The Meaning of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights Explained

Over the half-millennium since Hieronymus Bosch painted it, The Garden of Earthly Delights has produced an ever-widening array of interpretations. Is it “a painting about sexual freedom”? A “medieval acid trip”? An “erotic fantasy”? A “heretical attack on the church”? The work of “a member of an obscure free-love cult”? James Payne, the London curator behind the Youtube channel Great Art Explained, rejects all these views. In the opening of the in-depth video analysis above, he describes Bosch’s well-known and much-scrutinized late-15th or early-16th century triptych as, “pure and simply, hardcore Christianity.”

Dating from “a time when European artists, writers, and theologians were shaping a new, terrifying vision of Hell and the punishment awaiting sinners,” Payne argues, The Garden of Earthly Delights is “an intensely moralistic work that should be approached as what it is: religious propaganda.”

Depicting the Biblical creation of the world on its outer panels, the work opens up to reveal elaborately detailed visions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, then humanity indulging in all known earthly delights, then the consequent torments of Hell. It is that last panel, with its abundance of perverse activities and grotesque human, animal, and human-animal figures (recently made into figurines and even piñatas) that keeps the strongest hold on our imagination today.

Payne’s explanation goes into detail on all aspects of the work, highlighting and contextualizing details that even avowed appreciators may not have considered before. While identifying both the possible inspirations and the possible symbolic intentions of the figures and symbols with which Bosch filled the triptych, Payne emphasizes that, as far as the artist was concerned, “his images were a realistic portrayal of sin and its consequences, so in that sense, it wasn’t surrealism, it was realism.” This bears repeating, given how difficult we moderns find it “to look at this painting and not see it as surrealism or a product of the subconscious, not see it as a sexual utopia, a critique of religion, or even a psychedelic romp.” Just as The Garden of Earthly Delights tells us a great deal about the world Bosch lived in, so our views of it tell us a great deal about the world we live in.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Comments (8)
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  • WW says:

    Remember when most feared Satan, and the possibility of ending-up in Hell? Now, our godless society embraces evil, forgetting God’s-love, and we’re all worse-off for it.

  • TerraNova says:

    There are many “godless animals” yet great humans… Who don’t name the fountains of good and evil things, don’t build hierarchical religions based on more fanaticism than belief and don’t follow shady rules, nor do they live along unclear messages. But they walk on the path of LOVE and HUMANITY, without the guidance of any gods, guided only by their inner lights…
    Sorry I know too many “good godless humans” to remain silent…

  • Joesixpack says:

    “Remember when most feared Satan, and the possibility of ending-up in Hell? ”

    Yes, that was a time when the Inquisition reigned and people were burned alive for not professing the proper Church dogma. Yes, it was a time when some feared Satan, but many more feared the people who might accuse them, torture them, and burn them at the stake.

    They were truly the Dark Ages. Then came the enlightenment.

    People who believe in neither God nor Satan still go out and help others, feed the starving, tend to the sick, and house the homeless. And plenty of people who profess their love for Christ create war, deny the poor their daily bread, and commit the most unimaginable of atrocities.

    Religious belief has never, in my experience, had anything to with how they treat others.

  • WW says:

    *In Your Experience*. You had to go back 500 years to find exaggerated Christian “evil”, whilst forgetting that in the 20th Century alone. state-sponsored atheism killed over 100 million people worldwide, a tradition continued by the CCP today. In the Dark Ages, the Christian church was the only light, preserving literacy and Classical Arts and literature from Ancient Greece and Rome. The Abrahamic God, the one followed by 2/3’d of the world, is the very-embodiment of peace and love; anything else is of the world, and Satan. THAT, not God, is responsible for the things you describe. If you’re putting yourself before God, doing what is right in your own-eyes, then you are part of the problem.

  • robin wiltse says:

    Thank you for your interesting interpretation of these paintings. I’m curious what you think about the repertoire berries and the idea that they are symbolic of Mandrake plants ?
    Thank you.

  • robin wiltse says:

    Thank you for your interesting interpretation of these paintings. I’m curious what you think about the repeated berries and the idea that they are symbolic of Mandrake plants ?
    Thank you.

  • David Silvercloud says:

    Jerome was a successful artist from a family of artists. He was religious and more so after age 40 when he joined a religious group. He copied the Camel, Elephant and Giraffe from a small early publication (the printing press was invented 10 years before he was born) by Ciracco D’Anacona (Ciriaco de’ Pizzicolli) (hope I spelled it right), an early explorer, historian. He copied the other bizarre images from Buddhist Hell Scrolls. He lived in a prosperous trading area and books would have been available. He never traveled as far as anyone knows and would never have seen an elephant, giraffe, nor camel. The Buddhist Hell Scrolls are from the 8th century…

  • Laurence Goldman says:

    Thanks for providing some sanity to these kinds of things. It might be helpful to remember that Bosch lived in the FIFTEENTH CENTURY (i.e. NOT the twenty-first century). The mentality, thinking, areas of concern and interest WERE NOT THE AS OURS! It’s easy for today’s man to see these images and imagine LSD phantasamagorical whatever and get carries away with hidden meanings, pyschological meanings and howsoever we filter our experience.Whatever symbolism Bosch used was most likely readily understood by his audience and unlikely to be part of some obscure, arcane, cultish secret society. I agree this is a rather straightforward depiction of human “sin” and excess at a time when (if Dutch genre paintings are illustrative) town alcoholism, public lewdity and sexual debauchery were running wild. We don’t have a puritan, Quakerish moralism running the show in Dutch towns.

    Let’s also not lose sight of what’s really most important here: Bosch was simply a fantastic painter! Look at the light! The color! The composition! He really ranks up there with the great painters of all time. Sometimes it’s a good idea to shut up and enjoy the paintings.

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