The Garden of Earthly Delights – Hieronymus Bosch

Sometimes there are pieces of art that I love, but put off writing about as it looks like it is going to be a big job, until someone (you know who you are kkatch22) asks if I have ever written about a painting. So today is the day that I give this painting a whirl and hope that I do it justice.

Take a deep breath as this is going to be a long post as there is so much going on in this beautifully intricate piece. I have written about Bosch before, but I didn’t say much about the man himself. The was a Dutch/Netherlandish artist working in the 16th century. He is probably one of the most notable artists from the area, and most well known for his amazing imagery, religious concepts and detailed landscapes. This is probably one of his best known pieces, but maybe you didn’t realise that it was a triptych, as quite often we now see the pictures split up in google searches, and the right hand panel used much more that the other two. This triptych is 7 feet tall and 13 feet across, just incase you were wondering how Bosch managed to cram in so much detail.

What is probably the least seen part of the triptych is the outside of the panels, so lets start there.

When the panels are closed we see a sphere, which is supposed to be the start of the creation of Earth. It is painted in grisaille (tones of grey), which is a great contrast to the inner panels. Here the Earth appears to be flat, encased in a sphere. This comes from the early belief that the land and sea was encapsulated in a crystal sphere for God to hold. Around the sphere is darkness, as nothing existed outside of it, except God, that you can see in the top left hand corner. He is wearing a crown and can be seen with the bible in his lap. This is an almost fatherly stance for God to be taking, he is after all (in this scenario) the father of creation.

The grey tones of this panel give indication that this is at the midpoint of creation, yet to create the sun and the moon, but the land is forming and plant life can be seen, which would mean that this the third day. At the top of the sphere, brooding clouds. This is another contrast to the inner panels, there is no animal life to be seen on the outer panel. The bottom of the sphere is filled with the sea, light catching the water (as there was light, just no sun or moon at this point).

Across the top of the panels there is an inscribed quote from Psalm 33 which reads “Ipse dixit, et facta sunt: ipse mandavit, et creata sunt” or if you prefer english “For he spake and it was done: he commanded, and it stood fast.” It is a beautiful representation of the midpoint of the story of creation, with innovative use of the grey tones, which makes it hard to identify if it is just plant life that is being shown in the painting or if there are mineral forms as well. Regardless, it is very easy to see what is being shown in this very detailed opening panels.

Let’s open it up and see what is inside. Starting with the left hand panel…

I love Bosch’s imagination, the first thing that always strikes me with this panel is the multitude of animals, some familiar, some not so familiar. In the background we can see in the far left hand corner a flock of birds flying through a rock formation, while others in front of it feed off the land. Moving forwards we can see creatures such as an elephant and a giraffe, along with a unicorn and some other things which are simply straight out of Bosch’s mind. While I am fairly sure that endangered species were not high on the list of concerns in the 16th century, he does seem to indicate that some animals no longer exist from the garden of Eden.

This panel, often known as “The joining of Adam and Eve”, is thought to indicate the moment that God presented Eve to Adam. We see Adam sat on the floor, sat up as if he has just woken, to see God stood with Eve, holding her wrist and giving a blessing for their union. You will note that God looks remarkably younger in this panel than on the out side one. God here, has blonde hair and blue eyes, and it has been debated that this image of God was used to illustrate the link between God and Christ, being the incarnate of the word of God. You will also note that Eve is kneeling, in a submission stance, showing her loyalty to both God and Adam (if you read my post about Lilith, you will know that Eve was purposefully made to be more submissive after the issues that were had with woman version 1.0). Eve avoid’s Adam’s stare, but she is unabashed in her nakedness. Adam appears to be staring at her, indicating a lustful intent coming from a primal urge to breed. Some have said that they feel Adam’s look is one more of surprise, at seeing God and a creature which is the same species as him, but I am more inclined to go for the first theory simply because ultimately that was the point of giving Adam a mate. The rabbits at Eve’s feet, push us towards the idea of Adam and Eve going forth and multiplying as they are a symbol of fertility.

The picture appears to be harmonious, all the animals appear to be getting along, with exception of a cat in the front left hand corner and a lion further back and to the right – both having just hunted. This always struck me a little odd, as nothing else seems to be linked to the food chain in this view of the garden of Eden, but perhaps this is Bosch’s way of indicating what is to come.

