Deciphering the Garden of Earthly Delights. Part 3: The Garden of Lust

Let’s turn another page in our peculiar illuminated book. Be careful, because what is coming now is not easy to digest. We reach the central table, the heart of the triptych, the purest entropy. Our eyes do not know where to go. There are too many characters and actions. Too many explosive colors violently penetrate through our retinas. It is best, therefore, to try to follow an order

The central board can be divided into three sections, just like the table of the Garden of Eden. Three divisions in which, from top to bottom, disorder tends to increase: the upper third, where those strange structures appear, is the most ordered, the most peaceful, the most geometric. The middle third, with its flighty procession of knights, begins to show more entropy, until we reach the lower third, where people, animals, and vegetables are distributed everywhere, without rhyme or reason. Let’s start at the top.

The false Paradise

The first thing that should draw our attention is the horizon line. It seems that this landscape continues with that of the Garden of Eden’s board. In fact, even the vegetation and the architectures of both boards look alike. There is a continuity. This has allowed specialists to establish a geographical and temporal framework. The central board would therefore be the continuation of Paradise in a future time, overpopulated by the lineage of Adam and Eve. Therefore, there is a space-time logic. Another evidence that we are still in the Garden of Eden is provided by the lavish central fountain, a structure that, like the rest, seems to be a gigantic jewel set with vegetal motifs, structures and ornaments that resemble flowers, leaves and fruits. Some authors have identified it with the Source of Life that we saw in the previous board, although it seems to have evolved. Certainly, the structural similarities between the two are apparent. Consequently, we should quickly associate this scenario with chastity, innocence, and sinlessness.

However, what really indicates that we are still in Eden is the pond where the pearlized fountain stands and where four streams flow. According to Genesis 2:10-14, the Garden of Eden was watered by a main river into which four other rivers flowed: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates. These four headwaters could be perfectly associated with those shown in this board.

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Four rivers converge in the central pond, referencing those that watered the Garden of Eden according to Genesis. Wikipedia

Well, we are in Paradise. But this is a bit of a strange Paradise, and not just because there are too many people. Let’s concentrate on the central building. It shows multiple fractures and cracks. It’s imperfect, as opposed to the Source of Life on the left board. They can also be seen in the “mountain” on the left, although they are less obvious. It is as if it was dying. Its structure is weak, fragile, futile. It seems to be alluding to transience, to the temporal, but of what?

An interesting hypothesis proposed by some authors is that this species of sumptuous petrified trees could represent the peculiar “attractions” that the Burgundian court had in the gardens of the Castle of Hesdin, in the manner of our amusement parks. An interpretation that could be deduced from the strange “playful” activities being carried out by the acrobats on those structures, such as those that delighted the courtly public in the representations and interludes. Perhaps, we could interpret these scenes as a disrespect towards God’s work, as if those people were making fun of it through their crapulous acts. Be that as it may, we must bear in mind that the Garden of Earthly Delights had been requested by Count Engelbrecht II of Nassau (or by his nephew according to some authors), who may have been interested in introducing striking and opulent structures to give an aspect of magnificence and splendor to the painting.

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The incredible structures that crown the central board show cracks and numerous thorns. They are far from the perfection of the Source of Life of the left board. Slideshare

Other of these dreamlike constructions are crossed by thorns and sharp elements, which we can also see in many other parts of the painting. Thorns could have a negative meaning, associated with pain and suffering, like Christ’s crown of thorns. They could also refer to hostility, as thorns are a defense of plants against herbivores. In short, these elements could represent Evil, which is corrupting and sibilically destroying the Source of Life and the rest of wonderful structures emerged from God’s Creation. The same Evil that God sent to earth when he expelled the rebellious angels and that, at the end, would tempt mankind. It is an interesting contradiction that we already analyzed in the previous post: a place that should be pure, is nevertheless full of allegories of evil and sin.

