Hieronymus BOSCH




Renaissance Art Map
Hieronymus Bosch  Between Heaven And Hell
    Life and Milieu
    Artistic Origins and Early Biblical Scenes
    The Mirror of Man
    The Last Judgement
    The Triumph of Sin
    The Pilgrimage of Life
    The Imitation of Christ
    The Triumph of the Saint    





Between Heaven And Hell


The Triumph of Sin



Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights (right wing - detail)
c. 1500
Museo del Prado, Madrid



Bosch's presentation of hell is nowhere more powerfully or inventively depicted. The colour is sombre and the elements, in the main, are not found elsewhere in Bosch's treatment of the subject. The central feature, an egg-like body on two legs that float in two boats and with a wistful backward glancing head wearing a flat tabletop hat, has never been satisfactorily explained, although the egg is a key symbol for sexual creation. Others are less obscure. For example, the two ears with a knife between them is an unmistakable phallic construction; the ears themselves are symbols for gossiping, and the knife a punishment for evil acts — altogether a neat message. There arc examples, too, of anal eroticism, self-abuse, defecation and dismemberment. The sins that cause this suffering may also be discovered: for example, sloth (a man visited in bed by demons), gluttony (a man being made sick of the food he has engorged) and pride (a woman admiring herself in the mirror backside of a revolting demon).



Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights (right wing - detail)
c. 1500
Museo del Prado, Madrid



Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights (right wing - detail)
c. 1500
Museo del Prado, Madrid



Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights (right wing - detail)
c. 1500
Museo del Prado, Madrid



Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights.
The Third Day of Creation
(outer wings)
c. 1500
Oil on panel, 220 x 97 cm (each wing)
Museo del Prado, Madrid



Bosch's triptych, known alternatively as the Earthly Paradise, is the central and most familiar of all his works. It is from this triptych, and especially from the central panel, that most of the images generally known are taken and it is where his unique fertile imagination is at its most creative. Unique is a much overused word, but with Bosch there is a variety and power in his pictorial imagery that no other painter before or since has achieved. While it is perhaps true that the appreciation that his work is accorded in our time is different from that which his contemporaries felt, there is a fascination in the study of the minutiae over the whole surface of his paintings that never diminishes. As with the The Last Judgment, the grisaille panels of the closed exterior wings do not prepare one for the explosion of colour and imagery they conceal. Depicting the world on the third day of Creation, it is a sombre evocation of the conversion of the Great Void into the Earth World.

The open triptych consists of the Garden of Earthly Delights in the centre, the Earthly Paradise on the left, and on the right, in case viewers believe that they could get away with the excesses depicted in the central panel, is Hell, the most powerful and distressing of all Bosch's treatments of the subject. In both The Hay wain and The Last Judgment Bosch is reminding the faithful of the pain that will ultimately and permanently engulf the sinner. In this central panel, however, the sins of the flesh seem to be celebrated and the participants uninhibited, unselfconscious and joyful, betraying no sense of guilt. The scene is in high tone and bright, fresh colour. Erotic symbols and sexual activity of considerable gaiety abound. Bosch, unusually, seems not to condemn but to participate, and we are obliged to consider for whom the painting was intended. Although it may seem unlikely to have been for a church, the three panels taken together are not inconsistent with the other Bosch triptychs, and it may have been intended for a minor religious sect that believed in 'free love.'