The tree that Adam sits in front of, stands out from the other trees in the forest, and is said to be a dragon tree, supposedly meant to indicate eternal life.

This whole scene has been described as completely unconventional, as there is nothing in this which is described in the book of Genesis. The scene with Adam and Eve goes against the innocence which we usually see in western art around this part of the garden of Eden, but there is a theory that prior to Eve persuading Adam to eat the apple, they would have copulated without lust and merely to breed as there was no sin at this time, therefore everything was for a purpose. This links to the belief that the first sin was carnal lust. Around the base of a tree of the right hand side you can see a snake curling around its trunk, another indicator of what is yet to come with the Fall of Adam.

There are so many beautiful details in this panel, which can remain overlooked as there is so much to look at, such as the lizard life crawling out of the waters, and the owl perched in the pink fountain. This is really paradise in the eyes of Bosch.

Central panel:-

If you thought that there was a lot to look at in the left hand panel, the central panel is like an explosion of activity. The first thing to note, now that we are moving through the panels, is that they all share a common horizon. This gives the viewer the feel that they are staying in the same place, but seeing different moments in time. In the background we see a lake, which echoes the first panel, but the garden is expanded out. This isn’t the paradise from the first panel, but it isn’t in the earthly realm either as we see mythical creatures mingle with real ones. The painting is littered with nudes of both sexes, all overtly flirty and unashamed of their actions. Adam and Eve certainly did take the instruction to go forth and multiply, although the governance of the garden seems to be a miss. The fruit and plant life, while real, all super sized, giving the impression that this is still not the earth we know now.

Many of the humans take part in physical activities, either in couples or groups, enjoying sensory pleasures, yet they are still at one with nature. This is deemed to be the playground of corruption.

Rising out of the lake, you can see a large blue sphere and within the window of that sphere you can see a a man holding his hand very close to his partners genitals, you can also see some buttocks, almost hovering near by.

Scholars talk a a lot about the four figures on the right hand side, three of which are fair and covered in a light brown hair, the forth is black skinned. It is generally agreed that these are hirsute figures (those who have hair where hair doesn’t normally grow) and allude to primitive humanity. The reason for their inclusion isn’t clear, some see these are noble savages, while others see these as the symbol of whoredom and lust, through their more basic and primitive thinking. I have to say, that however you see these four figures, I think that they are more well behaved than the guy just to the left of them who is creating a human vase. The fair and dark skinned figures are echoed in the right hand corner of the panel. To the right of the figures on the left you can see some people in a hole, or cave. A dressed man points to a reclining woman. He is the only dressed figure in this panel, and the only fair skinned one with dark hair. This appears to be alluding to him being of a different origin again. Scholars feel that this alludes to a Mediterranean origin. Seen as wild men, especially with the phallic column near by, they peer out at the viewer as they lure each other in to sexual activity.

Going back to the human vase, this was a symbol of homosexuality, which is a carnal lust rather than a purposeful one, which in religious terms is considered sinful. In various locations of the painting you can see men turning their buttocks towards each other, this was a very clear image for viewers at the time when this was painted which they wouldn’t have missed the symbolism.

Just before the lake, we can see a pool, where women seem to frolic, around them, men riding man different animals, as if rounding up the women. The animals which the men ride, symbolising different sins, such as lust, gluttony and pride. This is a reference to a medieval customs such as fertility rituals and has been linked in some spurious way to Morris dancing. Unbridled lust is the tone for the majority of this painting.

There are so many things to talk about in this panel, that I could write all night about it, but I don’t particularly want to bore you with the abundance of imagery there is in this, so I am only going to point out a couple more things from this panel.

We can see the same owl from the first panel, in the waters, being hugged by a man on the left hand side. The owl, symbolic of the wise, as well as impending evil and doom, he keeps watch. More involved in the action in this painting, it is almost saying that the impending doom is coming ever nearer.

Just above the owl, we can see a cluster of birds, it is no secret that the word for bird in Dutch is vogel which is almost the same as an obsolete plural ‘vogelen’ which is a reference to intercourse. This is part of Bosch’s wit, presenting his audience with a double entendre.

The right hand panel:-

Here we go, the darkest panel of them all, in all senses of the word dark. It has lost the bright colours seen in the first two panels, and the fun which the people seemed to be having in the centre has now turned to punishments.

