Commentary on «The Garden of Earthly Delights» – Hieronymus Bosch
Another of Hieronymus Bosch’s unforgettable masterpieces is the so-called Triptych of the Garden of Earthly Delights (Museo del Prado, Madrid). The exterior paintings on the side panels depict the divine creation of the world and contain a Latin inscription from the Psalms: «He said, and it was done; He commanded, and it was created».
Once opened, the basic structure of the triptych is reminiscent of the Hay Cart Triptych. In the left panel we see the Garden of Eden; in the foreground is Christ between Adam and Eve.
Although on this occasion Bosch did not represent sin or the expulsion from Paradise, a series of curious details can be observed that suggest that things are about to take an unfavorable turn: right in the middle of the panel, an owl looks ominous; to the right of the owl is a strange anthropomorphic rock resembling a human head with a snake nearby; and finally some animals behave in an unacceptably aggressive manner: an exotic-looking cat has caught a rat, a lion devours a deer, birds and aquatic animals fight.
Part Right: The Inferno
In the right panel, Bosch depicted a hell, undoubtedly the grimmest and at the same time the most fascinating image of the world of shadows ever painted.
It is enough to see it once to never forget the enormous monster that, as if out of a nightmare, stands in the very center of hell, on legs like dead trees and feet like barges, with a human head attached to a body that combines the appearance of a broken eggshell with that of a plucked goose.
The upper part of the right panel reminds us that, in addition to being an ingenious «demon maker,» Bosch was also an expert when it came to painting hellish landscapes. If we observe the impressive realism with which the fatuous fires and the backlighting are depicted, we can affirm without reticence that in this work Bosch has reached the height of his artistic talent.
The Central Panel
The same can be said of the central panel, but, unlike the right panel, the iconographic interpretation of this section has been the subject of great confusion.
We see a vast plain populated by countless naked men and women who appear to be having fun and performing a series of unusual actions: eating gigantic fruits, crawling among vegetable bark and sea shells, riding on huge birds, or whipping each other’s buttocks with flowers. The central part of the panel shows a carousel of male riders on the backs of different types of animals, circling around a small pond filled with bathing women.
In the upper part of the painting, five ghostly buildings that defy all attempts at description capture our attention. No expert has denied that the thread that unites these fragments is that of eroticism.
A small scene, hidden in the upper part of the panel, confirms this impression: in a cavity at the foot of the central building, there is a man touching a woman’s genitals.
However, the clue to a correct interpretation of the triptych as a whole lies elsewhere: in the lower right corner of the central panel we see a woman holding an apple and behind her a man pointing his finger accusingly at her.
This is obviously Adam accusing his wife of having introduced sin into the world, an interpretation confirmed by the fact that the bodies of both are entirely covered with hair.
The Left Side
The man behind Adam wears vine leaves on his head. This means that it is Noah, since vine leaves are one of his traditional attributes.
Once we have reached this point, the rest of the pieces of the iconographic puzzle are easily assembled. According to medieval theories, the history of the world could be divided into several periods, the first of which went from Adam to Noah and the universal flood, a period often associated with moral decadence and sexual degeneration.
Thus, the overall meaning of the triptych is clear: what is seen in the central panel is human depravity before the flood, which is the result of Adam and Eve’s sin – in the left panel – and which contrasts sharply with the obedience of the cosmos of the outer panels.
All this is intended as an edifying warning of the Last Judgment addressed to Bosch’s contemporaries: sin and lust will eventually be punished in hell -right panel-. It is a basic message that closely resembles that of the Haycart Triptych.