April 9, 2014 by Ray Yanek
Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)
The Netherlandish artist Hieronymous Bosch is often synonymous with his oil-on-oak triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.
A triptych, first of all, is composed of three panels–a larger square panel in the middle, which is flanked by two rectangular panels that can close over the middle panel like a pair of window shutters.
So close The Garden of Earthly Delights and the exterior panels shows the creation of the world. Bushes and trees sprout from the rocks, light falls from dark clouds to illuminate the gathering water and, in the upper left, God sits holding a book and watching it all unfold.
And when it does unfold, the triptych I mean, everything starts going to Hell… (get it?? Going to Hell??? Whatever…just keep reading.)
The Left Panel
The left panel depicts the Garden of Eden, and here things get weird. In the bottom right pond, take a look at the duckish-mermaid sort of thing lounging in the water and reading a book. Crawling from the water at center right is a host of 3-headed lizards, strange beetles, and other grotesque animals. In the center of that lake is one of the many huts or dwellings that appear in the work. Note the owl, usually a symbol of wisdom, peeking out from the middle. Above the lake are more realistic depictions of animals and at the top a host of birds fly through yet another dwelling.
But the focus of this panel is on the center, where God presents Eve to Adam. Eve looks shy and demure, while Adam, on the other hand, looks less than innocent. Many critics note the look of lust that resides on his face, and blame this lust for what happens in the other panels, none of which is good.
The Center Panel
This is the Garden of Earthly Delights, more than likely after the fall of Adam and Eve. It is a garden of sensual pleasure. A quick scan of the painting shows men and women in various erotic starts and poses. Some gorge on fruit and others cavort with animals and undertake various tasks and acrobatics to seemingly impress the ladies. To describe everything thing that’s going on here would honestly take forever. Click on the photo to get the close-up and you’ll see what I mean.
The Right Panel.
Hell. Where lust and earthly pleasure ultimate lead and honestly, I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Soot and smoke hover over a burning city at the top. Below that, one of the many knives present in the scene, juts from two ears held together by a spear, which looks just a bit phallic in nature. The focal point then, is the “tree-man”. Notice the strange bag pipes at the top, around which demons and souls dance. The bagpipes, critics note, is often symbolic of the scrotum and penis, which is another hint of the destruction caused by lust.
Below the ‘tree-man’ and to the left is the musician’s hell. A man is impaled on harp strings and a choir sings from sheet music imprinted on some dude’s ass. To the right of that, a bird-creature devours a man while bird’s fly out of that man’s butt–yeah, there’s a lot of butt stuff here–and in the lower right corner, in the ‘pen and seal’ region a pig dressed in a nun’s habit appears to be, well, getting frisky with someone.
Really, I know that this post doesn’t do Bosch or his work justice. Originally, so that it
would match the letter of the day and for reasons I’ll explain below, I wanted to focus more on Bosch himself and mention some of his other works, some of which are more traditional and others that are just as fantastical, but the Garden of Earthly Delights casts such a long shadow. Obviously, deep, deep symbolism abounds in this painting and to explicate all those symbols would be a task far to monumental for this blog.
The second reason I chose to focus more on the artist was because of a literary character the he inspired– LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch. The detective Harry Bosch travels across these sin filled landscapes, experiencing crimes and sins in modern garden where lust and greed prevail just like in the paintings. The author of the Harry Bosch series, Micheal Connelly, also has the copy of a Bosch painting “Hell” hanging behind the desk on which he writes. Read more about what Connelly has to say about the name choice here.
So yeah, I know this is getting long. But before I go I would strongly encourage you to look deeper into the work of Bosch the artist. As I said, The Garden of Earthly Delights is strange, fantastical, grotesque, but above all, fascinating.
And I would encourage you to read a Bosch the detective novel. I haven’t read one in awhile, but I devoured the early Harry Bosch novels–as I did just about anything Connelly wrote. Visit Micheal Connelly’s web site here.