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Hieronymus Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights

Hieronymus Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights - Hans Belting This is a 5 star book for a 10 star painting.Hans Belting offers in this wonderful book a careful analysis and a rather plausible explanation of one of the most enigmatic paintings that have survived and by one of the most enigmatic painters that have been recorded.It should be of no surprise that its not quite appropriate title of The Garden of Earthly Delights was not given by its creator Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516). It was appended later on. The painting currently stands in the Prado Museum in Madrid where it is catalogued with the more apt name of El jardín de las delicias. Belting’s analysis led me to believe that this is a better name.Bosch stands alone in the History of Art. Only Brueghel continued to use some of Bosch’s traits, but cannot be considered as a follower. And yet, Bosch was highly admired during his lifetime and many of his paintings were copied soon after he produced them. This particular painting was reproduced both as a painting (there is a partial copy in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nürembertg), and as a tapestry (in the Palacio Real in Madrid also).In spite of the contemporary admiration that Bosch’s works elicited no other artist continued Bosch’s steps and we know of no pupils.The painting belonged to Hendrick III (1483-1538) the nephew and heir of the Count of Nassau, Engelbrecht (d. 1504). It is thought that Hendrick commissioned it directly to Bosch. Hendrick was very well connected, his uncle Engelbrecht had belonged to the circle of the Emperor Maximilian, and he himself was friends with Philip the Fair, the Emperor’s son and father of the future Charles V for whom Hendrick also became a confidant. There is documentation that Philip had commissioned a parallel work, but it is not extant and it may have never existed.The painting is first documented in 1517 (one year after Bosch’s death) in a letter by Cardinal Luis de Aragón), and although its oak panels have been dated to around 1460s, it is thought to have been painted around 1504, when Hendrick inherited from his uncle and became master of the Palace Nassau.The painting is a triptych, the format used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance for Altarpieces, and it is very large (2.2 x 1.95m, or 87 x 77 in). It has five painted panels (two outer and three inner), but normally only the external panels would be on view since it would be kept closed. Ideally we would like to be able to view it similarly to the way for which it was conceived. This is unfortunately difficult now, since in the Prado it is kept always open and with the outer panels immobile at 45º to the central panel. Only a difficult sideways and split glimpse of the outer paintings is now possible—(peeking first on one side and then walking over to the other side and peeking again). And what a shame this is, because the outside is a fantastic representation that could be used as cover for science fiction books.The outer wings show, in grisaille or monochrome painting, a view of a spherical glass world inside which a flat horizontal surface is the stage on which strange vegetation has grown. This world is surrounded by waters, and therefore follows the Ptolemaic convention. On the upper right hand corner we see a little cloud in which a minute God oversees his Creation on its Third Day, as the Book of Genesis tells us, when life has already sprung but in which no animals and certainly no humans are yet present. This God the Maker has lost its prime position for current viewers at the Prado. The fixed angle of the opened wings has relegated him to a hidden corner.Although Bosch is following the Book of Genesis, the two inscriptions at the top are quotes from one of the Psalms of David.For he spake and it was doneHe commanded and it stood fastHendrick kept this treasure in his Wunderkammer, together with other fantastic and precious objects, to show them off to notable visitors, amongst whom was Dürer. This triptych therefore was no Altarpiece. Its purpose was very different from that of a religious painting. It was used neither for private prayer nor for liturgical services. This triptych was conceived to be admired in itself. When the gray outer wings were opened it was not to a direct way to God, but to invite a more abstract meditation with or without theological implications. The theatrical act of disclosure would gain in its impact as the monochrome hues would blossom into an explosion of color--in which blue, green and pink pastel tones vied with each other for dominance.Once we have recovered from the surprise that the inner panels present to us, we can see on its left wind the Creation of Man and Woman in a beautiful and serene landscape with some extraordinary growths. The scene shows in the foreground a God of human aspect who presents a kneeling Woman to a seating and somewhat baffled Man. All three are of the same size and only God is dressed. Behind them we see a fantastic Fountain of Life, and many creatures nicely spread around the garden. Some of these creatures we may recognize as common animals, but some we may not. Adam had to give a name to all of them, as the Third Book of Genesis says. In this scene there is no tension, no serpent, no Sin, no Fall of man and no foreboding. In contrast, in a comparable altarpiece now in Vienna in the Akademie der Künste, Bosch shows, using narrative vignettes, the Expulsion of the first couple. Not so in the Madrid painting. The newly met couple is there to enjoy blissThe opposite of bliss is in the opposite panel. There, at our right, we see Hell. It is night at the Inferno and what we can see is a series of detached episodic groupings with no unifying narrative. Humans suffer