The Meaning of Hieronymus Bosch’s Spellbinding Triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights

Hierony­mus Bosch was born Jheron­imus van Aken. We know pre­cious lit­tle else about him, not even the year of his birth, which schol­ar Nicholas Baum guess­es must have been right in the mid­dle of the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry. But we do know that the artist was born in the Dutch town of s‑Hertogenbosch, bet­ter known as Den Bosch, to which his assumed name pays trib­ute. It is thus to Den Bosch that Baum trav­els in the The Mys­ter­ies of Hierony­mus Bosch, the 1983 BBC TV movie above, in search of clues to an inter­pre­ta­tion of Bosch’s mys­te­ri­ous, grotesque, and some­times hilar­i­ous paint­ings. What man­ner of place could pro­duce an artis­tic mind capa­ble of The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights?

“My first reac­tion was dis­ap­point­ment,” Baum says of Den Bosch. “I was­n’t expect­ing such a very ordi­nary, very com­mer­cial, very provin­cial lit­tle town. I could­n’t for the life of me fit any­body as extra­or­di­nary as Bosch into a sleepy lit­tle place like this.” A hard­work­ing every­day Dutch­man might laugh at Baum’s Eng­lish imag­i­na­tion hav­ing got away with him; per­haps he’d even quote his coun­try’s well-worn proverb about nor­mal human behav­ior being crazy enough.

Nev­er­the­less, fueled by a near-life­long fas­ci­na­tion with Bosch’s fan­tas­ti­cal and for­bid­ding art, Baum goes deep­er: quite lit­er­al­ly deep­er, in one case, descend­ing to the dank cel­lar beneath the house where the artist grew up in order to take in “the authen­tic smell and feel of Bosch’s own day.”

Fur­ther insights come when Baum inves­ti­gates Bosch’s mem­ber­ship in the Catholic fra­ter­ni­ty of the Com­mon Life. A few decades lat­er, that same order would also edu­cate north­ern Renais­sance philoso­pher Eras­mus, whose reli­gios­i­ty is well known. Bosch must have been no less pious, but for cen­turies that did­n’t fig­ure as thor­ough­ly into the inter­pre­ta­tion of his paint­ings as it might have. Focused on the vivid images of bac­cha­na­lia Bosch incor­po­rat­ed into his work, some spec­u­lat­ed on his involve­ment in orgy-ori­ent­ed secret soci­eties. But Baum’s jour­ney con­vinces him that Bosch was “a fierce and pious Chris­t­ian” who paint­ed with the goal of turn­ing a glut­to­nous, wealth- and plea­sure-obsessed human­i­ty back toward the teach­ings of the Bible. And half a mil­len­ni­um lat­er, it is his wild­ly imag­i­na­tive ren­der­ings of sin that con­tin­ue to com­pel us — as well as hold out the promise of fur­ther secrets yet unex­plained.

For any­one inter­est­ed, Taschen now pub­lish­es an Bosch: The Com­plete Works, a beau­ti­ful and exhaus­tive explo­ration of the painter’s work. It includes a spe­cial chap­ter on The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Hierony­mus Bosch’s Bewil­der­ing Mas­ter­piece The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights

Hierony­mus Bosch’s Medieval Paint­ing The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights Comes to Life in a Gigan­tic, Mod­ern Ani­ma­tion

Take a Mul­ti­me­dia Tour of the But­tock Song in Hierony­mus Bosch’s Paint­ing The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights

The Musi­cal Instru­ments in Hierony­mus Bosch’s The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights Get Brought to Life, and It Turns Out That They Sound “Painful” and “Hor­ri­ble”

New App Lets You Explore Hierony­mus Bosch’s “The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights” in Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty

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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