Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Garden of Earthly Delights

As I've suggested, I get burnt out with serious topics over time. This is why I return to fiction, poetry or art periodically. Of course, I also get burnt out with the arts, so this is sort of a never-ending cycle. I just read Hieronymus Bosch: Time and Transformation in The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Margaret D. Carroll, which is a detailed discussion of that painting. Carroll is an academic, so her writing suffers accordingly, but the book is very well-illustrated with details from the painting, and that alone makes it worthwhile. For those who want to see the painting, she recommends websites such as this, where you can view the entire painting and details better than you would be able to even if you visited it at the Museo Nacional del Prado, where it is exhibited.  

Hieronymus Bosch was a Dutch painter who lived from approximately 1450 to 1516. Little is known about his life other than the paintings that are attributed to him. It is thought that The Garden of Earthly Delights may have been commissioned by Henry III (count of Nassau) and was painted approximately between 1490 and 1510. This is one of the great paintings of the Northern Renaissance, and I have been interested in it for many years. Bosch was preceded by Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) and was a contemporary of Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528); he was followed by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (?-1569). To me, the Dutch painters were some of the best ever, culminating with Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Although the artists of the Italian Renaissance usually get more attention, in my opinion van Eyck, Bosch and Bruegel the Elder are much more interesting. This may be partly because the Northern Renaissance was accompanied by the Reformation, and Bosch, Bruegel and Dürer's lives overlapped with that of Martin Luther. I think that the pervasive influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Southern Europe thwarted both intellectual and artistic evolution, perhaps for centuries.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych, or three-paneled painting, of a style that was originally used for altar pieces in churches. They often read from left-to-right, starting with the Garden of Eden on the left, the origin of sin in the center, and apocalypse on the right. Bosch's painting was not produced for church use and apparently was intended to be displayed by his noble patron. In his painting, the left and right panels fold over, and on the back side depict a small God in the upper left-hand corner creating the world as a gray globe with plants but no animals. On the opened inside, the left panel depicts God, in the form of Jesus, presenting Eve to Adam in the Garden of Eden. Carroll refers to this panel as Paradise. The center panel depicts many naked young men and women engaged in multiple activities and enjoying themselves. Though there are some potentially sinister signs, the people seem to be the early descendants of Adam and Eve, and Carroll refers to this panel as Garden. The right panel represents a later stage in which older men and women are shown in a dark environment where people are being tortured by various demonic creatures. Armies are burning buildings, and the world appears to be in chaos. Carroll refers to this panel as Apocalypse.

Bosch's style is not as precise as that of van Eyck, but he is more inventive in his subject matter. There is so much going on in this painting, with most of the activity unclear, that it isn't easy to decipher. Furthermore, Bosch invents physical structures of unique appearance. While, on the whole, the painting does follow the traditional triptych model, it represents an evolution toward secular painting. I think that the gradual increase of nudes in religious paintings represented the preferences of wealthy male patrons when paintings became secular status symbols created for display in their homes.

One of the most striking figures is the "Treeman" in the Apocalypse panel. This is a pale male figure facing toward the front of the painting. His torso resembles a large white egg with a hole in it and people inside, apparently drinking. His legs supporting the torso are tree trunks. Some commentators believe that this could be a self-portrait of Bosch, positioning himself as a witness to the debauched state of the world. I was reminded of van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait, which was painted in 1434. That portrait appears to be the solemnization of a marriage, and van Eyck may have represented himself as a witness to the marriage by painting a small image of himself in a mirror behind the couple. Bosch may have done the same, but in his case he was witnessing the Apocalypse.

Besides chronicling the gradual decline from innocence to depravity after the Garden of Eden, which fits the standard Christian theological model, Bosch introduces a more human and sociological element that wasn't evident in earlier triptychs. Interestingly, Bruegel the Elder is known to have seen the painting, and clearly Bosch influenced his paintings of peasant scenes. This shift to secular subjects is a common pattern in art history, and I am reminded of Édouard Manet's Olympia, which revolutionized the art world by taking Titian's Venus of Urbino and representing her as an unglamorous prostitute. Manet, like Bosch, was an artistic revolutionary. Because of his invention of bizarre physical objects, Bosch must also be credited for inspiring Salvador Dalí and other surrealists four hundred years later. However, on a less sanguine note, it can be dispiriting to see that some of the chaos of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance is still with us today.