"Hieronymus Bosch, Tempter and Moralist" by Larry Silver

            The paintings by Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450-1516) present problems of interpretation because his work seems so unprecedented.  Nowhere is this more true than the Garden of Earthly Delights triptych (Madrid, Prado), one of the all-time best-selling posters for college dorm rooms. Here the unique combination of format and motifs has given rise to ingenious yet contradictory interpretive schemes ever since its first description in the sixteenth century.  In 1517, the year after Bosch’s death, Antonio de Beatis, the secretary accompanying the Cardinal of Aragon, saw the work was at the hôtel of a regional count, Hendrik III of Nassau, in Brussels, located next to the large castle of the ruling dukes of Burgundy: “Then there are some panels on which bizarre things have been painted.  They represent seas, skies, woods, meadows, and many

other things, such as people crawling out of a shell, others that bring forth birds, men and women, white and blacks doing all sorts of different activities and poses.”  Despite its triptych format, usually the framing of an altarpiece in a religious context, that princely setting within the seigneurial court milieu of Brussels clearly suggests how this large-scale work with its unconventional religious subject provided both forms and meanings appropriate to an audience of noble patrons. (Whether the work was commissioned by Hendrik III, as is usually assumed, or by his Nassau predecessor until 1504, Engelbert II, another maecenas, particularly of manuscripts, must remain moot, since the date of the triptych is not established with any certainty). 

            Nothing (except Creation itself, the very scene on the exterior of the Garden of Delights triptych) is created out of nothing.  Bosch’s innovation thus consists precisely in his novel combination of separate parts and in his concoction of complex relationships among those components.  Of course, Bosch was widely imitated by generations of followers, but his own radical originality has always been noted, even glorified in the twentieth century by Surrealist artists.  Modern scholars have identified and celebrated his transfiguration of small images from the margins of illuminated manuscripts, which Bosch elevated into the main subject of his large panel painting.  Moreover, the basic motif of the central panel, a lush and luxurious Garden of Love, had long been a staple of late medieval courtly romances and of imagery in all media, including large expensive tapestries and smaller engraved prints.

            In fact, this kind of innovation forms the origins of most pictorial types.  If we examine the modern visual genres of cinema, such as Westerns or musicals, we find, as Rick Altman observes, “the early history of film genres is characterized, it would seem, not by purposeful borrowing from a single pre-existing non-film parent genre, but by apparently incidental borrowing from several unrelated genres.”[i]  This hybrid assembly of component parts seems clearly to be operative in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights triptych, whose love garden center is complemented by  interior wing panels that present, respectively, a scene in the earthly paradise with Adam and Eve as well as a Hell scene. 

            Yet any serious work of art, even if startling and original, should provide coherence and give guidance for a viewer.  While his controversial central panel with its cavorting naked figures and oversized birds and fruit appears to be unique, Bosch in fact also adapted some of the same visual elements of this triptych for use in his other works.  Notably, his use of the triptych format with Eden on the left wing and Hell on the right wing already frames the central allegory of the Haywain triptych (Madrid, Prado) as well as a Last Judgment triptych (Vienna, Akademie).  Other lively nudes (and clothed  figures) indulging their appetites for food and luxury (with the implication of sex) also appear in a divided wing, shared by the Ship of Fools (Paris, Louvre) and Allegory of Gluttony and Lust (New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery) from a dismembered triptych.  Bosch also utilizes a more conventional Garden of Love within his Seven Deadly Sins tabletop (Madrid, Prado), where Luxuria (i.e. Lust) is exemplified by courtly couples, accompanied by musical instruments and a fool, embracing under a royal tent within an expansive green landscape. 

            The moral context of these other works is clear.  The Allegory of Gluttony and Lust and Ship of Fools might well carry humorous critique of folly along with sterner moral indictment, but their erstwhile companion wing panel, the Death of the Usurer (Washington, National Gallery), unambiguously evokes the late medieval Ars moriendi (Art of Dying Well) by placing a skeletal figure of Death at the door while an angel and a demon contend for the soul of the expiring old man.  In the Prado tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins, Luxuria not only is clearly labeled on the panel but also appears among the other deadly sins, enframed by the Four Last Things: Death (echoing the Washington Usurer panel), Last Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.  The structural analogy of the Garden of Delights to the Haywain Triptych also points to a strong religious overtone in the latter work, since in addition to featuring another Paradise wing at left, that other Bosch triptych actually shows both mounted and walking figures of the central panel moving onwards into the space of Hell at the right.  This left-to-right progress sets up a clear direction of reading in defined sequence, providing a grammar of interpreting the Garden of Earthly Delights.






Garden of Earthly Delights: View of Triptych - Click Here

Garden of Eden: Left Wing - Click Here

Garden of Earthly Delights: Central Panel - Click Here

Hell: Right Wing - Click Here

Haywain - Click Here

Last Judgment - Click Here

Ship of Fools - Click Here

Allegory of Gluttony and Lust - Click Here

Seven Deadly Sins:

Full tabletop - Click Here

Detail - Click Here

Death of the Usurer - Click Here

St. Jerome - Click Here

St. John the Baptist - Click Here

St. Anthony Triptych - Click Here

Nymph of Spring - Click Here





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Per Contra Winter 2006-2007