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Deciphering the Garden of Earthly Delights. Part 2: A deceitful paradise

Once we have seen the Creation according to Bosch, it is time to go inside the triptych, a painting that was conceived to analyze it in the way a book is read, from left to right. We will continue to focus on the details. We want the reader to get his or her own general vision of the Garden of the Earthly Delights because that is what it was made for: to induce the intellectual and emotional exercise of the viewer. Without further ado, let’s start with the left wing, the so-called Paradise board

In addition to the colour explosion, the first thing that stands out is the extensive landscape, which allows for the accommodation of a large number of characters and scenes. Bosch achieved such breadth by placing the horizon very high, a technique that we will also see in the following wings.

We could divide this board into three segments: the upper one, in which fantasy structures predominate, almost hollow and with a hybrid aspect between vegetable and mineral that reminds us of those we saw on the reverse; the intermediate one, starring the pond with the fountain; and the lower one, focused on the three characters surrounded by animals, chimeras and various plants. We could also divide it into two halves delimited by the pink fountain if we follow the chronological narrative: the upper one, in which the creation of the animals would be told, and the lower one, where the creation of humanking would be told.

The landscape crowning the horizon looks suspiciously like the one we saw in the Creation of the reverse, formed by capricious and polymorphic, dreamlike structures. Pointed and lanceolate mountains that almost preserve the grisaille of the outer board. They are so similar that one could deduce that we are in the same place: the earthly Paradise, the same one that we saw emerging from the primordial waters in the sphere of the world. The place where God will place life, including man.

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In the landscape of the Paradise wing, the polymorphic structures that we already saw on the back of the triptych are repeated. Museo del Prado

Besides mountains, they look like dry vegetables. Old fossilized trunks from which some fruit-like structures still hang, adorned around them by luxuriant forests. The living and the inert are mixed in an ideal alchemical amalgam, paying homage to the exquisite master’s skills. Some of these mountains seem to be filled with fumaroles and flames, as if hell itself was exultant.

The mirabilia on the left are dominated by birds. They are of multiple colors, although those of black predominate, color that alludes to the dark. Some of them are introduced in the empty shell of an over-dimensioned egg, which has been related to the alchemist’s melting pot, the fundamental instrument of the alchemist to reach his Great Work. Birds could be the very alchemists who seek solitude and retreat to concentrate on their purposes according to some authors. In contrast, others fly over the polymorphic geological structure.

The emerging Evil

As we go down, strange scenes begin to appear, things which should not be there, as soon as it is assumed that in the earthly Paradise the only thing that should prevail is peace, innocence and order. To the right of the scene of the birds we see an episode of manifest violence in the lion that has hunted a deer, surrounded in turn by some of those dark birds that seem to be waiting their turn to get a piece of meat. A symbol of corruption and death in the midst of what should be a haven of purity. A little further to the right, another scene does not bode well. What looks like a mustelid is aggressive against a wild boar and its offspring. As for the porcupine that appears immediately below, Bosch manifested in it a technique that he would frequently use in his production. The animal has several conspicuous white dots.

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A bloodthirsty lion hunts a deer in the middle of Paradise. Evil has gained access to the most perfect place on Earth. Brewminate

If we keep going down, we will find exotic animals: an elephant with a monkey on its rump, an albino giraffe and what looks like a kangaroo with a dog’s face. How did Bosch get to know these species so geographically distant from their country of origin? It is worth mentioning again that the master was a very cultured person, and as such, with a great breadth of vision and an overflowing curiosity. In addition, in his hometown he had access to libraries and monasteries, authentic stores of best-sellers. Specialists have identified dozens of potential sources of inspiration that Bosch could have used. In this case, Larry Silver has proposed Bernhard von Breydenbach’s Pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a source of inspiration for Bosch, a book that was widely distributed during the late Middle Ages, although this does not help to explain why a kangaroo appears, when the European people did not come into contact with the “Terra Australis Incognita” until the 17th century (as long as it is a kangaroo and not another animal transformed by the Bosch’s imagination). Nor can we rule out the medieval bestiaries, in which both real and imaginary creatures received their own moral meanings.

