It was the profoundly pessimistic, mad, hopeless, irredeemable, almost insane world of Hieronymus Bosch. Very few paintings in the history of art have so puzzled viewers as the enigmatic, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”; in our own hedonistic, instantly gratifying and equally troubling times, it is still difficult to discern and tag the work with a clear and transparent meaning or set of meanings that would identify specific follies that that Bosch has depicted. The message is a bit blood chilling….
A general drift of the message is that God’s original creation of angels and humankind became a kind of Frankenstein when released out of captivity; something went awfully wrong that even the Savior, and his act of redemption through his sacrifice on the cross was proved to be totally useless and a complete waste of time. There is an antagonistic relationship between Bosch and God based on the idea that humankind, in spite of God, is determined to go to hell.
Both Bosch’s the Haywain and The Garden of Earthly Delights are triptych’s of a rather uncommon type. When an artist executes three paintings, one large picture and two flanking panels, he naturally concentrates attention on the central scene. But he usually makes the other two face inward to that scene. In these paintings by Bosch, although the intellectual emphasis remains on the center panel, the eye is meant to move from left to right, both in space and in time: from creation and Paradise long ago, through the present scene of ephemeral folly, to the infinite future in hell. Van Eyck shows eternity touching time in one glorious moment. Bosch shows the history of mankind as a long fool’s errand leading inexorably to disaster.
This, then, is the meaning of both triptych’s. Strictly speaking, they are not blasphemous and heretical. It is not heretical to portray a boozy friar or a foolish pope. However, it is heretical to declare that the incarnation of God was in vain, that Jesus failed miserably in redeeming humanity, that there is no hope of heaven, no reward for virtue, no divine grace bestowed on even a small part of mankind, and that, whatever we all do or try to do, we are traveling the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire. It is a concept hard for all but the bitterest pessimist to accept.
For another reason, it is difficult to understand this message of Bosch. This is that he views sin very much as though it were mere folly. When most people contemplate human wickedness, there is a tendency to think first of cruelty and killing: Nazi death camps, Japanese atrocities again POW’s, Mexican drug wars. And when we think of other crimes, which do not destroy at once, but which corrupt; we have to ask, why go on? We seem surrounded, harassed, haunted by humanity’s inhumanity to to men, women and children. Are the decent people like Bosch’s like Bosch’s peddler in The Prodigal Son: just looking for a better place, a safer, cleaner place to live, but attacked and plagued by the devils of this world, human in face and animal in soul.
More literal violence such as abuse in Abu Ghraib prison, the slaughter of the Indians, The fire-bombing of Dresden, are fiendish and hardly human by any definition. But this aspect of man’s wickedness Bosch hardly sees. His admirer and successor Pieter Bruegel knew it well. Bruegel lived when the Spaniards were oppressing the Netherlands with fire and sword, and so he painted The Massacre of the Innocents and other scenes of strife and slaughter.
Hieronymus Bosch, however, considers that sin should be regarded as mere foolishness. He seldom envisages the darker aspects of sin. On earth, he will show a few men fighting or stealing; intensive cruelty and torture he places not in this world but in hell. This is because he lived and worked in a world that was, although profoundly corrupt in his sight, comparatively peaceful. There were civil disorders in the Netherlands during his lifetime, but were not seriously destructive, and the cities were growing is prosperity.
What Bosch saw around him was a fat and flourishing world in which the body was hypertrophied and the spirit decaying. It was in his era that German Sebastien Brant penned the late medieval satire, Ship of Fools, which showed all sorts of conditions of men as idiots bound for the land of Stupidity. About the very time Bosch was at work on this fantastic vision, Erasmus produced an immortal ironic encomium of Folly, the deity who really , above everything else, rules mankind. The greatest paintings of Bosch seem inspired by that bitter laughter and contemptuous despair.
William W. Coventry: This would appear to be describing the central panel. The view is from a raised position, looking down upon mankind. The scenes portrayed in the left and right panels were customary representations for his audience. No explanation was needed. For the middle panel, however, a quick look at the alluded to Psalm would be of help. Now it makes sense. Bosch is portraying the middle of the Psalm (called A hymn of joy and praise to God) as the centerpiece of his work. It is God looking down upon his work, and they are blessed. Read More:http://wcoventry0.tripod.com/id17.htm
The following verse reads He fashioneth their hearts alike; he considereth all their works. On this point, nearly all of the authors agree, Bosch represented the most of the humans in the central panel as appearing nearly identical. They are all roughly the same age and could be brothers and sisters. There are no elderly or children. There are none of the cripples, wounded or angry people that Bosch delighted in dramatizing. There are a few black persons and one clothed one, but essentially they look remarkably twin-like. Overall, if one had to illustrate the concept of fashioning all hearts alike, this would be a good representation.
Considering their works is a different matter. I believe Bosch placed his own pessimistic view in the painting. People are in the hurried midst of doing nothing. They eat, speak, woo, ride horses in endless circles, crawl into eggs, and do a variety of useless activities. It was Bosch’s cynical statement about the behavior of mankind. In the end, the person or organization that the triptych was painted for desired a religious theme. A hymn of joy and praise to God would be perfect. The right and left panels illustrate a customary narrative. The central panel, arrayed with explosive color and imagery, is merely allegorizing the Psalm further than the front cover. The intense delight Bosch places in symbols and creative expertise is his own personal touch. Though we will never know if he was an alchemist, a sado-masochistic deviant, a closet homosexual, a member of a “free-love” society, Leonardo’s evil twin or whatever, we do know he was a great artist with an opinion he felt about the status of mankind, and the expertise to illustrate it. Read More: http://wcoventry0.tripod.com/id17.htm