It is a Dantesque place. The darkness has taken over the whole scene. Small glimpses of light can hardly be seen, only that emitted by fires and flames. It is a terrifying place, colonized by strange diabolic beings, made up of the most unimaginably extravagant mixtures. Humans suffer in various ways. They are the victims of a very diverse plethora of punishments. And all because they did not know how to listen. They did not want to retract their acts and behaviors in time. And now it is their turn to pay the price: to spend all eternity suffering in Bosch’s hell
What does that astonished eye of yours mean, Hieronymus Bosch?
What does your face’s pallor mean?
As if you had observed, with your own eyes, evil ghosts,
Spectres from Erebus flying around?
This epigram, which masterfully describes the imagination and creativity of the Flemish master, appears in an alleged portrait of Bosch recorded by Cornelius Cort, although these verses are attributed to the humanist Dominicus Lampsonius. What a great truth they express! Bosch, like God, was capable of scrutinizing not only people’s souls, but also the different destinies that awaits each of us.
The Hell of the Garden of Earthly Delights is considered the most elaborate and complex of all that the master painted. Just as Dante did in literature, Bosch reinvented hell in painting. The photograph that the master shows of this place is certainly desolate. The colorful joy and (apparent) happiness of the previous boards have been completely blurred here. This board is the complete inversion of the previous ones. It oozes pain and suffering, the same as that suffered by a guilty humanity governed by worldly pleasures.
When we take a quick look at the composition, we think immediately of a dream world, although, in this case, it would be rather a nightmare world. There are so many strange and inexplicable things and beings. The first question that addresses our curiosity is where on earth did Bosch get all these elements. And practically the only answer that convinces us is: “from dreams”. We will talk about this later.
The best strategy we can follow to analyze the board is the same one we already used in the previous boards: to analyze the painting from top to bottom, following the current that leads from order and geometry to entropy.
A desolate landscape
If we start from the dark horizon, we will realize that, again, it presents continuity with that of the previous boards. In a way, Bosch wanted to insinuate that there was a space-time sequence in his work. Thus, the scene of Hell would be the denouement of the story told by the triptych, the last page of this illustrated book, the natural consequence of the narrative developed in the previous boards.
This Tartarus is a disastrous place. It looks half-baked, as if it were still being built. The buildings are partially up or, why not, consumed. Demons jocularly walk around the scaffoldings and half-formed skeletons. From the buildings and the mountains emanate phantasmagoric lights, thanks to which we can hardly distinguish their shapeless silhouettes. Darkness has consumed practically every glimmer of brightness and illumination. Even the sky is cloaked in smoke and sulphurous, frightening clouds. Corruption and degeneration are the constant in this world.
The little light that we can notice comes directly from the destruction and extermination caused by the flames of the fires of the Underworld. One element, the fire, that the master introduced into his paintings whenever he could. He seemed to be obsessed with fire, we do not know if because he feared it or was fascinated by it. Certain authors have proposed that this symbol would be more the result of recurring nightmares or a trauma that accompanied Bosch since he was a young boy. It seems that in the summer of 1463, to be precise on June 13, when Hieronymus was about 13 years old, a terrible fire affected 4000 buildings in his hometown, s’-Hertogenbosch. The origin was allegedly a dry cleaner. The case is that the fire spread to the square, where the master lived all his life. His family’s house was more or less unscathed, or so recent analyses have concluded, according to which the roof was also affected by the flames. That fire would remain engraved in his memory, symbolically associated with evil, destruction and danger.
Immediately below the flaming buildings there is a lake of dark and bloody water on which a solitary boat is sailing. A bridge rises over the waters, which is crossed by an army of knights headed by a demon. A plethora of people run out of the water towards the shore, fleeing from something that is tormenting them. Many do not make it, as evidenced by their wretched bodies floating in the devilish waters. If we follow the direction of their escape, we will come upon a walled enclosure from which a cold light flows, kinder than that of the distance. This place is different from the rest of Hell. The buildings it guards seem to be in better shape and there are even trees, practically the only thing truly alive on this board. Seemingly, a multitude is queuing up to enter that place, that has been identified with the purgatory, the place where tortures are not eternal any more and souls can opt for Salvation, which will be decided at the Final Judgment.