In the sky line we see, where the lake has been before now burning building, which seems to be a tribute to a fire which happened in Bosch’s home town when he was 13. I always saw this as a bit Sodem and Gomorrah with the cities burning under the wrath of God. People are trying to escape the blaze, either using ladders or jumping in to the now dirty lake, to their impending doom. Centrally in this space you can see a burning windmill, which is the reference to the fire from Bosch’s youth, but fits so well with the images of hell which he represents as the torture for the sins of man. You can see armies of men moving around the background, seizing the burning city. The army is lead by a horned demon as sin takes its full hold on what was once a beautiful playground.

In front of the lakes, we can see a pair of ears with a knife in between, which squash people underneath it. While this looks like war machine, it also does look a lot like a phallic symbol. The ears have been pierced by an arrow as blood flows out of the wound. Here we can see another reference to Bosch’s home town, as the knife has an inscribed B on it, which was a reference to a well known knife manufacturer from his home town. The knives had a good reputation throughout Europe, but had also been used as tools of corporal punishment to cut off body parts such as ears…

Centrally we can see half a man, crouched forwards, propped up by what seems to be trees which are in boats, where people try to shelter. The human face, which some believe to be a self portrait of Bosch, but is impossible to verify, has a disc balance on his head, which has a bagpipe on top of that. The bagpipe is a symbol for slovenly behaviour, and the indicator as to why tree man and all those in him have probably ended up in hell. Within him, you can see what appears to be a tavern. A woman (well it looks like a woman with horns under her headdress) is pulling ale from a barrel, while others sit and drink at a table on stools made of toads (ha! See what Bosch did there… toadstools…). The tavern has a sign above it, again the symbol of the bagpipe meaning that the partaking of alcohol leads to this sloth like behaviour.

To the right of the tree man, we can see helmeted men, being torn apart by creatures. One knight is on a red disc holding a chalice and a small disc next to it. It is thought that this represents the Christian ritual of holy communion, but the demons have created their own version. So the helmeted man being torn apart held the chalice of wine and the small white disc was supposed to the wafer, the red disc is supposed to be a larger wafer with a body beneath it being sliced into it. Beneath the knife a cup with a man riding a women in to it, is supposed to catch the blood of the poor soul being cut by the knife. A horrendous revise of the communion.

To the left hand side of the tree man, there is a horses skull which doubles as a roof, as a crow flies over it disguised as a grave digger. This was a warning by Bosch about the mortality of man, lest they forget. From the eye socket of the skull, you can see a key, with a drunk man hanging from it. The key is a universal symbol of Saint Peter, which is odd to see it in hell and used for the tool of torture, but this could equally be the key to hell (heaven has one, so why not hell) as just above it you can see new souls being ushered.

In front of this you can see large musical instruments. They are being used as torture implements, but again you can see links to homosexuality with a man playing a flute between his buttocks. Under the lute you can see a man being squashed, but he also has music written on his cheeks. This music is playable, and you only need to do a YouTube search to find Bosch’s Butt Music. The instruments are thought to be the downfall of these souls, as music lead them to sinful activities, hence them being punished in death for their sins in life.

The owl appears once again, this time in the bottom right hand corner. It is now acting as a demon, sat on a potty chair, eating humans and defecating them out again in one movement. The chair is linked to the wealthy as most people wouldn’t have been able to have afforded a water closet and would have used open sewers instead. Below the chair you can see a person defecating coins into the “sewer” and another vomiting. This is a link to Bosch’s painting of the seven sins, showing gluttony and greed.

In the front right hand corner you can see a group of people, who appear to be in hell for gambling. The people are being tortured with knives and swords, while the demons hold a loft backgammon boards and dice. Interestingly in the front of this group, you can see a blue shield on the back of a demon, with a hand in the centre with a knife through it. The hand is giving the same symbol as God in the first panel as he blessed the union of Adam and Eve. This is a symbol of the corruption of the word of God. Atop the fingers is a dice, making this a parody of the word of god as it is now being used to protect a gambling demon.

Finally in the bottom right hand corner is a pig dressed as a nun, apparently kissing a man with a document on this knee. This is an indulgence. A way the church raised money, was to sell indulgences which absconded sinners from their flaws. In this case the indulgence isn’t worth the paper that it is written on.

