Deciphering the Garden of Earthly Delights. Part 1: The prelude to disaster

Everyone knows it. It’s been an icon, like its author, of the collective unconscious for centuries. For some people, it’s the only work they know of Bosch. That speaks of his more than deserved fame. It leaves no one indifferent. Since its conclusion, many have tried to decipher it, to reach its code, to reach the center of Bosch’s dreams and nightmares, his subconscious, the possible origin of the mysterious scenes and creatures that populate the triptych. We are going to make a tetralogy about the Triptych of the Garden of Earthly Delights to provide all its clues. So that when you visit it in the Prado Museum, you will have some idea of what you are going to see. So that these clues can inspire you when contemplating it and immerse you in the painting of Jheronimus Bosch. Who knows… perhaps it will be you who will discover the true meaning of the Garden of Earthly Delights

If many symbolic keys to the Garden of Earthly Delights are still a mystery, what about the artist’s biography? Very little is known about his life, and it is precisely his biography that could provide us with those clues that we lack to fully interpret his most famous work, the painting that launched him into the walk of fame of the annals of history. His real name was Jeroen Anthoniszoon van Aken, latinized as Hieronymus. He signed some of his paintings as Jheronimus Bosch, as he would be known worldwide.

The exact dates of his birth and death are not known. It is estimated that he was born around 1450 and died in 1516, although the exact month and day are not known. In other words, Bosch lived between the autumn of the Middle Ages and the spring of humanism and the Renaissance. And another curious fact: he was totally contemporaneous with another great master, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). However, the evidence that supports his date of birth is fragile. Nothing allows us to fix it with certainty. It is based on the copy of an alleged self-portrait that Bosch made in the last years of his life.

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This engraving is a copy of an alleged self-portrait that Bosch made at the end of his life. Experts have taken it as a reference to calculate the year in which the artist was born. Croma Cultura

Everything has been said about Bosch: that he was a member of the Brethren of the Free Spirit sect, of the Adamites or of the Rosicrucianism. That he was an adept of the extinct Catharism and that, consequently, he would have hidden symbols of the Cathar ‘heresy’ in his paintings. That his works were done under the influence of alcohol or drugs… Such are the passions aroused by the mysterious painter that hundreds of people have embarked on the adventure of decoding his life. Hence the many hypotheses that have emerged. The only thing that is certain is that we have very few clear data about him.

Be that as it may, we will devote another post exclusively to his life, but it is necessary to provide a series of basic data to understand the Garden of Earthly Delights, since his experiences not only impregnated this work, but all his production. Everything we know about Hieronymus’ life comes from two fundamental sources: the municipal archives of his hometown and a brotherhood. Bosch was born in the city of s’-Hertogenbosch or Den Bosch in Dutch, the present capital of the province of North Brabant, in what is now the Netherlands. In French it is known as Bois-le-Duc and in Spanish as Bolduque. He lived there practically all his life. Den Bosch had seen him born, grow up and die. Some authors are convinced that Bosch never left Den Bosch except to carry out occasional artistic assignments in nearby regions. Others believe that he traveled outside. During the five years from 1500 to 1504 Bosch would have been in Italy. Another example of the gaps that bog down Bosch’s biography is that the first written source that mentions him dates back to 1474. In other words, we hardly know anything about his first 24 years.

Den Bosch belonged to the Duchy of Brabant. It was an important city, the third most populous in the duchy. In addition to Bosch, it was famous for its high-quality knives, an element that the Flemish master would often reflect in his production. Its support came mainly from the agricultural sector. Religion was a fundamental and habitual aspect of the daily life of its citizens and, logically, of Hieronymus as well.

Our protagonist came from a wealthy family. It seems that his artistic ability was ingrained in his genes, since both his father, Anthonius van Aken, and his grandfather, Jan van Aken (who brought the family dynasty to Bolduque), were painters. His two older brothers, Goessen and Jan, were also painters. Anthonius would buy a property on the market square in Den Bosch, where he would set up his studio. Consequently, it is likely that Hieronymus was trained in his family’s workshop. Even so, he is undoubtedly the van Aken member who stood out from the rest by far because of his innovative and personal style.