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In Bernhard von Breydenbach’s work there are some animals that also appear in the Garden of the Earthly Delights’ Paradise [Peregrinatio in terram sanctam]. Bernhard von Breydenbach- Metmuseum

In the centre of this zoo of exotic species, a bear appears climbing a tree that reminds us of the characteristic symbol of the city Madrid in Spain, the Bear and the Strawberry Tree, although it has nothing to do with the Garden. Some authors have thought that it could be an allusion to lust and the devotion to worldly and ephemeral pleasures and, consequently, to sin. The bear eagerly tries to reach the fruits of the tree, which, like those on the back of the triptych, could represent lascivious and impure sexuality.

On the left, a herd of deer, a bull and even a unicorn water quietly in a pond, symbolically opposing the chaotic hunting scene that we have described before. While this violent episode symbolizes Evil, corruption and futility, the quadrupeds of the pond, and above all the figure of the unicorn, could represent purity and innocence. The opposites thus confront in order to stand out on the scene,  as if one cannot exist without the other. They are complementary opposites.

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Bosch imagined an earthly Paradise inhabited by a great biodiversity of real and fantastic exotic species. The Great Courses Daily

The Fountain of Life and the owl

The next thing that our attention is the sumptuous fountain. Its spherical base occupies the geometric center of the board. Again, its architecture reminds us of a plant, although it seems to have been covered with a pearl layer. Once again we find two contrasting episodes. On the left, several species of birds (ducks, egrets) swim and drink peacefully. But on the right, a group of dark creatures begin to colonize the land, like those ancient fish amphibians of 400 million years ago which left the aquatic environment to take the next evolutionary step. All of them are blackish, a symbol of evil and impurity. Vermin of capricious forms, batrachians and reptiles, some three-headed and demon-like, climb an anthropomorphic rock that could allude to the Demon. Upon that rock, a serpent writhes and constricts the trunk of a tree with delicious fruits that quickly reminds us of the famous forbidden Tree of Knowledge or Science. The same tree that Eve and Adam ate from, spurred on by their infinite curiosity and by the Devil metamorphosed into a tricky snake. For wanting to acquire one of the aptitudes destined exclusively for God, the capacity to distinguish Good from Evil, the first humans would be expelled from the Garden of Eden before they also tasted the fruits of the Tree of Life and become immortal and indistinguishable from God. It is, therefore, a prophetic image, a “flashback” of what is to come.

The various vermin emerging from the central pool, presided over by the Fountain of Life, would symbolize evil, corruption and, in short, the illusion of a false Paradise. Pinterest
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La fantástica Fuente de la Vida de la tabla del Paraíso, totalmente reelaborada por el maestro, protagoniza una escena contradictoria, en la que el Bien y el Mal pugnan por el control. Wikimedia Commons

Let’s go back to the beautiful fountain. It could symbolize the Fountain of Life as described in Psalm 36:9:

“For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light”.

If we pay attention, that fountain occupies the same axis of the board as God (incarnated with the appearance of Jesus Christ) and has the same colors as his robe, indicating the clear relationship between both. God and the fountain are related to life: the former has just given it to Eve and the latter is surrounded by beautiful and exotic birds. Several important details can be seen at its rocky base. Not only does the fountain itself look like a precious stone, its black substrate also seems to be covered with pearls. The pearl was considered in the Christian context as a symbol of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, the giver of life, just like the fountain. Several glass tubes also stand out. There are authors who have wanted to see here an allusion to the mother of the occult sciences: alchemy. Those crystal tubes would be test tubes and other instruments of the master alchemist, of the one who transforms the impure into pure, the one who transfigures. Likewise, and following this way of thinking, the blackish mineral substrate could represent the first alchemical phase that will end in the Great Work, the nigredo. It is the crudest stage of the alchemical process, the most materialistic. But it is in turn necessary to reach the final phase or rubedo, in which the philosopher’s stone is purified, here represented by the pink fountain.