This panel is actually meant to be read from bottom to top, as an indication of mans sins, their machinery and down fallings and what will ultimately happen to man, in a prophetic tale from Bosch reminding his viewers to lead a virtuous life.

There is little in this painting which is truly linked to anything that is written in the bible, the imagery is all of Bosch’s making and really was created to delight, warn and astound his audience, but there is something which I can’t overlook…

There does seem to be a feel of evolution in this painting. Now before you jump up and down and think I have gone mad as this was painted 300 years before Darwin pinned down the theory of evolution, you can see murmurings of it as far back as the Greeks. Take a little trip back to panel 1. The lizards that I mentioned crawling out of the water. This seems to point at the theory of fish evolving to land dwellers. Now have another look at panel two and the different types of people I mentioned. The hirsutes, the dressed man and the black skinned, alongside the very pale skinned people that dominate the picture. These move through the evolutionary cycle of Neanderthal to what we recognise as our own species today. Finally in the last panel, we see the evolution of machinery. It is very easy to pass off this painting as the imagination of a great artist, but his prophetic tellings and seeming grasp of science does appear to shine through in this painting.

There is no way I have managed to cover everything in this painting, in terms of symbolism but I hope that I have managed to give you perhaps an insight into things that you hadn’t picked up on when you have glanced at this piece previously.

I am quickly going to point out the muted yet vibrant colour pallet that has been used as so many Dutch artists do, as this is a classic colour theme for this region which Bosch masters so well. Bosch does use colour themes in this piece… pink for things created by God (hence God being dressed in pink in the first panel), blue for things which have been tampered with by man, in fact you can see some pink items with streams of blue running through them in the second panel which indicates mans interference. The yellows and browns for things in the world of hell. It’s so visually striking and an overlooked detail which is actually so intrinsic to the piece as a whole.

What do you think of the Garden of Earthly Delights? Do you think I missed anything important? Why not tell me in the comment? Like this post? Why not share it?


6 thoughts on “The Garden of Earthly Delights – Hieronymus Bosch

Add yours

  1. Girl!!!! That was amazing!!! I love love love it!!! I’m so honored! This piece of art was mesmerizing to me when I saw it in the Prado and there’s just never enough time to look at everything going on in the three panels. You’ve done an amazing job at covering so much! Thank you a million times over!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An ambitious post sharing many details I hadn’t noticed or encountered before on my own! I especially liked the description of the outside panels, which I didn’t know about or forgot. As I was reading it and looking at the picture, I suddenly realized how powerfully convincing that vision of the Earth as a flat thing contained within a ball was, and thus why people believed it in their ignorance.

    Bosch’s vision is so extraordinary that he’s painted Hell into the human imagination. Once seen, his renderings can’t be unseen, as they say. I’ve even found, over the years, that the left and center panel are as weird as the right, and I’ve been confused at points and thought images from the paradisaical panels belonged in the hellish one. This is because Bosch’s vision in its entirety here is so bizarre and even psychedelic, with the people so little and peculiar they are like pet insects. Another way to say it is that if I suddenly found myself in the left or center panel, I wouldn’t want to stay there, and it would seem like some weird nightmare.

    I also wonder about the relation between Bosch’s extremely creative and wild imagery and the repression of his religion. Even by today’s standards his imagery is shocking. One might not be able to even get away with making such depictions of people today, as one couldn’t hide behind faith to justify it. It would be seen as perverse, violent, and might need to be taken down in our new era of policing artistic content for any transgression. So, in other words, Bosch may have used the restrictions and suppression of religion as an excuse to explode in the opposite direction (while still being a believer) and depict all that which his religion sought to repress or deny.

    Your post also reminds me how valuable it is to go back and look at earlier art and see how people saw the world then, and to maintain our links with the past.

    [You might want to go back and do another edit as there are some typos and whatnot refreshingly similar to the ones my posts are littered with — because it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who makes such little mistakes — until I reread them and go back to fix them.]


  3. Very brave! Great post – one I’m going to save with a bunch of other art history articles.

    I happened to see a post earlier today of detail from this work. One of the first commenters was quite upset because she didn’t think it was delightful at all! In fact, she was quite disturbed by what she was taking in… Good thing she didn’t know it was a triptych.

    Liked by 1 person

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