"Hieronymus Bosch, Tempter and Moralist" by Larry Silver

            The central pond with women in it forms the focus of the wild ride of men around its perimeter.  More precisely, the pool is gendered as a space reserved for the female sex alone.  This association of women and water to the images of lovers under the planetary sign of Venus, as in print series of the Children of the Planets.  Indeed, Venus’s acolytes indulge in most of the same luxurious and sensual pleasures as the naked figures in Bosch’s Garden: making love, eating, drinking, bathing, and music-making (reserved for the Hell panel alone in Bosch’s world but a standard accompaniment in love-garden imagery).  According to medieval medicine and its theory of the four humors, women were closely associated with water as well as with coolness, in contrast to the dry heat ascribed to men.  For this reason, several mythical subjects like Lucas Cranach’s Nymph of the Spring (1518; Leipzig) feature erotic, sleeping female nudes beside bodies of water, just as several mythological prints contrast a standing Apollo and a seated Diana (accompanied by a stag) as the gods of sun and moon, respectively.  In addition, then, to building upon cosmology and its associations of the Venusian pleasures linked to water, Bosch’s image of wild animals assisting in the hunt for sexual favors around the pool offers an inversion of  mythic imagery featuring chaste Diana in her sacred pool as well as of her frequent associations with both stags and unicorns as the emblems with fidelity and chastity, respectively.  Of course, in Germanic folklore erotic sirens could lure men to their death in rivers, as the Lorelei bedeviled the Rhine. We also recall the association in other Bosch imagery, particularly the Paris/New Haven wings, of water with sinful self-indulgence in the Ship of Fools and Allegory of Gluttony and Lust.

            If there were any doubt about how near-contemporaries understood the love garden of Bosch’s triptych, we could use a telling midcentury example after Bosch’s death: Pieter Bruegel’s own Luxuria from his suite of engraving designs for Hieronymus Cock prints of the Seven Deadly Sins (1557; Brussels, Royal Museum).  In this case, the accompanying symbolic animal is the familiar cock, but the image also effectively merges motifs from both the Hell wing and the central panel of the Garden triptych.  In what is now a world filled with demons, many Boschian motifs are maintained.  At the very center of the image, within a hollowed-out tree a naked female is fondled and kissed lasciviously by a life-sized lizard-like demon; she responds in kind.  Above their heads atop the dead tree, which extends a stag-shaped branch upward, sits another amorous couple within a crystal globe like the figures at the left foreground in Bosch’s Garden.  However, that transparent sphere has also been combined with another major Boschian motif: the over-life-sized mussel shell next to the sphere in the Garden, a case that enfolds the sphere in Bruegel’s drawing.  Mussels and other shellfish, such as oysters were commonly understood--then and now--to be aphrodisiacs.  They appear as such, usually as  their equivalent bivalves, oysters, in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, particularly in the works of Jan Steen.  Bruegel’s drawing also provides a background love bower, consisting of an overgrown hedge on a trellis.  In front of it a naked couple embraces on the ground; inside another couple hugs behind another round table and a wine cooler, the same accessories as the courtly tent of Bosch’s Luxuria in the Prado tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins.  In the left background a flowing fountain and a river refresh bathing nude couples, as if to combine Bosch’s Paradise and central panels. 

            In the Garden all of these figures emerge from the distance of the central garden, particularly out of the distant central blue globe with its own opening.  There couples pair off and grope one another in the openings, stand upside down on the ledges, or frolic in the water.  Moreover, in this setting blacks (like the Moors of the Morris-dance) mix with whites, even with hybrid mer-people, including one group wearing knightly helmets.  Bruegel’s knowing imitation also displays a clear, later understanding that Bosch’s lively nudes are sinners rather than innocents. 

            Their sinfulness, however, remains the sin of the rich, of those who can afford to indulge in excess of food, drink, and sensuality.  The courtly audience for Bosch’s image at the Nassau palace in Brussels would have been steeped in the concepts of courtly love and its possible temptations.  Questions concerning their noble privileges would have colored the biblical sanction for dominion over the earth and its beasts, seemingly challenged by the giant fauna and flora of the central panel.  But the Hell panel would have been the most unsettling element for the nobility viewing the Garden of Delights.  Many of its dangerous or threatening elements allude specifically to prosperity and power.         


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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