The mysterious tree-man
If we look down, we will find the most conspicuous character on the board: the strange tree-man. The clarity of his withered body contrasts with the darkness of the landscape. He is possibly the most famous creature in all of the Bosch’s production. His appearance has an impact. It is normal that we all remember him when we are told about Bosch. In fact, some authors have suggested that this melancholic face would be a self-portrait of the master.
Rivers of ink have been written to try to find out the meaning of the tree-man. To begin with, it occupies the most privileged place on the board, the geometric center, as well as the women’s pond on the central board and the Source of Life on the left board. In addition, he is one of the many characters who make eye contact with the spectators in an attempt to converse with them. Although for others, the tree-man would not be looking at us, but rather directs his gaze backwards, not only through space, perhaps also through time. Certainly, his gaze could express melancholy, sadness, grief, regret. Perhaps he is one of the men who had so much fun in the false Paradise. Perhaps he misses the times gone by and regrets not having followed the other alternatives that would have led him on the path of righteousness. Now he is just an empty shell, cracked and withered, corrupt and shapeless. It has lost its humanity by loving and surrendering to the pleasures of the flesh. His dead and sickly body is a metaphor for earthly, fragile, and temporal happiness. For some it is Evil incarnate and would represent Satan himself.
There is a very interesting aspect that would be very hidden to the naked eye. If we draw a straight line that followed the look of the tree-man, it would most likely end up on Adam’s face in the left board. Both characters would be looking at each other, talking to each other. The tree-man could thus become the counterpart of the primordial father. Adam is the copy of God, and the tree-man is his nemesis, the epitome of the corruption and imperfection. Like all other creatures of Hell, he is animalized. His body is a chaotic mixture of human, animal and vegetable features, in tune with the Hell in which he suffers. His features are a sign of the physical love, the same practiced by the humanity of the central board, and, therefore, of the instinctive viscerality that governs that kind of love, of the lust that hides behind that apparently innocent and courteous behavior.
We might venture a hypothesis, and we leave it to your discretion whether or not it might be reasonable. Do you remember when we were talking about the Paradise panel that Adam seemed to be having a premonition while contemplating the face of his creator? What if the visual link he establishes with the tree-man represents that very thing? What if the false Paradise of the central panel and Hell are the manifestations of Adam’s revelation? They could be the future he is envisioning through God. A hopeless future in which mankind betrays Christ, his avatar, and surrenders to appetites and passions, whereby most of his children will end up rotting in hell, like the tree-man he ultimately sees.
This tree-man skates on a frozen lake on boats, too small to support his huge body. With them, he gives a feeling of instability and imbalance. On his right arm, a bandage partially hides a bleeding wound, for some a syphilitic ulcer, a clear allusion to lustful sex and physical love. His body is hollow, without substance. He only harbors evil, represented here by the tavern or brothel that he houses within himself. A woman, identified with a pimp, fills a jar with some kind of liquor to satisfy the appetites of the diners who gather around the table sitting on toads. A grayish, hooded individual, with an arrow stuck in his butt (a sodomitic man?), climbs the stairs to join the party. Another man waits his turn in the company of, probably, another pimp while he submissively listens to the peroration of a bird demon exhorting him to enter the brothel. As we can see, this little scene makes multiple references to lust and gluttony.
The body of this poor soul is pierced by multiple and evil thorns. On his head and as a hat, he carries in precarious balance a platform on which at the same time there is a cyclopean bagpipe. Around the instrument some people dance, led by the hand of horrifying hybrid demons and a pimp. Perhaps we are before a parody of those playful activities that the courtiers practiced. As for the bagpipe, there are two main interpretations that have been proposed: on the one hand, it could symbolize stupidity and madness; on the other, it could be an allegory of male genitalia and, therefore, a reference to lust, as would happen in the Haywain Triptych. Thus, the miniature bagpipe of the flag nailed to the back of the man-tree would signify the brothel.
Of course, the alchemist exegesis could not be absent. The tree-man presents the three characteristic colors of the alchemical process: reddish in the bagpipe (rubedo), white in the body (albedo) and black in its hollow interior (nigredo). In addition, its body is ovoid in shape. The egg usually represents the athanor in the alchemical realm, the furnace where the alchemical transmutation that leads to the Great Work is carried out.
