BY CHRISTINE ALFORD
The American writer Peter S. Beagle described this painting as an ‘erotic derangement that turns us all into voyeurs, a place filled with an intoxicating air of perfect liberty’. This fantasy landscape shows scenes of debauchery, bestiality, beautiful women bathing, strange creatures and medieval monsters. ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ was painted by Hieronymous Bosch for the private home of an aristocrat in 1517. The triptych style, using three hinged panels was typical for altar pieces, but this ribald painting is certainly not church material. Bosch openly satirizes the Catholic church in this unique masterpiece. In the bottom right corner of hell, a pig dressed as a nun is shown attempting to seduce a young man, to persuade him to sign away his fortune to the church. An armour clad creature proffers the ink well for the fountain pen, and a human foot dangles from the top of his helmet.
The first part of the triptych shows the heavenly, ‘Garden of Eden’ with exotic creatures such as giraffes, elephants and unicorns. Adam and Eve are shown with a Christ like figure standing next to an apple tree. A snake circles around the tree of knowledge ready to tempt Eve. The tree’s forbidden fruit is ripe for plucking. The central pink fountain has a tiny owl peering out from a hole in the base. The owl stands for wisdom and folly, and watches over God creating Adam and Eve.
The central panel represents the ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’. It shows a multitude of naked people and strange creatures acting with complete abandon in orgiastic displays of lust. Strange animals cavort with people and giant beautiful birds dwarf the humans. A couple make love inside a glass sphere that appears to emerge from a flower. Below a human head looks out of a flower through a glass cylinder at a mouse. The glass spheres may represent a glass distilling chamber. It may be a reference to alchemy, the process of making gold out of ordinary metals. In the background a man embraces a giant owl, and another man rides upon a giant duck.
The third panel shows the fiery furnaces of Hell. The lights of the fire illuminate a road filled with fleeing figures, while hordes of tormentors prepare to burn a neighbouring village. The prince of hell, a throned hybrid creature with a cauldron at the back of his head is eating humans, and excreting them into a pit below. Below the throne a women is ensnared by a human tree and a man is shown vomiting into the pit. Another man is shown defecating coins into the pit. This maybe a punishment for greed in his lifetime.
But apparently Hell is not all that bad. At least they had music as a tonic for their torment. A man is tied the neck of a lute by a strange snake like creature, while another man appears to be crucified on a harp. A choir sings from a score on a pair of buttocks. A strange creature beats a drum with a head inside it. There is a portrait of a white faced gentlemen to the right of a strange white egg shaped object that morphs into tree like branches. This is thought to be a self-portrait of the artist. Apparently Bosch thought he was destined for Hell, rather than Heaven.
The American writer Peter S. Beagle described this painting as an ‘erotic derangement that turns us all into voyeurs, a place filled with an intoxicating air of perfect liberty’.