Very few paintings in the history of art have so puzzled viewers as Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Only now perhaps, in our present new age of folly, can its meaning be made clear. Today we take a brief look at the right panel of Bosch’s triptych called Hell. …
The panel on the right, balancing Paradise, is hell. It is not the conventional medieval hell, where apelike devils torment sinners with instruments used by human torturers- pincers, hot irons, and boiling oil. Nor is it an organized hell like that of Dante, which is the work of Divine Reason, constructed according to the three Aristotelian categories of wrongdoing: Incontinence, Violence and Malice. It is all like a drug dream, a nightmare, or the interior of a manic’s mind. This one of the ruling ideas of Hieronymus Bosch: that health, virtue, and heaven are calm, orderly and reasonable, while illness, sin and hell are wild, random, and senseless.
Beside’s Dante’s Inferno, there are many other visions of hell that have been described in considerable detail by men of the Middle Ages. But, in all such descriptions, it appears that hell, in its essentials, is logical and systematic. It is a kingdom. Its citizens are the devils, who oppress the damned souls as the bad nobelemen and their soldiers oppressed the peasants in earthly life. Its monarch, Satan, supernaturally huge and infernally hideous, reigns at its center, eternally tormented by god’s decree, and himself tormenting the worst of human sinners, chewing and mangling them.
In such a hell the fiends all do what bad human beings would do if they had almost infinite power and ingenuity. They appear to be using their mind to inflict pain; they are jailers, interrogators, torturers, working under a system of law and giving evil for evil. But for Bosch, hell is the abrogation of the intellect. In his hell, very little happens for any intelligible reason- except that sometimes a sinner is apparently punished by the worldly device that led him into sin, as when a soul who loved profane music too well is crucified on a harp, or when gamblers are pinned to the gaming table….
Meisler: Yet for Bosch and the medieval mind, this world was brimming with symbols of sin – with water birds and fish and ripe strawberries to signify lewdness and lust, with evil crying out for damnation. As punishments, Bosch meted out some of the most terrible tortures ever devised by the human imagination. Sinners are strung on a harp, crushed between a lute and a book, abducted by beasts, severed at the neck, dipped into slime, swallowed by a bird, violated by a flute, kissed by a pig, cut open by swords, chewed by dogs, drowned in seas of fire. No one escapes; no one is saved. A modern viewer can not help feeling anguish and anger at punishment that seems so enormously out of proportion to the sins.Read More: http://www.stanleymeisler.com/smithsonian/smithsonian-1988-03-bosch.html
…But the monarch of Bosch’s hell is not an angel in reverse, turned black and equipped with bat wings, nor, like Dante’s Satan, a three-headed antithesis to the Holy Trinity. It is a monster in which nothing is human but the face, and that is not evil but vacuous. Its legs are dead trees, hollow and stripped of bark; its feet are ships in water, one nearly capsizing. Its body is a thin, empty eggshell inhabited by a few unconcerned figures and one beast. Its head is not a skull with a crown, but a flat disk surmounted by a bagpipe, around which little monsters, not very scary ones, lead sinners.
A subaltern demon is punishing gluttons, which we can tell because he wears a cooking pot for a crown and beer jugs for shoes, He eats h
ictims alive and then excretes them into an open latrine. This painful and a little revolting, but it is also ridiculous, and even in a black humorish way; kind of funny. Bosch makes it even more comic by adding a silly looking man to vomit into the mess and, anticipating Freud’s identification of avarice with the childish collection of feces- by making a sinner void gold pieces into it from his anus.
Although the demon is gross, he is neither large nor formidable, and he is avenging only one particular sin. He is not the monarch, for the monarch is the central monster. The one follower of Bosch who understood him best also placed a fragile impotent being like Bosch’s Tree Demon at the central regnal point of hell: Pieter Bruegel in “Dulle Griet”. Bosch means that Satan, after his fall, lost nearly all his godlike semblance and all his power; only the subordinate demons remain active.