The skies are full of mythical creatures, possibly taken from some medieval bestiary or illustration. The griffin in the left corner reminds us of the one that appears on page 141r of the Book of Hours of Count Engelbrecht II. This could have been another source of inspiration for the master, as we will analyze later, or it could have been the count himself who wanted to capture some elements of his Book of Hours in the painting. The cabinets of curiosities, those wonderful exhibitions of all kinds of fantastic and extravagant objects, many of them fake, could also have been an inspiration. False unicorn horns, griffin feathers, mermaid scales… anything could have activated the transformative power of Bosch’s mind. Be that as it may, the fruit stands out as the main element. We see that the riders carry fruits, surely evoking passion and love with their fiery reddish color. In particular, the winged man who walks away with a fruit in his hands could mean temporariness and transience, but of what? We will understand this better. However, the griffin that carries in its claws what some have identified with a batrachian is already giving us some clues. Let’s remember that amphibians were associated with evil and, more specifically, with lust…

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A lot of mythological beings fill the skies of the Garden of Earthly Delights, each one with its own meaning and of which today we can only speculate. TeePublic

The followers of the alchemist exegesis have also given their own interpretation. They have proposed that the glass tubes that are part of the marvelous construction on the left would allude to the flasks of the master alchemist, and that the people that are entering into the enormous eggshell (in the same way that the birds on the board of the Garden of Eden did) could evoke the retreat and isolation of the alchemist. Likewise, the pink color of some of the structures could refer to the phase of the rubedo, to the attainment of the philosopher’s stone.

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The strange group of people that is entering in an empty eggshell, as the birds did in the left board, has been interpreted as an allusion to alchemy and the Great Work. Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, the people of the central fountain draw our attention. Like most humans in the board, none of them are alone, but in pairs or groups. We see two individuals upside down, another couple parleying, a man trying to reach the hand of a young woman who is bathing… In the structure’s cavity there is no longer an owl as in the board of the Garden of Eden, but four individuals in extremely suggestive attitudes. Of one of them, only his butt can be seen. But let’s look at the most enlightened couple. The man is touching the woman’s genitals. It is a scene with a marked eroticism and nothing innocent, like, surely, the others that we have described. Many others like this are spread out along the rivers, starring both humans and fantastic creatures. The nudity itself evokes eroticism, which in turn is enhanced by the behavior of the characters on the board. Undoubtedly, taking this into account, the myriad of individuals that timidly emerge from within the most distant structures incite us to think of orgiastic meetings and promiscuity, reprehensible behaviors and, logically, inseparable from sin.

Eroticism appears everywhere in the board of the Garden. Cultura genial

We could highlight two more scenes in this part of the board. One of them is formed by a large group of people gathered around a gigantic fruit, similar to a madrone or strawberry. To the right we see another group desperately trying to reach the fruit impaled on the mysterious bird’s long beak. They look like social activities, perhaps games related to sex and. By the way, just above and to the right of the bird appears a horned and armored creature with a kind of shell that looks very much like the varmint perched on the anthropomorphic rock of the Garden of Eden board. Likewise, on the left, a man emerges from a forest mounted on a dark centipede of reptilian aspect. More devils infiltrated in Paradise?

The strange meetings seem to allude to some social activity, although the epicenter is always a fruit, usually red. The vermin semi-concealed by the landscape also give us clues about the moral value of the behavior of the characters on this board. Wikipedia

A very unexemplary court

Let’s go to the middle section. The number of people, animals and fruits is multiplied exponentially. There is less and less space left for landscaping. The scenes suffer from increasing chaos.

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Middle section of the central board. Wikipedia

However, the most important part is undoubtedly the center ring. That frenetic procession of naked and unarmored knights who are wildly riding a rich diversity of mounts (for which Bosch may have been inspired again by the count’s Book of Hours), surrounding a pond full of carefree young black and white women, mostly blond.

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On page 132v of count Engelbrecht’s Book of Hours, a group of horsemen are shown riding on a variety of mounts which, why not, could have inspired the master. Museo del Prado

It seems a kind of courtship and, therefore, another symbol related to eroticism. The strange postures and contortions of the riders have reminded specialists of a very common type of dance among the noble classes of the late Middle Ages. Charged with a high sensual content, the Moorish dances were a social act of the courts. A kind of competition in which a prize was awarded to the participant who performed the most sophisticated and difficult dance. A prize that, sometimes, could consist of a woman, so that the dance became a courtship. In conclusion, the people of the Garden of Earthly Delights could therefore be courtiers who, as we are seeing, are the protagonists of a multitude of sinful and lustful acts. Is Bosch criticizing the unseemly courtesan customs of his time? Why was Bosch so daring? Perhaps it is not that he was very daring, but perhaps it was Engelbrecht himself who asked him to give expression to that criticism, which may be related to the function that the triptych could have and which we will analyze next.

