Wendi Woolard - The Portrayal of Fifteenth-Century Religious Symbolism within Hieronymous Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1490 - 1510, oil on oak panels, 87" × 153", Museo del Prado, Madrid

The paintings of Dutch artist Hieronymous Bosch, who lived from approximately 1450 to 1516, largely remain a mystery because his imagery symbolizes the indiscernible world of dreams. Regarded by scholars as his most puzzling work, The Garden of Earthly Delights provides a visual representation which expresses the fears that dominated life in the Middle Ages-the insatiable weakness of man for not resisting sinful physical temptation, and eternal damnation in hell as just punishment of lustful human folly.

The two outer panels, known as the "Creation of the World," reveal God's integral formation and methodical shaping of the Earth after three days. Hieronymous Bosch positioned God, furnished with a golden crown upon His head, symbolic of both His heavenly creativity and ultimate powers, and draped in a blue gown, symbolic of His divine nature, above the Earth to illustrate His supreme ruling over the world. The Earth, portrayed as a transparent sphere, unveils God's ability to oversee the developmental progression of His masterpiece and points toward the unaccepted viewpoint of the world as having been molded into a rounded, not flattened, shape. The left panel shows God's creation of light which heralds the morning's dawn, eluding to the concept of hope; the right panel tells of God's creation of darkness that warns of evening's falling, hinting at the concept of despair; the left and right panels collectively mark how day and night were begun on the first day and note the underlying struggle between the forces of good and evil. The water and sky on either panel represent their formation in the midst of the second day. The land and sea and vegetation (pinpointing the ability of trees to bear fruit, whose seeds may later evolve into human descendants of nature) establish their creation in the third day. God's position within a noticeably lighter background, vaguely resembling the shape of a halo, may symbolize the graces of heaven, while the Earth's position amongst the obviously darker background gives insight in respect to man's nervousness of the unknown and man's dread of the plagues of hell.


The inner left wing, named "Paradise," depicts Christ's introduction between Adam and Eve from within the Garden of Eden. The mountainous formations in the background of the picture's landscape resemble either glass towers or ice sculptures, illustrating the fragility of nature and emphasizing the brevity of life; however, a few critics believe the rocks to symbolize medieval alchemical vials, perhaps noting the most significant religious and historical occurrence that would inevitably change the governing laws of humanity. Young trees, representative of lush new beginnings, are abundant within the vegetation of the painting, making known the degree to which life flourished in the Garden. The exotic creatures, most notably the elephant, the unicorn, the giraffe, and the swan, reveal similarities between human physiology and animal form-the bodily compositions of the elephant and the unicorn have a likeness to the male structure, and the physical makeups of the giraffe and the swan are unique to the female anatomy. Modern research claims that God banished numerous unruly angels from the graces within the Kingdom of Heaven, and in doing so, ordered them to descend upon and forever live on the Earth as repulsive insects; therefore, the swarm of formerly rebellious angels invading the Garden's backdrop unmasks the haunting evil that will continually plague mankind. The multiple amphibians surfacing from the pond reinforce the belligerent demons that could wreak great havoc upon the Earth. Near the point in which God lets the seated Adam meet the bowing Eve, ferocious creatures violently turn upon and maliciously kill each other, representing the beastly chaos lurking within the depths of hell.

The central image, titled "The Garden of Earthly Delights," narrates a bewildering perspective of sinful humanity when free of moral restraint. Nude men and women parade upon animals' backsides throughout the illustration, symbolic of humanity's ravenous greed for carnal desires. Couples dance in the waters of the pond, expressing admiration for the marvelous intricacies of the human body. A few individuals do engage themselves within sexual orgies, perhaps rejoicing in the lawless atmosphere of the Garden. The voluptuous fruit utilized by the naked men and women in the landscape, strategically positioned about their genitalia, communicates the sensuality of the human body; however, viewed from a more religious level of interpretation, it depicts the unending cycle of Adam and Eve's sin, whereby everyone serves as a prisoner to his or her appetite. Males and females innocently nurture the owl, a longtime symbol of witchcraft, unconsciously damning themselves to eternal punishment in hell. The occasional Negroes within this sinful Garden, exalting in this mass chaos, represented the bodily personifications of evil.


The right wing, called "Hell," illustrates the barbaric mechanisms of torturous punishment, carried out by demons from a half animal, half machine nature, in the Garden of Satan. Architecture is completely engulfed by flames, symbolizing the destruction within orderly religious hierarchy-the precious grace in the Lord's Kingdom of Heaven are now unobtainable, while the horrid imprisonment from within the depths of Satan's Hell became realistic. Massive numbers of individuals try running from the unrelenting punishment awaiting them in hell, representing the conquering finality of evil, showing domination in the battle with good. Grotesque mutilation of bodily parts displays the unfathomable level of satanic torture needed in redemption of immoral human folly. The crucifixion of men by snakes upon instruments kin to a harp and a lute portrays their retribution for ignorance of Jesus' death in the name of evil. Due to Hieronymous Bosch's firm religious morals, his triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights and its wings "Creation of the World," "Paradise," "The Garden of Earthly Delights," and "Hell" presents a visual allegorical sermon eluding to the haunting consequences in not obeying the Lord's beseeching.


1 Dec. 2002 <http://www.tabula-rasa.info/DarkAges/Bosch.html>
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Harden, M. "Hieronymus Bosch." The Artchive. 1 Dec. 2002 <http://www.artchive.com/artchive/B/bosch.html>.

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