Did Bosch practice alchemy? We do not know, but it is certain that it was a very widespread science in his time, since in the middle of the 15th century, when the Renaissance was germinating, various authors claimed its goodness and the need to reconcile it with the Christian doctrine so that the faithful could achieve a full spiritual transformation. Popes and emperors would end up liking it, as well as great theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas. Be that as it may, there are authors who interpret the entire work of Bosch in an alchemical key, as if the master had codified the alchemical process of spiritual transformation under layers of cryptic symbols. Irrespective of the plausibility of this interpretative aspect, one could indeed consider painting as a kind of alchemical activity. The painter has to mix different substances in order to obtain the right pigments, those that will animate the final work, the Great Work. And like the alchemic Opus Magnum, the Garden of the Earthly Delights had a fundamental function that we will analyze later: the spiritual and Gnostic transformation to achieve the full communion with the divinity.

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On this sheet of the illuminated medieval codex Speculum humanae salvationis, a possible source of inspiration for Bosch, there is a structure reminiscent of the Bosch’s Fountain of Life. They even share the colour. Codices medievales

However, in Bosch’s works nothing is what it seems. In the centre of the spherical base there is a hole in which an owl is housed. The dark color of that section contrasts with the warm and immaculate colors of the rest of the fountain. Again, goodness and sin struggle to stand out in the painting. Because this is how one could interpret the presence of this bird which, on the other hand, is one of the most frequent elements used by the master. It is a nocturnal bird of prey, master of the night and darkness. It avoids daylight, lighting. That is why in this context it could also symbolize stupidity and madness, both sources of sin. Its location is not accidental: it is in the geometric center of the board. It appears in the same axis as God, the symbol of the sacred and light, as its nemesis. However, it could also have positive connotations.

Christians gave the owls an ambiguous meaning. They are creatures that, because of their habits, have night vision. They can see in the dark. At times, Christians would turn to this ability to relate these animals to the divine knowledge of Jesus, which can pierce the thickest darkness of ignorance. They were in turn symbols of knowledge and prophetic vision, as in ancient Greece. Specialists have attributed to them both interpretations in Bosch’s works. Another possible interpretation is that given by Friar Joseph of Sigüenza, Philip II’s librarian, following the classicist traditions of his time. Owls would be guardians of wisdom, representatives of the pagan goddess Minerva. In this way, their frequent appearances in the Garden would be inviting us to study the painting and to converse with it in order to extract important and transforming lessons. However, there is something disturbing about this animal. It is its gaze. Is it looking directly at us, the viewer? It is very likely. It is scrutinizing everyone who looks at this painting with its enigmatic eyes. With its powerful vision it can see the state of our souls, our thoughts. In a way, it’s a mirror image of the viewer by inciting him to introspection. It is instigating us through his hypnotic gaze to self-analyze, to reflect on whether we are acting correctly or not. About the path we want to take. With its presence, perhaps it is warning us that evil is ubiquitous, that it is could be found in the most unsuspected places, including Paradise itself. It watches over us and tempts us at every step we take. We cannot let our guard down, because it is always there, crouching and lurking.

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Watch out for the disturbing owl that sibilantly rules the centre of the board, because it seems to be trying to tell us something, perhaps a personalised moralistic message for each of us. The Esoteric Bosch

The secrets of the triad

When we passed the tree barrier, we finally reached the main scene. The three main characters are surrounded by an abundant and diverse fauna. We find again a mixture of real animals and others completely fantastic that could perfectly arise from the imagination of the author or from the bestiaries and drôleries of the illuminated manuscripts. See for example the unicorn fish or the three-headed bird. The monk newt who is reading a book at the pond is striking. Perhaps Bosch could have been inspired by a carving that is now kept in the British Museum and in which a very similar creature appears. Once again we come across the broad culture of the master, or perhaps that of the patron of the painting. This strange hooded creature has been identified as a devil, another element associated with evil and corruption. And he is not alone.

