Dissecting Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”

At first, Hieronymus Bosch’s famed triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (1503-1515) may seem like a fairly straightforward religious painting. However, it is essentially a Northern Renaissance version of Where’s Waldo? with it’s countless miniature stories and details all competing for our attention. Here, bizarre hybrid creatures frolic alongside humans in the three separate panels representing Paradise, Earth, and Hell.

In the left panel, we see God introduce Adam to his latest creation, Eve in the Garden of Eden as unicorns and giraffes peacefully graze in the idyllic landscape. In the large middle panel, we see life after the Fall of Man. Everyone is cavorting about, engaging in every possible nature of sin. Mankind eats all of the fruit from the trees, and even indulges in giant strawberries, blueberries, and cherries. Scores of nude bodies are littered around the canvas, lost in lust. The lush flowers and fruit here represent the short-lived pleasures of the body. In the far-right panel depicting Hell, these pleasures quickly transform into pain as mankind is being punished based on their sin of choice. Even musicians aren’t safe. Bosch believed they should be punished for enjoying a sensory pleasure rather than praying. Here, their lutes, harps, and flutes become instruments of torture.

Colors also have rich meaning in this image. Pink symbolizes divinity as both God’s robes and the church-like buildings in the middle panel use this hue. Green represents goodness. The shade is ubiquitous in the first panel, but it fades and ultimately vanishes in the far-right panel (Puchko 1).

Interestingly, this painting greatly inspired Surrealist painter Salvador Dali. He was taken with Bosch’s alien-like shapes rendered in a realistic landscape (Sooke 1). Although he lived 400 years before Dali, Bosch is considered by some historians to be the world’s first Surrealist, proving the the timeless appeal of Bosch’s artistry and storytelling.

References

Puchko, Kristy. “15 Things You Should Know About The Garden of Earthly Delights.” MentalFloss.com. 14 July 2015. <http://mentalfloss.com/article/65670/15-things-you-should-know-about-boschs-garden-earthly-delights>.

Sooke, Alastair. “The Ultimate Vision of Hell.” BBC.com. 19 February 2016. 9 May 2017. <http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20160219-the-ultimate-images-of-hell>.

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