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This would be the market square in Den Bosch painted by an anonymous artist. This is where Bosch lived most or all of his life. This is where he dreamed and imagined his pictorial universe. The black arrow points to the house where he lived with his wife Aleid van de Meervenne and where he had his prolific workshop [Fabric Market of s’-Hertogenbosch]. Anonymous-El País

The painter’s life evolved around this market square, which was a frequent source of inspiration for Bosch. He first lived in his parents’ house. When he became emancipated he stayed with his wife Aleid van de Meervenne in another house on the north side of the same square. A house in which Bosch’s fantasies would be born, because everything seems to indicate that his workshop was located there. His marriage with Aleid, the daughter of a rich merchant, came at a good time. His wife had inherited several properties in houses and lands. This allowed Bosch to live comfortably and prosper on the social scale of Den Bosch. His social status is key to understanding and contextualizing many of the symbols and characters of his paintings. Bosch would acquire the way of thinking of the bourgeoisie to which he would belong, with its moral conceptions and its visions of the world and society. An idiosyncrasy that Hieronymus would reflect in his production.

Another important episode in his life is his membership to the old Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady of s’-Hertogenbosch (we insist that religion was very important in the town, and it was obviously also important for the master), to which his grandparents, father or uncle Goessen were also members. From the archives of the brotherhood we know that both Hieronymus and the other family members carried out several pictorial commissions for St. John’s Cathedral, where the brotherhood had its headquarters. Little else is known about the artistic production of the other van Aken members. What is also interesting is that Bosch became sworn-in brother under the name of Jeroen the Painter in just one year. This occurred approximately between 1487-1488. By then, Bosch would have been about 37 years old. Why did he grow so fast in the confraternity? One possible explanation is that he gained access to higher circles of society thanks to the relaxed economic situation he acquired through his wife. Another possibility, however, is that at that time Bosch was already a renowned painter.

A very popular painter

Hieronymus would know success in life. And not just in his hometown. When his works began to have certain diffusion, he quickly began to receive commissions from nobles and courtiers. There was something about his work that attracted the attention of the most exquisite in society. For example, Isabella of Aragon (1470-1498), daughter of the Queen Isabella the Catholic, would be the owner of a painting. So would Philip of Burgundy (1465-1524) who, from the documents available, very possibly had in his hands the painting of Cutting the Stone, today in the Prado Museum. Peter Scheyfve and Agneese de Gramme, members of the high bourgeoisie of Antwerp, were the patrons of the Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi in the Prado Museum.

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The characters that appear kneeling on the side panels would be the patrons of the Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi in the Prado Museum. Thanks to the identification of their corresponding coats of arms, which appear at the ends of these panels, experts have been able to date this work with certainty and, consequently, to specify a little more precisely the period in which the Garden was made [Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi]. Hieronymus Bosch-Museo del Prado

Philip the Handsome, the son of none other than the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, ordered Bosch in 1504 to produce a painting of the Last Judgement. This work, which experts do not agree on its identification, is important because it was used for some time to date the Garden Earthly of Delights. Some specialists have identified it with the Triptych of the Last Judgement that can be visited in Vienna today. Due to its stylistic similarities with the Garden and knowing the approximate date on which it was made, it was therefore suggested that the Garden of Earthly Delights had to be close to this triptych, that is, from the first decade of the 16th century. The problem was that there was no guarantee that the triptych in Vienna was the one commissioned by Philip the Handsome to Bosch. In fact, many authors consider that this painting is lost.

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King Philip the Handsome or Philip I of Castile was another of Bosch’s patrons. The aristocracy was strongly attracted to the paintings of the Flemish master [Portrait of Philip I of Castile]. Anónimo-Wikipedia

This led to the conclusion that the patron of the Garden was Count Hendrik III of Nassau (1483-1538), another prominent member of the Burgundian court. Why? Because we know from the chronicle of Antonio de Beatis, secretary to the Neapolitan cardinal Louis of Aragon, whom he accompanied on his journey through the Duchy of Brabant, that the Garden was exhibited in the Coudenberg palace of the Nassau family in Brussels. His description leaves no room for doubt that what he saw was the wonderful Garden of Earthly Delights, which already at that time was causing astonishment and bewilderment in equal measure:

“Then there are some paintings with various bizarre things on them, imitating seas, skies, forests and fields, and many other things; some coming out of a seashell, others defecating cranes, men and women, black and white in different acts and ways, birds, animals of all kinds and done with much naturalism, things so pleasant and fantastic that in no way could one describe to those who have not seen them.