Another possible source of inspiration for Bosch could have been the book Hortus sanitatis by the German Johann Wonnecke von Caub, where in one of his carvings a fish monk appears, like the one in the Garden of the Earthly Delights. Museo del Prado (2016)

From the pond, whose colors no longer inspire confidence, emerge multiple batrachians, creatures with negative connotations, often related to lust and sin as we will see later. But there are also many violent scenes in the surrounding area. On the left, a feline has caught a rodent and two extravagant birds are fighting over a toad. On the right, just above the waterhole, another chimeric bird with a spatula-shaped beak gobbles up another batrachian. The pond has also been linked to the fate that awaits Adam and Eve according to Pierre de Beauvois. In his bestiary, he compares the world outside the Garden of Eden to a pond full of adversity and torment.

The biological richness that saturates the disturbing pond is striking. Surely, every creature has its own meaning, but broadly speaking, what is most present is Evil. Fernando Plaza Ponce-Twitter

The whole painting is extremely groundbreaking, revolutionary. It destroys the classic concept of Paradise. It’s supposed that only Good and kindness predominated then. Yet Evil in its many forms roams on the primordial earth. Devils and vermin take over the board. Those rebellious angels expelled from the heavens and turned into undesirable creatures watch over humanity practically from their genesis. Humanity is condemned to deviate from the beginning of time.

If we turn to the codex Speculum humanae salvationis again, we see another scene that reminds us of the “demonic pond” that is just below God, Adam and Eve. Códices medievales

All is not lost, however. A ray of hope emanates from the purity of the three central characters. There is another tree that attracts powerful attention. It has a very peculiar and distinctive shape. It cannot be other than the luxurious drago (Dracaena draco), a species endemic to the Canary Islands and Morocco. Again, curiosity led the master through the most unexpected paths. It is quite possible that Bosch was inspired by the engraving of The Flight into Egypt by the German painter Martin Schongauer, where a very similar drago appears. Another very similar one also appears in Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, to which we referred in the previous post. Clearly German painting was an important source of inspiration for the master.

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The dragon tree in the Garden of the Earthly Delights could symbolize the Tree of Life. Wikipedia

All right, but… why is there a drago? Is it just a decoration element or is it hiding something else? Bosch’s mentality is very complex and labyrinthine. We would be naive if we didn’t try to extract a deeper meaning from his symbols. Many claim that the drago would be the Tree of Life, the one that confers immortality, the same one that God planted next to the Tree of Knowledge. And on which, ironically, he imposed no restrictions. Adam and Eve could quietly eat its fruits, but they chose the forbidden tree instead. It was then that God expelled them from Paradise. Some exegetes believe that he did so for the good of mankind. Because if, after eating from the Tree of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve had eaten the fruits of the Tree of Life, they would have been eternally condemned along with their descendants (that is, all of us) to live in sin. Therefore, redemption and forgiveness would be impossible.

Now, that was the meaning that Christians gave to it. However, the Tree of Life is an ancient concept shared by various cultures, such as the Sumerians, Persians, Hindus or even the Celtic and Nordic cultures, in which it is manifested as the Yggdrasil. It is an archetype, therefore, with a lot of meanings. It is the interdimensional intermediary, the one that connects through its trunk and branches our world with the Beyond and with the kingdom of the gods. In more ancient times, when the Mother Goddesses and, in short, the Earth were still worshipped, the tree of life was constituted as another appendix of the benevolent goddess, the one who still continues to give us food and shelter, even if we constantly “sin” against her. She is the embodiment of fertility, reincarnation and/or immortality. The latter are probably the most plausible interpretations in this case, since the medieval Western Christians related the Tree of Life to Christ Himself by its qualities. Likewise, some authors addicted to the alchemist interpretation of the Garden of the Earthly Delights have interpreted this plant (as well as the Fountain of Life) as an allegory of the mythical Philosopher’s Stone, the same one that not only transforms impure metals into gold (metaphor of spiritual transformation) but also grants immortality through the elixir of eternal life. Even so, what is unquestionable is that if the drago, with all the meaning it has, was placed so close to the protagonists of this painting, it is because it is related to them. By the way, thanks to modern analytical techniques we know that Bosch did not plan to introduce the drago into the painting at first and that he would add it later.

