“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, or you wouldn’t have come here.”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Deciphering the indecipherable
To write about Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, known to the modern age as The Garden of Earthly Delights, is to attempt to describe the indescribable and to decipher the indecipherable—an exercise in madness. Nonetheless, there are a few points that can be made with certainty before it all unravels.
The painting was first described in 1517 by the Italian chronicler Antonio de Beatis, who saw it in the palace of the counts of Nassau in Brussels. It can therefore be considered a commissioned work. The fact that the counts were powerful political players in the Burgundian Netherlands made the palace a stage for important diplomatic receptions and the work must have caused something of a sensation with its viewing audience, since it was copied, both in painting and tapestry, after Bosch’s death in 1516.
We can assume, therefore, that Bosch’s bizarre lexicon of human congress must have held some appeal, or some meaning, for a contemporary audience. In a period marked by religious decline in Europe and, in the Netherlands, the first blush of capitalism following the abolition of the guilds, the work has often been interpreted as an admonition against fleshly and worldly indulgence, but that seems a rather prosaic purpose to assign to a highly idiosyncratic and expressively detailed tour-de-force. And, indeed, there is very little agreement as to the precise meaning of the work. It is a creation and damnation triptych, starting with Adam and Eve and ending with a highly imaginative through-the-looking glass kind of Hell. No one really knows why Bosch imagined the world in this particular way.
Here’s what I think. What concerned Bosch, in his triptych of creation, human futility and damnation (the Garden of Earthly Delights is a modern misnomer for the work), was the essentially comic ephemerality of human life. Allow me to explain.
The outer panels
When the triptych is in the closed position (above), the outer panels, painted in grisaille (monochrome), join to form a perfect sphere—a vision of a planet-shaped clear glass vessel half-filled with water, interpreted to be either the depiction of the Flood, or day three of God’s creation of the world (which has to do with the springing forth of flowers, plants and trees, in which case he’s guilty of heedless over-watering).
A tiny figure of God, holding an open book, is found in the uppermost left corner of the left panel, and the inscription that runs along the top of both panels can be translated to read “For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm,” which is from Psalm 33.9. If one thinks of the outside panels as the end of the entire pictorial cycle, rather than its beginning, then this image could easily be a depiction of the Flood, sent by God to cleanse the earth after it was consumed by vice.
This path towards vice is mapped in the inner panels of the triptych. The outer panels are therefore intended to provoke meditative purgation, a cleansing of the mind. It should be pointed out that this work, like Bosch’s Hay Wain triptych (also framed by a creation and damnation scene), is a triptych only in form; neither depict the conventional arrangement of a tripartite altarpiece because their center panels do not include religious figures or even religious scenes. What Bosch seems to have invented is an entirely new form of secular triptych, one that functioned kind of like a Renaissance home theater package for wealthy patrons.
The first panel: God Introduces Eve to Adam (and all hell breaks loose)
The first panel depicts God, looking like a mad scientist in a landscape animated by vaguely alchemical vials and beakers, presiding over the introduction of Eve to Adam (which, in itself, is a rather rare subject). Although they are precisely located in the center foreground, in scale Adam and Eve—as well as God—are precisely as important as the other creatures in this paradisiacal garden, including an elephant, a giraffe (straight out of Piero de’ Cosimo) a unicorn and other more hybrid and less recognizable animals, along with birds, fish, other aquatic creations, snakes and insects.
The introduction of woman to man, in this setting, is clearly intended to highlight not only God’s creativity but human procreative capacity. In the hierarchy of God’s handiwork, Adam and Eve represent his most daring achievement, as though after he’d made everything else he thought he needed to leave a signature on the world in which he could recognize himself. It’s a matter of conjecture, when one proceeds to the central panel, as to whether Bosch is saying that the creation of man, on whom God conferred free will, might have been a divine mistake.
The central panel: People nakedly cavort (and all hell breaks loose)
This is the panel from which the title Garden of Earthly Delights was derived. Here Bosch’s humans, the offspring of Adam and Eve, gambol freely in a surrealistic paradisiacal garden, appearing as mad manifestations of a whimsical creator—sensate cogs of nature alive in a larger, animate machine. It is a matter of divided opinion as to what, exactly, the humans are actually doing in this delightful, dense and nonsensical landscape, alive with a dizzying array of some of Bosch’s most delectable creatures and dotted with his alembic architecture. It is almost as though he imagined the world of creation as a terrific Willy Wonka series of machines with humans as their product.
