Thinking about art in the fifteenth century, you would not be at fault if the first thing that came to mind would not be some farfetched characters inspiring confusion. You would rather think about religious symbols in the era of the Middle Ages. In the works of the Dutch ‘old master’ Hieronymus Bosch, you can find both. As wacky as it is realist, one of his main pieces of art, The Garden of Earthly Delights might be Bosch's most accomplished work. I was around 10 years old when my parents brought me to an exhibition of the painter in S’Hertorenbosch where this piece of art instantly became an object of fascination for me.
posed of three panels tied to each other forming a triptych, which is a very common form of painting in European religious art. When the two flexible panels are closed, another drawing appears. This is a representation that is not often seen by the public. Indeed, since the piece is shown from the inside, the outside part is invisible. It can certainly be explained by the choice of the artist to hide what we never see in general, as it represents the Earth as a globe with a tiny representation of god creating it.
When you open the panels, bright colors jump to your eyes, your mind troubled by so much information at the same time. That is one of the reasons I love this piece, each time I look at it, I discover something new. It is that there are a bunch of heavenly creatures mixed with the Bible’s characters that make El Bosco known all over the World. It is difficult, even for the most advanced art critics to identify the motivation of Bosch to be so out of his time and alternative. What we can first see is the omnipresence of religious traits. On the one side, the garden of Eden can be perceived on the bottom of the left panel, whereas the central panel seems to represent paradise. On the other side, the panel on the right gives some hellish perfumes. I find quite spectacular the fact that we can even, through his work, discover what could be heaven or hell. If it was only that, Bosch would seem like a perfectly suitable painter of its decade. However, it is not that simple. This painting is full of surprise and its sexual allusions are parts of it. These are omnipresent in the painting and can be understood in different ways. Some see these allusions as another of Bosch's wacky ideas, others see them as representative of sins since the work is explicitly linked to the Catholic religion.
The first time I saw this painting; I remember myself admiring it without understanding, rather carried away by its authentic beauty. The omnipresence of magical creatures, music, and food add another dimension to this piece of work. Bosch seems to want to represent everything and its opposite: heaven and hell, light and dark, passion and boredom, and all sorts of sins that go with it. Years later, doing some research, I realize a meaning has been given to many characteristics, from the colors chosen, going through the assembly of some characters. However, this painting still raises questions such as "why does this guy have a music score tattooed on his buttocks?” And that remains a mystery.
Looking at this painting every emotion can be felt, each character is fascinating and trying to understand it could take hours, and it is worth taking a look at it. You start from admiring the beauty of religious art at that time, to the humorous depiction of some weird animals, passing by being shocked to see a phallic-shaped animal in a religious piece. Finally, you end up being perplexed regarding the last panel and the thrills it might give you. This garden might not only be full of delights but also by the sweet madness of Bosch…
You can find a high resolution reproduction of the Garden of Earthly Delights on Wikimedia.