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Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden Of Earthly Delights (Part One): Great Art Explained

the garden of earthly delights by hieronymus bosch has been interpreted in so many ways i don’t think this is a painting about sexual freedom or of a medieval acid trip this is not bosh’s erotic fantasy or even a heretical attack on the church and this is not a painting by a member of an obscure free love cult the garden of earthly delights is pure and simply hardcore christianity this is a painting about sin [Music] the garden of earthly delights consists of three oak panels hinged together so that the outer panels or wings can be closed the center panel is 220 by 195 centimeters and the side panels each are 220 by 97.5 centimeters when the panels are closed bosch presents us with a very different image triptychs usually had one important biblical scene in the middle with donors or saints either side but in the garden of earthly delights all three panels are equally part of the story at first glance the painting is chaotic and overwhelming but it has been meticulously planned it has been said that the garden of earthly delights ignores linear perspective which had become the norm in renaissance art but i don’t think so if we look at the dead center of the panels we find a hidden egg it is the only unhatched egg on this panel a possible symbol of new beginnings if we use this egg as the vanishing point bosch’s composition has an order and the action emanates from the center of the panel then the three panels are linked by a common horizon line they divide into three sections foreground mid-ground and background the foreground contains the most important details each panel in the mid-ground contains a body of water a small lake with a fountain a pool with female bathers and a frozen lake the background consists of towers organic in eden and man-made in hell and then in each panel there is a central axis that your eyes are drawn to another way he anchors the three panels is by repetition one good example is adam whose position is repeated in panel two as an e figure and panel 3 in reverse as we will see all of these visual elements pull the garden of earthly delights together and were planned at the early stages the late middle ages were a pivotal moment in european history explorers were discovering new exotic lands leonardo da vinci was painting the mona lisa copernicus proposed that the sun was at the center of our solar system and erasmus was exploring radical new ideas the last bloody battles of the hundred years war had been fought and now christian europe was facing an onslaught by the ottoman empire it was the eve of the reformation and europe was experiencing the first stirrings of a spiritual crisis and yet it was also the height of the spanish inquisition in certain bosch in the netherlands a man called hieronymus bosch had no idea that a painting he was working on would still confound and confuse viewers five centuries after he painted it we cannot look at bosch’s painting with modern sensibilities for while we may be comfortable with sex as part of the human condition in the middle ages sex was seen as contributing to man’s fall from grace this was the time when european artists writers and theologians were shaping a new terrifying vision of hell and the punishment’s awaiting sinners bosch’s imagery no matter how bizarre is nothing more than a faithful representation of the world in which he lived it is an intensely moralistic work that should be approached as what it is religious propaganda as the 15th century turned into the 16th century art got darker the garden of earthly delights is a compelling way to look back to a period that was no longer medieval but not yet modern it is often assumed that hieronymus bosch is a medieval artist but he is a renaissance artist an exact contemporary of leonardo da vinci and influenced by the same ideas curiosity of thought a hallmark of the renaissance fills his detailed and extremely precise paintings bosch was part of the northern renaissance living and working in certain bosch commonly known as den bosch in what is now the netherlands the northern renaissance artists were not nearly as well documented as the italians in fact we know next to nothing about bosch’s life history portrays him as a loner but we know he was born to a family of artists in this house and that he was hugely successful and prolific his real name was jerome van aiken and he was born around 1450. later he would change his name to reflect den bosch the town he lived in he took hieronymus for his first name the latin for jerome when he was a child a major fire in denbosch burned the medieval city to the ground as people panicked and screamed for their lives he must have been affected and it’s not too much of a leap to think it inspired his vivid depictions of hellfire which we see in many of his works den bosch was a fiercely catholic city with over 40 churches chapels and monasteries and a spectacular gothic cathedral one in every 16 citizens worked for the church hieronymus was a member of an orthodox christian organization the illustrious brotherhood of our blessed lady dedicated to the reverence of mary with their own chapel in sin john’s cathedral he received several commissions from the brotherhood which was not just a religious organization it was also a social network bosch married alit vandermeerven a wealthy old woman around 1480. they had no children and we know bosch’s funeral was in 1516. records show us that bosch’s work originally filled the brotherhood’s chapel in saint john’s cathedral and much of his inspiration would have come directly from the cathedral as inventive as he was his hybrid animals and monsters were from a well-established church tradition exemplified by st john’s cathedral bosch’s creatures were certainly inspired by its gothic gargoyles of curious figures animals and monsters elements of gothic architecture inspired him as well and in 1492 a baptismal font arrived in st john’s that is not dissimilar in style to bosch’s strange architectural structures as part of the brotherhood’s inner elite he had easy access to the cathedral’s archives and library and another influence would have been the medieval manuscripts where we find drollery or grotesques in the margins these are small decorative images which are often humorous or sexual in nature many of the images in the garden of earthly delights can be traced back to the drolleries we see in the manuscripts books of beasts or bestiaries were amongst the most popular illuminated texts in northern europe a bestiary consists of images of both real and mythical animals the main purpose of them was not to learn about the animal kingdom but to teach people how to lead the life of a virtuous christian artists would often get their inspiration from the journals of explorers the first time most people saw a giraffe was in syriac of ancona’s egyptian voyage bosch would draw from this book many times over the years and other artists would also use it as a template a busy artist like bosch would have a bank of his own images that he would reuse and we can see images repeated over several different works of his what we think of as hell and