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On the left, representation of a Moorish dance in a relief of the Staircase of Knowledge of the University of Salamanca. On the right, Moorish dance by the German engraver Israhel van Meckenem. Twitter (Colección Mariano Moret) & Museo del Prado

Consequently, we could deduce that the extravagant group meetings that we have seen in the previous section and those that also appear on both sides of the “courtship” could also respond to other customs and courtly games. That is, in fact, what some authors have proposed. Although extremely reworked by Bosch, these rings of people could be representations of interludes, brief theatrical pieces that were performed at courtly banquets during the breaks, hence their name. On many occasions, these interludes were really sophisticated and complex, with sound and light effects, acrobats (like those that swarm around the crystal towers), lavish decorations (sometimes similar to the dreamlike structures of the table)…

Reindert Falkenburg has also proposed that the formation of the riders is reminiscent of the soldiers’ parades, of the triumphal processions that Bosch may have seen sometimes in his town.

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Words are superfluous when comparing both illustrations. Clearly, these riders evoke the formation of a parade. Likewise, some of the knights in the engraving of the Triumphal Procession of Maximilian I are crowned by animals or zoological motifs with heraldic meanings, such as the riders in the Garden. Museo del Prado

Thus, the fruits and the real and fantastic animals that the riders carry and ride on could be different heraldic motifs of those medieval soldiers. One of the most striking is the porcupine, which has been associated with King Louis XII of France. The duchy of Burgundy was a fief of the French kingdom given to the dukes of Burgundy. But both the dukes and Philip the Handsome wanted the independence of the duchy. According to some historians, Louis XII’s grandfather, Louis I of Orleans, founded the Order of the Porcupine. It is possible that this animal is there to evoke the political division between France and Burgundy. That is, as if this were not enough, we must also take into account the political sentiments predominant in the time of the master, another difficulty added to interpret the symbols of the triptych. We could split hairs. If the main message of the board is related with sin and evil, it is plausible that Bosch related them to the French monarchy through heraldry, for example.

On the left, a knight of the Order of the Porcupine carrying the classic emblem of the same. On the right, one of the riders carries a banner with a porcupine. Perhaps Bosch wanted to hide a veiled criticism directed against the French king. Wikipedia & Pinterest

It has also been suggested that the different mounts could be allegories of the seven Deadly Sins, as manifested in some illuminated miniatures. Thus, the animals would be telling us about the sins committed by their respective riders. For instance, horses, impulsive quadrupeds, may mean lust and uncontrol; wild boars and pigs could represent lust, greed, or gluttony of their riders. Camels could be associated with pride because of their haughty way of walking, etc. As we see, the scene is too ambiguous to draw a definitive conclusion. Even so, what is fairly clear is that lust and lasciviousness are very present.

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In this illuminated miniature, the seven Capital Sins are represented, incarnated in the animals ridden by the knights. Do the animals of the Garden transmit the same message? Museo del Prado

We could also identify representations of Flemish proverbs. At the right end of the circle, three men are holding a giant fish which is swallowing a smaller one, an allusion to the saying “the big fish eats the small one”. If we assume that these riders are representing members of the Burgundian court, it is possible that this figure is a denunciation against the abuse of power that the richest and most powerful exercised over the humblest.

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Bosch’s works would be full of allusions to various Flemish proverbs according to some experts. Wikipedia

Uncontrolled lust

Let’s look down at the last stretch of our journey through the central board and leave it static for a few moments, because acclimatizing to such noise and disorder takes time.

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Last third of the central board. Museo del Prado

The little geometry that was left is now gone. It is the absolute entropy. As in a carnival, everything is inverted. Fruits and animals are bigger than humans, a resource that Bosch could have extracted from some illuminated manuscripts, in whose borders fruits and vegetables appeared overdimensioned compared to the miniatures they accompanied. An example can be seen in the following image, which belongs to page 133r of the Book of Hours of Count Engelbrecht II.

