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

[Music] in part two i discussed the first two inner panels in part three i discuss possible meanings of the final and most controversial panel hell the previous scenes are set in nature but hell is a man-made world there is nothing here that they have not brought on themselves and even the musical instruments they created have turned on them the demons are clothed but the humans or souls are still naked but they have lost any element of eroticism and many of them are covering their bodies ashamed of their nakedness what is so extraordinary is that the strange creatures in this panel are painted with the same conviction and realism as the humans as though they actually existed in the bottom right we find this curious scene which for me is the beginning of the panel a pig dressed as a nun is trying to persuade a soul to sign a document a helmeted demon offers a quill and he has the ink at the ready for him to sign the red seals show us this is a serious legal document for many historians this is seen as a critique of the church by bosch specifically the sale of indulgences i don’t think it is the wealthy combined indulgence from the church to have their sins forgiven and secure a place in heaven it led to widespread corruption and only one year after hieronymus bosch’s death martin luther published his attack on amongst other things the sale of indulgences leading to the reformation in the late 13th century work started on a gothic cathedral in den bosch and there is strong evidence that the church raised most of the funds required by selling these indulgences the illustrious brotherhood of our blessed lady played a key role in the indulgence industry so bosh as a member of the inner elite was hardly likely to be critical of it i think this man is being tricked into signing a pact with the devil by the demon disguised as a nun a major preoccupation in the middle ages was the selling of one’s soul in exchange for diabolical favors it looks like the man is on to them as he is casting anxious looks at us the viewer as if pleading for help the toad on the notre is lapel a sign of the devil’s henchman we saw in the left panel will appear again and again in hell the helmeted demon offering the pen to sign has a foot hanging off his helmet which could refer to an affliction caused by fungus in bread called ergot victims suffered from burning sensations and hallucinations of being attacked by monsters limbs would rot and fall off in bosch’s time they thought this condition was caused by possession by demons in the 1950s a component from ergot was synthesized to produce the psychedelic drug we know today as lsd this would inevitably lead to supposition that bosch painted the garden of earthly delights while he was tripping as we’ve seen the sin of lust was thought to give rise to other deadly vices and once again bosh looks to the seven deadly sins the deadly sins again are not scripture but were described by pope gregory in the 6th century by the time of bosch they were a popular theme in morality plays and hugely influential in art lust and envy are everywhere throughout the panel elsewhere we find a greedy miser is forced to excrete gold coins into a cesspool the glutton is forced to vomit up his food the slothful man is visited in his bed by a demonic toad and the vain woman is doomed to stare for eternity at her own reflection which we can make out in a demon’s backside she is being grabbed from behind by another demon while a toad sits on her chest she closes her eyes to avoid her reflection and the horror around her i think her resemblance to eve is undeniable in the previous panel birds fed humans here they eat them the owl again makes his appearance this time as the prince of hell with a cauldron for a crown and jugs for shoes it is sitting on a giant potty chair human bodies are being consumed and excreted simultaneously to go straight into the sewer where others are already drowning in filth in bosch’s day the river running through the heart of den bosch was an open sewer its stench was everywhere in the city we can get an insight into bosch’s working practice if we look at the infrared scan of this area we can see that originally bosch sketched an enormous toad here hanging over the prince of hell another perhaps better world is suggested in the reflection in the prince of hell’s crown behind the prince of hell the crescent moon on the head of a religious woman makes a reappearance the severed hand holding a dice is another repeated image it references the word of god we saw in the first panel only now it has been corrupted and is balancing a dice as man plays with god’s word the overturned table is a likely reference to christ and the moneylenders one gambler is nailed to the table by the right hand he rolled the dice he lost his fortune on on the corner of the table a tally of souls is being kept this man is blindfolded and represents moral or spiritual blindness there is a difference between being blindfolded and being blind as it suggests that the figure had the capability of seeing the light but refused the medieval figure synagogue was a common symbolic representation of spiritually blind jews gambling leads to lust and more sin and the naked woman with her eyes lowered is holding a candlestick and beer picture identifying her as a prostitute in the netherlands prostitutes use candles to entice passers-by a medieval precursor to the red light district the dice on her head is the dice of a cheat as the opposite sides cannot add up to seven the man covering his eyes is bent over a pose that connects the scene in this case their hunchbacks reference homo in curvatures in say a theological phrase describing a life lived inward for oneself rather than outward for god and others besides them a hare carries his bleeding victim on a pole as he sounds his horn he has a pair of hounds who have caught another victim maybe they were poachers hair coursing was illegal for the lower classes the hunted becomes hunter expresses the chaos of hell where the normal relationships of the world are turned upside down non-religious music was considered sinful associating it with other sins of the flesh and spirit musical instruments often carried erotic connotations in works of art of the period a cacophonous choir is forced to sing by a demonic choir master whose tongue is like a scale of notes the music is written on a victim’s buttocks who is crushed by a giant [Music] loot [Music] some characters cover their ears as best they can to try to avoid the horrendous noise others are crushed locked or impaled by the instruments a man has been tied