But is this reliable? Was Hendrik III the patron of the Garden? When was it really over? There is a problem: that Bosch did not date any of his works. The surest way to find out the chronology is to go to the written sources. The disadvantage is that, as we have already seen, they are very scarce. Dendrochronology, that is, the method by which the age of a wood can be established by counting its rings, can also help us. However, it can only tell us when the tree was cut down to extract the wood that the artist would later use as the painting medium. Taking into account the time that has to pass for the wood to rest, we can calculate a likely date from which the artist was able to make the work. This is not an exact method either and forces us to continue working with time scales that are still too wide. In any case, from the dendrochronological analyses it has been estimated that the wood could have been used from 1480 onwards.

Another possibility is to study the composition to try to discern some kind of clothing, activity, or coat of arms that will lead us to a particular moment in history. However, the method that has helped to solve the mystery in this case is the analysis of stylistic analogies. If we can find a Bosch’s painting whose pictorial technique is similar to that of the Garden, we could at least specify the period in which it was made. Well, that work would be the Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi of the Prado Museum. In 2004, Xavier Duquenne managed to identify the coats of arms on the side panels of that triptych: they belonged to Peter Scheyfve and Agneese de Gramme, who are precisely the characters in the praying position that appear in the foreground of the panels. Thus, 1494 was established as the year in which this work was made. As the creative process, the underlying drawing, and the surface work are very similar between this painting and the Garden, the majority opinion today is that the Garden of Earthly Delights had to be done in the last decade of the 15th century. It is likely that Bosch finished it after the Adoration of the Magi, or at least a couple of elements related to the reverse of the Garden would indicate that. Another problem arose from this: at that time, Hendrik III was still too young to be the patron of the triptych. Who was then? Probably his uncle.

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Most specialists now agree that it was Count Engelbrecht II of Nassau who commissioned the Garden of Earthly Delights. Why did he want such a strange painting? [Portrait of Engelbrecht II of Nassau]. Master of Portraits of Princes-Wikipedia

Count Engelbrecht II of Nassau (1451-1504) was one of the most important figures of the Burgundian court. In fact, he was regent of the Netherlands on behalf of Philip the Handsome. He was an art lover, although there are those who doubt that he was the true patron of a work with a moral character like the Garden because of his licentious conduct. Be that as it may, to this day he is the one who best fits the profile of the patron of the Garden of Earthly Delights. Engelbrecht would die without children. Thus, the painting would end up in the hands of his nephew, his only heir. By the way, uncle and nephew were also members of the Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady. Perhaps that’s how Engelbrecht came into contact with the master.

But the counts of Nassau would not be the last high-ranking people to have the Garden in their hands. The triptych is now in the Prado Museum, but it has remained in Spain since the 16th century. Before arriving, it would pass through many other hands. From Hendrik it would go to his son, René de Châlon. It was later acquired by his cousin, William I of Orange, the famous Dutch general who rebelled against the Spanish crown, ultimately triggering the disastrous Eighty Years’ War in the context of the wars of religion that ravaged Europe. These were extremely destructive wars that were felt everywhere, including the arts. It is believed that a significant number of Bosch’s paintings and drawings were irretrievably lost during the chaos that shook the region of Flanders in the 16th and 17th centuries. The rest was dispersed among various buyers. Also documentation that could have helped specialists to solve many unknowns and to know the master better.

