B is for Bosch

Garden_delights closedHieronymus Bosch – The Garden of Earthy Delights (closed) 1503-1504

Garden_delights openHieronymus Bosch – The Garden of Earthy Delights (open) 1503-1504

Large detail of inside:  HERE

The Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights is an immensely ambitious piece. Clearly centered on religious themes, the true meaning intended by the artist is still a mystery to many scholars. The painting is on a wood triptych or opened three-paneled work separated by hinges that, when closed, form a fourth image. The closed triptych image followed by the three open images, viewed left to right, tell a Christian-based account of the Earth’s creation and humanity’s relationship to sin. The closed panel is a depiction of Earth prior to animal life. The inside panels start with the Garden of Eden on the left, scroll to the right with the centered image of earth, and finally Hell on the right panel. The work’s name is attributed to the detailed center panel where many nude human figures engage in various sinful activities.

While the northern humanist style was illustrated with highly detailed technique, a major influence of Bosch’s masterpiece was the Christian Reformation. Widespread corruption of the Papacy in Rome was met with strong revolt in Northern Europe. The Vatican practice of selling indulgencies as a get-out-of-hell certificate perverted the true meaning of Christian doctrine. While little is known of Bosch, his work often depicted a life on earth as the true testing ground to the temptation of sin. Gloriously depicted, the center panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights displays various sins engaged in by wild human forms. Focusing on human choice and temptation, Bosch displays the growing popular belief that individual actions were of greater consequence when compared to formal rule by the Vatican.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is no doubt a departure from typical renaissance works. The northern renaissance movement relied more heavily of the Gothic myths of the region as compared to classical themes in Italy. The subject matter in Bosch’s work is often filled with imaginative monsters and daemons. Clearly the depiction of Hell in the last panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights is meant to conjure similar visions as moral warning and consequence to the sins of the center panel. These horrific scenes and odd human forms likely influenced later surrealist painters from Spain where the work resides.  Finding a home in Spain is probably due to the Spanish war with the Netherlands shortly after Bosch’s Death. The Dutch revolt (1568-1609) kept Phillip II, a Hapsburg and Spanish king, engaged with war in the region to maintain Catholic rule. Phillip II owned several Bosch Paintings and the Spanish likely commissioned several prior to outright war. The Dutch eventually succeeded in revolt but like any clash of cultures, art was pervasive and transcendent.  While no clear surreal influence can be attributed to Bosch’s work, The Garden of Earthly Delights is strange in its own right.

My interest in The Garden of Earthly Delights and the reason I chose it to explore for this assignment are as much about the artist as are the unusual images. Bosch was highly unconventional. His name, in fact, was not Bosch at all but taken from his hometown, Hertogenbosch, where he lived for his entire life and likely created this piece. He also signed his work, which was also unusual for the time. Bosch left little information about himself or his work. This has led to various interpretations and mysteries surrounding the work. Without absolute knowledge of Bosch’s intent, greater analysis has been given to his work. Bosch’s depictions of suffering on earth are also very strange. Various monsters and odd-shaped creatures make appearances all over his paintings. The Garden of Earthly Delights not only features gruesome forms in the Hell panel but various odd happenings and manifestations on the centered earth-garden panel. These oddities are cause enough to give the work a closer examination. This curious appeal must have not been lost on the artist.



  1. Excellent background information! I enjoyed your “get out of hell certificate” description of the payment of indulgences.

  2. Thanks for the extra information after reading I felt satisfied. Do you feel that Bosch will have the same feelings about the world today? I think he would draw the exact same paintings which speaks alot about his insight.

  3. Brandon,
    I am so glad that you chose The Garden of Earthly Delights as your blog subject. I became fascinated with this work while completing Reflections #7 of written assignment #4 for Northern Renaissance section of this course. I think Bosch would have been a very interesting fellow to know. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to have him explain each element in this ambitious piece? I found it remarkable that little firsthand information is available about Bosch’s intent, but tons of analysis exists making it clear that you and I are among many who need to know more about the artist and the piece. If I had the opportunity for a face-to face I would ask him what do the couple in the clamshell in the center panel represent; what kind of boat(?) has fallen through the ice, or how about that pig wearing the nun habit in the Hell wing. The more I look into this piece the more questions I have. I am grateful it survived through the centuries. I am pleased that so many art historians have taken the time to analyze this painting and post their research on the internet. I include your blog in this statement. Your blog was well written, contained information of quality and quantity.
    Thank you.

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