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.

What’s in a painting? Taking a Look at Velázquez’s Masterpiece: Las Meninas (c. 1656)

“I would rather be the first painter of common things than second in higher art.” ~ Diego Velazquez

As someone who enjoys looking at art, but with no education in art history, or any practical skill in sketching or painting, I thought it would be great to educate myself a little more and share my findings with you on my blog.

Detail of Infanta Margarita Teresa from Las Meninas. Her left cheek had to be repainted after the painting suffered fire damage in 1734.

Detail of Infanta Margarita Teresa from Las Meninas. Her left cheek had to be repainted after the painting suffered fire damage in 1734.

Great art was painted for many different reasons by the masters of history, but these days it serves chiefly as a window into the past. Great art has immortalised its creators and their methods and become sought after by wealthy collectors, as well as for the aesthetic enjoyment of all those who clap eyes on it in a museum.  It’s there to be appreciated.

You don’t have to know the specific techniques that the artist employed to achieve a certain effect, although maybe that knowledge would deepen understanding and thereby recognition of what makes a ‘masterpiece’.

Art, like music and literature is subjective; with each era bringing to the fore its masters of the craft, replete with their varied and individual styles, techniques and subject matters.

There have been many glorious paintings that have captivated, yet also eluded humanity over the centuries; their mysterious meanings being debated and interpreted by art scholars and critics through the ages, so I thought this would make a good subject for a series of posts.

I’m starting with the Spanish baroque painter Diego Velázquez, (June 1599 – August 1660), born in Seville to Spanish parents and Portuguese grandparents, he became principal court painter to King Philip IV of Spain and one of the leading figures of the Spanish Golden Age. His oeuvre consisted mainly of royal portraiture, plus important cultural scenes of the epoch, but he also captured portraits of ‘ordinary’ people.

Diego Velazquez - The Rokeby Venus - The National Gallery London

Some of my favourites of his are the Rokeby Venus, The Spinners, Mars, God of War and the Three Musicians. He was admired greatly by Impressionist French painter Édouard Manet, who called him the “painter of painters”.

In addition to his royal portrait commissions, Velázquez was the king’s curator of the royal art collection in the 1640-50’s. He became known as a great connoisseur of European art and was responsible for the curation of works by Titian, Rubens and Raphael, which can still be seen in the Prado today.

Velázquez met Rubens during the Flemish master’s six month diplomatic trip to Madrid in 1628 and escorted him to El Escorial to view a collection of Titians. I can only surmise that they felt a mutual respect for each others talents!

Pablo Picasso, 58 recreations of Las Meninas.

Pablo Picasso, 58 recreations of Las Meninas.

Strangely his work only became known outside of Spain in the 19th century, but his influence on Western Art was considerable. Picasso recreated Las Meninas in 58 variations in 1957.  Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon both created works based on notable paintings by Velázquez. John Singer Sargent and Goya both referenced Las Meninas.

From Wikipedia:

Las Meninas has long been recognised as one of the most important paintings in Western art history. The Baroque painter Luca Giordano said that it represents the “theology of painting” and in 1827 president of the R.A. Sir Thomas Lawrence described the work in a letter to his successor David Wilkie as “the true philosophy of the art”. More recently, it has been described as “Velázquez’s supreme achievement, a highly self-conscious, calculated demonstration of what painting could achieve, and perhaps the most searching comment ever made on the possibilities of the easel painting”.

There is much information about the life and work of Velázquez, but for now I want to focus on the multi-layered visual information embedded in the astoundingly innovative Las Meninas, (The Maids of Honour).

This sizeable oil on canvas work measures 318 cm × 276 cm, and was painted only four years before Velázquez died at the age of 61 in 1660. If not quite his valediction, it is considered to be the apotheosis of his artistic achievement.

Las Meninas was painted in the ‘Pieza Principale’ of the apartments of the late Balthasar Charles’s in the palace of Alcázar, Madrid. After the death of Philip’s first child (by the deceased Queen Elisabeth), it was used as Velázquez’s studio.

