"Hieronymus Bosch, Tempter and Moralist" by Larry Silver

            Both the humanity of Christ and his identity as the “Son of man” in Bosch’s Paradise wing are underscored by his youthful figure, so different from the enthroned, white-bearded, blessing, crowned God the Father of the Creation scene on the closed exterior of the triptych.  Further, the feet of Adam touch the hem of Christ’s garment, reinforcing their likeness and physicality through actual contact, while also distinguishing their natures by distinguishing their respective clad and unclad bodies.


            The Garden of Eden itself is already marked by the presence of exotic fauna and flora, which also accords with the descriptions of Genesis (2: 9).  Scholars have identified the broad-branched tree with spiky leaves at the left foreground as a “dragon tree,” native to Madeira and the Canary Islands.  This distinctive tree had already been represented in early German prints, along with a  date palm and an apple tree with serpent, traditionally identified with the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of good and evil.  In Bosch’s Eden the dragon tree appears directly behind Adam, supporting a creeper vine bearing berries (both red and black, anticipating the giant fruits of the center panel) around its trunk.  Uniquely the artist places a serpent around a date palm in the middle distance, at the right edge of the center panel, as if to imply, despite its abundant fruit, that this site was the beginning of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden space into the direction of the central panel.  Significantly, on the shore underneath this ominous plant appear dark, monstrous creatures, which crawl out of the pond in the middle of the panel– more serpents, toads, and strange, multi-headed amphibians.

            Moreover, as scholars have noted, the giant fruits of the central panel extend both the pink color and the large round shape of the central fountain in Eden, while also echoing the colors (pink and blue) and shapes of the great blue globes in the distant background of the middle panel.  Such fruits, of course, appear elsewhere in Bosch’s outdoor settings, notably in the wilderness retreats of his hermit saints: St. Jerome (Ghent) and St. John the Baptist (Madrid, Museo Lázaro Galdiano).  In both of those cases the (over)ripe pods either appear broken and open within another dark, fetid cesspool (Jerome) or else picked at by (normal-sized) birds while hanging from a weed-like stalk (Baptist).  In each of these Bosch instances an explicit opposition contrasts the fruit against an absorbed, meditating hermit saint, whose asceticism in withdrawal forms the raison d’etre of the panel.  In the Garden of Delights the depicted fruit is certainly not so obviously corrupt.  Indeed, hosts of humans now indulge in the enjoyment of these bounties, sometimes biting into them but also, in the case of the broken pods, even inhabiting (and cohabiting in) them; moreover, like fruits, transparent crystal spheres also emerge from stems.

            Yet the imagery of the love garden–in particular, the consumption of fruit (chiefly apples but also eucharistic grapes) by the Christ Child--often forms the foundation for images of the holy figures within the enclosed garden (hortus conclusus) in both devotional literature and late medieval visual culture.  In particular, the strawberry appears alongside the bench on which the Virgin sits in many of the images of an earthly garden paradise, such as the early fifteenth-century German Virgin with the Strawberries (Solothurn).  Indeed, the core text of the garden, the Song of Songs, whose erotic content was allegorized by medieval commentators into the bond between Christ and the Virgin or the personified Church, also featured imagery of fruit, flowers, and spices.  Individual motifs of garden imagery freely transferred from courtly, secular imagery into these religious contexts–and vice versa.  Yet as Bosch’s images of hermit saints reveal, garden and vegetal imagery could also be inverted, to be understood as the site of indulgent human folly, even sinfulness, rather than the sign of rewards of heavenly bliss.

            The foulest of all bodies of water in the left panel stands prominently in the lower-most front of the setting, spilling over beyond the right edge of the image and suggesting again that this cesspool could easily spread its corruption into the central panel.  Here even more explicitly monstrous and hybrids and demons gambol, all of them dark in color.  A flying fish (anticipating the strange creatures defying natural laws in the skies above the central panel) breathes and extends its wing-fins into the air, and there are also more multi-headed beasts.  Foul toads abound.  In addition, death already exists in Eden.  One of the monstrous, dark birds above the monk-like fish is swallowing a toad, while a cat below the dragon tree strides off with another amphibian in its mouth.  In the right distance a lion has slain a deer.


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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