“…the freakish riddles … the irresponsible phantasmagoria of an ecstatic”

— Art historian Wilhelm Fränger, writing about The Garden of Earthly Delights


Last Monday, we spent most of the day in Spain’s “Prado” (Museo Nacional del Prado) one of the must-see attractions, not just of Madrid but of all Europe: over 100 rooms of the best of pre-20th century European art. We tried to absorb as much as we could in a single visit: the Mona Lisa (da Vinci), Naked & Clothed Mayas, and the (chilling) May 3, 1808 Executions (Goya), The Three Graces (Rubens, who loved bosoms), Las Meninas (Velazquez)…But I had to start in room 56A, where I lingered for half an hour or so, meeting face-to-face for the first time a work of art that has haunted me for decades: The Garden of Earthly Delights.

All images public domain via Wikimedia.

For me — who knows very little about art — this is the weirdest painting ever created. It came from the hand of an artist who lived in the Netherlands about 500 years ago, and of whom we know next to nothing. Jheronimus van Aken, c. 1450-1516, lived nearly all his life in the town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, taking part of that name for his signature, Jheronimus Bosch. Of the two dozen works confidently ascribed to him, the one known to every student of the strange and wonderful is what we now call, in English, The Garden of Earthly Delights, dated to about 1505.

At first blush, it’s an obvious religious allegory. On the left panel, we’ve got the Garden of Eden; in the middle, a gay old time is being had by all; and finally, having pissed your life away with wine, women and song, you get your comeuppance in a hellish landscape. What’s to explain? According to the many, many art historians who’ve taken a crack at this: everything. Bosch’s visions have no clear correlation with anything that came before, it was, in its time, sui generis, a work unlike any other, with allegories that no longer make any sense.

Detail from left hand panel.

Left-hand panel

Here we’ve got a youthful God presenting newly-minted Eve to a just awakened Adam (minus one of his ribs, presumably) in the Garden of Eden. Is Adam’s expression one of amazement? (When he went to sleep, there was just himself on Earth.) Or, foreshadowing the middle panel, is it lustful as he ogles naked Eve? Above and below, there’s a whole bestiary of exotic and fantastic animals cavorting: an elephant (monkey on its back) and a giraffe (both barely known to Europeans of the early 1500s), unicorns, assorted three-headed creatures, birds by the score. Not to mention that duck-beaked humanoid reading a book…This all seems a stoner’s view of what an Earthly Paradise looks like.

Detail from middle panel.

Middle panel

Art experts disagree on whether Bosch is celebrating sensuality — we’ve been given these human bodies to enjoy to the max; or he’s warning us about indulging in too much of a good thing. In this garden, almost everyone’s naked, and they all seen to be having a great time. There’s a shameless innocence about them: cavorting with each other and with the unafraid animals, splashing in the water, cuddling, eating huge berries. Fishes walk on land while birds play in the water. Black and white bodies mingle. A dolphin-tailed knight rides a winged fish. Spend time with this and you’ll see more every time.

Details from right panel.

Right panel

Night has fallen and innocence gone. Cities are on fire. Water is the color of blood. Demons are everywhere. People are being massacred, impaled, burned alive. The eroticism of the middle panel has gone — men and women now cover their breasts and genitals in shame. A bird-monster eats a human while excreting another. Then, oddly (as if everything so far isn’t sufficiently odd) a very human face looks askance — a self-portrait, according to one historian, noting the “expression of irony and the slightly sideways gaze…the signature of an artist who claimed a bizarre pictorial world for his own personal imagination.”

Having now spent a little time in the presence of the piece, I’m even more convinced of my initial reaction when I saw a reproduction many years ago: not only is it really (really) weird, but it’s also great fun to pore over and try to figure out what it’s all about. Along with this sneaking feeling: Are we trying too hard to make sense of it all? Was Bosch just messing with us, and now he’s laughing in his grave?