The Garden of Earthly Delights
To me, there is a special time and place in the history of the great art of the world that is particularly meaningful as far as transcendence is concerned – and I am not talking about religious transcendence only. Rather, I am hinting at that magical moment in which great western artists like Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Albrecht Dürer, in the North of Europe, not only welcomed the arrival of the Renaissance movement within their borders, but at the same time, saw it convenient to add a bit of mystery to it.
Take the case of Hieronymus Bosch, for example. Was he just a critic of his time and ways, as some contend, or a great visionary and prophet in the style of the Old Testament prophets? Or as a dear friend of mine used to say: was he simply trying to convey through his most enigmatic paintings both the good and evil that we all face as humans?
There is nothing like an artist’s work to prove a point. In the case of ‘El Bosco’ – as Bosch was called elsewhere in Europe – we have his Garden of Earthly Delights, that incredible, unique master work of his. Well, let us focus on its outer wings first.
Hieronymus Bosch – The outer wings (“God Creating the Earth”)
To Bosch, this is the scenario where the drama of human life in our planet has evolved over millennia – a drama which, incidentally, affects the entire universe because our Earth is the Center of the World and as such, a sort of crossroads where the fate of the entire universe is decided. (1)
Even more, the whole universe is believed to revolve around it – or more precisely around its axis, which traverses the Earth through the poles and constitutes its center and, at the same time, the center of the universe. For in an unexplained, mysterious way, it traverses in succession all the other countless worlds – as pearls strung on a thread – thus making that which the ancients used to call the “chain of worlds.”
To me, this axis is implicitly depicted by Bosch with the vertical separation between the outer wings.
So far the scene, or the “space” where the cosmic drama of humanity unfolds. Let’s see now how time, and more specifically cyclic time, plays a crucial role on it as an overpowering character.
In effect, great personalities from the world of art – like Leonardo, Dürer, and Hieronymus Bosch himself, along with his disciple Pieter Bruegel – seem to have immersed in their time in esoteric schools of thought where the notion of cyclic ages in the world’s history was commonplace. And quite clearly The Garden of Earthly Delights, broken down into three panels representing those ages in orderly succession, attest to it.
Hieronymus Bosch – The Garden of Earthly Delights (oil on panel, c.1500)
Without a doubt, The Garden of Earthly Delights is one of the strangest paintings in the history of art. To begin with, all of the images in it are thought-provoking, which occurs irrespective of the fact that the clue to their meaning, at least as far as the left and central panels are concerned, has long been lost for the most part. (2) And while the meaning of some of the images representing old popular sayings and puns can still be discerned, they mostly belong to the third, right-wing panel, and thus are more akin with our times. On the other hand, the fact that the painting is divided into three big sections and not four, which would make them reflect exactly the world’s four ages of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron of the Greek tradition, may obey not only to aesthetic reasons but also to a natural fear of the Inquisition, back then most alert to any traces of paganism in Europe.
Along these very lines, still more interesting, to me, is the possibility that Bosch was using arcane codes to transmit a certain knowledge to his disciples and pairs and in general, to those in the secret. This of course is a fascinating subject, since the esoteric character of his work was – if I can use the term – almost visible. Who knows? He could have even been trying to convey such occult message to posterity, a message that was the same old admonition from all the old great biblical prophets: “Make your ways right, forsake your false gods and idols, lest you and the land shall perish…” plus an added promise: “For only then will you hopefully be delivered and your paradisiacal Golden Age restored.”
Did anyone ask for proof? Well, let’s see. Here is something that is for me one of Hieronymus Bosch’s greatest mysteries. It belongs to the said right-wing panel, sometimes referred to as The Musical Hell. Please see below. For those familiar with Bosch’s works, at first glance it may appear there is nothing out of place in it.
Hieronymus Bosch – The Garden of Earthly Delights – Right-wing panel
However, many years ago I seemed to note – on its very top – what appears to be the image of a plane or planes flying over a city heavily on fire – much in the way a bomber would, in the middle of the night, do to drop its lethal cargo on the buildings below. Remember the bombing of Dresden?
Below is the image further enlarged. The plane can be perceived more clearly now.
And here is the best enlargement I got without blurring the image excessively.
Though the plane was a lot clearer in the plate of the book on which I first saw it (as the resolution of the photo was a lot higher) it still can be seen on the one above as it apparently draws closer and closer in a most impressive fashion. It almost looks like an air raid on a movie, with the drone of the plane’s engines becoming more and more deafening by the moment. (3)
Along this post I have tried to ascertain who exactly was Bosch. Was he an early explorer of the unconscious mind? A forerunner of Surrealism? Or was he simply a lunatic? He has been variously acclaimed as the first, praised as the second, or condemned as the third. But he may have been one or two of those things at one or another time, and even it is not impossible that he was all three at the same time.
Yet apart from a great artist and in the opinion of many (among whom I count myself) a genius, I have wanted to see in him a prophet in the manner of the Biblical prophets, terrible in his admonishing his contemporaries to change their ways, and endowed with the power to see well into the future. Maybe I was unconsciously remembering this “plane” thing, or perhaps some other weird and disturbing feature in his paintings. The debate remains open.
What do you think?
(1) Says Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64): “God is a sphere whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere…” and in all of the ancients’ thought, God, though a separate entity Himself, is the universe and the whole cosmos and everything – including us.
(2) Of course, some of the proverbs have been identified. Some of them are very common and simple, like that of the big fish eating the small fish in the central panel and others.
(3) This last section has been abstracted from my topic THE NORTHERN RENAISSANCE – HIERONYMUS BOSCH at my Adlanpro GREAT ART OF THE WORLD forum.
Luis Miguel Goitizolo