many ways in which man gives in to his desires, and finally, in Hell, when these desires dominate and punish him for being so unruly. Bosch seems to be stating through this piece that the world has in it inherent evil, and that without rational thought and moderation over their actions and indulgences, humans will ruin themselves by giving into its temptations. He represents this by showing the fall of man as a whole, not simply just through Eve, so that the viewer sees that every man and woman is capable of their own demise, with or without the assistance of Eve’s Original Sin. Hence her consumption of the apple is not portrayed in this triptych, as if every human begins life with a slate clean of any sins.
The variety of earthly temptations in the Garden of Earthly Delights is seemingly limitless. Both by looking at the symbolism in the triptych, and by looking at Bosch’s works as a whole, one can understand that this is the main message of the work. As many scholars have noted, Bosch often uses secular images to comment on humanity’s tendencies to abandon itself to indulgence and, through over-indulgence, sin. As P.S. Beagle writes on Bosch’s dealings with man and temptations, “This is among the most recurrent of Bosch’s themes: one’s humanity- or one’s soul- is dreadfully easy to lose, and what we abandon ourselves to possess, we become” (90). This is literally the case in the Garden of Earthly Delights. In the Hell panel, those things that men and women pursued and indulged themselves in the Imaginary Paradise panel become the things that dominate and punish them for eternity.
While P.S. Beagle notes how abandonment of temptation is a general theme of Bosch’s, specifically in the Garden of Earthly Delights the figures give themselves over to the most earthly of temptations. They frolic with animals and pursue oversized fruits. All of the panels show the power of earthly things and the existence of the unruly side of nature, and throughout the narrative, the figures lose themselves completely in this necessary evil, present since God manifests it in the Creation panel. As Peter Glum quotes Tolnay saying about this triptych, “the artist’s purpose is above all to show the evil consequences of sensual pleasure and to stress its ephemeral character…the paradise contains the germ of its own destruction” (45). There is at least a hint of evil to be found in each scene of the triptych, and through the narrative the viewer follows its growth and the figures’ increasing willingness to give in to it. Without moderation and rationale, they encourage the evil in the world, and this ‘germ’ of Paradise leads to their demise and their eternal punishment.
There are two ways to track the chronological development of the narrative in the Garden of Earthly Delights. The evolution of this evil and man’s indulgence in sin from one panel to the next is one way to do so. But before breaking this evolution down panel by panel, the other way of tracking this must be explained, for it is much simpler, and helps to unite the inner three panels visually. All three inner landscapes echo one another quite closely, almost as if they were the same territory. Some scholars hold that the Garden shown in Paradise and the Imaginary Paradise are one in the same Garden, which becomes Hell on earth on the Hell panel (Beagle 45). The way in which the natural settings flow into each other from panel to panel is quite striking. In the Paradise panel, the very back of the scene has blue, almost rocky-looking forms, that seem to dip down into the Imaginary Paradise to continue as rocky forms further off into the distance, almost seeming like a mountain range off on the edge of Paradise. These background forms become symmetrical and mirror the Paradise forms when they enter back into the Hell panel as a dark combination of what looks like rocky (again, possibly mountainous) forms and some sort of buildings or structures as the beginning of a civilization of man.
Closer to the center level of the landscapes, each panel has manmade-looking structures and bodies of water that act in the same way, creating a sense of symmetry while smoothly transitioning the landscape from one scene to the next. In Paradise, there is one pink structure, with an owl inside of it, found in the middle of a small body of water. Transitioning into the Imaginary Paradise, the water seems to follow the curve from the Paradise river, leading slightly up closer to the top of the panel. In this center panel, there are three larger structures and two smaller ones, all either pink or blue in color, and with figures climbing and performing stunning balance and acrobatic moves along their rims. These structures sit in and along the edges of this body of water flows from the left panel into this central image. In the Hell panel on the right, this body of water moves down slightly once again, mirroring the water in the Paradise panel. In this body of water is the striking structure of the Tree Man, who houses inhabitants of his own, what seem to be a group of gluttons being served by a hellish bartender. Just like the mountainous structures in the extreme background of the three panels, these structures and bodies of water in the middle ground create this same unified type of landscape. In sum, the scenes take place in about the same location, at different points in time.Continued on Next Page »
Beagle, Peter S. The Garden of Earthly Delights. New York, 1982. Print.
Belting, Hans. Hieronymus Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights. New York, 2002. Print.
Binski, Paul. Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.
Blum, Shirley Neilsen. Early Netherlandish Triptychs: A Study in Patronage. California: University of California Press, 1969.
Calas, Elena. “Bosch’s Garden of Delights: A Theological Rebus.” Art Journal. 29.2 (1970): 184-199. Web. 20 Feb 2011.
Gibson, Walter S. “Bosch’s Dreams: A Response to the Art of Bosch in the Sixteenth Century.” The Art Bulletin. 74.2 (1992): 205-218. Web. 23 Feb 2011.
Glum, Peter. “Divine Judgment in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.” The Art Bulletin. 58.1 (1976): 45-54. Web. 20 Feb 2011.
Jacobs, Lynn F. “The Triptychs of Hieronymus Bosch.” The Sixteenth Century Journal. 31.4 (2000): 1009-1041. Web. 23 Feb 2011.
Silver, Larry. “God in the Details: Bosch and Judgment(s).” The Art Bulletin. 83.4 (2001): 626-650. Web. 23 Feb 2011.
Genesis 1:26. TheHoly Bible:Revised StandardVersion. 16 Apr 2011.
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Morgan Meis | May 1, 2016
The Garden of Earthly Delights
This year is shaping up to be downright Boschian. We are speaking here of Hieronymus Bosch, the painter. 2016 happens to mark the five-hundred-year anniversary of Bosch’s death. So, Bosch’s home and eponymous town, Den Bosch (or, more correctly but much harder to say, ‘s-Hertogenbosch), has assembled the largest retrospective of Bosch’s work ever to be exhibited. The exhibit (Jheronimus Bosch – Visions of a Genius) is at the Noordbrabants Museum through May 8th. Such is public demand to see the show that this normally sedate regional museum has extended its opening hours until past midnight. And Bosch mania will not end there. The Prado in Madrid, for example, is hosting its own blockbuster Bosch exhibit beginning at the end of May and running into September. The crowds at the Noordbrabants Museum and the activity in the global press suggests that Bosch is more relevant, more interesting to the public mind than ever. Bosch mania is set to peak at the same time as the heat of the Northern summer, with festival events scheduled throughout the summer.
This extraordinary level of interest is generated by the simple fact that whosoever sees the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch does not soon, it is safe to say, forget them. That’s because they are fantastic works of art. There’s so much going on in a typical Bosch painting (more on that later) that the eye cannot but dart around, taking in the strange imagery. For that reason, Bosch’s work was popular from the very beginning—that beginning being the 15th century, when Bosch was alive and painting away in the lands of Northern Europe we now call The Netherlands. Throughout the ensuing years, Bosch’s star waxed and waned, but his work never passed out of public consciousness completely. Then, in the early part of the 20th century, he was “rediscovered” in full force. The 20th century public loved the outrageous scenarios to be found in Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings, artists especially. Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Leonora Carrington explicitly referenced Bosch in their own work, just to name a few.
A Hard Nut to Crack
But Bosch’s work has always caused trouble for interpreters and critics. Bosch painted weird things. Weird things are hard to interpret and understand. Critics and scholars like to understand. Ergo, Bosch is a problem. Most critics these days tend to agree that Bosch’s paintings were created primarily out of the religiously pious desire to illustrate biblical truths. Some interpreters reject even this basic assumption, as, for example, Ellen Handler Spitz did in her recent article for The New Republic, titled, tellingly, “The Impious Delights of Hieronymus Bosch.” For those (the majority) who do think of Bosch as more or less a religious painter, the specific imagery and symbolism in the paintings is still nearly impossible to pin down. Bosch’s piety was not like other men’s piety. It took on a unique expression.
