The Garden of Earthly Delights  

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The central water-bound globe in the middle pane from Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490-1510)
The central water-bound globe in the middle pane from Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490-1510)
"Hell" detail from Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490-1510)
"Hell" detail from Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490-1510)

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The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1500) is a triptych painted by the early Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516), housed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid since 1939. It is his best-known work.

The triptych is painted in oil and comprises a square middle panel flanked by two rectangular wings that can close over the center as shutters. These outer wings, when folded shut, display a grisaille painting of the earth during the Creation. The three scenes of the inner triptych are probably (but not necessarily) intended to be read chronologically from left to right. The left panel depicts God presenting Adam to Eve, while the central panel is a broad panorama of sexually engaged nude figures, fantastical animals, oversized fruit and hybrid stone formations. The right panel is a hellscape and portrays the torments of damnation.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is an oil painting on wood panels. The exterior shutters are grisaille on panel. The centre panel measures 220 by 195 cm, and the wings measure 220 by 95 cm. Although the triptych format was standard for church altarpieces at the time, it is likely that The Garden of Earthly Delights was produced for the private enjoyment of a noble family.

It is currently hangs in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. The title is a later attribution. It was registered in the inventory of the Spanish crown as "the picture with the strawberry-tree fruits".



This painting, for which the original title has not survived, depicts paradise with Adam and Eve and many wondrous animals on the left panel, the earthly delights with numerous nude figures and tremendous fruit and birds on the middle panel, and hell with depictions of fantastic punishments of the various types of sinners on the right panel. When the exterior panels are closed the viewer can see, painted in grisaille, God creating the Earth. These paintings—especially the Hell panel—are painted in a comparatively sketchy manner which contrasts with the traditional Flemish style of paintings, where the smooth surface—achieved by the application of multiple transparent glazes—conceals the brushwork.


When closed, the shutters depict an image of the earth as a flat disc within a sphere with the land floating upon a sea. Although the earth is bright from sunlight slipping through receding storm clouds, strange organic and even obscene forms are seen rising from the ground. A small representation of God the Father appears enthroned in the outer firmament at the upper left corner. At the top of the panels is a quote from Psalm 33:9 of the Bible: "For he spake and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast." Some critics have taken the verse to imply that the scene is one from Creation; others hold that it is of the receding waters of the Flood during the days of Noah. The interior triptych is thus interpreted to represent the days of sexual fornication prior to the Flood. Other critics have supposed that the outer shutters represent a metaphor for the last days and not a specific moment in Biblical history. It is argued that there is no ark or human and animal corpses present on the outer shutters, and that it is therefore unlikely that it could be representing the specific Flood of Noah. Yet another interpretation describes the picture as depicting the third day of the Creation of Earth.

The shutters open to reveal the three-paneled triptych.


Scholars have proposed that Bosch used the outer panels to establish a Biblical setting for the inner elements of the work, and the exterior image is generally interpreted as set in an earlier time than those in the interior. As with Bosch's Haywain triptych, the inner centerpiece is flanked by heavenly and hellish imagery. The scenes depicted in the triptych are thought to follow a chronological order, flowing from left-to-right they represent respectively, Eden, the garden of earthly delights, and Hell. God appears as the creator of humanity in the left hand wing, while the consequences of his will are implied in the right. However, in contrast to Bosch's two other "true" triptychs, The Last Judgment (around 1500) and The Haywain (after 1510), God is absent from the central panel. Instead, this panel shows humanity acting with free will and engaging in various sexual activities. The right hand panel is believed to show God wreaking vengeance for these sins in a Last Judgment hellscape.

Art historian Charles de Tolnay believed that, through the seductive gaze of Adam, the left panel already shows God's waning influence upon the newly created earth. This view is reinforced by the rendering of God in the outer panels as a tiny figure in comparison to the immensity of the earth. According to Belting, the three inner panels seek to broadly convey the Old Testament notion that, before the Fall, there was no defined boundary between good and evil; humanity in its innocence was unaware of consequence.