Given Bosch’s emphasis on nude figures, some of which are engaged in amorous activities —although none in flagrante—this central scene has often been interpreted as a warning against lust, particularly in conjunction with the third panel, depicting Hell (the Spanish Hapsburgs, in fact, referred to the work as “La Lujuria” — lust). I wonder though. Bosch’s depiction of humans cavorting in the elemental world of God’s creation, seems, to me, less inculpatory than simply a commentary on the fact that there’s little to differentiate man from animals from plants.
Many figures appear in all sorts of chrysalis states, or inside eggs or shells, and are fed ripe berries by birds or strange hybrid creatures; in the middle-ground some kind of procession of men, riding on various animals and accompanied by birds, circles a small lake of bathing maidens. It’s true that some unlikely human orifices are stuffed with flowers, but there is no explicit sex in this panel—just a gluttonous consumption of varieties of berries that have, by some, been linked to the pervasively hallucinogenic atmosphere (magic berries instead of magic mushrooms). In the end, there is folly and there is much that is visceral, but there’s no real vice.
Instead, what Bosch appears to be doing is contemplating man’s place in the greater divine machine of nature. Maybe he’s saying, as Lucretius did, that all matter is made of atoms that come together for a time to form a sensible thing and, when that thing dies, those atoms return to their origins to reconfigure in some other form. This breaking and becoming is the nature of nature, and man in nature, is not differentiated by anything OTHER than his free will, his concern for his own behavior. Our reason is our undoing. Every man’s hell is only what he can imagine, and Bosch was more imaginative than most. His was a highly singular and idiosyncratic talent, and Bosch was really no more a product of his own time than he would have been of any other time. However, his ability to visualize hallucinatory landscapes made him extremely popular, three centuries later, with surrealists like Salvador Dali, who was also a virtuoso imagineer of nightmarish other-worldly worlds. I would venture to guess that Lewis Carroll must also have been a fan.
The third panel: Finally, all hell breaks loose
Bosch saves the best for last. Earlier visions of Hell, if indeed that’s what Bosch intended here, are pretty tame in comparison to this. Against a backdrop of blackness, prison-like city walls are etched in inky silhouette against areas of flame and everywhere human bodies huddle in groups, amass in armies or are subject to strange tortures at the hands of oddly-clad executioners and animal-demons.
Dotted about are more crazy machine-like structures that seem designed to process human flesh. Some of these are strikingly disturbing. Near the center, a bird-like creature seated in a latrine chair, like a king on a throne, ingests humans and excretes them out again; nearby a wretched human is encouraged to vomit into a well in which other human faces swirl beneath the water.
In general, the bodies purge themselves or are purged of demons, black birds, vomitus fluids, blood; as in any good Boschian world, bottoms continue to be prodded with various instruments. But the general emphasis is on purgation.
Overall, there is a marked emphasis on musical instruments as symbols of evil distraction, the siren call of self-indulgence, and the large ears, which scuttle along the ground although pierced with a knife, are a powerful allusion to the deceptive lure of the senses. In fact, many of the symbols and the tortures here are pretty standard in the catalogue of the Seven Deadly Sins, in which our senses deceive our thoughts into self-indulgent over-consumption.
One key element here, however, requires some explication—the central, Humpty-Dumpty-ish figure who gazes out of the scene, his cracked-shell body impaled on the limbs of a dead tree. The art historian Hans Belting thought this was a self-portrait of Bosch, and a lot of people believe this, but it’s impossible to verify. Still, it quite strikingly illustrates the presence of a controlling, human consciousness in the centre of all this tortured imagining. And this is where my interpretation parts ways with those who have come before.
Because, while “Bosch’s” mind (if it is a self-portrait) might be distracted with thoughts of lust, symbolized by the bagpipe-like instrument balanced on his head (standard phallic stand-in), within the hollow of his body, a tiny trio of figures sit at a table as though dining. To me, these three figures are reminiscent of Genesis 18.2, in which God arrives at the door of Abraham, accompanied by two angels (all disguised as ordinary men) and Abraham, without question, offers them his humble hospitality. As his reward, God bestows a miraculous pregnancy on the aged Abraham and Sarah, declaring that, through this act, Abraham will father God’s chosen tribe on earth. This would also be consistent with Psalm 33.12: “ Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people he chose for his inheritance.” God then sends his angels (who are kind of early incarnations of FBI agents) to investigate matters in Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham uses this opportunity to intervene with God on behalf of the wickedness of the people there: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” he asks.
It seems to me that this is the question the whole triptych asks—whether God, having made the world and having conferred on man both the blessing and the curse of free will, would destroy all of his creation in the face of human failing. This is the fundamental connection between these inner panels and the destructive flood depicted on the outer wings. Bosch’s lesson, if there is one, seems to be that we can choose good over evil or we can be swept away. Man proposes, God disposes.