Digging for Secrets in The Garden of Earthly Delights

Digging for Secrets in The Garden of Earthly Delights

With so little known about Hieronymus Bosch or his intention for creating what has become one of the best-known paintings today, interpretations of the triptych have greatly varied in its symbolism and message. That in itself might be what gained it such fame.

Image for postHieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1480?1505, oil on oak panels, Museo del Prado

Hieronymus Bosch?s The Garden of Earthly Delights is a painting cloaked in no small amount of mystery. Ostensibly a religious painting depicting man?s descent into sin, but never commissioned for any known church, The Garden of Earthly Delights hints at many things that just don?t add up. The blatant sexuality, the hidden symbolism, and the surrealistic execution of the triptych all subtly point to a place much deeper and darker than pure Christian allegory.

When closed, the exterior panels of Bosch?s triptych show a darkened world in the throes of genesis. A world without enlightenment.

Image for postExterior when wings of triptych are closed

The left panel of Bosch?s masterpiece (also known as the Joining of Adam and Eve) at first glance appears to be a typical scene of Eden. As Adam wakes from slumber, he is greeted by the sight of God offering Eve by the wrist and giving the sign for his blessing of the union.

Image for postLeft panel detail

While Eve is the picture-perfect definition of demure, Adam is looking very expectant indeed at the presentation of his new bride. Eyes widened and lips curving into a smile, his countenance barely contains a lurking lecherous desire, as to his left a wildcat struts away with fresh kill in maw. In contrast, Eve is timid, eyes cast downward, in frightened submission to God?s will, while in the background to her right sits a black rabbit ? an age-old symbol of fear of intimacy. To the north, in the first of a series of strange, flesh-colored dwellings, a small owl is perched in a circular cavity. And like the unsettling architecture, it won?t be the last time that we see this winged creature, whose importance in Bosch?s garden is paramount.

The center panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights is a visual explosion of chaotic lust. Bodies writhe in the throes of ecstasy, gluttonizing on an assortment of fruit and flesh.

Image for postCenter panel

Here, man and beast are one and the same. Cattle, bears, horses, and swine are ridden bareback by unclothed denizens of a world fallen like Lucifer. Wasn?t it he himself who enticed Eve to take that fateful bite of the apple in the first place? The tree of knowledge can be found in this central panel, being swiftly plucked bare. And below its twisted limbs sits no other than Eve, no longer coy, with hand on swollen belly, as Adam offers up more fruit for his lover.

Image for postCenter panel detail

To the south of the fallen lovers is no other than their winged friend from the first panel: the owl, symbol for wisdom; for knowledge for illumination; for light. Like the Lightbringer himself, Lucifer. The one who brought about the fall. It is fashioned like some Eastern god, with numerous limbs thrown in a contorted victory dance.

Image for postCenter panel detail

There is also an abundance of symbolism here pertaining to fertility and the female reproductive organ. The flesh-colored edifices are at times extremely vaginal in appearance, and ovary-shaped orifices are entered at every opportunity. Bosch painted this panel with much more zeal than typically found in a religious portrayal of the sins of the flesh, and this is what sets it apart from mere allegory.

Image for postRight panel

A nightmarish wonderland awaits those who gaze upon Bosch?s right panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights. This sadistic portrayal of Hell is in sharp contrast to the center panel and is ripe with mockery of Christianity. In this panel, the pleasure of fornication is usurped by pain, no longer an act of ecstatic creation, but torturous punishment. While the former panel was more feminine in its depiction of the sensual and sexual, this panel is more masculine. It screams rape and conquer, cities fallen into flame, Lucifer reaping what he had previously sown.

Image for postRight panel detail

No stranger to painting depictions of Hell, Bosch lets loose with surrealistic glory on the right panel of the garden. Bodies lay strewn naked beneath a set of ears with a blade protruding from between. It doesn?t take a stretch of the imagination to see the resemblance between that and the male genitalia when erect.

Image for postRight panel detail

One can also find the most blatant example of how the painting is no ordinary religious triptych, in the depiction of a swine nun leaning in to plant a kiss on the cheek of a wretched sinner. No matter how despicable and torturous the infernal depths may be, to dress a pig in a nun?s habit would be far too sacrilegious for any halfway-serious congregation.

In the background of the right panel, behind the bodies writhing in pain and surrealistic imagery of torture, a city can be seen crumbling into inferno with beams of light shooting skyward. Lucifer is triumphant.

Image for postAttr. Jacques Le Boucq, Portrait of Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1550

What Bosch?s true intentions with his masterpiece were, we will never truly know. But one thing is for certain: The Garden of Earthly Delights is one of the most complex and nightmarish paintings in existence today. A painting that is both extremely attractive and immensely repulsive, a painting that causes something to resonate deep within oneself, like bells tolling in the cavity of the chest. And that is the purest response to an artwork that can be achieved, whatever its original intent.

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