to the neck of a giant loot and is about to be set on by a snake-like monster a crucifixion is an unusual scene for hell but here we have a figure crucified on the strings of an enormous harp to emphasize the crucifixion a roasted toad is offered up to him in a parody of the sponge of wine offering to christ when he was crucified a demon beats a drum while inside a man is trapped crying out in fear another man has a recorder jammed up his bottom while he is bearing the weight of a giant flute echoing christ carrying the cross it is as if hell is mocking christianity on top of the herdy gerdy is a blind beggar one more turn of the handle and the lady playing the triangle will lose her head the herdy gerdy was associated with beggars who were often blind here a stand-in for spiritual blindness he is holding a begging bowl in his other hand bosch gives us the minute detail we associate with the northern renaissance artists and we see a metal badge on a ribbon hanging off the bowl which is a license to beg granted by nobles like henry iii beside him another man balancing an egg is hunched up holding a walking cane another homo incavartus in sei the trumpeter wears the ottoman flag and herald satan who fell from heaven as a star the most famous creation in hell is the tree man a perfect boshyan mix of realism metaphor and fantasy we have seen this figure before in an earlier drawing by bosch except in the original we have a turkish flag flying out of his backside the face is almost certainly a self-portrait of bosch his look is strangely self-conscious and stylistically out of keeping with the other depictions of human faces he could be there as a warning against vanity his torso is a broken egg which doubles as a tavern in his backside his head is topped with bagpipes another instrument for the infernal orchestra bagpipes were a symbol of lust as they resemble a scrotum and penis strange couples of mixed species circle the bagpipe a reference to the circuit of lust on the previous panel taverns are places where men and women are lured into sin one man is sitting on an evil toad above them the turkish flag from the drawing is now a bagpipe flag reminding us that the partaking of alcohol leads to sin the tree man is balanced on two small boats with legs of decaying branches the boats or skiffs suggest he is ferrying souls across the river it is made clearer in his original drawing this puts the painting more along the lines of a last judgment bosch’s own painting of that subject follows a similar structure to the garden of earthly delights the world burns in the background as souls are being sent across the river to be judged in the foreground and both paintings use similar iconography on one of his legs a slipped bandage reveals a leper saw i don’t think anything in this painting is without meaning and that we are seeing anti-jewish sentiment here a possible interpretation of this is that he represents the antichrist as bosch has previously painted this saw on the leg of a figure in this painting identified as the jewish antichrist it was a common belief but not in the scriptures that the antichrist would be covered in leper sores and that he will be of jewish origin below him hell is literally frozen over a man balancing on a giant ice skate will soon collide with another in the icy water a demon bow and arrows at the ready but strangely with no arms to fire them is giving chase to the human figures the horse skull is like all skulls in paintings it is a memento mori to remind us that one day we will die the message is clear life is short but eternity would last forever below the skull a demon gleefully rings the bell whose clappers have been replaced by a naked man [Music] out of the skull’s eye a devil is reeling in a key the key has always puzzled me as we are so used to seeing keys as representing the keys to heaven a medieval interpretation was that god gave satan the keys to the bottomless pit and this is where that comes from theologically it is ambiguous but aesthetically it makes sense as immediately above it new souls are ushered into hell the key is there to remind us that the gates of hell have been opened the lamp here is extremely prominent i think this section is reserved for the soldiers that arrested christ holding lanterns and carrying weapons they are being burned alive in the lantern as punishment the leader whose flag bears the devil’s toad holds a chalice while next to it we see a wafer a clear reference to the body and blood of christ he is being eaten alive on a large disc which in turn resembles the one in the first panel the soldiers are being skewered by demons the character in white with a stereotypical big nose is behind them climbing a ladder and could be judas about to hang himself the ominous looking ears are a war machine crushing people in its wake like the blind metaphors throughout hell the knife cutting through the ears would reference deafness to the word of god but the similarity to the male sexual organ is also unmistakable the knife holds a symbol that looks like a letter m or b which has confused historians for centuries the truth is pretty mundane den bosch was known throughout europe for its manufacture of knives and in the 1990s archaeologists found a knife dated to the 15th century which has the same shape and mark used here by bosch even ordinary household implements are turning on us cities in europe were tinderboxes and fires were common this is the climax of the painting a realistic portrayal of a city on fire that may well have been based on bosch’s childhood memories a hostile army is seizing the city led by a horned demon we see people trying to escape the fire using ladders or jumping into the dirty waters of the canal to certain death crowds of people are being pushed down to the riverbank to be transported across the icy river to be judged and punished this is a hell that the medieval mind would have understood on so many levels death was all around them finally a tiny detail at the apex of the volcano we can just make out two figures fighting one a demon in black and one a human in white this is the fight the bosh’s contemporaries would have seen as a lifelong battle the fight between good and evil this film is only one approach to the painting it is difficult to ascribe meaning to all the specific elements however i decided to take the approach that viewers in henry iii’s court might have to treat it as an intellectual puzzle with a moralistic streak a painting that is there to create a conversation if you have theories or ideas i’d love to hear about them in the comments you
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