Life in the central panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s greatest painting, often called The Garden of Earthly Delights, is unencumbered by conscience, clothing, or cognizance of any higher goal than pleasure. There has been no more enigmatic painter than Bosch, with his air-borne fishes, ubiquitous birds, and such curiously ingenuous hedonists as the couple in the central panel.
The painting, a triptych measuring seven feet by almost thirteen feet has fascinated generations of visitors to Madrid’s Museo de Prado, but what its message may be is a question that has long been debated by authorities. The Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych of a rather uncommon type. In this painting, 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 of 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.
Strictly speaking, the triptych is not blasphemous or heretical. But, it is heretical to declare that the Incarnation of God was in vain, that Jesus did not succeed 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 al 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. Almost a painting and message to sit your wrists to.
Also, and with some difficulty, it is hard to connect with Bosch’s view of sin as mere folly. Generally, when we think of crimes, it is those which do not destroy at once, but which corrupt and corrode incrementally. But why go on? We are surrounded, haunted and harassed by individual to individual inhumanity; yet are always looking for a better place, a safe haven, a cleaner more sane place to live, but attacked and plagued by the devils of the world, human in face and animal in soul. But this blatant aspect of wickedness is something Bosch hardly sees.
Bosch’s admirer and successor Pieter Bruegel knew it well, Bruegel lived when the Spaniards were oppressing the Netherlands with fire and sword and so painted The Massacre of the Innocents and other scenes of strife and slaughter. Bosch however, seems to consider sin should be regarded, even if mortal, as a form of foolishness, without nary a glance at its darker aspects. Its a bit on the variation of the banality of evil line, in which the chasm is crossed through the application conscious or not, of thoughtlessness; a willing complicity inconstructing the conditions of one’s own demise where each contributes an effort without the other knowing. He will depict a few men fighting or stealing but real cruelty and torture he places in hell; unless we are meant to look at the triptych from a different point of departure, the notion of redemption is subsumed by violence of the nihilistic variety.
What Bosch saw around him was a fat and flourishing world in which the body was hypertrophied and the spirit decaying. It was in this time period that German Sebastien Brant wrote the satire Ship of Fools, which showed all variety and manners of menidiots bound for the land of stupidity, a concept Bosch illustrated in an early picture.
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 all else rules mankind. The greatest paintings of Hieronymus Bosch are inspired by that spirit of bitter laughter and contemptuous despair.