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It is advisable to keep this image in mind and to sharpen your eyes as you read the following paragraphs, because only these three characters keep a myriad of secrets. Pinterest

We have left Adam, Eve and God to the end because of the mysteries they hold. Beginning with God himself, here presented with an aspect closer to that of Jesus Christ than that of the classic bearded old man that, for example, we saw on the back of the triptych. This is just unusual. God was usually represented as we have just described and with the attributes of His divine power on Earth, such as the sphere of the world, a crown, a papal tiara, or even with the panoptic eye on his head. Nevertheless, God appears here as a humble Christ, dressed in a pink robe of scarce ornamentation. He is clearly related to the Fountain of Life, not only because they share an axial position in the painting but also because of the color of his robe, the pink, a possible symbol of creation and, therefore, of life. However, the curious thing is that Bosch was originally going to paint God with his classical physiognomy. How do we know this? Thanks to the expert eye of the specialists and current technology. One of the innovations that Bosch applied to art is the simplification of the number of layers. Bosch added a few thin layers of color. This technique had a double advantage: it saved time because the layers dried earlier and materials. So thin are the layers that they often allow a glimpse of the underlying drawing, the first sketches on which Bosch would paint the final work. The master’s incipient ideas. In this way, the underlying drawing is the incipient creativity of the master, a door to his psychology and to his almost chaotic, permanently changing way of thinking.

Unfortunately, the naked eye cannot always access this base code, especially when the painting surface is not homogeneous. Therefore, until infrared reflectography or X-rays could be applied, experts could not penetrate the paint. The wait has been worthwhile, because the information these techniques provide is truly interesting. On the one hand, because it makes it easier to attribute the works to their author, as long as his personal style can be identified. And on the other hand, because they can provide clues to interpret symbols.

The change Bosch made to this scene is drastic. For example, God the Father was originally going to appear in his classic design. In the underlying drawing his face was oriented towards Adam, but in the final painting it is oriented towards Eve, though scrutinizing the viewer. He seems to be battling for the viewer’s attention with the owl of the Fountain of Life. Always the Manichean struggle of antagonistic and irreconcilable principles. Another substantial change was Adam’s position. At first he appeared with his arm resting on his waist.

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With the infrared reflectography we can see the first sketches that Bosch had in mind and that, for some unknown reason, he decided to modify. It seems that, in the beginning, God was going to be represented with the classic aspect: an old and bearded man. Moreover, instead of looking at the spectator, he turned his face to Adam. La Vanguardia

However, the most important alteration affected the whole scene because, although it seems the opposite, Bosch is not representing the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib. In fact, that is what he was going to represent at first, but he changed his mind. We cannot know what his motivation might have been. Perhaps it was his own patron, Engelbrecht II, who ordered him to do it… Anyway, at first his mind came up with the idea of making a classical composition of the creation of the original parents, but he changed it for this very unusual scene.

What is represented here then? Specialists believe that it is the presentation of Eve to Adam, although more specifically it could be the Institution of Marriage, a scene for which the master could have been inspired by a miniature of the illuminated codex Speculum humanae salvationis, another “best-seller” of the late Middle Ages. We see a levitating Eve, fragile, almost submissive before God. With clear, pure and immaculate skin, just like her companion. She looks drowsy, just waking up from her eternal sleep, possibly enjoying her first heartbeats driven by her contact with God. He takes her by the wrist to offer her hand to Adam while He blesses with his right hand the first conjugal act in the history of mankind, in the manner of a priest. Eve seems to offer her hand to Adam, who is sitting peacefully on the grass, with his ecstatic gaze fixed on his Creator rather than on Eve, as if he were having a vision. However, art historians know that Bosch left nothing to chance.

Adam’s gaze is lost in the face of Christ. Is he envisioning the future of his avatar and therefore of his own history? Pinterest

The amount of hidden secrets is incredible. Even the mere posture of the characters holds a great deal of information. Let’s see. Let’s look at Adam’s position first. He’s sitting with his legs stretched out and his feet converge with God’s right foot. Well, this detail, which at first sight seems insubstantial, would have an important meaning that would tie in with some late-medieval theological teachings with which Bosch was familiar. Art historians believe that the posture of Adam’s legs is a prefiguration of the Passion of the Christ, specifically when He is nailed to the cross. It is like a prophetic image. If we look at it, Adam’s feet are crossed over each other, just as Christ’s will be.

