There are very few paintings in the history of art that have puzzled viewers to the extent that “The Garden of Earthly Delights” has.It is one of the most enigmatic pictures ever painted. It is hard to say if the meaning has become clear in our more hedonistic era. Every generation seems to have its own follies, but Hieronymus Bosch’s message remains visceral and blood-chilling.
Bosch worked in Hertogenbosch in southern Holland from about 1480 to 1515 or thereabouts. He gave his picture no title whatever, and in some ways it is unlike any other paintings by Bosch himself or by other artists. It is unique. This means that its puzzles are that much harder to solve.
In shape it is complex. Most painting obey a rectangular form, but this is a triptych; three paintings fastened together horizontally by hinges. And this is the first problem: the three pictures seem to have little or nothing to do with one another. They are different in theme, emotional tone, and composition. It could be surmised they were three separate paintings that some prudent owner had fastened together for safety reasons.But Bosch himself indicated clearly that the three form a unit.
The two side pictures fold together like shutters to cover the central panel; and on their backs Bosch has painted a fourth scene, a unitary composition spreading over both and joining them inseparably. This was common for altarpieces, but Bosch’s work was not conceived as such. Looking at this complex arrangement and studying the scene painted on the backs of the side panels, we cannot help but conclude that Bosch intended us to see not three paintings but four, and to look at them in sequence: first, the scene on the outside as an introductory statement; and then, after the triptych is opened, the three inside, which comes as a revelation.
On the back, that is, on the outer covering, Bosch has depicted a majestic scene glorifying the power of God the Creator. It shows the world on the third day of Creation, before mankind and the animals were called into existence. The earth is there, and the sea surrounding it, and the stormy clouds in the firmament above, and grass and trees; some of them fantastic and to our eyes unnatural in shape. God sits far apart from the world, gazing at it and holding an open book. There is deep meaning in this.
One of the great philosophical problems with which men have grappled, both before and after the establishment of Christianity, is why the world exists with all its imperfections and mutabilities; why god created it, since god is from all eternity self-sufficient and does not need to produce a world of temporal change such as ours. The dilemma is apparent. Before the world was brought into being, God was perfect and infinite. What good did it do him-or her- to create it? God did not require worshipers and no need to demonstrate power. There was nothing to be gained by calling the world into existence, and would not suffer loss if he chose to blot it out into primal nothingness.
Something of the mystery can be seen in the outer panels of Bosch’s triptych: the earth appearing like a newborn planet; and God, although contemplating it and willing its existence, far removed from it and high above. In order to unite the two parts of this picture still more ineluctably, Bosch has written in tall, stiff Gothic script, a bimembral sentence from the Book of Psalms:
“For he spoke, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast.”
In a way, this is a continuation of the Northern Renaissance presentation whose most characteristic figure, Albrecht Dürer, the German painter and engraver, has already been featured at this forum. But here ends all resemblance between these two great artists, as Flemish Bosch emerges unique in the history of painting with his eerie, enigmatic art – a strong and absolutely original art which owes nothing to any other artist, characterized by apocalyptic scenes of Heaven and Hell (or the Golden and Iron Ages of the Classical Tradition?) in such masterworks as The Last Judgement’s left wing, central panel, and right wing (in Vienna),… and of course all three panels of The Garden of Earthly Delights, including its back painting (known as God creating the Earth) when closed .Read More: http://luismgoitizolo.com/Bosch.htm
By large the most famous and celebrated of his master pieces, Bosch’s Garden is indeed the epitome of his whole production. I will not attempt to dig into its meaning, since over the last centuries, tons of ink and paper have been spent to that end. But rather than just apocalyptic scenes of Heaven and Hell, on the left and right wings I can perceive echoes of the Golden and Iron ages of the Classical tradition, or – what is the same – the idyllic Past and dreadful Future of mankind; while on the long and chaotic Present between those ages, fantastically depicted by Bosch on the central panel, one may hear resonances of the Silver and Bronze ages of the same tradition. I am talking of a prophetic vision such as the biblical prophets Elias, Ezekiel and Daniel might have; and remember that Bosch was “talking” of a present that is our past, and of a future that is our present. As to the Earth featured on the outer wings, so evocative of the post-Deluge account, it only adds a key element to a conception of history ruled by the notion of cyclic ages; for the rest, it is almost identical to certain archetypical images of the most diverse origin – notably in the Buddhist and Celtic iconographies, where such notion was ever present. Read More: http://luismgoitizolo.com/Bosch.htm