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Museo del Prado

Sensuality and eroticism reach their peak here. Almost everyone is in couples or groups, in a relaxed and carefree attitude, enjoying the delicacies and benefits that this strange Paradise seems to give without asking anything in return. Individuality is almost non-existent. Almost everyone depends on the rest. They have lost their personal and individual essence, their own identity, which made them unique. Now they are a herd, a confused beehive mind. All of them share the moral consequences of the behaviors of the others. Almost all of them behave the same way and do the same things: eat, drink, frolic, enjoy, play. They seem to enjoy an absolute freedom, but to be truly free, each one has to take responsibility for the consequences of his or her actions, something that these people seem to ignore.

We have already seen that Bosch was attracted to nature. It is a frequent source of inspiration for the master. But Bosch tried to represent plants and animals as faithfully as possible to reality. He was not only a master at scrutinizing the human soul, but also at reproducing the wonders of nature. The best example is the numerous birds that occupy the pond on the left of the board. We can see a robin, a male mallard, a kingfisher, a goldfinch, a hoopoe, or a green woodpecker. The level of detail is such that Bosch seems to anticipate the scientific drawings that will proliferate from the 19th century onwards.

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El Bosco supo plasmar la belleza de la naturaleza como nadie. Redbubble

All these birds are, without a doubt, very striking. But just below, another bird forces us to turn our gaze away to face it. It is a tawny owl, and like the owl on the left board, it stares at us with its abyssal and penetrating gaze. It is not the only owl that appears here. On the right, on a spiny flower held up by two individuals, there is an owl that also spies on us. We already mentioned that these nocturnal birds of prey could be a symbol of Evil by evoking darkness and night. In this context they can also symbolize madness, that is to say, stupidity as defined by Erasmus of Rotterdam: moral and intellectual stupidity, the reprehensible behaviors that keep us from the right path, the same that the humans of the Garden, drowned in sin and totally deviated, seem to claim. To such an extent, that a man embraces and pays homage to the tawny owl and two individuals raise the other owl above their heads, as if they were praising him.

Again, Strigiformes appear on stage to question the viewer. Pinterest & The Eclectic Light Company

We have already alluded to the central symbol of the Garden of Earthly Delights, but it is time to make it clear. Bosch represented a humanity completely devoted to sin, and this is manifested through one of the most repugnant impulses of Christian morality: lust. In Corinthians 6: 18-20 it is clear:

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies”.

We already said it. Sex has two sides: if it is used to fulfill the divine command of “grow and multiply”, we will be acting correctly, according to the divine will. On the contrary, sex resulting from the misinterpretation of that command and from the abandonment to the temptations of the flesh, to the carnal desire, is sin and, consequently, we will be acting in virtue of the devil’s will.

From this, we could deduce that Bosch had a very pessimistic vision about the spiritual destiny of humanity. From the violation committed by Adam and Eve, most of humanity would be destined to embrace sin. In the board it is very difficult to find someone who repents of his acts and seeks forgiveness. All of Adam and Eve’s children, regardless of their ethnicity or social status, are focused on the same thing, on enjoying worldly pleasures, on forgetting about redemption and the spiritual search for the Good. Very few, those who follow the path of virtue and the right model of life, which for Bosch was exemplified by hermits and ascetics (they are very frequent characters in his production), will achieve Salvation at the Final Judgment. The rest will end up suffering the most unspeakable punishments in hell for the whole eternity.

Lust mainly and other capital sins are represented both explicitly and allegorically. We have already seen some obvious examples, such as the couple groping inside the Fountain of Life. Another obvious case of lust and eroticism is the couple enclosed in a cracked glass sphere emerging from a beautiful flower in the pond of the birds. Specialists have related this scene to another Flemish proverb, another evidence of how important it is to have a complete knowledge of the socio-cultural context in which Bosch lived to interpret his work:

“Happiness is like a crystal, it breaks immediately”.