Let’s take Bosch’s most famous painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights. (The painting can be viewed in wonderful high-res detail here). The work was painted in oil on oak panels that were meant to be part of a church altar display (as were nearly all paintings painted at the time). The central panel is a flurry of activity, color, shape, form. A couple of pink structures (castles?) buttress a lake or river, in the center of which is a building composed of a sphere emerging from the water and a multi-pronged tower emanating from the sphere. This could be the landscape in a Dr. Seuss book.
The goings-on amongst the humans and animals thronging the areas beneath the castles are challenging to describe, let alone understand. One man is upside down in the water. His legs are sticking up and spread out. Between his legs can be found the stem and fruit of a huge, unidentifiable plant. The spindly branches of another, smaller plant sprout from the fruit of the larger plant. Out of that sprouting emerges a tropical bird. Perhaps it is an egret. What is the purpose of this water gymnastics with unusual fruit? Very hard to say. Much of the imagery and symbolism seems to be Bosch’s own. Why, for instance, is there a man carrying a huge mussel shell on his back, out of which poke the legs of a couple we can assume to be engaged in some sort of amorous pursuit? Probably, that specific image will never be definitively decoded. Perhaps it came to Bosch in a dream.
So queerly idiosyncratic are the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch that art critics and historians have been known to stretch long and hard for an explanation. For a period during the middle of the 20th century, it was en vogue to imply that Bosch was heavy into drugs. Other interpreters suggested that he was essentially mad, or at least caught up with the wild ideas of one late-medieval cult or another. This last idea was helped along by an intriguing historical fact: There are 15th century documents proving that Bosch was a member of a kind of medieval club known as the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady. Members of this brotherhood made it their special point to worship a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary located at a church in Bosch’s hometown. From this basic fact, people began to speculate. They asserted that Bosch was also a member of one or more heretical groups that could be found in The Netherlands and elsewhere around Northern Europe during Bosch’s lifetime.
The common theme to all these wildly divergent speculations is the feeling that the images in Bosch’s paintings were so unprecedented that they must come from the mind of someone who stood apart, a radical of sorts, an outsider for sure. This feeling is heightened by a glance at the work of Bosch’s contemporaries. It can be startling to realize that Hieronymus Bosch lived during almost exactly the same period as Leonardo da Vinci (1452- 1519). We’re smack in the midst of the High Renaissance here. And da Vinci, for all his unusual qualities, never painted anything like The Garden of Earthly Delights. Indeed, most of da Vinci’s paintings, for all their innovations in form and technique, take up orthodox and well-worn subject matter in orthodox and well-worn ways. The Last Supper, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne—even The Mona Lisa is a more or less straightforward portrait, due respect paid to her mysterious smile.
Not so with Bosch. Even when Bosch did paint more traditional scenes, like a crucifixion, he rarely played it straight. He painted one crucifixion scene that doesn’t even portray Christ. It shows a woman on the cross, probably Saint Julia of Corsica. The right and left panels of the triptych teem with typical Boschian imagery. There are howling demons, sunken ships, blighted hellscapes, odd creatures, ladders to nowhere, fantastical buildings.
One Renaissance, or Two?
Before we delve deeper into his pictures, let’s put Bosch in his historical context. If we regard Bosch as a Renaissance painter, we might then be forced to talk about two different Renaissances. One, the Italian, Southern Renaissance, which featured greats like da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, and was concerned, primarily, with beauty, order, balance, and reason; the other, a Northern Renaissance, which was dark, mysterious, and irrational, generating the gothic fantasies of men like Hieronymus Bosch, Martin Schongauer, and Matthias Grünewald.
This perceived difference between North and South is all the more marked if one is used, as most of us are, to associating the Renaissance in general with the Southern, Italian Renaissance. We tend to think of the Renaissance as the highly influential 19th scholar Jacob Burckhardt once described it in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860).
