Reflection on “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1500)
“For he spake and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast”. So does Hieronymous Bosch introduce us to this most stunning Triptych, which we now call “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. On the exterior shutters, the Earth on its third day of creation is presented – pristine, sacred, almost deceiving the viewer that all is still – until one dares to open the doors onto the drama within.
When Hieronymous Bosch painted this triptych around the year 1500AD he wanted to convey a message on the nature of creation, and in my opinion, on humanity – on the way it was heading, on the choices ahead. Some may say that perhaps, as an environmentalist, I am skewing the message to my interpretation – but then one can reply it is art, doing what it does best, speaking to us across the ages.
The Triptych itself, when opened, invites the reader to read it from left to right. On the left panel of the triptych, there is a scene from Eden. We are presented with an innocent, quiet, beautiful Earth. Exotic animals, some real and some fantastical are found in the painting. In the distance birds fly in stunning formation through a strange spherical object. There is order, and God presents Eve to Adam in the foreground. The eyes of God look straight at
the viewer, commanding attention, and focus, and, perhaps a warning at what is to unfold? Who knows? The message is in the eye of the beholder, but the intent is easy to visualise.
Our eyes are inevitably drawn to the centre piece of this triptych. Gone is the quiet order of the left side. There are people – hundreds of them, mostly naked in various activities. There is action, life and vibrancy. Many people are engaged in acts of sexual allusion – this is obvious as one focuses in greater detail. The domain of man is everywhere to be seen – in the actions, the closeness of bodies, the ease of intimacy.
God is absent as a clear entity, but very present in the natural colour scheme. Green and blue still dominate the landscape. There is great life, and the overall sense of fertility and abu ndance is still very present in the panel, even though a sense of overwhelming population does strike the eye.
And lastly, we turn to the right panel – what Bosch himself called Hell. A dark, decaying landscape devoid of life dominates this panel. Cities burn in the distance. The human body is tortured here – gone are the hedonistic pleasures of the central panel. Music, a pinnacle of human invention, is used as an instrument of torture, shown without too much disguise. A man is eaten by a terrifying blue demon with a cooking pot as a crown, while birds fly out of his anus. A terrified man is being seduced by a pig dressed as a nun. People are being tortured by demons, a knight is being eaten alive by dogs.
And in the midst of this terrifying vision there is a figure of a tree-man, pale and twisted, and in it the artist paints himself looking backwards in a gaze of fatalistic acceptance as if saying this is what will become of us, the inevitable result of reckless abandon. God here is totally absent. No light, save that of burning ruin. No green, no blue. Just blacks, greys and reds, horror, pain, torment.
One may view this painting from a totally religious perspective, yet its vision draws us to seek deeply. Where is mankind heading?
How are we treating this Garden of Eden that God has given us? Is our wanton destruction and abuse of the fragile Earth depicted on the exterior and left panel of the triptych being treated properly? How does the centre panel speak to you? Examine it in depth – there is so, so much going on – so much to say on the nature of human existence. And the right panel – is indeed mankind heading recklessly to a post-God world of death and decay? One where industrialisation has killed off life? Where life itself is nothing but torment and pain?
One need not look too far to see this in the world around us – the environmental devastation wreaked so we may enjoy the excesses of our modern civilization are easily accessible at our fingertips.
Are we, like the twisted man, accepting that “inevitability of it all” and ignoring the warning gaze and imploring of God in the left panel? Or are we, indeed, looking at the right panel in horror and silently deciding not to let that future happen to us or our children? Because, for the first time in history, we have the power to indeed bring forth the realities of the right panel, to the ruin of all. The ecological crisis and nuclear weapons make it possible in our lifetimes.
Thus, in this triptych, the visions of Bosch are not just stunning but possibly prophetic. His message is quite clear to those with eyes to see. May his vision, half a millennium ago, inspire us to care for the fragile Earth God has given us to enjoy and care for.
John Paul Cauchi