"Hieronymus Bosch, Tempter and Moralist" by Larry Silver

            A few observers of this Bosch work have interpreted the numerous, lively, sexually liberated figures throughout the central panel to be practitioners of a state of innocence akin to humanity before the Fall, and they have explained Bosch’s use of such figures as evidence that he was a member of a secret, heretical sect, allegedly promiscuous (though all testimony comes from their orthodox accusers)-- the Brotherhood of the Free Spirit.  Never mind--as Gibson, Gerlach, and others have repeatedly insisted--that Bosch was a valued member in good standing in his local religious confraternity, which included clergy as well as laity, consecrated to the devotion of the Virgin, for which he executed several artistic commissions. Nor can licentiousness, especially sexual lust, so easily be equated with innocence, even to a modern eye of the post-Playboy era.  However attractive and lively their behavior, these naked figures in the Garden of Delights are just as obviously indulging in Luxuria as are those courtly characters in the verdant landscape of Bosch’s tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins.

             The compositional structure of the Garden triptych suggests a purposeful continuity between the Paradise wing at left and the center panel.  A shared, continuous, high horizon links their two spaces, and even in the center of the image an orchard of apple trees extends from Eden into the central panel’s setting.  Indeed, the central panel is divided horizontally by this green belt, with figures at the far right plucking fruit from these trees.  Both the left panel and the center area present similar blue bodies of water; the middle background also features a large pool, which divides into four rivers.  This structure echoes the description of Genesis (2: 10-15), which describes a river that runs out of Eden “to water the garden” and then splits into four streams.  

            Of course, the two first parents of Eden have been supplanted in the center space by a host of naked figures, so an undefined amount of time has elapsed since the Expulsion.  During this period the “lineage of Adam” as well as the living creatures and flying fowl have followed God’s directive to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:20-23), and now they fill both the seas and the earth.   The original humans, too, are first blessed by God and then commanded (Gen. 1: 28) to “fill the earth and conquer it, and hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and every beast that crawls upon the earth.”  Clearly the common nudity of figures in both Eden and the central panel implies that a span of time connects the left panel of Paradise to the adjacent center, which depicts the postlapsarian earth in an unspecified but still Eden-like setting.

            Using this logic, Ernst Gombrich argued that the center panel depicts the “days before Noah,” the period described later in Genesis (6: 1-5).  The presence of giant flora and fauna on the earth does suggest a different era, including such mysterious but related passages as Genesis 6: 4, “The Nephilim were then on the earth, and afterwards as well, the sons of God having come to bed with the daughters of man who bore them children.”  Hence the sinfulness of humankind in the wake of the Fall is evoked, only to be punished directly by the inexorable condemnation of the Last Judgment, just as in the Seven Deadly Sins tabletop.  Humanity is set against their would-be, compromised, ultimately evil semi-divinity, which  marks the negative valence that should correctly be assigned to the manifold scenes of nudes in Bosch’s center panel.  Moreover, the Gospel passage knowingly refers to the “marrying” and “eating and drinking” that took place on earth and directly occasioned the Flood.  However, no sign of the ark appears in the background of the Garden of Delights triptych (unlike a wing panel painting by Bosch, now in Rotterdam, Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum).  These cavorting nude figures clearly stand in the need of grace for their sinful behavior and should be taken as metaphorical as much as situated at a precise moment in the biblical narrative.

            In the left panel of the triptych, a very human Christ figure presides in the center foreground over the joining of hands–a marriage or betrothal ceremony–between the First Parents.   In Bosch’s rendition the marriage ceremony has not yet taken place.  Christ holds the right hand of Eve at her wrist, raising his own right hand in blessing, while a seated Adam looks on.  In fact, the downcast eyes of Eve and her genuflection point together to both reverence and submission, demure virtues often prescribed for women in Bosch’s day, when men were supposed to initiate courtship.  Eve’s demurral from exchanging lover’s glances with Adam contrasts utterly with the wanton intimacy of the figures in the center panel.  This shame-less sexual frankness shows how far those nudes have come since the institution and blessing of marital bonds in Eden by God  (Gen. 1: 27-28).

            The other biblical account, in which Woman is built from the rib of the first human, Adam, underscores their (sexual) union (Gen. 2: 21-25): “Therefore does a man leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife and they become one flesh.  And the two of them were naked, the human and his woman, and they were not ashamed.”  Bosch’s representation of Eve’s innate modesty and downcast eyes thus is all the more striking, since it is surely not the result of shame, which has not yet entered the world prior to the first sin--disobedience (identified by Augustine with sexual awakening: “for it was after sin that lust began” City of God, XIV, esp. 10-23).  Moreover, her downward gaze underscores the eventual importance of vision in the awakening of lust, which will have important implications for understanding the central panel.

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Garden of Earthly Delights: View of Triptych - Click Here

Garden of Eden: Left Wing - Click Here

Garden of Earthly Delights: Central Panel - Click Here

Hell: Right Wing - Click Here

Haywain - Click Here

Last Judgment - Click Here

Ship of Fools - Click Here

Allegory of Gluttony and Lust - Click Here

Seven Deadly Sins:

Full tabletop - Click Here

Detail - Click Here

Death of the Usurer - Click Here

St. Jerome - Click Here

St. John the Baptist - Click Here

St. Anthony Triptych - Click Here

Nymph of Spring - Click Here





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Per Contra Winter 2006-2007