A Walk with Hieronymus Bosch

Let’s take a walk, go hand in hand with the man who’s been called a mad monk, the devil’s painter, and a psychedelic seer born too soon. Are you scared of Hieronymus Bosch, or the devilish creatures he conjured up for his hell? Do you want to understand his mind? They say one’s art is an avenue to their mind. Come on; let’s go.

Many critics credit Bosch, not the Italian renaissance painters, as the true father of modern art. His otherworldly creatures were shocking in the conservative, Catholic era and still remain provocative today. His paintings carried themselves through history—from being pictured in the alien bar scene of “Star Wars: A New Hope” to inspiring tattoos and dorm-room decor. It’s believed that people who commissioned Bosch’s paintings practiced an early version of humanism—the then-controversial belief which upheld that all humans have to think for themselves about good and evil. Reflections on this belief can be seen among many of the characters of Bosch’s works. To understand this, let’s place ourselves in his most infamous painting, the 1490 triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”

At the beginning of time, God said: “Let there be Light.” Let there be a dome to keep the world in two separate places and one place will be called Sky. Sky; Water; Let the water come together in one place so that land will appear below. Earth; Water; Sky; Let lights appear above the sky to separate day from night and show when months, years and festivals begin. Fire; Sky; Water; Earth. “Let life begin,” God said at the beginning of time. From His cloudy vantage point, He looked at the earth He had created.

“And so it was done.” The first leakings of life were birds (which can be seen in the upper left corner of the first panel) flying in spirals, following upon each other in old gusts of air. Plants emerged, green and ephemeral, and then the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil emerged in the garden of Eden. God said, “Let the land produce creatures according to every kind.” From the right side of the lake came dark shadow forms, lizards, frogs and other hybrid amphibians going to seek shelter in the rocks. Adam emerged, and from his rib the first woman, who was named Eve. God said to the humans, “I am putting you in charge of the fish, the birds and all the wild animals … You are free to eat from any plant in the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for if you do, you will surely die.”


Some interpretations of the triptych claim that it depicts the many dimensions of Adam and Eve’s decision whether or not to eat the forbidden fruit. In Bosch’s time, fruits were well-known symbols of specific human characteristics: the cherry represented fertility and eroticism, the bramble symbolized love, and the strawberry temptation and mortality. These fruits are the center of many social scenes across the middle panel of the triptych. The scenes depict how humans could respond to the various temptations, represented by the fruits. In the first panel, a scene from the Garden of Eden, all of the fruits are safely on the trees. The middle panel shows creatures eating the fruits, and the last panel has no fruits because it depicts the consequences of eating them. This last panel is often titled “Hell” or “The Last Judgment.”

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Beyond the biblical analogies, little is agreed upon about the meaning of Bosch’s triptych. Many interpretations claim that the painting is a warning against sin. Others employ irony, Freudian analysis, and existentialism to explain the symbols. Art theorist Laurinda Dixon writes that the painting corresponds with a popular 15th century alchemical allegory. Another art theorist, Wilhelm Fraenger, controversially claims that Bosch was a member of the “Brothers of the Free Spirit,” a heretical sect of the time, and that the middle panel shows their ideal of a perfect society. The critical element of this ideal is sexual freedom, represented by the sweet fruits and physical contact between many characters. In Fraenger’s opinion, sexual freedom leads to salvation, not hell, breaking with the popular conception that the panels are to be read chronologically.

The contradictions within the masterpiece and the lack of historical information about Hieronymus Bosch make it difficult to nominate any sure claim regarding Bosch’s intentions. Given the context of analysis, the best way to explore the piece is to enter into it ourselves and draw our own conclusions. In the foreground of the first panel, Eve is presented to Adam. It’s interesting to compare this scene to a similar one in Bosch’s 1482 triptych “The Last Judgment” in which Eve holds the exact same posture but is being pulled away from the side of a sleeping Adam rather than presented to him—removing temptation versus presenting Adam with it. In many of Bosch’s depictions, Eve is a passive figure, as in the first panel of “The Garden of Earthly Delights.

She floats with her feet hanging in a way that would not actually hold her, presenting her wrist to the pink-robed man, the only one around them wearing clothes. While Adam is attentive to this man, Eve has her eyes downcast.