Therefore, this crystalline and fragmented inflorescence could allude to the ephemeral character of earthly pleasures, as could the fantastic constructions at the top. Just below, a man leans out through a glass tube inserted into this kind of floating seed. He is one of the few characters who are isolated. Through the tube a mouse tries to penetrate. We could have here practically the only case of redemption. This man could be a hermit who tries to isolate himself from the corrupt and material world, unlike the rest of his congeners. However, total isolation does not exist. The soul is constantly exposed to sin and distractions of the material world, which is what the rodent could represent. Just a resistant will can avoid such frivolities, like that of the true hermit (an image that the reader will understand much better if he contemplates any of the Temptations of Saint Anthony attributed to Bosch). Another possible meaning of the rodent could be that of envy. We could then suggest that the isolated man inside the fruit is envious of the rejoicing couple above him.

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The couple locked inside the cracked sphere in an attitude of love could symbolize sinful eroticism. The meaning of the man who is enclosed in the floating fruit is, instead, more ambiguous. Artsy

On the right, a man carries a clam in whose interior a couple surrounded by pearls frolics. These mollusks are a clear allusion to female genitalia and, therefore, to sensuality. A little further down, a couple caresses and flirts. The woman does it from inside a pink and cracked fruit from which thorns emerge, again metaphors of sin related to this kind of licentious behavior from which only an ephemeral wellbeing can be obtained. More to the right, an individual seated inside a gigantic hollow blue fruit is fed by a duck. From that same fruit, an arm touching a fish emerges. We don’t have to be very perceptive to imagine what is happening inside: surely a fellatio. The fish, too, could be reinforcing the lewd meaning of this scene. As it is related to water, a fertilizing element and, therefore, to procreation, in this context the fish could evoke corrupt sexuality. However, the most shocking scene is more to the right. Notice the male who extracts (or perhaps introduces?) flowers from the anus of another. This is a scene of sodomy, a practice completely abhorred and repudiated by medieval Christian morality.

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Many scenes from the Garden could be described as pornographic. Wikipedia
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These characters are imitating the original sin of Adam and Eve, which has infected their entire lineage as a virus. Wikipedia

On the contrary, it is nature itself that allegorically symbolizes lust and other evils. Nature constantly offers man its fruits for him to enjoy. If man does not control his impulses, he will end up abandoning his spiritual mission. Here it is perfectly indicated in birds that feed certain individuals, which clearly show their prostration before earthly pleasures, to the most basic impulses. Thus, the humans of the Garden are not such, but animals concerned only with satisfying their instincts, devoted to their madness as Erasmus of Rotterdam may have defined it in his In Praise of Folly, as the prosaic attitude source of the transitory happiness. But the fruits themselves are the most evident representation of sin and their ingestion a sign of the surrender to Evil. What are these fruits but an allusion to the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil from which Adam and Eve ate? This metaphor is best seen in the grove just above the owl on the right, where a group of characters simulate the sinful act of their parents picking and eating apples from the trees.

By the way, Adam and Eve would also appear. They would be the two individuals who are half hidden in the cave in the lower right corner. They have already been banished from Paradise for their grave transgression. Now they live in the dust, from which they were once born and into which they will become by divine punishment. They are shown crawling in a cave, perhaps like the serpent that deceived them? It would help in their identification the fruits that surround Eve, surely apples. We can also perceive that the primordial parents are clothed, in accordance with what is said in Genesis 3:21:

“The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them”

Adam is another character who stares at the spectator, establishing a complicity with him. He is pointing to Eve, as if rebuking her for being the origin of the sin that harasses humanity. To the right of Adam, it is difficult to see a disturbing face half hidden in the cave and which has been identified by some authors with Noah. His presence would be announcing the proximity of the Flood. This exegesis would be related to a hypothesis widely defended by several specialists according to which the central board could be contextualized in the days before the Flood, in the epilogue of that mythical antediluvian Golden Age that extends from the expulsion of Adam and Eve until the arrival of the Flood sent by God because man was lost in sin. In fact, some exegetes claimed that the sin that angered God the most was lust. Be that as it may, this is an episode that was rarely depicted. It was more common to illustrate the fall of the first parents, for example. Likewise, the concept of the false earthly Paradise that Bosch reflects here may have its simile in a contemporary belief. According to this, there would be several lost paradises or “grails” (which have nothing to do with the holy chalice) which could only be accessed by secret places and whose inhabitants lived in the most absolute sin, governed by unruliness and appetites. They were considered places halfway between reality and legend, just like the Garden of Bosch, where real and imaginary beings and structures coexist.