Another interesting alternative was proposed by Allan Shickman. For him, if the “hat” and the boats of the tree-man are omitted, the silhouette of the rest of the figure resembles a skull seen from the occipital perspective. In other words, a skull, the most characteristic symbol of death, presides over the board of Hell. But it goes further because, according to Shickman, two other faces or heads would be hidden in the other two panels: the anthropomorphic rock on which grows the tree of Good and Evil in the panel of the Garden of Eden and a kind of mouth of Hell seen from a frontal perspective drawn by the whitish fruit from which sprouts a thistle. The Dantesque face of the first panel would be an evocation of sin. The hell-mouth of the central panel would be a metaphor for hell. The skull, as we have already pointed out, would be death. They would be three symbols, therefore, referring to the devil. A kind of parody or contrast of the Holy Trinity (something, on the other hand, usual in the medieval imagery) that hides a very disturbing message: that both the earthly Paradise and Hell are controlled by Satan. The material world is under his domains since man succumbed to his temptations. Moreover, that death is represented by a dying tree would not be casual. Associating both elements, we would be before the Tree of Death, the nemesis of the Tree of Life in the panel of the Garden of Eden. Hell is, therefore, the opposite face of Paradise.
However, this was not the only tree-man Bosch made. There are many others attributed to him, although the most famous of them all is the engraving in the Albertina Museum in Vienna. It is very similar to that of the Hell of the Garden of Earthly Delights, but the differences are also substantial. The tree-man of the Albertina Museum, or rather, the man-tree, because the vegetable part predominates, is also corrupt and withered, but it is found, however, in a much more idyllic and peaceful landscape, full of nature. It also moves over boats and is hollow, housing a tavern scene. But, for example, in the flag that crowns its back does not appear a bagpipe, but a crescent moon, a symbol that in the Middle Ages could acquire negative connotations by being associated with the Muslim religion and, therefore, the false faith, silliness, madness, infidelity, or deception. On his head he carries a disc and an amphora instead of a bagpipe. And something else appears that harbors a powerful symbolism: the owl, of which we have spoken so much in previous posts. It is not known if this engraving was done before or after the Hell of the Garden. However, what is indisputable is that Bosch showed the same mastery when drawing and painting.
We could add several more things about this mysterious character. For example, he is the only human being who does not keep his human body as it was created in the beginning. He has become completely dehumanized. On the contrary, the rest of tortured souls still possess their human form, their “pure” form, as if they still had a chance to be saved. Only the strongest in spirit, those who do not succumb to anxiety and pain, those who are able to realize their past mistakes, can be saved. The rest will be corrupted like the tree-man and will suffer forever.
We can also talk about the potential sources of inspiration that served the master to give life to his most famous creature. There are many hypotheses. Some specialists point directly to Dante’s Divine Comedy. For example, when Dante wanders through the ninth and last circle of hell, he describes a frozen lake on which a giant in the shape of a tower moves. In the ice there are various individuals trapped, as in Bosch’s Hell, where they are identified with the envious. On the other hand, in the seventh circle, Dante meets a forest of trunk-men. These creatures were relatively frequent in medieval literature and art, although the normal was the opposite, that is, man-trees: trees from which human parts are born.
But, besides the tree-man and the frozen lake of the envious (the coexistence of fire and ice in Hell responds to the beliefs of the time), other elements call powerfully the attention. Like the gigantic ears that crush a group of condemned people and are crossed by an arrow and a huge knife. The knife is interesting, since it is an element that is repeated in several works by Bosch (in this hell, in fact, it appears twice) and, in many occasions, it also has that “M” engraved on it. For some specialists, the knives show the importance that Bosch gave to his daily life. Thus, this instrument could make reference to his hometown, famous among other things for its high quality knives, and the M inscribed to some master cutler. However, other authors interpret the letter as the initial of “Mundus”, “Mortis”, or as an allusion to the Antichrist, whose true name would begin with that letter according to some medieval apocalyptic prophecies. Another very striking interpretation is that which attributes to that letter a more esoteric and hermetic meaning. Peter Beagle, for example, believes that the mysterious letter would refer to a Rosicrucian concept (although that strange secret society arises in the second decade of the 17th century): the Liber Mundi. This would be a manuscript to which the mysterious Christian Rosenkreutz would have had access during his pilgrimage in the East and which would contain the keys to unravel all the secrets of nature.
