Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights – Non-Fiction


Feature Writer: Dr. Sally Hickson

Feature Title: Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights

Link: Hieronymus Bosch

Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights

Finally, All Hell Breaks Loose

Bosch saves the best for last. Earlier visions of Hell, if indeed that’s what Bosch intended here, are pretty tame in comparison to this. Against a backdrop of blackness, prison-like city walls are etched in inky silhouette against areas of flame and everywhere human bodies huddle in groups, amass in armies or are subject to strange tortures at the hands of oddly-clad executioners and animal-demons.

Dotted about are more crazy machine-like structures that seem designed to process human flesh. Some of these are strikingly disturbing. Near the center, a bird-like creature seated in a latrine chair, like a king on a throne, ingests humans and excretes them out again; nearby a wretched human is encouraged to vomit into a well in which other human faces swirl beneath the water.
In general, the bodies purge themselves or are purged of demons, black birds, vomitus fluids, blood; as in any good Boschian world, bottoms continue to be prodded with various instruments.  But the general emphasis is on purgation.
Overall, there is a marked emphasis on musical instruments as symbols of evil distraction, the siren call of self-indulgence, and the large ears, which scuttle along the ground although pierced with a knife, are a powerful allusion to the deceptive lure of the senses.  In fact, many of the symbols and the tortures here are pretty standard in the catalogue of the Seven Deadly Sins, in which our senses deceive our thoughts into self-indulgent over-consumption.
One key element here, however, requires some explication—the central, Humpty-Dumpty-ish figure who gazes out of the scene, his cracked-shell body impaled on the limbs of a dead tree. The art historian Hans Belting thought this was a self-portrait of Bosch, and a lot of people believe this, but it’s impossible to verify. Still, it quite strikingly illustrates the presence of a controlling, human consciousness in the center of all this tortured imagining. And this is where my interpretation parts ways with those who have come before.

Because, while “Bosch’s” mind (if it is a self-portrait) might be distracted with thoughts of lust, symbolized by the bagpipe-like instrument balanced on his head (standard phallic

stand-in), within the hollow of his body, a tiny trio of figures sit at a table as though dining. To me, these three figures are reminiscent of Genesis 18.2, in which God arrives at the door of Abraham, accompanied by two angels (all disguised as ordinary men) and Abraham, without question, offers them his humble hospitality. As his reward, God bestows a miraculous pregnancy on the aged Abraham and Sarah, declaring that, through this act, Abraham will father God’s chosen tribe on earth. This would also be consistent with Psalm 33.12:
“ Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people he chose for his inheritance.”
God then sends his angels (who are kind of early incarnations of FBI agents) to investigate matters in Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham uses this opportunity to intervene with God on behalf of the wickedness of the people there:  “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” he asks.
It seems to me that this is the question the whole triptych asks—whether God, having made the world and having conferred on man both the blessing and the curse of free will, would destroy all of his creation in the face of human failing. This is the fundamental connection between these inner panels and the destructive flood depicted on the outer wings.  Bosch’s lesson, if there is one, seems to be that we can choose good over evil or we can be swept away.  Man proposes, God disposes.
About Hieronymus Bosch — Wikipedia As so little is known of Bosch’s life or intentions, interpretations of his intent have ranged from an admonition of worldly fleshy indulgence, to a dire warning on the perils of life’s temptations, to an evocation of ultimate sexual joy. The intricacy of its symbolism, particularly that of the central panel, has led to a wide range of scholarly interpretations over the centuries. Twentieth-century art historians are divided as to whether the triptych’s central panel is a moral warning or a panorama of paradise lost.