696! CHAPTER 23 High Renaissance and Mannerism in Northern Europe and Spain

696! CHAPTER 23 High Renaissance and Mannerism in Northern Europe and Spain

23-13 Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, ca. 1505–1510. Oil on wood, center panel 79 2 580 × 69 4 340, each wing 79 2 580 × 39 2 140. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

In the fantastic sunlit landscape that is Bosch’s Paradise, scores of nude people in the prime of life blithely cavort. The horrors of Hell include sinners enduring tortures tailored to their conduct while alive.

of water and an array of fanciful and unusual animals, including a giraffe, an elephant, and winged fish.

The central panel is a continuation of Paradise, a sunlit landscape filled with nude people, including exotic figures of African descent, who frequently appear in Renaissance paintings (for example, FIG. 21-49), both north and south of the Alps. All those in Paradise are in the prime of youth. They blithely cavort amid bizarre creatures and unidentifiable objects. Some of the youths exuberantly stand on their hands or turn somersaults. The numerous fruits and birds in the scene are fertility symbols and sug- gest procreation. Indeed, many of the figures pair off as couples. These are the descendants of Adam and Eve, who have not learned the les- son of their ancestors’ expulsion from Paradise, leading God to unleash a flood to rid the world of all humans save for Noah and his family.

In contrast to the orgiastic overtones of the central panel is the terrifying image of Hell in the right wing, where viewers must search through the inky darkness to find all of the fascinating though repul- sive details that Bosch recorded. Beastly creatures devour people, while other condemned souls endure tortures tailored to their conduct while alive. A glutton must vomit eternally. A miser squeezes gold coins from his bowels. A spidery monster fondles a promiscuous woman while toads bite her.

Another element of Garden of Earthly Delights that bears on its interpretation is that many details throughout the triptych are based on chemical apparatus of the day, which Bosch knew well because his in-laws were pharmacists. The painting may have been intended for a learned audience of aristocrats in Nassau who were fascinated by alchemy—the medieval study of seemingly magical chemical changes. (Witchcraft also involved alchemy; see “Witchcraft,” page 693.)


Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights Garden of Earthly Delights (FIG. 23-13), Hieronymus Bosch’s most famous and most enigmatic painting, is a large triptych. That format would suggest a religious function for the work as an altarpiece, but the painting was on display in the palace of Count Hendrik III of Nas- sau-Breda (r. 1516–1538) no later than seven years after its comple- tion. This suggests that the triptych was a secular commission, and some scholars have proposed that given the work’s central themes of sex and procreation, the painting may commemorate a wedding. Paint- ings of married couples are common in Netherlandish art. Fifteenth- century examples include Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife (FIG. 20-11) and A Goldsmith in His Shop (FIG. 20-14). Any similarity to those earlier paintings ends there, however. Whereas Jan van Eyck and Petrus Chris- tus grounded their depictions of husbands and wives in contemporary Netherlandish life and custom, Bosch’s image portrays a visionary world of fantasy and intrigue—a painted world without close parallel until the advent of Surrealism more than 400 years later (FIG. 29-39).

Few scholars today subscribe to the wedding-painting explanation, but that Bosch’s triptych was never intended for or displayed in a church seems certain. However, that does not preclude a moralistic interpretation of the complex painting, one in the tradition of medieval representations of sin and of the horrors of Hell (for example, FIGS. 12-1 and 12-38A).

In the left panel, God (in the form of Christ) presents Eve to Adam in a landscape, presumably the Garden of Eden. (When closed, the trip- tych’s wings show the earth on the third day of Creation.) Bosch’s wildly imaginative setting includes an odd pink fountainlike structure in a body

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