The Creation of the world unfolds on the outer wings in subdued tonalities of grey and grey-green. The Creator appears in a rift in the clouds in the upper left-hand corner. In the approximately contemporary frescoes of the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo represented God as a sort of superhuman sculptor imposing form on the primordial chaos with his own hands. Bosch, on the other hand, followed the more traditional Christian concept in showing God creating through his Word; he is passively enthroned and holds a book, while the divine »fiat« is recorded in an inscription near the upper edge from Psalms 33:9: »For he spake and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast.« Light has been separated from darkness in the centre of the wing, and within the sphere of light, the waters have been divided above and below the firmament. Dark rain clouds gather over the dry land emerging slowly from the misty waters beneath. Already trees are sprouting from its humid surface, as well as curious growths, half-vegetable, half-mineral, which anticipate the exotic flora of the inner panels. This is the earth as it stood on the third day of creation.
On the reverse of the left wing, the greyness gives way to brilliant colour and the last three days of Creation are accomplished. The earth and water have brought forth their swarms of living creatures, including a giraffe, an elephant, and some wholly fabulous animals, like the unicorn. In the centre rises the Fountain of Life, a tall, slender roseate structure resembling a delicately carved Gothic tabernacle. The precious gems glittering in the mud at its base and some of the more fanciful animals probably reflect the medieval descriptions of India, whose marvels had fascinated the West since the days of Alexander the Great and where popular belief situated the lost Paradise of Eden.
In the foreground of this antediluvian landscape, we see not the Temptation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve, as in the »Haywain«, but their union by God. Taking Eve by the hand, he presents her to the newly awakened Adam who gazes at this creation from his rib with a mixture, it seems, of surprise and anticipation. God himself is much more youthful than his white-bearded counterpart on the outer wings, and represents the Deity in the guise of Christ, the second person of the Trinity and the Word of God made incarnate (John 1:14). The marriage of Adam and Eve by a youthful Deity occurs frequently in Dutch manuscripts of the fifteenth century, and illustrates the moment when he blessed them, saying in the words of Genesis 1:28: »Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.« God's injunction to »be fruitful and multiply«, which he later gave also to Noah, could perhaps be construed as a mandate to indulge in the sort of licentious activity taking place in the middle panel; but, as we might guess, the Middle Ages thought otherwise. Instead, it was assumed that previous to the Fall, Adam and Eve would have copulated without lust, solely for the purpose of producing children. After the Fall, however, all this was changed; many people believed, in fact, that the first sin committed after the eating of the forbidden fruit had been carnal lust, an interpretation which is reflected in certain erotic representations of the Fall in the early sixteenth century.
In this respect, it is significant that no children can be found in the garden of the central panel, and that inhabitants, far from subduing the earth, are in fact overshadowed by the giant birds and fruit. The garden thus shows not the fulfilment of God's injunction to Adam and Eve, but its perversion. Man has abandoned the true paradise for the false; he has turned from the Fountain of Life to drink from the fountain of the flesh which, like the fountain in the garden of the »Rose«, intoxicates and brings death.
The erotic dream of the garden of delights gives way to the nightmare reality of the right wing. It is Bosch's most violent vision of Hell. Buildings do not simply burn, they explode into the murky background, their fiery reflections turning the water below into blood. In the foreground a rabbit carries his bleeding victim on a pole, a motif found elsewhere in Bosch's Hell scenes, but this time the blood spurts forth from the belly as if propelled by gunpowder. The hunted-become-hunter well expresses the chaos of Hell, where the normal relationships of the world are turned upside down. This is even more dramatically conveyed in the innocuous everyday objects which have swollen to monstrous proportions and serve as instruments of torture; they a<re comparable to the oversized fruits and birds of the central panel. One nude figure is attached by devils to the neck of a lute; another is helplessly entangled in the strings of a harp, while a third soul has been stuffed down the neck of a great horn. On the frozen lake in the middleground, a man balances uncertainly on an oversized skate, and heads straight for the hole in the ice before him, where a companion already struggles in the freezing water. This episode echoes old Dutch expressions similar in meaning to our »to skate on thin ice«, illustrating a precarious situation indeed. Somewhat above, a group of victims have been thrust into a burning lantern which will consume them like moths, while on the opposite side, another soul dangles through the handle of a door key. Behind, a huge pair of ears advances like some infernal army tank, immolating its victims by means of a great knife. The letter M engraved on the knife, which also appears on other knives in Bosch's paintings, has been thought to represent the hallmark of some cutler whom the artist particularly disliked, but it more likely refers to »Mundus« (World), or possibly Antichrist, whose name, according to some medieval prophecies, would begin with this letter.
The focal point of Hell, occupying a position analogous to that of the Fountain of Life in the Eden wing, is the so-called Tree-Man, whose egg-shaped torso rests on a pair of rotting tree trunks that end in boats for shoes. His hind quarters have fallen away, revealing a hellish tavern scene within, while his head supports a large disc on which devils and their victims promenade around a large bagpipe. The face looks over one shoulder to regard, half wistfully, the dissolution of his own body. A similar, though less forcefully conceived, tree-man was sketched by Bosch in a drawing now in the Albertina, Vienna. The meaning of this enigmatic, even tragic figure has yet to be explained satisfactorily, but Bosch never created another image that more successfully evoked the shifting, insubstantial quality of a dream.