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General William I of Orange inherited the Garden of Earthly Delights from his ancestors [Portrait of William the Silent]. Adriaen Thomasz Key-Wikipedia

Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, better known as the Duke of Alba, the same man who became the bogeyman in the Belgian and Dutch folklore, confiscated the Garden in 1568. Later, his illegitimate son, Fernando de Toledo, who was a great fan of painting, would inherit it. Well, his collection would end up being acquired by a character who came to rule half the world, a whole empire in which, because of its size, the sun never set. King Philip II of Spain had an obsession with the work of Bosch and, more specifically, with the Garden of Earthly Delights. Probably since he saw it exhibited in the Nassau palace during his visit to Brussels in 1549, when he was still a prince. There was something about Bosch’s dream world that hypnotized him.

Philip bought the painting along with other Bosch’s works (such as The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things) in 1591. Two years later the first records place the triptych in Philip’s sanctum sanctorum: the Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial, in Madrid. Other Bosch’s works would end up scattered in other Royal Sites such as the Palace of El Pardo or the Real Alcázar in Madrid. It seems that the king always wanted to have the Garden of Earthly Delights close to him. It is even said that on his deathbed he had the triptych installed in front of his bed, as if he wanted to have one last conversation with the painting or to try to tear out its deepest secrets in one last attempt. Perhaps he wanted to get an idea of what awaited him after death. Would he suffer in the grotesque Bosch’s hell surrounded by monstrous and fearful creatures, or would Salvation be destined for him? In 1933 the painting was moved to the Prado Museum to restore it. And there it continues to this day along with other of Bosch’s works.

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Since King Philip II acquired the triptych and assigned it to El Escorial, Spain has been the custodian of the famous painting. Wikipedia

But Bosch’s fame also manifested in other ways. Some of his drawings appeared in pamphlets of his time, for example. His work generated an enormous number of imitators and followers who, with greater or lesser success, tried to capture the spirit of the master. His characteristic demons and symbols would be a resource frequently reused by multiple artists until our times. Some even think that Surrealism finds its first exponent in Bosch.

Basic facts of the Garden of Earthly Delights

Before we begin to unravel the triptych, we are going to give a series of key points about Bosch’s masterpiece that we do not usually notice as they are camouflaged between the magnificence of the image and its symbols.

The triptych is an oil painting on Baltic oak wood. This was Bosch’s favourite material. Most of the painting media he used are made of this wood, except for The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, which is painted on poplar wood. It is a cyclopean work: the central table measures 1.85 x 1.72 meters and the lateral ones 1.85 x 0.76 meters. It is housed in room 056 of the Prado Museum in Madrid, along with other paintings attributed to Bosch or his workshop.

The triptych was a format that was used in the 15th century mainly to function as an altarpiece on temples. They were normally exhibited closed to the public, showing the painting of the reverse of the side panels when they were closed over the central one, which was generally less impressive. They were only opened in special situations, like in festivities or on Sundays. However, the Garden of Earthly Delights never decorated any altar as far as we know. And this is due to the scenery it contains. The excess of erotic and sinful scenes did not make it suitable for the decoration of an altar. But Bosch was a man of extreme intelligence. Why did he use that format if the painting wasn’t to be destined for an altar? In general, any religious image in any temple, whether inscribed on stone or painting, is intended to teach and indoctrinate. To tell a moral that helps to follow the right path. Altars are the most sacred areas of the Christian temples, therefore, the images that are exposed there will be of the most important and indisputable. The mere fact of being located in those places makes the teachings they transmit unquestionable. Bosch would have used this format to give sacred legitimacy to the Garden of Earthly Delights, suggesting that, even if it is not on an altar, the doctrine it transmits must be considered indisputable.

On the other hand, it is likely that the counts of Nassau respected the ritual applied to the triptychs in temples and that they only exposed their interior to important people or in circumstantial occasions. For example, a person of the stature of the aforementioned Cardinal Luis of Aragon could see the triptych displayed in all its splendour, as can be deduced from the chronicle of his secretary. So did Philip II when he was still a prince. The truth is that the ritual of the opening of the triptych had to be exciting. The passage from the grisaille to the explosion of colour of the interior must have provoked in many an experience close to a mystical outburst. Logically, many people are still amazed today, but surely it is not like before. Now the triptych is permanently open and everyone is familiar with the painting through the thousands of photographs on the Internet. However, in the past a few had access to it. Logically, the impression would come when it was contemplated live, since words are incapable of describing such a marvel.