Left panel

The left panel (220 × 97.5 cm, 87 × 38.4 in) (sometimes known as the Joining of Adam and Eve) depicts a scene from the paradise of the Garden of Eden commonly interpreted as the moment when God presents Eve to Adam. The painting shows Adam waking from a deep sleep to find God holding Eve by her wrist and giving the sign of his blessing to their union. God is younger-looking than on the outer panels, blue-eyed and with golden curls. His youthful appearance may be a device by the artist to illustrate the concept of Christ as the incarnation of the Word of God. God's right hand is raised in blessing, while he holds Eve's wrist with his left, according to the work's most controversial interpreter, Wilhelm Fränger:

As though enjoying the pulsation of the living blood and as though too he were setting a seal on the eternal and immutable communion between this human blood and his own. This physical contact between the Creator and Eve is repeated even more noticeably in the way Adam's toes touch the Lord's foot. Here is the stressing of a rapport: Adam seems indeed to be stretching to his full length in order to make contact with the Creator. And the billowing out of the cloak around the Creator's heart, from where the garment falls in marked folds and contours to Adam's feet, also seems to indicate that here a current of divine power flows down, so that this group of three actually forms a closed circuit, a complex of magical energy.

Eve chastely avoids Adam's gaze, although, according to art historian Walter S. Gibson, she is shown "seductively presenting her body to Adam". Adam's expression is one of amazement, and Fränger has identified three elements to his seeming astonishment. Firstly, there is surprise at the presence of the God. Secondly, he is reacting to an awareness that Eve is of same nature as himself, and has been created from his own body. Finally, from the intensity of Adam's gaze, it can be concluded that he is experiencing sexual arousal and the primal urge to reproduce for the first time.

The surrounding landscape is populated by hut-shaped forms, some of which are made from stone, while others are at least partially organic. Behind Eve, rabbits symbolising fecundity play in the grass, and a dragon tree opposite is thought to represent eternal life. The background reveals several animals that would have been exotic to contemporaneous Europeans, including a giraffe, an elephant and a lion that has killed and about to devour his prey. In the foreground, a circular hole in the ground emits birds and winged animals, some of which are realistic, some fantastic. A fish with human hands and a duck's head clutches a book while emerging from the cavity in flight, while to the left of the area a cat holds a small creature in its jaws. Belting observes that despite the fact that the creatures in the foreground are fantastical imaginings, many of the animals in the mid and background are drawn from contemporary travel literature, and here Bosch is appealing to "the knowledge of a humanistic and aristocratic readership" (Belting). Erhard Reuwich's pictures for Bernhard von Breydenbach's Pilgrimages to the Holy Land were long thought to be the source for both the elephant and the giraffe, though more recent research indicates the mid-15th century humanist scholar Cyriac of Ancona's travelogues served as Bosch's exposure to these exotic animals.

According to art historian Virginia Tuttle, the scene is "highly unconventional [and] cannot be identified as any of the events from the Book of Genesis traditionally depicted in Western art". Some of the image's details seem to contradict the innocence that might be expected in the Garden of Eden before the expulsion. Tuttle and other critics have interpreted the gaze of Adam upon his wife as lustful, and indicative of the Christian belief that man was doomed from the beginning. Gibson believes that Adam's facial expression betrays not just surprise but also expectation. According to a belief common in the Middle Ages, before the Fall Adam and Eve would have copulated without lust, solely to reproduce. Many believed that the first sin committed after Eve tasted the forbidden fruit was carnal lust. On a tree to the right a snake curls around a tree trunk, while to its right a mouse creeps—both animals are universal phallic symbols. Art historian Rosemarie Schuder, however, suggests that the obvious sensuality of the panel may have been intended as a jab against the Inquisition's hostility towards physicality.