Another possible exegesis is that the man is Saint John the Baptist. Away from the main scene, he would be informing us of how the destiny of humanity would have been if its fall had not taken place. This theory, which is opposed to the one we are telling here, would be endorsed by the state of happiness and bliss experienced by all characters, who live in a primordial state of innocence, naked and with the sole concern of enjoying the delights and multiplying in the Garden of Eden. Pointing to Eve, he reproaches her for her sin.

Those strange crystal tubes burst in again, which for some authors are still allusions to alchemy. Likewise, the magic of infrared reflectography revealed several details of the underlying drawing. Among them, a disturbing, somewhat terrifying face was before Eve’s, and a long-tailed bird stood above her head. It seems that Bosch changed that scene several times.

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The debate about the identity of these mysterious characters emerging from a cave is intense. To date, there is no consensus on who they might be. Wikipedia

On the whole, all the characters are quite anatomically similar. We could even accept that their sex is practically indistinguishable. Surely, they evoke the ideal of beauty in Bosch’s time, which, as we see, consisted of slender, thin, hairless bodies. However, next to the first parents appears a woman who breaks with that constant. She is a young victim of hypertrichosis. That woman with a floral decoration on her head and a long ponytail from which hangs an orange fruit has a body full of hair. The meaning  of this character is unknown.

Another character that draws attention is the one who is upside down in the bird pond. In his crotch he holds a red fruit (color of passion) crossed by thorns. With both hands he touches his genitals. It has been suggested that this could be an allusion to masturbation. It is important the kind of “mudra” he is doing. It has been interpreted as a gesture of prayer. That is to say, he is performing a sacred and libidinous act at the same time. This is the expression of the double moral. This individual is a false believer, he corrupts the sacred act of prayer. He would be demonstrating the ambiguity of this false Paradise, how treacherous it is. However, he is not the only one who is upside down. Inversion is a resource that appears frequently in the board. Without going too far, further down, touching the lower frame of the board, a couple is also inverted.

What do all these characters who are upside down want to tell us? Perhaps that the world is upside down, that ethics and morals are reversed, a resource repeatedly used in the art and literature of the time (the most paradigmatic example would be Erasmus of Rotterdam’s In Praise of Folly). Why would Engelbrecht II want such an extravagant painting, apparently bordering on heresy? If we observe the triptych in its totality and follow the line of events, the story and its moral are obvious: the human being, from its first components, was tempted by evil (that is, by worldly pleasures). The lack of repentance of the majority assured their stay in hell. Giving up to voluptuousness, to the pleasure provided by the senses, and ignoring the cultivation of the intellect, will lead them to suffer the most insufferable hardships. Therefore, the only way to avoid this painful fate is by acting contrarily to the characters in the Garden of Earthly Delights. That is to say, the triptych could have been elaborated to indoctrinate and teach the right path, and that is why Engelbrecht wanted it. The Count was in charge of the education of his nephew Hendrik and the future King Philip the Handsome. Through the Garden of Earthly Delights he could indoctrinate his pupils about the virtuous and right behavior that a good Christian courtier should follow. So, the hypothesis that the characters represented here would be depraved noblemen devoted to vice would make more sense. By means of the symbolic inversion, Bosch shaped with an unrepeatable mastery the exemplary morality through the impudent behaviors. Therefore, the Garden of Earthly Delights would be a carnival in its highest expression.

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There is an obsession to represent characters in an inverted position, possible allegories of the upside down world. Wikipedia

Colors also play an important role in the painting. There is much debate about the meaning of colors, but the truth is that Bosch frequently repeats certain colors from the palette. In the left board, the pink and green predominate, while in the central one, blue also dominates. The latter could be an allusion to evil, fraud, unreality. Thus, it would make sense that this color predominates in the fantastic structures of the background, brittle and illusory, host of sinful scenes. Colors of the Fountain of Life have mutated from reddish of the left board to blue, as if it had been corrupted. On the contrary, the reddish-pink could evoke love, creation or passion. The first two meanings could make sense in the robe of God and in the Fountain of Life on the left board. Instead, it is more logical to attribute the third meaning to the elements of the central panel, more associated with the unbridled passion that engulfs humans.