However, the set formed by the knife and the ears reminds some of a phallic symbol, a representation of lust, therefore. Thus, the crushed crowd would be lustful people being punished and condemned. Although it is also true that it could represent an usual punishment in the Middle Ages that consisted in cutting off the hands or ears of criminals who committed minor crimes, such as theft. Therefore, the whole would symbolize the punishment for sinning. It could also be alluding to the famous evangelical saying “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”. Logically, individuals who suffer in hell are because they ignored the calls of faith. In short, like everything in the Garden of Earthly Delights, there are multiple hypotheses and little clarity.
Let’s go now to the right, to the area presided over by a kind of lamp. There are many episodes of torture, but the curious thing is many of them are suffered by soldiers, perhaps a criticism of wars. The most striking is that of the soldier who is being devoured by rabid satanic dogs. He holds with difficulty a chalice from which a wafer is spilled and is lying on a banner with a toad, symbol of sin. Here Bosch could be condemning the act of sacrilege, the break with the sacred duties of the knight to defend the Mother Church. Or perhaps it is an allegory of some episode that really occurred. Although if we take up again the hypothesis of the conversatio that the triptych tries to generate and the purpose for which Engelbrecht II wanted it, the scene of the knight could serve to reflect on the social condition of courtiers and their functions and moral codes. About their obligation to be loyal and to defend the Christian faith.
The musical Hell
We are already close to the outcome of our picture book. The last third of the board could be called the punishments scene. For every crime or sin determined, there is a specific condemnation waiting.
Let’s start, for example, with other of Bosch’s best known creatures: the giant bird. In this case, there seems to be a consensus in identifying him with Lucifer or Satan, the lord of the underworld. The body of this theriomorphic demon is blue in color, which in the previous article we already related to evil and deception. He is sitting on a kind of potty or chair with his feet introduced in two vessels. His head is crowned by a cauldron. He devours sinners and later defecates them through a blue bladder in a septic tank already full of other unfortunate souls, who not only receive new companions, but also regurgitations and defecations in the form of coins. This would be the punishment for misers and gluttons. The individual who is being devoured at that moment and from whose anus smoke and birds arise could be representing a Dutch saying, which would say something like “expel by the butt”, and which alludes to the excessive eagerness of the avaricious to waste money and the difficulty they have in retaining it and fighting against their greed.
For several experts, this bird demon would take us back to another source of inspiration for Bosch, possibly one of the most important and most used by the painter: Vision of Tnugdalus. Just like, presumably, the function of the painting, Vision of Tnugdalus was intended to moralize with its history. It was written in the mid-12th century by a certain Marcus, an Irish Benedictine monk with a cloudy biography. It tells the story of the vicissitudes and torments of the corrupt soul of a rich Irish gentleman named Tnugdalus, a consummate practitioner of all the existing deadly sins. One day he will die suddenly and his soul will be led to hell for all evils he has committed. There, his lost soul will know his guardian angel who will guide him through hell and purgatory to try any kind of punishment and torment. Finally, he will be forgiven by God and will visit Heaven, where he will contemplate all his wonders and prodigies, destined exclusively to kind and repentant souls. So, he will get a global and contrasted vision of the Beyond that Tnugdalus will remember when his soul returns to his body. Actually, this work was part of a literary trend known as Visions, whose intention was to show how the different destinies awaiting the soul after death might be with the purpose of morally reforming sinners like Tnugdalus and inducing them to repent for their sins. This vision in particular became a bestseller and the most well-known medieval tale about the Beyond until Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.
There are a few points that coincide in the Vision of Tnugdalus and in Bosch’s Hell. For example, that for each type of Capital Sin, there is a very specific torture. In the manuscript there is a creature with huge jaws called Acheron, who feeds on souls of greedy and proud people, and in whose mouth Tundal will have to suffer unspeakable punishments for all sins he committed (attacks of lions, snakes, dragons and demons). This creature could remind us of the demon-bird of Bosch, which also devours the greedy souls.