However, other people did not have the pleasure of seeing the triptych open. One of them was another master of painting: the incomparable Albrecht Dürer. He also visited the Nassau palace in 1520, but left nothing written about the Garden of  Earthly Delights in his diary. Possibly because he did not see it open. It is possible that the reverse side of the Creation of the World did not attract his attention because of its dull tones and its practical absence of life.

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Surely, very few were able to see the Garden of Earthly Delights open in the past. You had to have a certain social status in order to enjoy its interior, and it seems that the great Albrecht Dürer did not meet that criterion, so he probably only saw the reverse side in the Nassau palace. If he had seen its insides, he would certainly have written it down in his diary [Self-portrait]. Albrecht Dürer-Wikipedia

Bosch’s signature is absent. Why didn’t he sign his most emblematic work? The truth is that most of his production lacks a signature. This is partly why many paintings and drawings are still subjects of intense debates, because specialists cannot agree on their attribution. It is not known if they were produced by the hand of the master, by one of his disciples or by some imitator. Even so, the Garden of Earthly Delights has always been attributed to Bosch. To understand this, we have to place ourselves in the context of the time. Signing one’s own works was an exception. This depended on the designs of the patrons rather than on the painter’s will. The artist signed his work if the patron ordered it. Bosch was one of the painters who left a lot of works signed with his famous Latinized pseudonym “Jheronimus Bosch” in Gothic letters. He adopted the pseudonym “Bosch” to link himself and pay homage to his hometown, s’-Hertogenbosch, where he produced most of his work. It is possible that Bosch’s fame preceded him and some of his patrons wanted to have his name engraved almost as a symbol of prestige.

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Bosch’s characteristic signature was inscribed in Gothic characters. Very few of his works are signed. Getty Images

We have already pointed out that Bosch did not date any of his paintings. Pilar Silvia Maroto, specialist in Flemish painting, has suggested an interesting relationship between the characteristics of Bosch’s signature and the absence of dates:

“Bosch “writes” his signature in gothic and lower-case letters, of the kind used in the new art of printing, maybe as a way of indicating that his images are like books in which one can “say” as much or more than in paintings. If this was his intention, perhaps it could be speculated that this was one of the reasons why he did not date any of his works, as his message was timeless”.

It would be absurd, therefore, to constrain his work in a specific time if the aim was to achieve the transcendence, the immortality, the infinity, not only of the art itself but of the teachings it contains.

Bosch was a man of his time. As such, he was influenced and inspired by the artistic manifestations and events of his time. That does not mean he copied. The elements that Bosch borrowed were reinvented to suit his own style. His mind was a transformative force. In all his production we see icons that already appeared in illuminated manuscripts, books of hours and medieval bestiaries. Scenes that remind us of some passages of the poems and romances of his time. However, the most important source of inspiration for Bosch was reality, his environment. When we arrive at the Hell of the Garden of Earthly Delights, we will talk, for example, about the everyday objects that function here as terrifying instruments of torture. Demons and other grotesque creatures of the Bosch imagery are chimeras composed of existent animals, objects, and plants. We will also explore some scenes reminiscent of some courtly habits of the late Middle Ages. The beliefs and moral values of their social class, the bourgeoisie, appear profusely as models of virtue to be imitated. Carnival and processions, ceremonies that Bosch had to enjoy in his home town, are also represented. The landscapes that adorn the background of many of his works are reminiscent of the rural Dutch countryside. Fires are another frequent element of the artist’s hells. They seem to allude to a traumatic experience that Bosch had when he was young.

We wouldn’t exaggerate if we said that Bosch was the Flemish da Vinci. When specialists try to analyse his artistic production, they realize how much knowledge they must have in order to faithfully interpret his works. His brilliant mind wandered through the epic fields of history, alchemy, astrology, politics, art, architecture, geography, zoology and botany (which can be seen in the very high degree of detail with which he painted various species of animals and plants), mathematics… Everything suited the master to extract new ideas. Therefore, the multidisciplinary study of his work becomes essential.