In the bottom left hand corner of the neighboring panel, another group of humans is contemplating the scene of Adam and Eve. They are mesmerized. How did the tranquility and simplicity of the Garden of Eden turn into the chaotic world behind them? The sunlight glints through a pile of jewels (in the first panel), off the surface of the lake, and into their eyes, warding them away. An owl perched in the window of the pink tower in the lake stares out at them. Its eyes watch them directly even as they move away from their spying position and begin walking through the events of their own panel.  


Is the pink-robed man God? In scripture, it is God who presents Eve to Adam, but this man looks much younger than usual depictions of God. In the larger context of Bosch’s artwork, it’s clear that this man resembles Bosch’s representation of Jesus. The jewels and the owl emphasize both the purity of the first panel and its expensive, inaccessible nature. The owl is one of only four characters in the entire triptych that looks directly out of the painting at the viewers.

The black woman with one cherry on her head and another coveted behind her back tries to shake the feeling of the owl’s eyes. She hurries along with her group, taking the hand of the white man whose arm is poised by his ear like he is about to twirl. She whispers to him about the owl’s eyes. All the humans around them are paired off suggestively, so her original group, the Eden-watchers, do the same and scatter into the crowds. The woman with the cherry on her head and the man, poised to twirl, link arms to blend in with their society.

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They walk alongside the pond first. She dips her toes in the water and he reaches down to cup a handful of it and drink. He calls her to crouch with him and look at the strange flower that’s blooming out of an opaque pink fruit at the bottom of the lake. The whole contraption floats to the surface. When the flower-head breaks into the open air, a sheer bubble begins forming on it. A couple appears inside of the bubble, nuzzling one another. Below them, in the pink fruit that the flower grew out of, is another face, engaged in intense conversation with a black rat. The rat eventually convinces the face to play a prank on the humans, so he squeezes his arm out of a hole in the fruit to gently tap the shear bubble. It falls into the lake, and without the floaty bubble, the rest of the flower sinks.

The woman with the cherry on her head begins running after the bubble, bobbing along. It gains a pinkness upon contact with the water that gradually darkens until the bubble is totally opaque and obscures the kissing couple. Only the man’s foot, in the same position as before, peeks out from the right side of the opaque globe that much resembles the fruit that the flower originally grew out of. The faces of a man and woman look out from the other side of the fruit, but their postures suggest that the foot couldn’t belong to either of them. “I think there’s another person in there,” Cherry-on-her-head tells her partner. “Oh, I think it’s the man who knocked them into the water before!” Infidelity? Her partner looks on excitedly. The man in the pink globe is now pulling at a blackberry floating on the lake’s surface. Suddenly, Cherry-on-her-head looks very afraid and pulls on the wrist of her partner, Poised-to-twirl. They begin to run. When they stop, next to a hoard of people being fed berries by a giant bird, Cherry-on-her-head asks, “Did you see the owl, still looking at us?” The pink berry floats to the bottom of the lake behind them, perhaps to begin the cycle (of life?) again.

The walking couple is blown away from the lake by a cool breeze. A man carrying a giant fish like a lance stumbles out of a small, orange, cylindrical building and blocks their path. He doesn’t notice because he’s chattering with the other people who are also spilling out of the cylinder.


In Bosch’s time, the fish was a symbol of Jesus. Next to the man with the fish is a woman whose face and hair resembles Eve, but she’s sitting in the exact posture as Adam in the first panel. Strange, right?

The fish flops out of the man’s hands. Poised-to-twirl chases the fish with him to help, but it’s too slippery, so they both end up in a pile on the lap of a woman. Her face is veiled with a clear, conical flower, and she’s heedless of the commotion around her and of the man to her left, flirting with her, with a blackberry on his head. Next to them, another man is flirting in a different way: he’s placing a bouquet of flowers in the buttocks of another man, stooped down with his head enwrapped in his arms. Poised-to-twirl meets the eyes of this man, and once he notices those eyes, he can’t escape their gaze.


The bent-over man is one of the four figures in the painting who stares directly out at the viewer. Perhaps this is one of the ways in which Bosch marks important moments in the piece. One interpretation of the scene with flowers is that it shows homosexuality, or “the sin of sodomy.” The symbolism of flowers themselves is unclear. For some, they represent corruption. Another interpretation claims that the scene shows humankind’s digression from the natural, the flowers indicating our use of perfume to mask natural odors.