Nonetheless, there is another monster in the Vision that looks more like our peculiar demon. Indeed, Tundal sees a beast in the shape of a bird with enormous eyes in the middle of a frozen lake devouring as many souls as it can, a scene that is very similar to the one presented to us by Bosch, including the frozen lake. However, both birds differ substantially in their anatomy. The one Tundal sees has enormous steel claws, a long neck, two black wings, an iron beak, and a large mouth through which it expels fire. Bosch’s demon does not expel fire directly through his mouth, but emerges from the anus of the soul that he is devouring along with several black birds. But for the rest, the resemblance is scarce. Also there are recurrent visions describing tortures alternated by fire and ice, both elements embodied in Bosch’s Hell. The lakes full of hellish creatures are another frequent element in the Vision and also appear in the Hell of Bosch.
It is probable, therefore, that Bosch had access to this literary source. In fact, in 1484 an edition was published in s’-Hertogenbosch. Even so, if Bosch extracted elements from the Vision, he hardly followed the descriptions. As a great innovator, he incorporated many details of his own making, to the point of practically reinventing the Vision of Tnugdalus. Bosch was simply too brilliant to copy anything.
Another name for this board is “the musical Hell”, obviously because of the number and diversity of wind, string and percussion musical instruments in the foreground. However, there is something very atypical. In general, the instruments are usually associated with the enjoyment and pleasure provided by the melodies they generate. But here they function as instruments of torture. Some characters cover their ears as best they can to try to avoid such noise and stridency. Others are crushed, locked or impaled on the instruments… This scene has raised many questions and doubts that have not yet been resolved. Nobody knows why Bosch related musical instruments and music to sin (perhaps it is a criticism against profane and popular music?), but the truth is that he does this not only here, but also in many other paintings. In the late Middle Ages it was said that noise was another of the manifestations of the devil, so Bosch could allude to that. Or perhaps it is another evocation of the “upside-down world”, of the carnival in which everything is reversed.
In all this scene, there are two characters in which we are going to stop. First, the demon who is playing the giant flute. He carries a flag with a crescent on his head. As we have already pointed out above, the crescent could be a symbol of the Muslim religion, here manifested as a counterpoint to the Christian religion in terms of heretical and false doctrine. Perhaps it could allude to the latent threat that the Ottoman Empire exercised over Europe. There is another demon that also seems to have a crescent on his head and is hidden behind the potty of the bird demon. The other striking character is the individual who is crushed by the lute and of whom only his ass is visible.
The tetragram with musical notation is interesting and seems to continue with the one written in the codex next to it. Again, the real meaning is unknown. The pink devil seems to point his offidic language to the sheet music, acting as a conductor who leads the vocal performance of the choir located between the hurdy-gurdy and the harp. Some people have already given sound to that peculiar melody. A few years ago, the student of music and visual arts Amelia Hamrick, discovered that the musical notation of the wretch’s ass had coherence and could generate a melody. So, she translated it into modern notation and, after a series of modifications, this is how it would sound on the piano:
Finally, it is worth mentioning the strange cerulean-skinned character who keeps an egg on his rump in a precarious balance. This is not the first time we see an egg in this triptych. We do not know what meaning Bosch gave to the egg, a symbol normally of creation, transformation, evolution, birth, although it is also associated with the crucible or the alchemical athanor (a veiled criticism against this science perhaps?).
There are more scenes that emphasize that close correlation of crime and specific punishments. Let’s go back to the section of the Luciferian bird. Right in front of the potty a distressed woman is sitting. A demon forces her to look into the anal mirror of a strange creature. One could deduce that this is her concrete punishment for her vanity. On her breasts, the woman carries a toad, which we have already related to lust and lasciviousness. She lowers her gaze, perhaps because in the mirror she is seeing herself for what she really is: a sinner. On the right side of the potty and almost hidden by the frame, a man sleeps placidly. He has not detected the creature that is climbing on his body and whose mission is to torture this lazy man.
The lower left corner is filled with a violent chaos. A multitude of men and women flee uncontrollably from the demons that harass and attack them. This scene is full of board games (even a backgammon board appears), cards and dice. Most experts see here a furious criticism against the games, cardplayers, betrayal, and violence. Right next to this, a rabbit dressed as a hunter carries his hunting trophy and some dogs (possibly hunting dogs) covered with armor taste the meat of a condemned man. They are, again, representations of that carnival and inverted world: the prey are now the hunters. Also striking is the cut hand nailed to the back of a demon that imitates the gesture of blessing while holding a die. It looks like an image bordering on sacrilege. It has been interpreted as the traitorous stab that sinners inflicted on their Redeemer, neutralizing the Charity of Christ, which can no longer do anything to save these souls.