Diego_Velázquez - Las_Meninas

Who or what, is the real subject?

Upon first glance it could be thought that the subject matter is the only surviving child of Philip IV of Spain, a precocious looking Infanta Margarita Teresa. Either side of her are her two attentive ladies-in-waiting, one of whom appears to be offering her a small cup of cocoa. Incidentally, four hundred years ago the hot chocolate they drank contained mind-altering qualities!!

In her vicinity you can also see two dwarf court jesters, and behind them two courtiers (one of which is a nun), with the royal pooch obediently resting at their feet. The painter standing at the easel is Velázquez himself, (there could be no doubt about the origin of this masterpiece).

Then your eyes are drawn to the reflection of King Philip and Queen Mariana in the mirror at the back of the room. You wonder, are they visiting their daughter having her portrait painted, or is she visiting her parents having their picture painted, which is being reflected back to us from the tall canvas into the mirror? The imagery on the canvas he is painting can only be imagined.

Las Meninas - Mirror detail of King Philip IV of Spain and Queen Mariana

Las Meninas – Mirror detail of King Philip IV of Spain and Queen Mariana

It could be interpreted that the royal couple are standing precisely where we, as the viewers, are witnessing the scene from, which is endowed with natural light from the front right window. We are standing in the king and queen’s shoes…

The air in the large, but to my sense, oppressive space between the figures and the high ceiling above them is almost tangible.

The painting is considered to have many vanishing points, apparently coinciding on the shadowy figure visible through the open door, posing somewhat menacingly on the staircase…

The presence of the man in the doorway, (Don José Nieto Velázquez), seems to signal that the king and queen (having posed for their portrait), will soon be leaving the room, but perhaps there is a darker theme being introduced to the viewer here? He could be a visual representation of a deeper meaning: mortality and death.

The heavily muted, dark background (perhaps one of the huge paintings hanging on the back wall is by Rubens?) is contrasted sharply by the bright light emanating from behind the figure on the stairs revealed by the open doorway, which draws your gaze away from the people in the foreground, giving the perspective of distance, of perhaps a journey into the unknown.

It seems to me a complex portrayal of the painter (and his elevated status among the royal household), a kind of snapshot of their life journey witnessed from the canvas and on the canvas!

No wonder it has been so celebrated over the years by artists, historians and art lovers alike. If you want to see it in real life you’ll need to travel to the painting’s permanent home in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

Velazquez was admitted into the Order of Santiago by royal decree in 1659, hence the red cross was added to his breast on the painting after the artist’s death.

For those in the UK with an interest there is also a smaller version of the painting (minus the royal reflection), preserved in the country house of Kingston Lacy in Dorset. Radiographs have shown it to be painted after the Madrid masterpiece. Some believe it could have been a copy by Velázquez’s student and son-in-law, Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo (1612-1667).

The opening chapter of French philosopher Michael Foucault’s book, The Order of Things was devoted to an in-depth analysis of Las Meninas.

It seems somewhat sad to think that the most prominent figure in the painting, the young Infanta Margarita, was married off to her uncle Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna aged only 15, and by the time of her death in her early twenties she had endured 19 pregnancies, resulting in just four births, with only one of her babies surviving into adulthood.

Velázquez - Infanta_Margarita aged 8 in a blue dress 1659

Growing up she was painted several times by Velázquez, probably the other most famous portrait is of her wearing a blue dress c. 1659 (now on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Unlike its long gone painter and sitters, Las Meninas survived the Peninsula War, the Spanish Civil War, a precarious train journey back to Madrid and a fire that destroyed the palace in 1734. Luckily for us, monks rescued the scorched painting by throwing it out of the window! Sadly hundreds of paintings in the royal collection were lost in the disaster.

I’ll leave you with an interesting documentary about Diego Velázquez, his art and Las Meninas by the National Gallery: