Reading Hieronymus Bosch: The Pleasures and Perplexities of Art History Today

by Frederick Turner

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1450-1516

At a recent small conference on early Flemish art, sponsored by the Liberty Fund in Washington, D.C., an important issue for all artists and appreciators of art arose. I had been invited to this remarkably interdisciplinary gathering, including historians, philosophers, theologians, artists and of course art historians.

Though there was lively discussion and pictorial analysis of artists from van Eyck to Bruegel, the discussion became most heated and most interesting when we considered Bosch’s great triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, especially the square central panel. How to interpret it? Could it possibly be an altarpiece? Hardly, considering its subject matter that would certainly have prurient interest to a late medieval audience. Yet the hinged triptych form would instantly remind its viewer of an altar.

On the left wing is a depiction of God in the Garden of Eden creating Eve and presenting her to Adam. On the right is one of Bosch’s best and most horrific depictions of Hell, especially so because of its inclusion of the tools of ordinary human arts and skills, especially musical instruments, turned into implements of torture. At the center is a riotous and wildly colorful crowd of humans, birds, animals and mythical beasts disporting themselves on land, sky and water; in the middle of this is a pool filled with beautiful women of different races, surrounded by a circular carnival cavalcade of men and animals riding every kind of mount from horses to pigs, bears, griffins, cats, goats and camels. The geometrical center of the whole triptych is a white unhatched egg resting near the edge of the girls’ pool. The general theme is of eternally young human couples celebrating, reaching for, grasping, and enjoying delicious fruits—cherries, blackberries, strawberries—and each other.

How to read the triptych? One traditional interpretation is that of theologically orthodox Catholic Christianity, familiar from Dante’s poetic visualizations: God creates a perfect world on the left and gives it to humankind; we fall, and corrupt ourselves with brutish pleasures of sex and gluttony; and we are of course punished by the most exquisite torments on the right, where our artistic pleasures are turned to agonies and ghastly disproportionate nightmares.

This interpretation would seem to be reinforced by the panels on the backs of the outer wings, which when closed would show a monochrome grisaille view of the creation of the world according to the book of Genesis. It’s a flat-earth universe: This world is a disc floating on water held in a transparent sphere or firmament.

But wait—its edge was what Columbus did not fall off twenty years before the painting was made. The point is that this image is a conservative anachronism; Columbus’ voyage to the Americas had physically demonstrated the roundness of the Earth. Magellan was already preparing to circumnavigate it. And he did it with the patronage of the same political régime that commissioned The Garden of Earthly Delights (The house of Nassau: in Bosch’s time they were Catholic servants of the Spanish Hapsburgs, but later Nassau counts became the Lutheran leaders of the Dutch war of independence). Bosch cannot be entirely serious about his depiction of the creation of the world.

And when the panels were opened, the effect must have been like those first magic moments when Dorothy steps out of her house into Oz: a riot of almost bewildering color and movement. Underneath the disproved literal account of Genesis is a very different universe. And the wild beauty of the central panel cannot but be the product of an imagination that was at least half in love with those delights. Even if the scene is nightmarish, it also has the addictive sweetness of an erotic dream, an atmosphere of unbridled freedom and play.

Indeed, William Fraenger, a German art historian, proposed in 1947 that the painting had been secretly commissioned by a Dutch sect of Adamites, the Brotherhood of the Free Spirit, and alchemically represented their conception of Paradise: the ideal spiritual life of embodied fleshly joy. They were secret nudists, and believed that enlightenment came through a transcendence of sexual roles, group marriage, free love, and sexual equality, where there is no marrying or giving in marriage. We might think of the Tantric sect of Hinduism, the Gnostics, the beliefs of William Blake and our own hippie Summer of Love.

But then, why is there a vision of Hell on the right panel? Some alternative answers:

1. Hell completes the traditional cautionary tale. The beauty of the central panel illustrates the attractiveness of evil to our fallen human nature.

2. Bosch puts Hell into his piece to give the work a moral ending and placate the Inquisition: he and his patrons, who want to enjoy the free-love fantasy, know better. And the deception must have worked, because the painting ended up in the Escorial Palace of the Spanish kings, the ascetic heart of Catholic orthodoxy.

3. Like Milton, who, according to Blake, “was of the devil’s party without knowing it,” Bosch’s prophetic eye beholds a true paradise, and while his conscious mind rejects the Garden as an abomination, his subconscious mind, available to him in dreams, celebrates it.

4. The painting should not be read simply from left to right, but as a sort of Aristotelian diagram. At the left is an excess of naïve and sexless innocence. The right depicts an excess of artificial and perverse consciousness, moralistic laws having created sin and guilt, and an artistic technology leading to war, sadism, destruction and horrifying abuses of nature. It is the result of what Blake decried as a religion of death:

"And priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds, And binding with briars, my joys and desires."

—William Blake: “The Garden of Love” from Songs of Experience

In the center is an idyllic vision of a sinless experiential happiness, humanity in harmony with nature, art as the bridge between humans and the rest of nature.

Or is the meaning of the work a superposition (as they say of quantum indeterminacy) of all four meanings? And is not this power of fertile ambiguity the very heart of the arts—especially painting? 


American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2016, Volume 33, Number 3