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Some background on
Hieronymus Bosch
by William Max Miller

W
ithout a doubt, The Garden of Earthly Delight is one of the strangest paintings in the long history of art. Hieronymus Bosch, who executed this enigmatic work in the early 16'th century, has been acclaimed as an early explorer of the unconscious mind, praised as a forerunner of the 20'th century Surrealists, and also condemned as a madman. 

    Hieronymus Bosch (1450?--1516) was born in the town of 's-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, and although he spent most of his life in this provincial environment, his fame as a painter of obsessively detailed and disturbing religious works spread throughout the late Medieval world. His paintings are filled with apocalyptic images of hellfire and damnation, and seem to hint at other, incomprehensible terrors that burrow far beneath their overt eschatological  concerns into the subterranean depths of the subconscious. You may view one of his best known paintings, The Garden of Earthly Delight, by clicking on the thumbnails at left. (Downloads are a little slow, but the images are large and of good quality.)
       
The symbolism of this remarkable triptych appears to be right out of a nightmare. A multitude of figures intertwine in such fantastic and intricate patterns that the eye becomes easily confused by the complex imagery. People mingle deliriously with plants, animals and monsters, and all are leaping, dancing, running, copulating, defecating, and tormenting each other with an almost convulsive frenzy. 
   
The three panels of The Garden of Earthly Delight depict man's fall from the Garden of Eden and illustrate the hellish fate which awaits those who succumb to sensual temptations. The right panel shows Adam and Eve standing with Christ in the primordial paradise, but even here the modern interpreter encounters disturbing elements. The strange landscape in the distance and the odd behavior and appearance of some of the animals indicate that all is not quite what it seems even in Eden. The central panel illustrates all the carnal pleasures of worldly existence. Humans frolic with animals and other hybrid creatures in a frantic debauch of nightmarish intensity. The third panel shows us the torments of Hell, and here Bosch demonstrates his dark genius for devising instruments of torture. People are being cut, sliced, burned, skewered, and devoured by a horde of demonic monstrosities while the eternal fires of  the pit rage undyingly in the background.
   
Theories regarding the deeper meaning of this startling imagery abound. In 1947, German art historian Wilhelm Fraenger argued that Bosch belonged to an heretical sect called the Adamites which performed secret, orgiastic rituals. These clandestine rites, according to Fraenger, were portrayed in some of Bosch's paintings. Another opinion claims that Bosch was an alchemist, and that he incorporated alchemical allegories and symbolism into his works. Carl Jung viewed Bosch's startling symbolism as ultimately deriving from the collective unconscious. Dirk Bax and Walter Bosing  forgo psychoanalytical interpretation, and contend that the bizarre imagery used by the Netherlandish painter only seems mysterious because it is all based on parables, puns, and folk tales that are obscure or totally forgotten by us today, but which were commonplace and easily understood by 15'th century viewers. The most recent theory, propounded by Lynda Harris, claims that Bosch was influenced by the doctrines of the Cathars, another Medieval heretical movement. 
    Today, our initial reaction to this lurid triptych is typically one of revulsion. Both its subject matter and its obsessively detailed composition make it repellant to contemporary tastes. But there is also an undeniable fascination. The painting seems to challenge the viewer's ability to visually comprehend all its confusing intricacies. Most people are left with the impression that they have missed certain details, and typically remark, after subsequent viewings, that they see something different each time they examine this work. An acquaintance of mine actually developed the irrational conviction that the figures in the central and right panels had moved to different positions every time he studied the painting, and swore that new figures appeared from time to time. Although this type of delusion is rare, it helps illustrate the impact which Bosch's work can have on the imagination. 
    The Garden of Earthly Delight, now displayed in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain, is undoubtedly a disturbing thing to behold, but this has not prevented it from being widely reproduced and successfully marketed. It continues to exert a powerful fascination even though the worldview which inspired its creation lay 600 years in the past.  

Are you bewildered by Bosch? Read Stanley Meisler's 
key to the symbolism used by this enigmatic artist. 
Understanding Bosch's
 Symbolism

Then explore the most comprehensive collection of 
Hieronymus Bosch links on the World Wide Web:

Bosch Resources Online


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