Cherry-on-her-head grabs the man’s wrist and begins running again. “I saw the owl, it was staring at me from atop a bundle of dancing legs!” she says when they finally stop. She looks amused rather than scared of the owl now; her mood is high. They arrive at a grove of apple trees. People sitting there are openly gorging on the fruits. They are laughing and look relaxed. Cherry-on-her-head and Poised-to-twirl introduce themselves. One woman tosses them the fruits that she was eating. She rubs her stomach, “I’ve had so much.” Her stomach is pregnantwith fruit? Everyone bites into more fruit. They’ve never tasted such sweetness. The air smells thick with sweetness. Fruit juices drip from the trees, and the sticky fog clings to the naked bodies of the people.


Art critics say that the forest fruit-eating scene is a direct reference to the fall of man. It is an exaggerated depiction of Eve’s picking of an apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and directly acting against God’s command.


Our couple continues through the grove of trees. Their journey almost goes on forever because the thick air slows them down and they keep pausing to eat fruit. As they near the edge of the forest, gusts of a different-smelling air revive them and urge them forward. They burst from the trees into a whirling dust cloud. In front of them, men mounted on many types of beasts are circling counter-clockwise, very fast. Some of them carry fish-like lances. One carries an egg. Poised-to-twirl wants to dance with them. He grabs the mane of a unicorn and pulls himself onto its back. Cherry-on-her-head is right behind him, and they go around and around with the people. Their skin, sticky from the forest, collects dust; by the time they make it to the inside ring of the parade, they are covered. At the sight of the pool at the center of the circle, Cherry-on-her-head cries out. She tugs Poised-to-twirl off the unicorn, and they stumble their way over to the pond and topple right into it. The group of women in the pool jostle at the splash the couple makes. They were all so serene before, starkly separated, unperturbed by the activity of the men around them. The peace is restored as Cherry-on-her-head and Poised-to-twirl submerge and rub themselves clean with the glistening water. Some of the women gaze serenely outward at the commotion around them. Only some of the men look inward to the bathing women. Cherry-on-her-head and Poised-to-twirl sneak away from there when they finish cleaning.


The scene with the group of riders resembles a few ceremonial customs of the Middle Ages such as fertility rituals and dancing around the May tree.


Beyond the circle of galloping men is another body of water. Our couple continues toward it. On the left shore is a circle of crouching naked people grasping at each other and the giant strawberry that they support. On the shore beside them is another group of people creeping from the water to take cover inside of a giant eggshell. In the center of the lake is a tower made of glistening blue stone and at the center of the tower is an intrusive opening.


While the center panel of the triptych is sexually suggestive at every turn, this scene is particularly noteworthy because it is the only explicit depiction of sexual activity in the painting. It’s also closer to the Hell panel than the other sexual scenes, and these humans are apart from the rest.

The idyllic landscape is the same across the seam between the two first panels, showing they are clearly connected. Smooth green hills roll into each other, populated by similar figures, vegetation, and crystal blue ponds. In the background of both panels are blue mountains. In the bottom left corner, the group of people looking from the middle panel into the Garden of Eden highlights the intended connection of these panels.

There is no such continuity between the second and third panels. The color scheme shifts immediately and the animals morph into monsters. The humans are helpless subjects, rather than active and exploratory as depicted in the middle panel. There is only one place in the middle panel where the color scheme approaches the last panel. In the lower right corner, a woman painted in dull browns holds a fruit to her chest, as if remembering its taste. Her mouth is blocked, so she cannot eat it and a man points down at her, scolding. He is another of the four figures looking out of the painting at the viewers.


The walking couple picks up from where they left off, by the highest lake. They pass a blue, spherical construction with a merman floating above a fish and gesturing. Everything is green and bright and cluttered, and our characters are unaware of the impending doom before them. They mount an idyllic-looking hill and begin to descend again when they are thrown suddenly into darkness and different kinds of activity. Their wrists are clasped behind their back and the fruits knocked off their heads by green, laughing monsters. They have joined the group of new souls being ushered into hell. Cherry-on-her-head notices a key below them with a human man limply hanging inside of its eye. The key is to Hell perhaps, for the gates have been opened.

 All around them a war is raging. Knights charge over a bridge in the background to seize a burning house, and more humans are shoved around a burning pit of fire. There are horrible cries and the sounds of bagpipes, harps, and other musical instruments. Our characters get pulled onwards by evil-looking, humanoid monsters. They pass the key and an ears-and-knife-machine and come upon a giant, white tree-man rising from a frozen lake. “Brr,” Cherry-on-her-head shivers. The demons pull them toward the lake and then shamelessly onto the ice. The Hell-dwellers have something sticky on their feet to keep them from slipping, and they cackle as the humans they’re pulling fall with almost every step. Poised-to-twirl gives in and lets himself be dragged across the cold, slick ice. 