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Bosch’s works are full of everyday objects with which he was familiar. The best example is this knife that appears on the Hell of the Garden of Earthly Delights with an “M” inscribed on it that could allude to some knife craftsperson from Den Bosch according to some authors [Triptych of the Garden of Earthly Delights]. Hieronymus Bosch-El Diario

Everyone takes for granted that the work that concerns us is called Garden of Earthly Delights in allusion to the central panel. But the truth is that its real name is not known. As far as we know, Bosch did not name his masterpiece, or at least no reference to it has been found. In fact, it has not always been called that. At first in Spain it was known as “Jardín de los Madroños” (Garden of the Madrones), alluding to the abundance of madrones like fruits distributed in the Garden.

Brother José de Sigüenza, librarian of the splendid library of El Escorial, also called it this way. He described the triptych very aptly when he said

“The other table of the vain glory and brief taste of the strawberry tree, and its little smell, which can hardly be felt, when it is already past.”

It was only in the 19th century that it became known as the Garden of Earthly Delights. If we had the original title, we could surely clear up many unknowns about the symbolism and deep meaning of the triptych.

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Some fruits inspired Spaniards to baptize the triptych as the Garden of the Madrones [Triptych of the Garden of Earthly Delights]. Hieronymus Bosch-Punto Crítico Derechos Humanos

That said, let’s finally focus on the objective of these posts: to decipher the Garden of Earthly Delights (or at least provide some clues). To try to extract a global interpretation, we need to integrate ourselves into the painting. To become another character in the composition. We have to live in first person what is happening to identify the symbols and their relationships. For this reason, we will first begin with a detailed analysis of each panel in order to acquire the necessary background and thus be able to extract a general conclusion about the triptych.

The painting wants to tell us a story. A chronicle with a moral so transcendental that it directly concerns the spiritual destiny of humanity. Like any good story, it must be told from the beginning. So, let’s proceed to unjustly close the lateral wings of the triptych on the central multicoloured board to access the beginning of this story. A greyish and sad beginning if we compare it with the interior. A beginning that, opposing the hyper-coloured entropy of the interior, shows an order and a geometry that puts us in context to start deciphering the triptych. Fasten your seatbelts because we are going to immerse ourselves in a universe about which the last word has not yet been said.

The Creation of the World

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[Triptych of the Garden of Earthly Delights]. Hieronymus Bosch-Arte Historia

A transparent sphere. That’s what attracts our attention at first sight. It takes up most of the riverse of the side wings. Inside it contains a mixture of trees and fantastic plant structures. The greyish paint gives the scene an almost desolate look. It looks like a wilted nature that has not yet manifested its splendour. A curiosity is that Bosch did not make a previous drawing. In contrast, he painted the scene directly as we see it.

The earth and some cliffs begin to appear timidly from the waters, because that sphere is filled in its lower half with primordial waters. If we look up to the dome of the sphere, to the sky of that globe, we see that it is overcast. Some clouds don’t seem to augur well. However, among the dark clouds some rays of diffuse light prevail.

At the upper left edge, amidst the dark mist, an ethereal, spectral-looking old man appears. With a beard and languid hair, he wears a robe and carries a crown. He quietly observes the gigantic crystalline sphere. He holds an illegible book in his left hand and with his right hand he seems to be blessing. A very tenuous ray of light departs from his mouth and hits the gigantic sphere.

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God, with a Bible in his hand, observes his magnum opus on the third day of Creation [Triptych of the Garden of Earthly Delights]. Hieronymus Bosch-Museo del Prado

Above, on the upper edge of the panels, there are two Latin sentences:

“Ipse dixit et facta sunt”
“Ipse mandavit et creata sunt”

They mean: “For he spoke, and it came to be. For at his command they were created”. These are biblical quotes, specifically from Psalms 33:9 and 148:5. Those quotes are referring to God the Father, the majestic elder who contemplates his creation from outside. From his mouth emanates the creative power, the Word with which the world is made. The book he holds is possibly the Bible.

