"Hieronymus Bosch, Tempter and Moralist" by Larry Silver

            At the very center of the Eden image, within a dark hollow at the base of the fantastic, pink, organic fountain within the central pool, perches another black creature: an owl.  In Dutch and German art a traditional symbol of evil or folly, which shuns the light, the owl also draws the hostile attention of day birds.  Although Bosch situates a variety of other birds around the edges of the Paradise fountain, this relationship is a lure or enticement, to be read as analogous to temptation and seduction in the Garden, making it a false Paradise.  On the contrary, Christ’s own presence unambiguously signals that this indeed must be Paradise, but an Eden already infected with the seeds of worldly corruption, where the dark colors of the amphibians and monsters as well as the presence of both the owl and of death signal “trouble in Paradise.”  The First Parents have not yet succumbed to their own crucial disobedience, nor can they be characterized as inherently evil, even though the creatures from earlier days of Creation, including the hidden owl, already betray corruption and violence.  The humans still form the cooperative central part of the divine plan at this moment.

            The background of the Eden panel features a number of other exotic animals, some of which–elephant, giraffe–are familiar from modern zoos, while others–the flop-eared kangaroo and the unicorn–are clearly imaginary.  While most of the animals seem to have no symbolic meaning or just a general significance--namely, Bosch’s usual animus against small, dark, slimy creatures, such as toads or lizards–the elephant had its own traditional, powerful association with piety and chastity, deriving from medieval Physiologus manuscripts and bestiaries.  Indeed, the Physiologus claimed further that the enemy of the elephant was the snake, underscoring an analogy of the beast to Adam and Eve and their own chastity in Paradise.  This kind of opposition between elephant (or unicorn) and snake, between light and dark, even between the prominent central figure of Christ and the owl hidden above him, further suggests a definite grammar of relationships in the Eden panel and the overall vision of Hieronymus Bosch. 

            Animals, especially birds, and fruits were both already familiar staples (along with foun- tains) of Gardens of Love in the fifteenth century.  These motifs were widely available in medieval literature as well as luxury visual media, such as illuminated manuscripts, ivories, and tapestries, in addition to the emerging medium of engravings.  Once more, it should be recalled that these are precisely the kinds of activities condemned elsewhere by Bosch as the sin of Luxuria.  Indeed, such activities continue to mark gardens of love in later Flemish and Dutch painting–including a nascent seventeenth-century genre of “merry companies,” where well-dressed young aristocrats feast and flirt in outdoor garden settings.  Thus the dilemma of sensual indulgence in a beautiful garden was a long-standing (and enduring) trope of courtly delights, but also a potential invitation to self-indulgence and sinful excess, which could be read either way (or even both ways at once).

            Within the triptych as a whole, formal or thematic analogies extend across the several panels.  As noted, continuities of horizon and organic rock forms continue from the left panel into the center and also continue similar rock forms from the earlier Creation scene on the exterior panels of the triptych.  In addition, individual motifs, such as berries, birds, and other animals and hybrids, appear within the wider spaces.  The giant scale of worldly items relative to the humans shows another way that the center panel is either a failure or an perversion of the divine plan, which called for human domination, as laid out in Eden: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it, and hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and every beast that crawls upon the earth.” (Gen. 1: 28)  Even the placement of Adam on the ground in Paradise anticipates the recumbent poses of many nudes in the center panel.

            Another unifying element in the triptych is its insistence on gazes out of the picture in each panel.  In Paradise the gaze comes from Christ himself, who confronts the viewer, even while blessing the First Parents.  Balancing this pose at the center of the Hell wing, the oversized hybrid “tree-man” also turns outward, though with his body captive, his wistful gaze must twist and goes askance towards his own hollow, egg-shaped rear end (a dessicated remnant of the fecundity and indulgence of the center panel), where nude figures inhabit an infernal tavern.  Atop his head upon a flat round tabletop a striking oversized round pink bagpipe echoes the pink round fruits of the central panel (and appears all the more striking as a color accent within the dark and grey Hell wing), as it offers the musical accompaniment to a hellish round-dance of naked humans, led by oversized demons (one of whom is dressed in a parody of fifteenth-century female courtly fashion).  We recall again the significance of eye contact as the conduit of love; therefore, the solicitations of viewer attention and thus of engaged affection begin with Christ himself in the Paradise wing, only to end unfulfilled in the averted gaze of the damned tree-figure, rooted in Hell.

            In the pond at the top of the center panel,  lust-crazed men ride upon diverse wild animals, both domesticated and untamed, around bathing women.  Many of these animals are noted for their untamable wildness, which redoubles the character of their riders; moreover, the stag can often be associated with lustfulness (as in the modern “stag” films or parties) as well as the motif of an amorous hunt.  Their lustfulness drives the men wild, and their posturing in the Garden central panel presents an effort to impress women, which in turn resembles the frenzied, circular court step, “Moorish (or ‘Morris’) Dance” (morisken-dans), around an alluring woman at the center.  Moors, like black Africans (associated with Ham, the wicked son of Noah), are also construed as wild people, innately different in nature and opposed to the white, European norm upheld by Bosch.  Indeed, not only the prancing animals around the central pool but also a variety of nude figure groups elsewhere in the central picture form circles, e.g. just outside the circle of animals on either side as well as gathered around the giant berries.  We also notice all the inverted and prancing figures throughout the image, who seem to act out the sexual frenzy of the Morris Dance, a competition for the favors of a woman.  The remaining creatures, particularly the mer-people in the watery distance of the center, are hybrid monsters, humanoid equivalents of the demons in Hell, who are composed variously out of parts from birds, insects, amphibians, and reptiles.  Such figures appear among the demons in other Bosch works, particularly his St. Anthony Triptych (Lisbon).


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Per Contra Winter 2006-2007