Thus what the word Renaissance really means is new birth to liberty—the spirit of mankind recovering consciousness and the power of self-determination, recognizing the beauty of the outer world and of the body through art, liberating the reason in science and the conscience in religion, restoring culture to the intelligence, and establishing the principle of political freedom.
If that’s how you define Renaissance, it is hard to see how Hieronymus Bosch fits in. But any attempt to mark a firm boundary between the Northern and Southern Renaissance flounders when it hits a few firm, historical facts. Bosch’s predecessors in the North, painters like Van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, were of great influence to the Southern Renaissance and vice versa. Bosch himself was influenced by Italian art. Da Vinci could never have achieved his famous sfumato (soft and hazy images) without the techniques in oil and varnish perfected up North. Ideas about what to paint and techniques in how to paint it had been flying back and forth between north and south in Bosch’s era and before. There was no hard separation. We have to understand Bosch and da Vinci, then, for all their differences in style, as coming more or less from the same world.
Even the idea that there was a profound difference in sensibility (darker up north, lighter down south) doesn’t hold up terribly well when examining the works of even the most iconic artists of the Italian Renaissance. Take Michelangelo. Is there a more haunting Pietà than his Rondanini Pietà? Or look at his Prisoners or Slaves, the (probably) unfinished sculptures Michelangelo started making for the tomb of Pope Julius II. These wretched figures struggle, twisting and writhing, to be born from the stone that encumbers them. They are figures of which any of the darker artists up North would surely have approved.
Da Vinci, too, is a darker, more brooding artist than is often recognized. During the last decade of Leonardo’s life, he was oft-preoccupied with destruction, more often than not, with universal destruction. For da Vinci, destruction came in the form of The Deluge. The Deluge was to be the return of the biblical Flood. In de Vinci’s time, it was a popularly held idea that at the final, apocalyptic end of the world, God would once again unleash the powers of water upon the land, wiping away all of creation. Da Vinci made a series of drawings in his notebooks, carefully illustrating the various ways that the coming waters would obliterate city, man, forest, everything. The drawings, with their swirling forms and chaos, are ominous, beautiful, cataclysmic. They mark a limit to what Burckhardt called man’s “power of self-determination.” The Flood cares little for what human beings may or may not achieve with their powers of reason and self-determination. The Flood trumps all.
One Flood, One Renaissance:
Here, then, is a theme that draws the Northern and Southern Renaissance together. Plenty of Italians depicted the Flood in art. The watery deluge is featured in no less iconic a work of Italian Renaissance art than Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.
The Flood also plays a role in Bosch’s most famous painting. This fact was pointed out by the great art historian E. H. Gombrich, who once wrote an enlightening little paper on Bosch (“Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’: A Progress Report,” in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 32, if you’re curious to give it a gander). Gombrich noted that TheGarden of Earthly Delights is a terrible title for Bosch’s famous painting (the title was added much later). Indeed, we have a description of the painting from the time of its purchase by the Archduke Ernest of Brussels in 1595 that says the painting is “a history with naked people, sicut erat in diebus Noe.” The Latin means, “as things were in the days of Noah.”
This helps us to understand a little bit more about the imagery depicted in the central panel of Bosch’s painting. The painting shows us what the world was like just before Noah got into his boat and the Flood kicked off. This would explain, if nothing else, the giant strawberries and other fruits all over the middle panel of the painting. Earlier medieval biblical commentators explained that the main difference between Earth before and after the Flood was a difference in general fecundity. Before the Flood, everything grew big—strawberries the size of a grown man, and so forth. After the Flood, a chastened humanity faced a much scrappier existence on a less productive planet.