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The quotes from the Psalms allude to the creation of the world [Triptych of the Garden of Earthly Delights]. Hieronymus Bosch-Museo del Prado

Then, logically the sphere is the Earth, our world. The emergence of the earth gives us another clue: Bosch painted the world during the third day of Creation, when God separated the earth from the waters and made the vegetation, including fruit trees. Thus was born the Earthly Paradise, a central element in the Garden of Earthly Delights as we will see later. The composition is monochromatic, and it makes sense, since God has not yet created the Sun, the giver of color. Moreover, the most astute will have noticed that the surrealistic structures, those mirabilia, look suspiciously like the ones we will see inside the triptych. This indicates that the scenario is the same, although changed over time. That is, Bosch painted the world from an external perspective, the same as that of God, thus taking on his role, that of Creator.

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The similarities of the half-plant, half-mineral structures on the back of the triptych and the left and central tables are evident. Much of the story that Bosch is telling us therefore evolves in the same place: the Earthly Paradise [Triptych of the Garden of Earthly Delights]. Hieronymus Bosch-Museo del Prado

Let’s look at the vegetation of this faded world. Some plants have fruits. The fruit is a recurring icon in the Garden. They appear especially in the central table. It is one of the delights. We will return to this subject in future articles, but it is quite possible that fruits are a metaphor for sensuality and sex. In the end, a fruit is nothing more than the result of the fertilization of plants.

Sex can be twofold. In the Christian context it is a sacred act as long as it responds to the divine command “grow and multiply”, and therefore it would have a laudable objective as long as it is destined exclusively for that purpose. But sex can also be a source of sin. When sex merely responds to the satisfaction of the passing pleasures of the flesh, it leads to lust and compulsive behaviour. So, is Bosch telling us that evil, represented in this case by uncontrolled human passions, is already integrated into the world itself since its creation, the purest and most perfect work of God? Is it inscribed in nature itself? It would make sense in Christian cosmology. What did God do on the first day of Creation? He separated light from darkness, good from evil, and according to St. Augustine, he expelled Lucifer and his retinue from heaven because of their pride. Another work by Bosch is very revealing in this regard. In the upper part of the left panel of The Haywain, Bosch represented the expulsion of the rebellious angels. During the epic celestial civil war, some angels spilled from the clouds as they took the form of various plagues, vermin and undesirable creatures. These end up plunging into the earth and waters, the same world in which mankind will later inhabit. From then on, those creatures will haunt and tempt man with various tricks, always with the aim of corrupting the pure creation of the One who had expelled them from Paradise, in a kind of revenge.

Now we take the reader back to the beginning when we discussed the date of the Garden of Earthly Delights. We said that in this part of the triptych there could be a clue that would help us certify that Bosch made his masterpiece after the Adoration of the Magi of the Prado Museum. That key would be in the figure of God the Father. Hieronymus was an extremely learned man. Surely he had access to a great number of books, illuminated manuscripts, works of other artists, etc. Well, the figure of God is very similar to the carving of God the Father elaborated by Michael Wolgemut that appears in Hartman Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle. The same text of the Psalms also appears there. This manuscript was edited in 1493, so it would be logical that the Garden was finished after 1494. Another plausible analogy can be found in some drawings of Saint Anthony the Abbot which, although initially attributed to Peter Brueghel the Elder, the second Bosch, were later assigned to the Flemish master. Indeed, those old men rendered in brown ink remember the God Father of the Garden by their postures and attire. Experts estimate that these drawings must have been done between 1495 and 1505, so if they were done before the Garden, it must automatically be later than the Adoration of the Magi.

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On the left, the carving of God the Father from the Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartman Schedel. On the right, drawings originally made by Bosch. Among the grotesque figures are sketches of St. Anthony the Abbot. Both images are very reminiscent of God the Father of the panel of Creationof the World, so they could have served as a source of inspiration for the master. Wikipedia y Hieronymus

That’s how this story begins. The story, the moral that Bosch wants to tell us. In the following posts we will reveal the secrets of the entrails of the triptych. Many wonderful things await us.


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