The Tree-Man
Pen and bistre
Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna




Much more solid, in contrast, is the bird-headed monster at lower right, who gobbles up the damned souls only to defecate them into a transparent chamber pot from which they plunge into a pit below. He recalls a monster in the »Vision of Tundale« who digested the souls of lecherous clergy in a similar manner. Other sins can be identified in the area around the pit. The slothful man is visited in his bed by demons, and the glutton is forced to disgorge his food, while the proud lady is compelled to admire her charms reflected in the backside of a devil. Lust, like Avarice, was thought to give rise to other deadly vices: indeed, as the first sin committed in the garden of Eden, it was often considered the queen and origin of all the rest. Therefore we should not be surprised, as some scholars are, to see other sins, besides Lust, punished in the Hell of the »Garden of Earthly Delights«. The knight brought down by a pack of hounds to the right of the Tree-Man is most likely guilty of the sin of Anger, and perhaps also of Sacrilege, for he clutches a chalice in one mailed fist, as does the nude astride a cow in the »Haywain«. The tumultuous group at right suffers for the excesses associated with gambling and taverns.
References to Lust, however, are not absent; it is punished in the lower right-hand corner, where an amorous sow tries to persuade her companion to sign the legal document in his lap. Perhaps he is a monk, for the sow wears the headdress of a nun. An armoured monster waits near by with an inkwell dangling from his beak. Lust is also the subject of the oversized musical instruments and choral singing in the left foreground. These scenes, as well as the bagpipe on the head of the Tree-Man, have been interpreted as a blast against travelling players who frequented the taverns and whose lewd songs stirred others to lechery. But the musical instruments themselves often possessed erotic connotations. The bagpipe, which Brant calls the instrument of dunces, also figured as an emblem of the male organ of generation, while to play the lute signified making love. Moreover, Lust was frequently termed the »music of the flesh« by medieval moralizers, a concept also reflected in the long-snouted musician who serenades the lovers in the Prado »Haywain«. It is a discordant music, contrasted to the harmonies of the divine order. How different from Geertgen's angelic concert is the harsh cacophony of Bosch's music, where the instruments which gave only passing pleasure in life are now made to give perpetual pain.
The »Garden of Earthly Delights« shows Bosch at the height of his powers as a moralizing artist. No other work painted by him displays the same complexity of thought in such vivid images. It is for this reason, more than any other, that we are justified in placing this triptych fairly late in Bosch's career, certainly well after 1500. In its didactic message, in its depiction of mankind as given over to sin, the »Garden of Earthly Delights« unquestionably belongs to the Middle Ages. Likewise, its iconographical programme, encompassing the whole of history, betrays the same urge for universality that we encounter in the facade sculptures of a Gothic cathedral or in the contemporary cycles of mystery plays. Nevertheless, it also reflects the Renaissance taste for highly original, intricate allegories whose full meaning is apparent only to a limited audience. In this respect, the »Garden of Earthly Delights« may be compared to Botticelli's »Prima-vera« (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi), for example, or to the »Melencolia l« of Albrecht Durer.
The subjects of the »Garden of Earthly Delights« and the »Haywain« make it unlikely that they were destined for a church or monastery, even though their triptych format had long been traditional for Netherlandish altarpieces. We may rather suspect that Bosch's allegories, like those of Botticelli, were painted for lay patrons. There is good evidence, in fact, that the »Garden of Earthly Delights« was owned by Hendrick III of Nassau, an enthusiastic collector of art; in 1517, just after Bosch's death, the Italian Antonio de Beatis visited Hendrick's palace in Brussels where he saw and described a painting which must be the triptych now under discussion. Even before this, however, a number of Bosch's works had been acquired by members of the Burgundian nobility. The Flemish rhetoricians and the courtly circles in Brussels and Malines possessed a taste for abstruse, erudite allegories, mostly of a moralizing nature, as can be seen in many Flemish tapestries of the early sixteenth century. It is not difficult to understand why this milieu would have been so receptive to Bosch's art.




The Hearing Forest and the Seeing Field
Pen and bistre, 202 x 127 mm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin


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