Center panel

The skyline of the center panel (220 × 195 cm, 87 × 77 in) matches exactly with that of the left wing, while the positioning of its two central pools echoes the lake in the earlier panel. The center image depicts the expansive "garden" landscape which gives the triptych its name. The panel shares a common horizon with the left wing, suggesting a temporal and spatial connection between the two scenes. The garden is teeming with male and female nudes, together with a variety of animals, plants and fruit. The setting is not the paradise shown in the left panel, but neither is it based in the terrestrial realm. Fantastic creatures mingle with the real; otherwise ordinary fruits appear engorged to a gigantic size. The figures are engaged in diverse amorous sports and activities, both in couples and in groups. Walter Gibson describes them as behaving "overtly and without shame", while art historian Laurinda Dixon writes that the human figures exhibit "a certain adolescent sexual curiosity".

The numerous human figures revel in an innocent, self-absorbed joy as they engage in a wide range of activities: some enjoy sexual pleasures, others play unselfconsciously in the water, and yet others cavort in meadows with a variety of animals, seemingly at one with nature. In the middle of the background, a large blue globe resembling a fruit pod rises in the middle of a pond. Visible through its circular window is a man fondling his partner's genitals, and the bare buttocks of yet another figure hover in the vicinity. According to the 20th-century folklorist and art historian Wilhelm Fränger, the eroticism of the center frame could be considered either as an allegory of transience or a playground of corruption.

In the right-hand side of the foreground stand a group of both fair and black-skinned figures. Some of these fair-skinned figures, male and female alike, are covered from head to foot in light-brown body hair. Scholars generally agree that these hirsute figures represent wild or primeval man but disagree on the symbolism of their inclusion. Art historian Patrik Reuterswärd, for example, posits that they may be seen as "the noble savage" who represents "an imagined alternative to our civilized life", imbuing the panel with "a more clear-cut primitivistic note". Writer Peter Glum, in contrast, sees the figures as intrinsically connected with whoredom and lust.

In a cave to their lower right a male figure points towards a reclining female who is also covered in hair.(image) The pointing man is the only clothed figure in the panel, and as Fränger observes, "he is clothed with emphatic austerity right up to his throat". In addition, he is one of the few human figures with dark hair, and the only human who does not have an idealised face; instead his features are remarkably individual. According to Fränger:

The way this man's dark hair grows, with the sharp dip in the middle of his high forehead, as though concentrating there all the energy of the masculine M, makes his face different from all the others. His coal-black eyes are rigidly focused in a gaze that expresses compelling force. The nose is unusually long and boldly curved. The mouth is wide and sensual, but the lips are firmly shut in a straight line, the corners strongly marked and tightened into final points, and this strengthens the impression—already suggested by the eyes—of a strong controlling will. It is an extraordinarily fascinating face, reminding us of faces of famous men, especially of Machiavelli's; and indeed the whole aspect of the head suggests something Mediterranean, as though this man had acquired his frank, searching, superior air at Italian academies.

The pointing man has variously been described as either the patron of the work (Fränger in 1947), as an advocate of Adam denouncing Eve (Dirk Bax in 1956), as Saint John the Baptist in his camel’s skin (Isabel Mateo Goméz in 1963), or as a self-portrait. The woman below him lies within a semicylindrical transparent shield, while her mouth is sealed, devices implying that she bears a secret. To their right, a man crowned by leaves lies on top of a gigantic strawberry, and is joined by a male and female who contemplate another large fruit.(image)

There is no perspectival order in the foreground; instead it comprises a series of brief motifs wherein proportion and terrestrial logic are abandoned. Bosch presents the viewer with gigantic ducks playing with tiny humans under the cover of oversized fruit(image); fish walking on land while birds dwell in the water; a passionate couple encased in an amniotic bubble; and a man inside of a red fruit staring at a mouse in a transparent cylinder.

The pools in the fore and background contain bathers of both sexes. In the central lake, the sexes are segregated, and several females adorned by peacocks and fruit stand in a round pond. One woman carries a cherry on her head, a common symbol of pride at the time, as can be deduced from the contemporaneous saying: "Don't eat cherries with great lords–they'll throw the pits in your face." The women are surrounded by a parade of naked men riding horses, donkeys, unicorns, camels, and other exotic or fantastic creatures. One man somersaults on the back of his ride, an act designed to gain the females' attention that subtly highlights the attraction already felt between the two sexes. The two outer springs also contain both men and women cavorting with abandon. Around them, birds infest the water while winged fish crawl on land. Humans inhabit giant shells. All are surrounded by over-sized fruit pods and eggshells, and both humans and animals feast on strawberries and cherries.