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The other most abundant action in the painting is the conversation. Numerous characters whisper, talk, look at each other, touch each other. If we pay attention, we may be able to engage in that conversation and dive into the scene. Wikipedia

In addition to the erotic scenes, there is another dominant one: the conversation, but not understood as a banal activity. In this case, specialists return to the late medieval court context, in which the conversation or conversatio consisted of an act, not only of social gathering and interpersonal interaction, but also of instruction of the intellect through the exchange of knowledge and illustrated discussions on important subjects, such as the concept of courtly love. This reinforces the idea already stated that the characters in this board could be nobles and courtiers. As in the painting, the conversatio had an important corporeal and gestural manifestation that accompanied the verbal exchange. But it also involved participation in a common activity or behavior, such as those games we have discussed. We could go further if we consider that the painting itself tries to establish a conversation with the spectator, to make him/her part of its story, or at least that is what the numerous characters, who in the three panels are looking at us directly, would try to do, inciting us to interact with them. Like the man with a flower hat who, in the lower part of the composition, bites a cyclopean strawberry or madrone while looking at us. It seems that he is inviting us to do the same, to succumb to temptation. He is testing us, perhaps like the owls. Let’s make a parenthetical remark. There are authors who suspect that those characters who are fused with other organisms, like this man who has a flower coming out of his head or, why not, even the newts and the sirens at the top of the board, could symbolize the loss of humanity. As we succumb to the lust of the flesh and to sin, our characteristic traits, those that God gave us and that made us distinctly human are fading away. Those humans are ceasing to be human. They are being transformed into other things, into inferior beings, into dehumanized beasts.

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Many characters in the Garden make direct eye contact with the viewer, as if urging us to enter into the painting and participate with them. Museo del Prado

As we were saying, maybe that was another function of the triptych: to instigate the spectators to the conversation, among themselves, with themselves and with the Garden. That is the interesting thesis proposed by Reindert Falkenburg. The painting would be inducing us to debate about it and about the different levels of interpretation it has and thus enrich the intellect. To philosophize and think about the work and about oneself, in short. Perhaps that is why the painting itself is so ambiguous, because Bosch did not intend to fix a unique and indisputable meaning, but rather that the spectator should draw his own conclusions and teachings. If this is so, then the attempts to interpret the triptych would be in vain, because there would be as many clues as the number of spectators and the number of times each spectator would contemplate the painting. That is why so many interpretations have been given throughout history, and will continue to be added to the already long list with each new visit.

Other interpretations

The moralist interpretation is the most widespread in the academic world today. But there are other hypotheses to try to explain the meaning of the triptych. The most controversial was proposed by historian Wilhelm Fraenger, which currently has little support. Before so many nudes and erotic scenes, this author believes that Bosch felt sympathy for a mysterious millenarianist sect known as the Brethren of the Free Spirit. So, the Paradise represented would correspond to the ideal that the Brethren had of this place. An alleged evidence in favor would be the absence of work, sickness, death, and pain, and the prevalence of pleasure and happiness. This does not agree with the biblical chronicle, because after being expelled, Adam, Eve, and their progeny were condemned to suffer and work for their sustenance. On the contrary, in this Paradise, man lives in a perpetual wellbeing. The profuse nudity would also agree with another of the doctrines of the followers of the Free Spirit, who defended sexual freedom. It is said they showed themselves naked in public to proclaim their spiritual perfection. This form of expression served them to evoke the original, Adamic condition of the human being: when we still lived in a pure state of total freedom and innocence on the earthly Paradise. The fundamental problem is that there is no documentary evidence to support this thesis.

