What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Bosch’s Masterpiece: The Garden of Earthly Delights (Triptych c. 1510)

A work of art is not always created exclusively for the purpose of being enjoyed, or, to use a more scholarly expression, of being experienced aesthetically. …But a work of art always has aesthetic significance (not to be confused with aesthetic value): whether or not it serves some practical purpose, and whether it is good or bad, it demands to be experienced aesthetically. ~ Erwin Panofsky (art historian)

I can’t say I find Hieronymus Bosch’s enigmatic triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights particularly beautiful, because it’s really quite disturbing in places. When you feast your eyes on many of the smaller images that make up the whole work, the words that spring to mind are freakish, Bacchanalian and nightmarish.

The Garden of Earthly Delights (triptych ca. 1510) by Hieronymus Bosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights (triptych ca. 1510) by Hieronymus Bosch

Unlike his Renaissance contemporary, Michelangelo, Hieronymus Bosch was unaffected by Italian influences and was not concerned with painting works that hailed the glory of man in all his strength and beauty; but instead portrayed man’s vices and weaknesses in settings of fantastical worlds.

The general consensus among art historians and scholars is that the triptych was not created to be aesthetically pleasing in the traditional sense, as more of a social commentary about the extent of human folly that Bosch perceived around him.

The Garden of Earthly Delights – Overview

From left to right, the triptych depicts humanity’s journey and experience of life in three stages: Paradise, The Garden of Earthly Delights and Hell. It is painted in oil on oak, with the central panel measuring 220 x 195 cm and each wing is 220 x 97 cm. If you want to see it in real life you’ll have to travel to the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

To me it comes across as a bold, imaginative, surrealist dreamscape; rooted in reality yet completely off the wall!

The Garden of Earthly Delights is a visual smorgasbord of polymorphous nude figures, beasts and human-bestial hybrids, illustrated in various poses and pursuits of pleasure; the most obvious being carnal satisfaction. Other iniquities on display include vanity, pride, decadence and greed, as well as their inevitable consequences.

Detail of a man and a woman inside an amniotic bubble of a seed.

Detail of a man and a woman inside an amniotic bubble of a seed.

It’s so bizarre, it’s like a Renaissance parody of unbridled fornication, except its meaning or warning is deadly serious.

Bosch’s unusual creatures had their origins in the Physiologus, a folk book from Alexandria, and Herold’s illustrations of Herodotus, featuring images of monsters and strange hieroglyphs.

Details of The Garden of Earthly Delights to ‘De Profundis Clamavi’ composed by Josquin performed by The Hilliard Ensemble:

When I gaze upon these mostly grotesque creatures and monsters intertwined in activities and positions that are still shocking today, I wonder at his bravery for committing them to panels, as well as for stepping outside the established norms of the era.

Had he been living in any of the major artistic centers his peculiar type of art may not have been acceptable on the grounds of perspective or traditional expectations. Fortunately he was under the radar of the religious authorities, living in the provinces of the Low Countries which were under the control of the Burgundian aristocracy.

The Draper's Market in 's-Hertogenbosch ca. 1530

The Draper’s Market in ‘s-Hertogenbosch ca. 1530

The Garden of Earthly Delights is something of a time bomb, being way ahead of its time during the Renaissance, containing nothing in its imagery that dates it. The triptych is just as relevant and enigmatic today as it was 500 years ago. Mind you, one has to wonder if Bosch was on some kind of hallucinogenic substance when he painted it!

Hieronymus Bosch has defined sin as a consequence of temptation and lack of judgment in startling, 16th century high definition.


The three panels that comprise the triptych of The Garden of Earthly Delights are full of symbolism and mystery, and Wilhelm Fraenger, a leading Bosch scholar, considered him to be under the influence of esoteric mysticism and occultism.

Provenance, journey to Spain and the tapestry

When the tripych’s owner, Count Hendrik III of Nassau died, The Garden of Earthly Delights was passed on to William of Orange. However, Bosch’s altarpiece was coveted by Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, 3rd Duke of Alba, who took it (after torturing William as to its whereabouts), at the start of the Eighty Years War.  He transported it back to Spain, where a copy was made in tapestry form in 1556, exquisitely woven in silver, gold and silk, which now hangs in San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

Tapestry after Jheronimus Bosch

Tapestry after Jheronimus Bosch

After the Duke of Alba’s death the painting was passed on to his illegitimate son and then became the property of Felipe II of Spain.

Left Panel – The Garden of Eden (Paradise)

In the far left panel of the triptych, Bosch shows us the Garden of Eden at the exact moment Eve is created to be Adam’s earthly companion, with their creator making the introduction. It is a pristine paradise where animals, both European and exotic, as well as mythical creatures roam freely in God’s garden.

The Garden of Eden

The Garden of Eden

…”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”… ~ Wilhelm Fraenger (German art historian 1840 – 1964).

It has been noted that Eve’s body is leaning seductively towards Adam, whose intense gaze has been attributed to three things by Fraenger: firstly, surprise at the presence of his creator, secondly an awareness of Eve and that she has, essentially, the same nature as him and has been created from his body, and thirdly the intense sensation of sexual desire and the primal urge to go forth and copulate…ahem, multiply!

Centre panel – The Garden of Earthly Delights

Some scholars read the triptych panels as a narrative from left to right, so you have the perfect start, moving into the middle panel, which depicts man and woman gone wild with lust; cavorting around the landscape with the animals and each other.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights

The desire for earthly delights has run rampant and is now in full swing! The amount of naked flesh on display, the frolicking, debauchery and carefree attitude towards the pleasures of earthly life are evident in all the land areas of the Garden of Eden.