Another apparently heretical image can be found in the lower right corner, in the pig wearing a nun’s headdress that is harassing a punished soul. Logically, it is very suggestive to think that Bosch infiltrated (in a somewhat explicit way) a harsh criticism against the clergy, although this would not be rare either. Although the master was clearly devout (let us remember that he was a member of the Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady), we must keep in mind that he lived between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance and humanism, a movement that, in part, was accompanied by an anticlericalism and a questioning of the ecclesiastical dogmas for the sake of the revival of classical Greco-Latin culture. It was not unusual, therefore, critiques against the clergy excesses, represented here by the pig (other Bosch’s paintings are also full of gluttonous and lecherous clergymen). For example, one of the authors who attacked the monks in a more radical way was Erasmus of Rotterdam in his In Praise of Folly, where he describes them as pseudo-religious, stupid, ignorant, miserable, and illiterate people. Of traitors, in short, for concentrating their efforts not on prayer, but on fighting against rival monastic orders. However, the pig also used to symbolize lust, that is, it could be simply referring to that Capital Sin.
There are more striking elements in this scene. The harassed man holds a document on his legs, while the pig offers him a pen to sign. The demon hidden under the helmet also threateningly urges him with his metal beak to sign the paper. Some authors believe that this is the document that consummates the pact with the devil that this foolish man would have made in life, perhaps driven by greed. However, if we consider also the man dressed in a tunic (perhaps a lawyer), who also seems to want to convince the unfortunate man, the exegesis would change. Clearly, this man is not to be trusted. We only must look at the little toad on his shoulder, a symbol of evil. According to Enrique Pérez, for example, a technician of the education area of the Prado Museum, this scene would reflect a custom from the late Middle Ages according to which wealthy people with legal knowledge used to deceive the humble dying people to requisition their possessions. Certainly, the victim presents an aged aspect. Following this version, the pig would not be parodying a nun, but a rich woman, who also wore similar headdresses at the time. Thus, the woman-pig pounces on the dying man, anxious to keep the few goods he has.
Many more interpretations have been proposed, almost all defending Bosch’s intention to denounce some reprehensible behavior or custom. Such as the illegal sale of relics, with which some clergymen made a lot of money. The cut off foot hanging from the demon’s helmet could be one of those false relics.
We can’t abandon the triptych without dedicating a few lines to the fantastic demons. These grotesque creatures have awakened all kinds of questions and doubts: Where did they come from? What do the multiple elements that constitute them mean? For some people, they are the product of the dreams and nightmares of Bosch (who was sometimes known as “the devil’s painter”), his visions, a hypothesis that impregnate his work with a patina of esotericism and heresy. Another current of opinion states, instead, that Bosch transformed and adopted pre-existing figures accessible to anyone. Creatures that had long since filled manuscripts (such as the drôleries and grotesques that adorned the margins of these documents), temples, sculptures, processions, and that, far from being heretical, functioned as parodies, moralistic satires for the faithful. They were metaphors for corruption and the unnatural, the opposite of the divine perfection of God’s work.
Throughout the triptych, the enormous capacity for invention of his author is evident. Nonetheless, without a doubt, where this ability stands out most is in hell and its demons. Bosch did not copy, he reinvented. Such has been the alchemical metamorphosis that these creatures have suffered in the mind of the master, that it is very difficult to follow the clues that lead us to the original sources. Therefore, we could conclude that the infinite amalgam of creatures never seen before, crazy chimeras composed of parts of objects, animals, plants and people, were created by Bosch.
What does the Garden of the Earthly Delights teach us?
It is time to end our journey and say goodbye to the master. Not without first clarifying the main conclusions and lessons we can draw from the mythical Garden of the Earthly Delights.