Since the 16th century, several authors have linked the Garden to the dream world, a topic of iconographic language and literature. In this sense, several authors have detected several possible correspondences between the Garden and the medieval poem Le Roman de la Rose or The Romance of the Rose, written in two parts in the 13th century, the first by Guillaume de Lorris and the second by Jean de Meun. The poem takes the form of an allegorical dream: de Lorris tells through the protagonist of the romance, the Lover, a possible personification of him, a dream he had in which he saw himself in search of Love, embodied in the ideal lady. As if he were a sort of Perceval in search of the Grail, the Lover has to overcome a series of obstacles and temptations represented by human vices and passions that push and hinder in equal parts the path towards the ars amandi, the art of loving, represented by the courtly love, the archetype of medieval love, to learn the values that make it up. Therefore, we are before a poem that, like the work of Bosch, would try to portray the pure and model love according to medieval conceptions. Bosch would have done this through  the moral inversion, that is, the Garden shows the dishonorable behaviors that must be avoided if one really wants to be initiated into the ars amandi, into its codes, norms, and characteristic values (courtesy, discretion, chivalry, devotion, generosity, innocence). However, the symbols of the Roman, like those of the Garden, are also ambiguous, and so it stimulated debates, discussions, and the development of authentic theses around the meaning of love that the poem embodies. Although it was written in the 13th century, it was still a best-seller in Bosch’s time, so it is plausible that Bosch would have read it and been inspired by it.

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Some authors would have found various correspondences between the Garden of Earthly Delights and Le Roman de la Rose, suggesting that this text would have served as a source of inspiration for the Flemish painter. wdl

The above mentioned correspondences would appear in several motifs. For example, at a certain moment in the romance, the Lover enters into the Garden of Pleasure (a title that would fit perfectly for the triptych), an idyllic and dreamlike place, attracted by the trill of the birds, precisely one of the most abundant animals in the central board that also seduces humans in various ways. In the garden of the romance there is a pond full of plants and animals where women of different ethnic groups bathe carefree, as in the painting of Bosch. Both the garden and its inhabitants are beautiful, lively and idle. Its inhabitants are happy and live in eternal pleasure. However, the closest resemblance would lie in the “dreamlike” condition of both gardens, full of wonders of nature, some real and others typical of the extravagant kingdom of Hypnos. The world of dreams is an endless source of inspiration for the artist. Bosch knew how to give life to those strange elements and figures that visit us at night, sometimes chimerical, that mix real and imaginary things. It cannot be ruled out that the master went to the deepest layers of his psyche to absorb some inspiration. Whether or not it is the product of the master’s dreams, the truth is that Bosch’s production, especially that which is more related to infernal “visions”, later influenced other artists that created paintings with a dreamlike theme. Be that as it may, this is certainly a wonderful alternative, since it allows us to delve into the psyche of the master, swarming like onironautes among the neural connections of his fascinating brain. The conversational and interactive capacity of the painting invites us to dream what Bosch dreamed of when he was making his masterpiece. To immerse ourselves, in short, in the singular primordial ocean from which the Garden of Earthly Delights was born.

We have left out a lot of things. Many interpretations have been given, but we have already seen that not everything has been said about the Garden of Earthly Delights yet. We still have one last part to analyze. The darkest part. The Hell according to Bosch. Meanwhile, you can read the analysis of the back and left panels of the triptych in the following links:

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

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


  • Dempsey, C. (2004). Sicut in utrem aquas maris: Jerome Bosch’s Prolegomenon to the Garden of Earthly DelightsMLN, 119, S247-S270.

  • De Rotterdam, E. (1511). In Praise of Folly.

  • Dufour, A.D. (1998). El Bosco. Vicios y virtudes: entre realidad y fantasía. Electa Bolsillo: España.

  • Kanaly C.C. & Slater, T.B. (2003). What dreams may come: An existential journey with Hieronymus Bosch. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 30(1), 35-42.

  • López, R.M.V. (2017). El Jardín de las Delicias, un criptograma alquímico. Arte y Sociedad. Revista de Investigación, 12.

  • Melnikova-Grigorjeva, J., Bogdanova, O., 2010. An owl and a mirror: On Bosch’s visual motif’s meaning. Sign Syst. Stud. 38, 210–241.

  • Museo Nacional del Prado (2016). El Bosco. La exposición del V centenario. Museo Nacional del Prado: Madrid.

  • Museo del Prado (2020). El Bosco [online] available in:

  • Simarro, A.S. & Chenel, A.P. (2010). El libro de los símbolos. Libsa: Madrid.

  • Trigo, B. (2005). Antonio Machado y Hieronymus Bosch: correlaciones entre pintura y poesía. Confluencia, 20, 35-46.

  • Vadillo, M.A.W. (2013). Le Roman de la Rose. Revista Digital de Iconografía Medieval, 5(10), 27-39.

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