Up Close and Personal With The Garden of Earthly Delights
It’s been my favorite painting for years, and I almost missed out on seeing it.
As a teen in high school, a photo of it hung on the wall of the studio I studied art in. In my early 20s it was one of the first paintings displayed on a projector at Parsons School of Design during my Objects as History first year course. Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych has awed me for well over a decade, and it’s awed art historians for much longer.
Firstly, a little about the painting itself. Bosch painted the GOED in the Netherlands back in the late 15th century or the early 16th while he was middle-aged, the exact date is unknown as is his age. The oil painting’s intent is still under interpretive speculation as so little is known about Bosch himself. Some scholars argue that it’s a clear biblical warning about human desire, while others claim it’s a celebration of sexual joy and freedom, still others say it’s a depiction of heaven, purgatory and hell. What is clear, is that there are certainly dark undertones throughout the piece.
You might want to quickly look at the top two photos in the gallery above if you’ve never seen the painting before, because it’s structure can be hard to explain. The GOED is made up of three panels, the left and right fold in on the center, this is why it’s referred to as a triptych. When the outer panels are closed a colorless Earth is revealed with a god-like figure pictured small in the top left corner, clearly we’re dropped in the middle of the creation story. The lack of color emphasizes the dramatic opening of the painting’s wings, but also serves to symbolize that this point in creation was prior to the sun and moon. Once opened, we see the elaborate story unfolding of paradise lost, Adam and Eve, and the world in it’s present or future state. It might look colorful and fun, but upon inspecting the piece we can see The Prince of Hell devouring the sinners, and people in mortal peril.
What’s always struck me most about this painting, aside from the intricacy and detail. Was how much mystery surrounds it. Not only is the intent up for debate, but it seems strange to me that Bosch could create some of the imagery seen throughout the piece at the time that he did. To me, the great round vessels shown throughout the painting always looked like space ships (not the first time that space ships have made an appearance in religious art from centuries ago either -but that’s a topic for another time.) And literally every inch of the piece left me wondering, “what did that mean?” What is meant by the woman with the piece of fruit where her head should be? Or the pig in a nun’s headdress? Or the group of nudes running out of the water and into a gigantic cracked egg? Thought provoking? For sure.
My own experience with this painting, up until 3 months ago, had been staring longingly at it’s photo in textbooks or Google images. When I was planning my trip to Madrid, I actually had no idea that the GOED was housed in the Museo Nacional Del Prado, which was directly across the street from my hotel. I happened to be at work one day, explaining that this was my favorite painting, and upon looking it up I discovered I’d be staying mere feet from it on my then-upcoming trip. I nearly passed out. I’d be getting to see it in person?
My trip to Madrid was originally gong to be in May of this year, 2018. However, my husband got extremely sick the day before we were due to leave, and is there anything worse than being sick on a flight? Probably yes, but it’s still an uncomfortable situation I didn’t want to put him through. Well, after 3 months of checking flight deals, we found a really cheap rate in August and decided spur of the moment to book it the week before. During the period in-between I’d of course been happy in the knowledge that we’d done the right thing in staying home, but the nagging feeling that I’d been oh so close to seeing something that impacted and shaped my creative spirit, and then in an instant it was taken away, had been tearing at my heart for weeks.
Standing there, in front of the magnificent piece was really indescribable. A couple of things to note, you can’t take photos, and there will most definitely be a crowd, probably saying silly things, ignore them. Make sure you walk around to the back (pictured above), because in many ways it’s even more thought provoking than the front. You could seriously take hours gazing at it, although it wouldn’t be fair to the people behind you, but try to soak in as much as you can. It’s the type of piece where the longer you look at it the more there is to see. One of the most splendid things about this piece is it’s not one thing; a landscape or a single scene, there’s dozens and dozens of individual stories being told across the panels and it’s easy to get lost, confused, inspired, and intrigued.
Do you have a favorite painting? Have you gotten to see it?