The impression of a life lived without consequence, or what art historian Hans Belting describes as "unspoilt and immoral existence", is underscored by the absence of children and old people. According to the second and third chapters of Genesis, Adam and Eve's children were born after they were expelled from Eden. This has led some commentators, in particular Belting, to theorise that the panel represents the world if the two had not been driven out "among the thorns and thistles of the world". In Fränger's view, the scene illustrates:

a Utopia, a garden of divine delight before the Fall, or—since Bosch could not deny the existence of the dogma of Original Sin—a millennial condition that would arise if, after expiation of Original Sin, humanity were permitted to return to Paradise and to a state of tranquil harmony embracing all Creation.

In the high distance of the background, above the hybrid stone formations, four groups of people and creatures are seen in flight. On the immediate left a human male rides on a chthonic solar eagle-lion. The human carries a triple-branched tree of life on which perches a bird; according to Fränger "a symbolic bird of death". Fränger believes the man is intended to represent a genius, "he is the symbol of the extinction of the duality of the sexes, which are resolved in the ether into their original state of unity". To their right a knight with a dolphin tail sails on a winged fish. The knight's tail curls back to touch the back of his head, which references the common symbol of eternity: the snake biting its own tail. On the immediate right of the panel, a winged youth soars upwards carrying a fish in his hands and a falcon on his back. According to Belting, in these passages Bosch's "imagination triumphs ... the ambivalence of [his] visual syntax exceeds even the enigma of content, opening up that new dimension of freedom by which painting becomes art." Fränger titled his chapter on the high background "The Ascent to Heaven", and wrote that the airborne figures were likely intended as a link between 'what is above' and 'what is below', just as the left and right hand panels represent 'what was' and 'what will be'.

Right panel

doom painting

The right panel (220 × 97.5 cm, 87 × 38.4 in) illustrates Hell, the setting of a number of Bosch paintings. Bosch depicts a world in which humans have succumbed to the temptations of the devil and reap eternal damnation. The tone of this final panel strikes a harsh contrast to those preceding it. The scene is set at night, and the natural beauty that adorned the earlier panels is noticeably absent. Compared to the warmth of the center panel, the right wing possesses a chilling quality—rendered through cold colourisation and frozen waterways—and presents a tableau that has shifted from the paradise of the center image to a spectacle of cruel torture and retribution. In a single, densely detailed scene, the viewer is made witness to cities on fire in the background; war, torture chambers, infernal taverns, and demons in the midground; and mutated animals feeding on human flesh in the foreground. The nakedness of the human figures has lost all its eroticism, and many now attempt to cover their genitalia and breasts with their hands.

Large explosions in the background throw light through the city gate and spill forth onto the water in the midground; according to writer Walter S. Gibson, "their fiery reflection turning the water below into blood". The light illuminates a road filled with fleeing figures, while hordes of tormentors prepare to burn a neighbouring village. A short distance away, a rabbit carries an impaled and bleeding corpse, while a group of victims above are thrown into a burning lantern. The foreground is populated by a variety of distressed, condemned figures. Some are shown vomiting or excreting, others are crucified by harp and lute, in a hallucinatory depiction of the consequences of sin. A choir sings from a score inscribed on a pair of buttocks, part of a group that has been described as the "Musicians' Hell".

The focal point of the scene is the "Tree-Man"[1], whose cavernous torso stands on a pair of rotting tree trunks. His head supports a disk populated by demons and victims together with bagpipes—often used as a dual sexual symbol —reminiscent of human viscera. The tree-man's torso is formed from a broken eggshell, and is supported by the trunk of a rotten tree whose thorn-like branches pierce his body. A grey figure in a hood bearing an arrow jammed between his buttocks climbs a ladder into the tree-man’s central cavity, where nude men sit in a tavern-like setting. The tree-man gazes outwards beyond the viewer, his conspirative expression a mix of wistfulness and resignation. Belting wondered if the tree-man's face is a self-portrait, citing the figure's "expression of irony and the slightly sideways gaze [which would] then constitute the signature of an artist who claimed a bizarre pictorial world for his own personal imagination".