In the upper half of the main panel we see maidens bathing and they are encircled by hordes of men riding horses, donkeys, unicorns and beasts in various poses of bravado and acrobatics in order to gain the attention and favour of the females.


It seems evident from Bosch’s depictions and the dogma of Original Sin that the blame for man’s fall from grace lies squarely with Eve! The biblical story portrays Eve as the one who succumbed to the serpent’s temptation of eating an apple from the tree of knowledge, promptly leading Adam astray…

Therein lies the struggle of women over the centuries (perhaps subconsciously), with guilt issues!!!

It is a powerful allegory for the loss of innocence and the responsibility that comes with free will and knowledge, since we all can do both good and evil deeds, depending on our nature.

There is an interesting enclave to the right and centre of this panel that shows a group of men and women beneath apple trees. One male is reaching up for an apple while another couple eat an apple and a man approaches a resplendent woman with a giant strawberry, a symbol of the fleeting nature of hedonistic pleasures. One of the few clothed men in the triptych is the man tucked away behind them, watching their activities intently. He stands out with his very dark hair and a stern countenance.


At the very bottom right of the panel there are two men, one of which is more obvious for he is clothed, has dark hair in the shape of an M and is crouching at the entrance to a small cave, pointing to a woman lying down. His possible identity has caused some debate among scholars and art historians. Some think it could be the painting’s benefactor, or an advocate of Adam denouncing Eve, or St John the Baptist or even a self-portrait.

Birds live in pools, fish fly or lay on the ground, it’s as if the world order is in chaos. Interestingly there are no children or elders in the painting, perhaps denoting the garden as it would have been before the fall of man, in a utopia without consequences. The images coalesce into an erotic vortex.

Fraenger believed that Bosch was indicating a route to paradise through sexual freedom that ultimately returned humans to a state of innocence.  Basically redemption through sex, putting his hypothesis directly at odds with the accepted idea that its central theme is one of morality.

Right Panel – Hell

The aversion these brutal images of miscreants suffering to eternity provoke in me, makes it all the more important to appreciate the timeless genius of Hieronymus Bosch.


The flames, furnace and fires raging in the night of the upper part of the right panel would have been painted from real fires that Bosch had witnessed. Given the religious situation of the time it’s highly likely that he would have seen the burning of villages and executions of those branded as heretics and witches.

The atmosphere reeks of acrid smoke and the stench of wickedness, choking the air out of the viewer’s lungs.

It seems Bosch is expressing his curiosity about Hell, highlighting the fact that it is a firmly established empire here on Earth. The consequences of humanity’s sins (such as gambling), are shown in graphic detail. There is no longer any hint of eroticism, only ugliness.

Contorted, tortured, and broken bodies are subject to physical and psychological punishment and many are being devoured by animals, demons and beasts. It is a gathering of bleak scenes, devoid of hope and God forsaken; in stark contrast to the divine image of the first panel. The darkness is pervasive and heavy. Who wouldn’t amend their ways to avoid such a reality?


I can’t work out why the lute and harp are featured in Hell, with music emblazoned on some poor, half-squashed soul’s derriere! You can hear what the music of Hell sounds like if you take this detailed interactive audio-visual tour: Jheronimus Bosch – the Garden of Earthly Delights

Interestingly, if you draw a straight line from Adam’s eye line in the far left panel of paradise, and follow it diagonally all the way across the Garden of Earthly Delight to Hell in the far right panel, it aligns with Bosch’s self-portrait as the grotesque tree-man afflicted by his sins.

The Exterior panels

On the reverse side of the left and right panel, (which fold over the central panel), Bosch has painted an image of the Earth on day 3 of its creation by God, when the land is separated from the sea.


Thus, when the doors are closed it denotes the oneness and unity of creation that is to become fragmented and corrupted once the panels are opened to reveal the carnage within.

Earliest description

The earliest known writing about The Garden of Earthly Delights was recorded in Brussels in 1517, just a year after Bosch’s death, by Antonio de Beatis, secretary/chaplain to Cardinal Luigi of Aragon.  Whilst travelling with the cardinal and his entourage, de Beatis kept a journal of their grand tour through Germany, Switzerland, the Low Countries, France and Italy in 1517-18.

In the palace of the Counts of Nassau, Antonio de Beatis noted for posterity the unusual art he beheld:

“Some panels of bizarre themes. They represent seas, skies, woods, meadows, and many other things, such as people crawling out of a shell, others that bring forth birds, men and women, white and blacks doing all sorts of different activities and poses. They feature things so pleasing and fantastic that they could not be properly described in any way to those who do not know them.”

In the same diary he also wrote about meeting Leonardo da Vinci in France in October 1517 and being shown three of his paintings by the ageing artist.

Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 9th August 1516)

There was no other artist quite like this early Netherlandish master, who was a genre defining anomaly of his era. He was truly an independent, creative free spirit.

Image of Hieronymus Bosch thought to be based on a self-portrait.

Sketch of Hieronymus Bosch thought to be based on a self-portrait.

His birth name was Hieronymus van Aken and he was born in the Dutch town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, after which he is named. His first name is also linked to a mysterious religious sect in the town, the ‘Hierononymites’, also known as the ‘Brethren of the Common Life’ whose aims were withdrawal from the world and cultivation of the interior life.

Although he never travelled, he was well known outside of his home town and made a very good living from his art. Felipe II of Spain acquired a total of 33 of his paintings.

Trailer to a new 2016 documentary – Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil

Some of his other famous works are the Haywain Triptych ca. 1490 (also in the Prado), The Ship of Fools (Louvre), Christ Carrying the Cross and the Last Judgement Triptych, Ascent of the Blessed, c. 1504, which resides in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice.

“This too high for my wit,

I prefer to omit.”

~ Erwin Panofsky on deciding the secret to the interpretation of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights has not been found.

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