Bosch and The Flood
The central panel of Bosch’s painting, then, depicts a world of freedom and abundance that is, in important respects, in danger. Many of the people in the painting seem to be having a good time, but they are doing so in ignorance. They are satisfying their immediate urges and nothing else. It is a free-for-all. That much, at least, we can garner just from taking in the scene. But the free-for-all is a big problem. That’s what Bosch’s painting is trying to tell us. The free-for-all is the result of foolishness and a failure to listen to what God keeps telling man, through the prophets and the psalms and the sermons. What God keeps saying to man is: Don’t look only toward the immediate satisfaction of your physical needs. Look deeper.
So, in a way, The Garden of Earthly Delights is not such a bad title for the painting after all. It’s just that the title must be properly interpreted. A proper interpretation of the painting tells us that Earth is, indeed, full of delights. Those delights can, and should, be delighted in. But the delights are also a trap. A person can get lost in the delights. The earthly delights that once seemed so good turn out to be a prison, a kind of hell. The mostly innocent activities in the central panel turn into vehicles of outright torture and punishment in the final panel on the right. The satisfaction of immediate needs in the central panel, the joys of music and food and drink and sex, have become poisonous. Musical instruments have become the tools by which demons torture people. Eating food transforms into the ghoulish spectacle of being eaten as food. Drunken revelry has become literal imprisonment inside a freakish tavern where men sit upon giant frogs and waste away into nothingness. Every delight can be perverted.
Even water. So good, so necessary to life. But in too-great abundance, let loose, unleashed, it is the greatest enemy of life. This seems to be a kind of universal principle. Locked within every good is its possible transformation into the opposite. Every pleasure is at the same time a possible punishment. Everything beautiful contains a seed of ugliness. Everything measured can be pushed into excess.
The British art historian Kenneth Clark was studying da Vinci’s notebooks in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. He noticed that some of da Vinci’s “studies of swirling water are amongst the most direct expressions of his sense of form, springing from the same mysterious source as his love of knots and tendrils. A sheet at Windsor shows water taking the form of both hair and flowers, racing along in twisted strands, and pouring from a sluice so that it makes dozens of little whirlpools, like a cluster of ferns with long curling tendrils.” Clark saw that da Vinci was fascinated with these twisting, twirling forms. He kept playing with them, drawing them over and over again, sometimes with an increasing obsessiveness. Was da Vinci trying to release some potential locked within those forms? “As he gazed half hypnotized at the ruthless continuum of watery movement,” Clark continued, “Leonardo began to transpose his observations into the realm of the imagination, and to associate them with an idea of cataclysmic destruction which had always haunted him.” Meditation on the gentle curl of a little girl’s hair had turned, for da Vinci, into terrible drawings of the destruction of all things by a deluge of unstoppable water.
Leonardo da Vinci’s water drawings may look nothing like Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings of humans and animals and demons cavorting about, but deep thematic resonances draw them together nonetheless. If da Vinci was a lover of beauty and natural order and human self-determination, as Burckhardt argues, he also contemplated, frequently, and increasingly as he aged, the fragility of those same qualities. He surprised himself with how quickly he could transform a couple of curvy lines into a chaos of form that harkened to cataclysm. He wondered at the madness that seemed the necessary flipside to reason.
If you follow the story that Hieronymus Bosch lays out in the three panels of The Garden of Earthly Delights, you go through a progression similar to what da Vinci achieved in his drawings. In the left panel, a scene of calm and security. Adam and Eve sit on a hill, happily integrated within the harmonious whole that includes plants, animals, geography. Then, in the middle panel, things begin to get a little wild. Humans and animals are taking their pleasure, but a madness is being unleashed. By the third panel on the right, the logic of madness and delight has reached an inevitable conclusion. What began in health has descended into chaos, into a sickness that takes the previous delights as its very inspiration.
It doesn’t take much to connect this Renaissance obsession with earthly desires turning order into chaos (an obsession that unites Bosch in the North with da Vinci in the South) to the obsessions of our own time. The waters threaten to rise in different ways for different eras. But worries about rising waters, in whatever form, have always been with us. A biblical truth for Bosch. A natural truth for da Vinci. An ecological truth for us.