(b. ca. 1450, 's-Hertogenbosch, d. 1516, 's-Hertogenbosch)
Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delightsc. 1500
Oil on panel, central panel: 220 x 195 cm, wings: 220 x 97 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid
This painting is one of the most enigmatic pictures ever made, it has captivated and puzzled audiences since its inception. It is a large triptych, yet it was never destined for a religious setting. It is a conversation piece that is it is a picture intended to be closely viewed and its meaning discussed among friends or visitors. It can be read on many levels, from the literal to the allegorical.
The closed position depicts the Earth on the third day of Creation. The muted grey-green of the exterior contrasts vividly with the vibrant colours of the three interior panels. Reading from left to right, the interior begins with paradise. As Christ prepares to wed Adam and Eve, he direct his glance and blessing to the viewer. Bosch's Garden of Eden is filled with real and fantastic creatures, verdant meadows, anthropomorphic rocks and bizarre hillocks, part pod and part crystal. Above Christ is a fountain of life.
The landscape and perspective schemes of the left and central scenes are identical. The garden is filled with young men and women of many races. There are no children and no older adults. Adam and Eve's progeny frolic unselfconsciously. Some kiss or engage in more amorous activities, others converse or eat strawberries and various fruits. A cavalcade of male riders encircles a group of bathing women in the middle third of the picture. The lack of a clear focal point or linear narrative makes the central panel the hardest to understand.
By contrast, the right wing is hell, and it finds its counterparts in other Bosch pictures. Divided into three tiers, hell includes a blasted landscape exploding in flames and smoke. A windmill is powered by sails of infernal light.. Great crowds march endlessly. In the middle, some figures skate on thin ice. A bizarre tree-man dominates. His shell-like torso forms a tavern, while couples, each comprised of one human and one demon, dance on his head to a bagpipe's melody. He looks furtively rather than directly at the viewer. The foreground is cluttered with punishments for the seven deadly sins. The prideful woman will spend eternity staring at her reflection mirrored in the backside of a devil, whose hand-like roots fondle her body. Gluttons are consumed, while a miser excretes gold coins into a cesspool. The hunters are now hunted, as indicated by the rabbit with his quarry, in this world upside down. An amorous sow, wearing the headdress of a Dominican nun, attempts to seduce the man at the lower right into signing the legal document.