certainly what bosh thought of as hell is not based on the bible and much of what we think of as hell comes from later mistranslations and medieval art what hell is like or whether it exists in the bible at all is widely disputed even within modern christianity hell as we know it was more influenced by medieval art and literature dante alighieri’s epic poem the divine comedy from 1320 which describes dante’s journey through the nine circles of hell was hugely influential in european art an earlier book the vision of tundell would be a major influence on bosch based on the 12th century visions of an irish knight it was part of the medieval genre of visionary infernal literature that helped to define our ideas of hell by the time bosch painted the garden of earthly delights people firmly believed in heaven and hell satan became a major figure reports of encounters with demons increased heretics and witches were burned and vivid descriptions of hell were produced in art often with paintings we can look at the person who commissioned them to give us more insights into the work in 1517 a year after bosh died we know for a fact that the garden of earthly delights was in the brussels palace of henry iii of the nassau dynasty the probable patron the netherlands at the time was ruled by spain under king philip the handsome but the local governors such as henry came from the nassau family henry was known as a cultured educated and inquisitive man and he was transforming his residence into a magnificent renaissance court his art collection was central to that transformation we know henry visited dembosh with king philip in 1504 and it was probably during this visit that he commissioned the garden of earthly delights enigmatic paintings were fashionable in europe at this time and henry would have understood the originality and intelligent thought involved in the painting you would typically find triptychs in churches as altarpieces where the outer panels were kept closed on special occasions such as holy days the panels were opened and the glorious religious scenes inside were revealed to the congregation we can only imagine henry inviting the crowned heads of europe and their court to his palace to see his collection of objects of wonder which included a meteorite a giant bed and this curious painting the outer panels of the garden of earthly delights could not prepare his guests for what lay within leading them over to this rather dull image of the third day of creation two of his men would open the gloomy panels people had never seen anything quite like this it was a true sensation like an early form of cinema that would occupy them for hours like it does us art historian reindeer faulkenberg believes that the garden of earthly delights was designed as a kind of conversation piece as he points out its characters are often pointing or whispering secrets to each other they are inside the painting reflecting us doing the same thing in front of the painting it is a perfect reflection of the renaissance taste for highly original intricate allegories only understood by a limited and elite audience by opening the outer panels you are opening up a world of metaphors and theological problems starting with the garden itself the central garden goes against the basic principle of the time that artists should portray biblical stories that actually happened in the bible in the central panel boss shows mankind giving into temptation a scene anyone familiar with the bible knows is not depicted in genesis it was only adam and eve that were tempted the earth wasn’t populated until after the expulsion so this is a creation of bosch’s imagination just by fictionalizing or imagining a scene in the bible bosch has freed himself to let his dreams run wild this is new and exciting as we can see the figures are unashamed of their nudity which reflects how adam and eve were before the expulsion a lush garden would have strong sexual connotations to bosch’s contemporaries they would have known about western literature’s most famous love garden at the time described in the 13th century french poem romance of the rose in the garden of earthly delights bosch incorporated the same traditional iconography depicted in romance of the rose lush greenery beautiful flowers singing birds and a fountain in the center around which the lovers gather to stroll or sing water too was associated with love and lovemaking in bosch’s day even representations of the fountain of life frequently received an erotic twist the concept of the garden of eden was changing around this period it is important to remember that before the age of discovery it was a widely held belief that the garden of eden still existed somewhere on earth but as the undiscovered world opened up revealing fantastical beasts and landscapes the feeling was that there was less and less chance of paradise existing here on earth it shifted the way people saw the world and perceive paradise and greatly influenced bosch’s painting by making his garden of earthly delights a place of the imagination bosch was reflecting the shift in thinking bosch’s images are so ambiguous and their meaning so elusive that they cannot be addressed by iconography alone when the outer panels are closed it shows a monochrome painting of the creation of the world on a flat landscape enclosed in a transparent sphere with god the father looking down god appears as a tiny luminous figure in the darkness his hands are raised which is medieval code to tell us he is speaking he is reciting verse 9 of psalm 33 for he spoke and it was done for he commanded and it stood fast if we look at a later verse from the same psalm it explains the aerial perspective we see inside the panels represent the third day of creation when god is separating the land from the water and the earthly paradise or eden was created these exterior doors are designed to act as a prologue to the interior the use of monochrome or what is known as grasae for the outer panels of a triptych was quite conventional and is there to set the stage for the explosion of color within there is some vegetation forming and strange hybrid landscapes which connect with what we’ll see inside but man has not yet been created and so not had a chance to abuse god’s earth the theme of the inner panels the nuremberg chronicle published in 1493 was an important source of inspiration for bosch and one we will come back to the first of its more than 1 800 illustrations shows god the father crowned and enthroned holding an orb with his left hand and making a sign of benediction with his right he also quotes psalm 33 the dome is peculiar in researching this video i used a translation of the volgate bible the first official bible of the catholic church and the one bosch would have used the meaning can often vary from translation to translation on day two in genesis the vulgate translated the hebrew as god creating the sky under a dome this is sometimes translated as firmament from the word firm or solid there was theological disagreement but bosch would have been well aware of this idea that the world was created in a solid dome and it was a standard artistic convention in part two i will discuss the three interior panels
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