Many elements in the panel incorporate earlier iconographical conventions depicting hell. However, Bosch is innovative in that he describes hell not as a fantastical space, but as a realistic world containing many elements from day-to-day human life. Animals are shown punishing humans, subjecting them to nightmarish torments that may symbolise the seven deadly sins, matching the torment to the sin. Sitting on an object that may be a toilet or a throne, the panel's centerpiece is a gigantic bird-headed monster feasting on human corpses, which he excretes through a cavity below him, into the transparent chamber pot on which he sits. The monster is sometimes referred to as the "Prince of Hell", a name derived from the cauldron he wears on his head, perhaps representing a debased crown. To his left, a group afflicted by a hare-headed demon is being punished for unchastity. Anger is represented by a knight torn down by a pack of wolves to the right of the tree-man. A man lying in his bed is visited by devils punishing sloth, while a proud female gazes at her face reflected on the buttocks of a demon.

During the Middle Ages, sexuality and lust were seen as evidence of man's fall from grace, and the most foul of the seven deadly sins. This sin is depicted in the left-hand panel through Adam's gaze towards Eve, and there are many indicators in the center panel to suggest that the panel was created as a warning to the viewer to avoid a life of sinful pleasure. According to this view, the penalty for such sins is shown in the right panel of the triptych. In the lower right-hand corner, a man is approached by a pig wearing the veil of a nun[2]. The pig is shown trying to seduce the man to sign legal documents. Lust is further symbolised by the gigantic musical instruments and by the choral singers in the left foreground of the panel. Musical instruments often carried erotic connotations in works of art of the period, and lust was referred to in moralising sources as the "music of the flesh". It may also be that Bosch's representation here is a rebuke against traveling minstrels, widely thought of as purveyors of bawdy song and verse.


As Bosch was such a distinctly unique and visionary artist his influence has not spread as wide as other major painters of his era. However, there have been instances of later artists incorporating elements of The Garden of Earthly Delights into their own work. Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c.1525–1569) in particular directly acknowledged Bosch as an important influence and inspiration, and incorporated many elements of The Garden of Earthly Delights's inner right panel in several of his most popular works. Brueghel's painting Mad Meg depicts a peasant woman leading an army of women to pillage Hell, while his The Triumph of Death (c.1562) echoes the monstrous Hellscape of The Garden, and utilizes, according to the Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts, the same "unbridled imagination and the fascinating colours".

While the Italian court painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c.1527–1593) wasn't a creator of Hellscapes, he painted a body of strange and "fantastic" vegetable portraits—generally heads of people comprised from plants, roots, webs and various other organic matter. These strange portraits rely on a motif that was in part inspired by, and visually echoes the willingness Bosch shows in the central panel to break from strict and faithful representations of nature. David Teniers the Younger (c. 1610–1690) was a Flemish painter who quoted both Bosch and Breughel throughout his career in such works as his versions of the Temptation of St Anthony, the Rich Man in Hell, and his version of Mad Meg.

During the early 20th-century Bosch's work enjoyed a popular resurrection and the early surrealists fascination with dreamscapes, the autonomy of the imagination, and a free flowing connection to the unconscious, brought about a renewed interest in his work. Bosch's imagery struck a chord with Joan Miró and Salvador Dali in particular. Both knew his paintings firsthand, having seen The Garden of Earthly Delights in the Museo del Prado, and both regarded him as an art-historical mentor. Miró’s The Tilled Field contains several parallels to Bosch’s Garden': similar flocks of birds; pools from which living creatures emerge; and oversize disembodied ears all echo the Dutch master’s work. When André Breton wrote his first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, his historical precedents as inclusions named only Gustave Moreau, Georges Seurat and Uccello. However, after the beginnings of the Surrealist movement both Bosch and Breughel were rediscovered and quickly became popular among the Surrealist painters. René Magritte and Max Ernst both were inspired by Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights.

See also

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