The thesis put forward by the majority is the moralizing one. Therefore, Bosch’s aim was to spread the values and principles of the good Christian. So, the Garden would work as a sort of purgatory where the spectators have the chance to redeem themselves and change before it is too late for their souls. The triptych would be like a book, and as such, it is read from left to right starting from the back. The central theme of this illuminated book is sin, present in the world since its very creation. Through this archetypal symbol, Bosch represents the behaviors to be avoided, the things that should not be done in order to fulfill God’s will. Otherwise, ignorance and endless punishment await. Sin is a means used by Bosch to criticize the reprehensible behaviors of his time, the same ones that unconditionally led to stupidity, madness, ignorance, intellectual blindness and mental derangement. He acts, in this way, in the same way as Erasmus of Rotterdam does in The Praise of Folly. In this way, the topic of the Contemptus Mundi, the contempt of the material and sinful world (a very frequent theme in medieval literature and inaugurated by the Benedictine monk Bernando de Morlaix in the 12th century with his homonymous work) is reflected.
Surely, the painting reflects the painter’s own beliefs and the idiosyncrasies of his social class. Also those of the Garden‘s patron, Count Engelbrecht II of Nassau, who ultimately oversaw the creation process, or at least that is what could be deduced from the various changes hidden in the underlying layers of paint that, until recent times, no one had seen. It would not be strange that the patron was so attentive to its future acquisition, especially because of the purpose for which it was destined: to teach and indoctrinate his pupils (his nephew, Hendrik III of Nassau, and the future king of Castile, Philip the Handsome) in the codes and values of the court.
The interpretations of the painting have been innumerable, as many as the mysteries it hides. Bosch demands from us a very wide knowledge of his time and of the times that preceded it, something that very few wise people have. He loved his native city (in which, on the other hand, he always lived, according to several specialists), and it is logical to think, consequently, that he transferred his customs, beliefs, and, in short, his socio-cultural environment to the painting. The objects and daily activities that we have seen in this triptych give a good account of this. All his production is a pictorial idiosyncrasy metamorphosed by his lucid and unique mind.
It is very complicated to obtain the real meaning of the painting and all its elements, and our egocentrism and excessively rationalistic mind are to blame. Five hundred years have passed and our idiosyncrasies have changed considerably. We no longer understand the late-medieval thought, which is the key to understanding Bosch. Surely, any erudite contemporary of Bosch could easily understand the triptych and extract its moral… Or perhaps not and it was as hermetic before as now.
Here we have a problem. If Bosch’s work is meant to reform the public spiritually, it is not meant for everyone, because not everyone is able to understand it. It thus becomes a hermetic, esoteric work, destined only for the “initiated”, for those who have sufficient knowledge to decipher it. This corroborates the pessimism that Bosch shows in the Garden: most people will end up succumbing to silliness and superficial distractions. Only those who dedicate themselves to the profound study of the work will be those who find Salvation, the meaning of the painting. On the contrary, if we assume that the triptych does not contain a fixed and unchangeable truth, but that it is different depending on the person contemplating it, then what would be its real function? Because each person can draw a conclusion very different from that of the spiritual reform of oneself…
The Garden is a timeless work. It was an immediate success after its publication (and still is). In fact, it didn’t take long for imitators and followers of Bosch to emerge, eager to replicate his success, skills, and creativity. Also the exegetes entered quickly in action to decipher the strange triptych, which from the beginning was already an unfathomable mystery. What is it that overwhelms us? Its visionary character? Its creatures? The deep mystery of the destiny of the humanity? The secrets it still hides? The disturbing capacity of Bosch to penetrate the human soul?
This last facet of the artist is important. Bosch was a visionary. He knew how to synthesize the evils that consumed the humanity since the beginning of time with a few lines, understood as the animalistic drives and the earthly desires of the spiritually poor people. It is curious, because many of the naked characters in the central board of the Garden are not apparently performing any sinful acts. However, it seems that Bosch could penetrate into their thoughts. Like a telepath, the master knew man’s deepest fears and desires. In other words, when we observe the humanity of the Garden and other Bosch works, it is as if we were looking at ourselves in the mirror: they are our reflection, the reflection of all of us, the reflection of the humanity. Somehow, the master’s paintings work as connectors with our most hidden Self, with our subconscious. Just as Brother José de Sigüenza, great admirer of Bosch and librarian of the monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial, said:
“The difference that exists, in my opinion, between this man’s paintings and those of others, is that others seek to paint, most often, the man as he appears on the outside; only he has the audacity to paint him as he is on the inside.”
