Very few paintings in the history of art have puzzled viewers as “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. Perhaps both the godless and the god fearing, the hedonist, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, and those addicted to instant gratification can draw a consensus and make its meaning clear, six hundred years after its completion.Together, the three panels of this triptych measure nearly thirteen feet in width and a little more than seven feet in height.
Stanley Meisler: During Bosch’s lifetime, the Dutch humanist Erasmus wrote Praise of Folly, the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus proposed that the sun was at the center of our solar system, and Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. In 1517, a year after Bosch died, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Historians point to these events as the beginnings of the modern world.
The age was marked by violence and a new and pervasive pessimism. Kings and dukes murdered and warred for glory and vengeance. Marauding soldiers pillaged farmhouses and killed peasants. It was a time of pestilence, of misery for the poor, of cruel and incredible torture for criminals. The future seemed ominous with visions of demons, darkness and hell. People saw pious virtue overwhelmed by terrible sin. Preachers and poets cried out against the enormous greed around them. There was a sense, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga has written, of impending calamity and perpetual danger.Read More: http://www.stanleymeisler.com/smithsonian/smithsonian-1988-03-bosch.html
Let the triptych be opened. Three strange scenes appear. Only one is intelligible at first sight, and even that is full of quirks and oddities. The left panel shows a dreamlike garden. In the foreground is a divine figure, whose face and head, beard and robes, do not resemble those of god the father, but rather those of Jesus as Bosch has depicted him elsewhere. He stands between two naked figures: Adam, just awakened from the sleep during which Eve was made out of his rib, and Eve, half-kneeling as though rising to her human stature for the first time.
With his left hand god the son holds the right wrist of Eve; he is at once giving her life and raising her from the ground and presenting her to Adam , who gazes at her with admiration. God the Son does not look at either of his creatures, but fixes his gaze directly upon us, the onlookers, raising his right hand in a gesture that certainly blesses the union of the couple and may also be extended to us….
Meisler: Bosch was among the pessimists. A member of a lay religious fraternity, he witnessed the corruption in the medieval Church and the sins of his townspeople, and cried out his warning of a wrathful retribution… the Dutch scholar Dirk Bax concluded that Bosch was a moralist with contempt for the lower classes. He had no sympathy for the poor and used his most bitter symbolism to satirize beggars, monks, nuns, soldiers, peasants, pilgrims, whores, gypsies, vagrants, minstrels and jesters. From time to time he lashed out at emperors, bishops and nobles as well, but rarely against burghers like himself and others of the wealthy middle class. He was most upset by the vices of lust, license, drunkenness, gluttony, folly and stupidity. He liked to dwell on erotic scenes and on cruel moments when pain was inflicted on others. …Read More: http://www.stanleymeisler.com/smithsonian/smithsonian-1988-03-bosch.html a
…So far the picture is clear, if slightly unorthodox. Other painters, and even Bosch himself, depicting the creation of Eve, make her actually rise out of the rib cage of the anesthetized Adam and show her being brought to life by God the Father, who is wearing a great crown like that of the Holy Roman Emperor. Nevertheless, there is one important Christian concept identifying Jesus with the Logos, the Word of God, which actually accomplished the work of creation. It appears in Milton’s Paradise Lost:So spake the Almighty, and to what he spake/ His Word, the Filial Godhead, gave effect. Read More: http://www.online-literature.com/milton/paradiselost/7/
A thoughtful man like Hieronymus Bosch might port
God the Father as creating the world, and God the Son, who was to be incarnated, as creating one or both of the first human beings. The scene is Paradise, the garden called Eden. Behind Adam is a peculiar tree, which must be the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Obviously it does not look lie an ordinary fruit tree; its shape and habit are unique.
Elsewhere in the garden are other trees and shrubs, some normal to our eyes, some dreamlike in form. From this we should not infer too much. Bosch knew that paradise would not resemble an ordinary European garden, but would display the rich variety of God’s creative imagination. He implicitly rejected the fashion, cultivated by many medieval painters, of making all the scenery in a Biblical picture perfectly recognizable and contemporary. Bosch in his religious paintings always interrupts the reality with fantasies, reminding us that his subjects are distant, exotic, or otherworldly.
The bizarre rock formations in his Paradise, and the grotesque fountain in its midst, are created by this belief. Remember also that the scenery and climate of the Low Countries tend to be flat, colorless, and monotonous; Bosch made some of his paintings an escape from his homeland….
Meisler: His obsession with bizarre images has led to fanciful theories about Bosch. In 1947, Wilhelm Fraenger, a German art historian, concluded that Bosch had been a member of the Brethren of the Free Spirits, also known as the Adamites, a secret, heretical sect that practiced nudity and sexual promiscuity in an attempt to re-create the innocence of the Garden of Eden. The central panel of Garden of Earthly Delights, according to Fraenger, did not condemn free love but glorified it. He insisted that the triptych served as an altarpiece in secret Adamite worship. Fraenger’s theory has been overwhelmingly rejected by scholars, but it enjoyed a vogue for a while. Its popularity, in fact, reflected one of the problems in understanding Bosch. While Fraenger’s fancy did not fit the historical evidence, it did fit some of the feelings that the paintings evoke in a modern viewer. Read More: http://www.stanleymeisler.com/smithsonian/smithsonian-1988-03-bosch.html
Yet when we look more closely, this landscape is not how we envisage the garden of Eden. Although the world is newborn, and ought to be harmonious and peaceful, it already contains ugliness, cruelty, and something like madness. Beside the central fountain there is a rock formation that resembles a huge sleeping head: the mouth is made of a nasty, squirming snake, and there is a little swarm of repulsive reptiles at the neck. Furthermore, the orthodox belief is that before Adam’s fall the animals lived at peace with one another:
In wood or wilderness, forest or den;
Sporting the lion ramped, and in his paw
Dandled the kid; bears, tigers, ounces, pards,
Gambolled before them; the unwieldy elephant,
To make them mirth, used all his might, and wreathed
His? ( Milton )
Not so here, Right in the foreground where we cannot miss them, a cat has caught a mouse and a fantastic bird is swallowing a live frog. In the rear, a boar is threatening a lizard, which is snarling defiance. Even in Paradise, something is wrong.