Art Through Time: A Global View
Dreams and Visions Art: Garden of Earthly Delights
Hieronymus Bosch, famous for his fantastical, often monstrous, hybrid creatures, might in some ways be seen as a forerunner of the Surrealists.
However, while the Surrealists played in the realms of dreams and the unconscious, Bosch was steeped in the religiosity of his age and the worlds he conjured up demonstrated what were believed to be the very real, and sobering, consequences of earthly behavior.
Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych, meaning that it consists of three parts—a central panel with one hinged wing on either side. Closed, the triptych depicts a translucent sphere encompassing earth, sky, and sea. The scene, rendered in monochromatic shades of grey (a style known as grisaille), is thought by some to represent creation. Others have linked it to the great flood by which God cleanses the world at the time of Noah. The interior of the triptych is the subject of even greater contention.
The wings of Bosch’s triptych open to reveal a colorful interior filled to the point of bursting with strange architecture, unnatural landforms, and all types of hybrid creatures. In the foreground of the left hand panel, God the Father stands between the naked figures of Adam and Eve, surrounded by various flora and fauna. This is, no doubt, the Garden of Eden, though the scene is not without a dark side. In the distance, an animal tears at the flesh of his prey while black birds circle around.
The central panel of the triptych is the one from which the piece takes its current title. This “Garden of Earthly Delights” features hordes of nude men and women cavorting in a landscape that is home to enormous birds, oversized fruit, and bizarre vegetation. The scene is lively, chaotic, and orgiastic in tone. Although the uninhibited behavior of the figures seems at first glance to be lascivious, in fact, it is ambiguous. Despite the many naked congregations and couples Bosch places in the image, there are no sexual acts explicitly portrayed. Scholars have debated the meaning of this central image, arguing that it represents a vision of innocent pleasure, a cauldron of sinful excess, and everything in between.
The leftmost panel of the work is, paradoxically, the most disturbing and the least enigmatic. Here are depicted the horrors of Hell, a place where sinners are skewered by giant hares, tortured on oversized instruments, and ingested by a grotesque insect-like being, only to be excreted moments later. Whatever the meaning of the triptych as a whole, Bosch reminds the viewer that damnation is a very possible (perhaps the only possible) outcome in this corrupt world.
Although The Garden of Earthly Delights takes a form frequently used for altarpieces in the sixteenth century, documentation suggests that it was housed in a secular context, probably commissioned by a wealthy patron. Henry III of Nassau, a governor of the Habsburgs in the Netherlands, has been suggested as one potential owner.
Expert Perspective: Whitney Chadwick, Professor Emerita of Art History, San Francisco State University
“In the first Surrealist manifesto, Breton identifies a history of Surrealism that he says goes way back, deep into history. But he actually names names in the manifesto too.
In the artistic vein, he takes us back to the Renaissance; he mentions Hieronymus Bosch and the great Garden of Earthly Delights. Bosch was a Flemish painter of the late fifteenth, early sixteenth century. [He] produced this triptych that looks like an altarpiece that contains hundreds of figures in states of sexual excess, nudity, playfulness, horror, pain, fear. It really takes us sort of through the human condition in an imagery that’s difficult to describe, difficult to characterize, and has proved actually resistant, for much of history, resistant to interpretation. No one can adequately and fully account for Bosch’s intentions in this painting, although there are many theories and many of them have to do with religious beliefs, sex, sex, sex, alchemical and magical theories and practices—hard to decipher.”
Belting, Hans. Hieronymus Bosch: Garden Of Earthly Delights, 2nd ed. Munich; New York: Prestel, 2005.
Dixon, Laurinda. Bosch. London: Phaidon, 2003.
Gibson, Walter S. “Bosch’s Dreams: A Response to the Art of Bosch in the Sixteenth Century.” Art Bulletin 74.2 (June 1992): 205–218.
Gibson, Walter S. Hieronymus Bosch. London: Thames & Hudson, 1985.
Jacobs, Lynn F. “The Triptychs of Hiernoymus Bosch.” Sixteenth Century Journal 31.4 (Winter 2000): 1009–1041.
Silver, Larry. “God in the Details: Bosch and Judgment(s).” Art Bulletin 83.4 (December 2001): 626–650.
Silver, Larry. Hieronymus Bosch. New York: Abbeville, 2006.