We were saying that the fascination invoked by the Garden of the Earthly Delights continues in our times. A fascination that has inspired various scientific and artistic traditions. For example, psychoanalysts have given some interpretations to the triptych, although they are very controversial. For them, Bosch would have shaped his own subconscious. Moreoer, it has been speculated that the master suffered some disorder or consumed entheogens for inspiration. Besides the fact that there is no evidence of the consumption of hallucinogenic substances, it is unfair to attribute Bosch’s wonders to a drugged mind instead of recognizing his infinite creativity and personal inventiveness.
On the other hand, several authors coincide in detecting a powerful influence of the works of Bosch and his disciples on the surrealist art. It is not impossible that André Bretón or Salvador Dalí were inspired by those extravagant and oneiric scenes. The latter, for example, would have repeated some Bosch elements in his works. We invite you to do an exercise: look for Dalí’s works entitled The Great Masturbator and The Persistence of Memory. Put the head silhouettes in a vertical position. Now, compare the resulting images with the Garden of Eden board (the first one inside the triptych). Do you see the cephalic silhouette in Bosch’s painting? Try it for a few moments, and if you don’t succeed, look at the following image.
Indeed, Dalí would have taken as model the anthropomorphic rock on which the Tree of Good and Evil stands. Dalí has been considered an unconditional follower of Bosch. The surrealists knew how to capture the essence of the subconscious in the art of Bosch. Thus, Bosch was a sort of father of Surrealism, a man ahead of his time, and surrealism could have been a revival (logically with all its innovations and originality) of Bosch’s art. Practically, we could make another article talking only about the influences that Bosch may have had on many modern cultural aspects (in Luis Buñuel’s films, in Antonio Machado’s literature, etc.).
However, among all of Bosch’s creations, the most conspicuous are his beasts and demons, creatures that seem incomprehensible and impossible to us, but that all have one thing in common: their association with evil. These monsters (sometimes disguised in the clothes of clergymen or nobles) have made many people think of the supossed heretical and pagan symbolism contained in the master’s paintings. However, many specialists give them another interpretation. Beginning with Brother José de Sigüenza, who insisted that if Bosch’s works were heretical, King Philip II of Spain would never have acquired them and even less would he have placed them in the monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial. No, he already attributed a moralistic meaning to the paintings, a school of thought that still predominates today. These creatures would be parodies and grotesque satires of human vices. Their varied forms and compositions, although original, would continue a pre-existing medieval iconographic tradition that was already frequently expressed in temples and writings. Likewise, according to this school, everything that has been related to the occult sciences, such as alchemy or astrology, need not involve a defense of them. Perfectly they can serve for the opposite: criticism and denunciation.
Bosch was not good at copying. The master could be inspired by certain motifs and icons, but he always reworked them to the maximum. The importance he gave to personal inventiveness was clearly manifested in the lapidary Latin sentence that appears in his drawing The forest has ears, the field has eyes:
“Miserrimi quippe est ingenii Semper uti inventis et nunquam inveniendis”.
It would mean something like this (a translation that we have tried to improve thanks to the invaluable help of two good friends, Daniel Antúnez and Syuzi Grigoryan): “It is characteristic of gloomy intelligences to always use common places and never to make up their own minds” (Paul Vandenbroeck). This was his philosophy and the basis of his creations: personal inventiveness and innovation. Bosch did not copy, he reinvented. It is another teaching that the master has left for posterity and that we should always keep in mind.
To finish, what better than to give the floor to another master (this time of the letters), the poet Rafael Alberti, author of an unparalleled description of the Garden of the Earthly Delights:
As the historian Reindert Falkenburg said, the triptych is the interlocutor of the spectator. The painting and its creatures speak to us, ask us questions about human nature, our destiny and our relationship to Good and Evil. It is a constant and eternal conversatio, and as such, the painting is as dynamic as a dialogue, changing and polymorphic. That is why, every time we revisit it, it awakens in us new sensations and questions. That is why, every time we go to see it again, we must do so with an open mind and awake senses, because the magic Garden of the Earthly Delights will always have something to tell us.
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