Our Garden of Earthly Delights

Continuing on with the macabre art series to celebrate Halloween… and of course, to prepare ourselves for the All Saints and All Souls feast days! Today we get to feature Hieronymus Bosch!

But first, some background! Hieronymus Bosch was a bit of an odd duck. Many of his artworks are simply… bizarre. Nor do we have any records as what he was like or what sort of meaning some of his more bizarre paintings had with all its intricate and odd details, so it’s not clear what he was thinking when he designed some of these artworks. It is speculated that he, living through the Reformation and seeing how it created some of the bloodiest and horrible tortures ever thought out, was influenced by this and sought to depict it in his art. Yet, we don’t know anything for certain! And, in a way, that makes it all the more powerful because that means we, the viewer, get to look at his fantastic imagery and interpret it in a way that is meaningful for us.

I’ve featured Bosch or his followers (who did their best to imitate him, which is not an easy thing to do!) a couple of times, such as the middle panel of his famous Last Judgement and one of his follower’s works, Christ’s Descent Into Hell. But this is his masterpiece, a triptych called, “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”

The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1490-1510. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Via IllustratedPrayer.com
The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1490-1510. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Click on the picture for it to be larger, by the way! There’s a lot to see!

On the left panel is Paradise. God — looking very much like Jesus — gives Eve to Adam while animals flock around them. Some of the animals are pretty fantastic — a unicorn drinks from the water, a three-headed lizard comes out onto land from the water, a strange dog/kangaroo is right next to the giraffe. And yet, for Bosch, these creatures look relatively normal. The most outlandish part about it, perhaps, is the strange pink fountain in the middle, which seems to be mostly decorative. Yet, for the most part, it seems to represent how God ordered it to be, and it is good and gives the impression that humanity is in harmony with nature. Still, there is a hint of foreboding… after all, a snake curls up a tree in the middle right of the picture, hinting at the Fall of Man.

Then, the middle panel happens. That is after Adam and Eve have left the Paradise that God has given them, and their generations have created another, different place — the garden of earthly delights! There, humans swarm everywhere. Looking at the details of the painting, it’s hard to tell whether it’s some sort of orgy or torture, a mixture of both, or something else entirely. Fantastic creatures live alongside humanity but, unlike the first picture of Paradise, in which the humans are too busy focusing on God to really do anything to the animals, the animals are dominated and subdued by the humans. Some of them are being ridden, others are being used to torture or pleasure the humans — maybe both. It’s hard to tell. And other creatures seem disproportionately large and strange!

Not only that, but in Paradise, the only sort of structure was a fountain. With in this garden of earthly delights, there are multiple structures — strange structures that are twisted and distorted so that it’s not exactly clear what the purpose of these structures are. Some of the people on them seem to be having fun, while others seem to be suffering. It’s very hard to tell! Out of each of these structures but one (which seems to have animals coming out of it instead) humans stream out in line. Some seem to be almost militaristic, and others seem to be more lustfully inclined.

Then, finally, you have the last panel, which seems to be a scene set in Hell. Now all the creatures, far from being dominated by humanity, are consuming and torturing humanity. Not only that, but the creatures have been twisted and deformed out of any recognizable form from the creatures that God once made them. The structures, instead of being either merely decorative or constructed for some sort of utilitarian purpose that is designed to somehow aid humanity for their own pleasure or power, is made to torture the humans. And in the background, constant war goes on, though nobody seems to be waging the war… all you can see is fire, destruction, and masses of bodies in heaps.

So, what does this strange artwork mean? When I look at it, I see the progression of humanity further and further from God, first starting in Paradise, then continuing onward in our own world, where they continue to ignore God, then finally onward to Hell, where they are fully separated from Him. So, humanity begins with God and then leaves Him completely in pursuit of other pleasures.

In a way, the garden of earthly delights reminds me very much of this artwork, in which Christ’s Passion is in the background, yet everyone seems to ignore it, doing their own thing in this world while ignoring Christ altogether. Except, instead of focusing on the mundane such as shopping at a marketplace, which that artwork illustrates, Bosch uses metaphors to focus on what we often internally focus on — following our lustful tendencies, strengthening our own power, and living out the most pleasurable and entertaining lives that we can live.

But, where does this focus bring us to? Bosch seems to indicate that it leads us to Hell. And that’s a very frightening thought.

So! Let us focus on restoring our broken relationship with God by turning to Christ in all things and hoping in Him! For the other way leads only to death.

 Dear Jesus,

Be close to us and listen to our prayers. Draw us deeper in a relationship with You so that we may love You more fully. And pray that the temptations of this world does not lead us astray from Your love.


Want to see happier religious artwork? I’m about to publish a book full of religious art about the Joyful Mysteries! Read about it here.


Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of four, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer.

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