The Garden of Earthly Delights
By Wayne Saalman
THE MONA LISA’S COY enigmatic smile may be the top attraction of the Louvre Museum in Paris and I have had the pleasure of viewing it, but on a recent trip to Madrid, Spain, I found myself far more staggered at the sight of one of the Prado’s most mind-blowing masterpieces: namely, Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.
My expectations were that I would be viewing famous Spanish painters such as Francisco De Goya, El Greco and Diego Velásquez among others, but not Bosch. He is Dutch.
What a surprise. And what a painting! Clearly, Bosch was an artist whose imagination was second to none. This particular triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, was painted on three panels. The left panel depicts an earthly paradise with Jesus holding the hands of Adam and Eve, while the right panel slips into deeply disturbing and gruesome scenes of hellish proportions. The center panel, however, looks like something a visionary shaman might see after ingesting a few extremely potent magic mushrooms and landing in another dimension entirely. Its depiction of earthly pleasures, especially those of a lustful nature, were supposedly intended to sound a warning note to fellow Christians: indulging in the ephemeral frolics as shown here would have dire consequences later, meaning once one’s soul “slipped the mortal coil”, of course.
The sheer number of naked bodies in this work must have shocked medieval observers back in the day. People are shocked even now, after all, and that painting was presented to the world at roughly the outset of the 1500s. The detail, however, is absolutely phenomenal and I found viewers on my visit lined up five and six layers deep to stare at this giant masterpiece of orgiastic magnificence. It had us all absolutely mesmerized.
My impression is that Hieronymus Bosch must have been an incredibly liberated man and a true visionary. More than once I overheard expressions of shock and awe as people looked on and while those exclamations were generally in Spanish or French or other European languages, I could easily interpret the breathless tones of incredulity which accompanied those words. There were English speaking viewers there, as well, however and one man loudly exclaimed, “What the f***! What the hell is that? What’s that supposed to mean?” His wife or partner had no idea.
Even the Visitor’s Guide to the Prado admitted at the outset of their exposition on the painting that the work was “filled with symbolic images of unclear meaning…”
Personally, I suspect that Bosch was less a sermonizing medieval cleric-type than a man whose visionary talent was so acute that he surely must have existed in a rarified dimension all his own.
The only painting that came close to The Garden of Earthly Delights in content and style elsewhere in the museum was Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s work entitled, The Triumph of Death. In contrast to Bosch’s delights, however, Bruegel was inspired by the literary theme known as the Dance of Death. Its imagery is macabre and gruesome from one end of the canvass to the other. “Death” — rather like the Grim Reaper — is mounted on a steed and leads a vast army of skeletons across the land, destroying every man, woman and child in its path. According to the Visitor’s Guide, Death is out to destroy the world of the living and the painting makes it clear that no one escapes his grisly clutches. The Guide also notes how the figures in the painting are “rendered with painstaking realism” and that is certainly true.
Such painstaking realism is equally true of Bosch, as well.
Of course, the Prado is rich beyond measure with paintings of painstaking realism and even a day within its walls is insufficient to take in the full bounty of Spain’s most famous painters, as well as the many other European masters whose work also happens to be there: namely, Titian, Raphael, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck and so many others.
Madrid has two other museums besides the Prado: the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofia. In these other two museums one finds modern masters such Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Toulouse Lautrec and too many others to name. Picasso, of course, dominates; especially his massive anti-war masterpiece, Guernica, in the Reina Sofia. Its size is exceptionally daunting, but the work is rendered only in shades of gray with black and white touches and so simply overwhelms rather than provokes the kind of wide-eyed awe and incredulity which The Garden of Earthly Delights elicits.
In the last analysis, we are all free to make of this world what we will, but The Garden of Earthly Delights speaks volumes to me. For what it is worth, I think Hieronymus Bosch was quite enlightened. While his symbolism ran the gamut from beautifully rendered orgiastic frolics to unspeakably grisly scenes of raw degradation, the painting is ultimately an expression of how vast the human spectrum of experience actually is. This spectrum is phenomenal beyond words and, yes, there is good and evil upon this earth of ours, but the title of Bosch’s painting falls decidedly on the side of positivity. In stark contrast to Bruegel’s “Triumph of Death”, the Dutch master named his ultimate work, The Garden of Earthly Delights.
What’s amazing, too, is how the words we choose in this world have both significance and meaning; how they shape our attitude to life in too many ways to note. Yes, we all slip the mortal coil in the end, but while alive we can make of this world what we like and that depends on the way we interpret our own experience and the events of which we are a part.
Let us enjoy them while we can.