In addition, in some late medieval miniatures a strange woman was often added to this episode. She is emerging from the Christ’s wounded side. An analogy to the birth of Eve. But who is this unknown woman? It would really be an allegory. She is not a biblical character, but a representation of the Catholic Church. With the death of Jesus Christ, a community will be born around his figure, the seed of the Church. Therefore, both episodes would be related. Adam and Eve, Jesus Christ and the Church. They have been united since the beginning of time. Jesus Christ will be the avatar of Adam, even his nemesis, since Jesus’ mission mission is to redeem the original sin that began with Adam. The Church is the tool through which the faithful can achieve the divine forgiveness for the “sin” committed by the first mother. This is known as the theory of typology, according to which the elements or (arche)types of the Old Testament are the shadows or prefigurations of those of the New Testament. The story would thus behave like an uroborus.

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Medieval miniaturists sometimes added a strange woman coming out of the wound in Christ’s side when He is on the cross. It would represent the birth of Mother Church, an analogy to the birth of Eve from Adam. Museo del Prado (2016)

There is more about this typological prefiguration. According to Genesis 2:21, God puts Adam to sleep before extracting Eve from him. Why is he awake here when he should still be sedated? Yet, he is staring at God in a trance. What about God? Is he taking Eve’s hand to marry her to his partner or to Himself? Some researchers are betting on the second option, probably because that scene reminds them of many others that appear in wedding contexts in paintings of the time, as in Jan van Eyck’s masterpiece, The Arnolfini Marriage.

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The Arnolfini Marriage by Jan van Eyck. The way Giovanni Arnolfini holds his wife’s hand reminds us of the way God holds Eve’s hand in the Garden of the Earthly Delights. Wikipedia

Perhaps this is yet another prefiguration which, in this case, would refer us to the sacred union between Jesus as the new Adam and the Church as the new Eve. It has even been said that Adam might be experiencing a vision of what his avatar will suffer in the future. All this seems to us to be a hidden code finely concealed by the artist, but because we have lost the optics and the thought of our ancestors. There has been such a drastic cultural metamorphosis that we hardly understand Bosch’s message. However, it is very likely that any person from the late Middle Ages with an average cultural level and with a minimum access to the artistic, literary and folkloric references used by Bosch could interpret all these symbols without major problems.

On the other hand, we should not isolate this scene, but try to put it in context with the rest of the composition. As the recent creation of Eve coexists with all the scenes related to corruption and sin, Bosch may be relating all those events. Not in vain, according to Christian tradition, it was Eve who initiated the Original Sin and the condemnation of humanity, which here could be understood as the transgression of the Institution of Marriage and the surrender to the temptations of the flesh. Thus, with the arrival of Eve, sin also arrived in this deceptive and contradictory Paradise. Later, it would be its avatars, Christ and the Church, who would restore that institution.

To conclude, let’s remember a possible message that we studied when we saw the Creation of the world on the back of the triptych. We were saying that fruit trees and oversized fruits could be a symbol of eroticism and sex. That sex is a double-edged sword. Depending on how it is used, we will act according to the divine will or violate the sacred law. In this painting we could identify that message in the nakedness of the primeval parents and in Eve’s own creation, since her arrival planted the seed of carnal desire in Adam. Did not her actions, eating from the Tree of Good and Evil, respond to the ephemeral pleasure and the fall into temptation? Is not sex that seeks carnal pleasure the same thing: a fleeting pleasure proper to the flesh and unworthy of the higher spirits, such as, for example, those of the hermits, the same ones that move away from everything material and vulgar? We leave you with this last reflection so that you can take it into account when we analyze the central board of the triptych, a consequence of the scene that is told in this one, and where eroticism and sensuality will take the leading role.

To consult the first part, click on the following link:

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


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