Bosch's Garden of Delights


Hieronymus Bosch is a man of mystery who left little besides his paintings. We only know that he was born in the mid-1400s and died in 1516 in Brabant in what is now the Netherlands. He seems to have had a conservative take on his Catholic faith and a poor opinion of the great mass of humanity. His painting allowed the old sourpuss to vent and revel in imagining the possible fate of the ungodly. 

His most famous work is the triptych pictured above, which hangs in the Prado in Madrid. The first two panels show the Garden of Eden and the sardonically named 'Garden of Earthly Delights'. The third panel depicts hell. The picture is both frightening, amusing and captivating and I am not alone in being drawn to it. An eye-tracking study at the Prado showed that most visitors shared my sadomasochistic predilections. Here is the Triptych 'in situ'. 

The Triptych in the Prado

The pic below gets you closer to the hell panel. The thumbnail is small but the actual file is fatter and will provide some detail if you expand it If you want more, get an even bigger version using the link below, where you can also find the rest of Bosch's canon. Link: WikiArt - The Garden of Earthly Delights

The 'Hell' panel. 

Bosch might not have been overjoyed to find that he influenced surrealists like Salvador Dali, who seemed to revel in the absurdity of the images which ripple through horror films like The Exorcist, heavy metal lyrics and shoes from Dr Martens and which some fondly imagine undercut the rationality of modern capitalism! 

Others thought them heretical or mined them for deep spiritual meanings. Some reckoned that he must have been an occultist or stoned and quite a few philistines like myself ignored the symbolism and just laughed. I even had an Athena poster of it (remember them?) laminated as a tabletop. An exhibition in Madrid a few years ago 're-imagined' it all, with murderous cyborgs and a social media star impaled on a hashtag. He might have approved of  that! There is a description of it here. Link : Collecion Solo : Madrid

The images even appear in episodes of the Simpsons who, like many Americans, seem to have a developed and complex relationship with the afterlife. See here: Bart on YouTube

Bart in Hell

Like Danté, he doesn’t pay much attention to the settings. Judging by the landscapes painted  in the Dutch Golden Age, the rolling green countryside in the background of the Triptych was probably familiar. So my excuse for including this in the blog is that the crowds of tortured souls in hell or their debauched antecedents in the Garden of Earthly Delights, effectively become the outstanding feature of the view.

The other main physical features in the Hell panel are a burning city which is thought to reflect his experience when his home town caught fire. 

Burning City

There are also some very odd and exotic constructions in the Garden of Delights, but first let's unfold the panel doors and peep at the goings-on in hell.  The doors depict God's creation. If you squint can just about make him out in the top left-hand corner, presumably keeping a disapproving eye on things. Keep an eye out for re-purposed kitchen equipment, musical avian anomalies and rampaging reptiles. 

If you have downloaded a detailed version of the picture, you can play great games of ‘Where’s Wally’ here. Some are obvious and easy to spot. Some are not. Spot these.  

This devil bird sitting on a latrine appears to be eating people and then defecating them into a pit where someone else is spewing.

Skewered giant ears? 

A hollow man entwined by a tree. Is that Bosch's face? Inside him, three people are dining

These rodents appear to be eating a knight in full armour! 

A pig dressed as a nun. Bosch had a poor opinion of the clergy

Musical instruments abound. Someone's buttocks are used as a hymn book and another is  impaled on a lute. 

Bosch didn't approve of board games either 

A man suspended from a keyring and another in a bell. 

In the background, a strange parade. 

If your taste for nonsense is not yet satiated, try comparing how people have been impaled with those with something jammed up their backside. 

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the central panel of the Triptych illustrates what condemns people to hell. In the pool in the centre, a group of girls is encircled by surrounded by men riding a menagerie of beasts. Some think these represent the seven deadly sins, but I can't see how. There is much gluttony on display and although they do appear to be adhering to a healthy Mediterranean diet, one poor man appears to have been eaten by an oyster. Apparently, the giant strawberries are symbols of human indulgence, the idea being that they taste good but the indigestion of eternal damnation never ends.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

This isn't Bosch's only representation of Hell, another and lesser work resides at the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice. It too was part of a triptych and tells the same story but with far less pictorial detail and a bit of God doing some judging. There is the usual bevvy of the dead being tortured by demons who are trying to drag them down into the bloody water. Here, he adds some lighting and rocky crags for dramatic effect The lighting is dramatic, with tones of yellow and orange showing from behind a tall rockface which casts a shadow over the figures below. You do have to worry about the bloke's mental health. 

I am acutely aware that it is hard to pull you into the details of paintings through thumbnails in a blog intended for reading on a phone. And I know that others prefer video content. So if you want a bit more detail, the links below will provide it in video form. 

The History of Art (Bosch)  A quasi-academic view. 

Hochelega   I think this is a videoblogger specialising in the weird. 

Archief  A professionally produced audio-visual production. 

Sotherby's also made one. I found it a bit dry. Sotheby's

I would very much like to think that Bosch just had a mischievous sense of humour and would actually be good company over a pint. But somehow I doubt it. All the evidence points to a Jesuitical fan of Jack the Ripper. Not a nice bloke at all.  


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