They pass under the hollowed belly of the huge, white tree-man. Hollering, laughing, and the sound of feet stomping echo off the surface of the ice. The sounds are coming from a drinking tavern inside of the tree-man structure. Cherry-on-her-head’s stomach twists. She can’t believe she had ever even indulged in those fruits! The large, porcelain face of the tree-man leers in at the drinkers, happy to house these drunken humans in his belly.


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This scene shows the sinfulness of indulgence, perhaps implying that the initial temptation represented by the fruits leads to worse vices like drinking and gambling. The face of the white tree-man is meant as a self-portrait of Bosch himself. Whereas both of the other panels contain significant centerpieces, there is only an empty boat into which one of the tree-man’s legs is rooted at the center of the Hell panel. Today, Hell is commonly associated with heat and fire, but in Bosch’s time, it was associated with cold.


Hordes of human and animal sinners skate upon the frozen lake, jeering at and spitting on the group being escorted slowly across the lake. Poised-to-twirl shouts at them, helplessly. He pulls at his rope when they pass the flailing man in the hole in the ice. His demon tightens the ropes around his body and sneers, “That man is doomed to drown forever. Leave him be.” Our characters are losing the sharpness of their senses because of the cold, and they can hardly believe their luck. Through a haze, they see a group of men staring at a music score inked into the butt of another person whose body has been smashed by a giant harp. They see a birdman looming above everything, surveying. He eats person after person head first. The bird immediately digests the humans as he eats them. They fall through his body and emerge below, visible through the transparent base of his golden throne. Their bodies sink slowly into a hole in the ground. Sitting beside the sewer hole is a naked woman with a toad on her chest and her eyes closed. She is being fondled from behind by a demon and from the front by two green arms with antlers as hands.


This is one of the most commonly analyzed scenes of Hell. The sitting woman’s posture is the same as Adam in the first panel and the veiled Eve in the second panel. As in the second panel, here, a woman takes Adam’s posture, again has her eyes closed, and again her face and hair look like Eve’s. The toad on her chest is typically taken to be a symbol of impurity. Critics speculate that she symbolizes inappropriate over-indulgence in life, and perhaps out of embarrassment, now has her eyes closed to avoid looking at her own reflection in the mirror in front of her. The birdman above sits in royal contrast to her. His throne is modeled to resemble the first toilets of the time, a luxury only afforded to the most affluent of society. Bosch himself probably had a toilet like this. Members of society who were not so wealthy would use the river.


Cherry-on-her-head and Poised-to-twirl are separated, but they don’t notice because their brains are so foggy. They are released by the demons who guided them, but their freedom doesn’t matter because all they can do is topple along, falling over and making incoherent noises. Cherry-on-her-head passes a pig nun who spits on her and a suited rabbit. She pushes through a crowd of naked people. When she gets to the other side, she feels herself pushed down by a man. He tapes her mouth shut and points accusingly at her. He spins her to face a wall and whispers in her ear, “Embrace your destiny.”

Somewhere in the distance, Cherry-on-her-head sees what looks like her old self. A fruit is tantalizingly placed on that woman’s head, but she can’t eat it because the owl is staring at her.


Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” painting is a spectacle and a mystery. What about it made it stand the test of time so well? There is a lot of religious art from this period but none so immortal as Bosch’s. Perhaps this is because other artists painted more inside the box. Bosch’s work is grotesque, a style that has always been on the fringes of our culture; his paintings thereby avoid dating themselves. “Garden of Earthly Delights” just as easily could have been painted today as in the 11th century.

The grotesque nature of the painting makes it free. Bodies—naked, bingeing, contorting, and exploring intimacy—play a major role in its sense of freedom and grotesqueness. At the time, and still today, bodies are a taboo subject. We’re often told to cover them up and preserve their holiness in the image of God. Humans in the painting explore how to escape these confines and humans in the world do this, too. A modern version of the “Garden of Earthly Delights” might show cyborg combinations of humans and machines instead of humans and animals, but the themes of exploring bodily functions, the nature of social interaction, and the pursuit of pleasure are all still relevant today.

Count Henry III of Nassau Breda (Netherlands) first commissioned “The Garden of Earthly Delights” for his house. Not long after he received it, it was seized by Spanish armies (clearly a desired piece of work) and housed by Phillip II of Spain. To this day, it remains in Spain—now in the Museo de Prado in Madrid.

 Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019