various torments in a dry and arid landscape in which all the lush vegetation of Eden and heavenly light has disappeared. Only ominous fires shine in the horizon. The instruments of torture are either sharp blades or instruments of music, such as the crucifying harp. Pleasure has definitely turned against man. This world in darkness becomes all the more spooky because so many elements are from our world but have turned awry, against us. Of all the deadly sins, lust is the one that stands out most, although Bosch knew how to illustrate them all, as the painted Capital Vices Table that stands in front of this triptych in the Prado, testifies. In the middle ground, matching the Fountain of Life on the Eden scene, we have a monstrous Tree with the face of a man that watches us with an ironic and knowing smile, and which Belting takes as a Bosch’s self-portrait. Has Bosch portrayed himself as the Lord of the Underworld?. He towers over the God of the opposing wing!But if both the Eden and particularly the Hell scenes offer some highly original elements, they still follow traditional arrangements of paintings with the Last Judgment. In this work it is the central panel where the kernel of the enigma is to be searched. When the painting began to be copied, it was this central panel that was reproduced (and painting and tapestry mentioned above are such samples). And the objects found at the Prado gift-museum select elements from this central panel.The middle scene shows a landscape that continues the same elevated ground and the same horizon line as the Eden scene. It is illuminated by the same golden light, and similar pastel colors dominate. Are we to consider it as a continuation of Eden? There is even a group of figures in the extreme left of the foreground who are pointing at Eden. This garden however offers a strong contrast in that it is a lot more crowded than Eden. We see many groups of humans – men, women, white and black, all ageless adults wearing no clothes—who mix both with recognizable animals and birds of varying sizes and with unrecognizable creatures. The different inhabitants keep very active. They dance, ride, frolic, and engage in various sexual behaviors, all openly. And to add to this festivity of joy and fruitfulness, abundant and colorful fruits, such as straw- and other types of berries and nicely ripe cherries participate in this exuberant bounty. This is a party of the senses, but in which guilt and sin are absent—but may be also individuality.In the background there is a lake with a fantastic Tree of Life or Fertility in the middle and in which active couples are enjoying themselves. Four rivers open out to water this delightful garden. Following the Bible, these rivers correspond to those going to Havilah, Ethiopia, Assyria and the Euphrates. So, what is this painting about? Ever since the monk José de Sigüenza interpreted, early in the seventeenth century, Bosch’s “disparates” as portraying moral lessons, this line of understanding has set the subsequent views. And this is where Belting differs and where the greatest attraction of this book lies. For Belting the middle panel is a representation of U-topia and U-chronia – a place outside of geography and of time. Although the side wings represent the history of humanity, with its Sin-free Paradise eventually closed in by the horrific Inferno, the Madrid work lacks the middle Climax present in the Vienna triptych. In the Prado work Bosch has put in the center a place that might have been but never was, and is therefore outside of history and human narrative. How would the world, and our lives, have been had there be no Sin?, What if the world had populated directly out of the creation of the first Man and Woman? What kind of paradise would it have been, in which pleasure of all kinds would be innocent? In presenting this hypothesis Bosch is not being heretical, as many feared (Siguenza’s concern). He was again following the Bible, the Vulgata, second book of genesis which speaks of a Paradisum Voluptatis. After this interpretation of the panel that has puzzled theologians, moralists, and art critics, Belting shows us that Bosch did it in such a way, that while daring to show things no one had seen, he still followed Scripture. We have to conceive of Bosch and his work as standing at a cultural crossroads. Belting then gives a complementary account of the Renaissance texts that dealt with Utopia, naming Sebastian Brant’s The Ship of Fools, Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, and Thomas More’s Utopia. And although he is not proposing direct links amongst any of them he is presenting Bosch’s preoccupations in the midst of his times. Additionally, the author reminds us that this was the age of geographical discoveries in which European travel was encountering new worlds untouched by their “civilization” and was rapidly affecting the Weltanschauung of the period. Hendrick in his Wunderkammer kept this painting together with other marvels from the Outre-Mer.Belting’s contextualizing, however, is the weaker part of the book. He provides ancillary chapters on relevant themes during Bosch’s time, but they are somewhat disconnected. They function more as appendixes. And may be a bit more on information on Bosch himself, given that so very little is known, would not have been too laborious to add.Belting’s interpretation then takes us back to the choice of titles for this work. And yes, the English version should drop the “Earthly” word and the painting is to remain in our memories as The Garden of Delights as that which Might Have Been.This book has been a great enjoyment to read, with its beautiful illustrations. It is not easy to find.And I am planning a visit to the Prado this coming Sunday with friends from London and we will go and contemplate what we are never to have and the wonderful delights we are missing.

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