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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Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Fig­ures from Hierony­mus Bosch’s The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights Come to Life as Fine Art Piñatas

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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