HIERONYMUS BOSCH’s Garden of Earthly Delights is one of the most enigmatic of all Western paintings. It continues to be interpreted, with little consensus, by art historians who are baffled by the complex riddles that it poses — a bafflement increased by the theological illiteracy of many modern art critics.
The paucity of historical facts about the artist and his work provides a fertile breeding-ground for wild speculations. My own interpretation here is as speculative as others, but it is informed by many years of studying medieval art and thought as a theologian rather than an art historian. I focus here on the triptych when the panels are open, although the translucent and colourless globe in the closed position also merits attention.
Bosch was born about 1450 in the prosperous Brabant town of s’Hertogenbosch, where he spent most of his life and from which he took his name. The work that today is called the Garden of Earthly Delights was probably painted c.1503-04. It takes the form of an altarpiece, although it was, in all probability, a private commission. It was widely copied in the 16th century, which attests to its popularity and explains its fame.
Bosch’s art is shot through with ambiguity. Not surprisingly, it found an enthusiastic following among 20th-century Surrealists. The scant surviving evidence suggests that he was a devout and well-respected Roman Catholic, although some modern scholars have been keen to portray him as a secret heretic. I interpret his Garden of Earthly Delights as a profoundly orthodox representation of medieval Catholic beliefs, possibly influenced by St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which was the subject of many medieval commentaries. It also formed the focus of Karl Barth’s epochal early-20th-century commentary.
I WANT to start with a caveat. Romans 1 is sometimes cited as a proof text against same-sex relationships. Yet — as Barth acknowledged late in life — the primary message of Romans is “freedom in community”, and our understanding of human sexuality has to be interpreted with that principle in mind.
Rather than ask what kind of sex has divine approval, we can approach both the Letter to the Romans and Bosch’s triptych as posing a much more fundamental and urgent question: what kind of relationship with the Creator enables us to live with dignity, justice, and freedom in all our relationships? What happens when our primordial desire for the goodness and beauty of God, manifest in creation, loses its focal point and leads us to fixate instead on the goods of a godless creation?
Medieval theologians speak of two books of revelation: the book of nature, and the book of scripture. I interpret Bosch’s painting as an invitation to connect our reading of the two.
At first glance, the left panel is a conventional depiction of the account of creation in Genesis 2. The garden is home to an exotic abundance of plants and trees, and to real and imagined creatures. Bosch was painting at a time when European explorers were bringing back tales of foreign peoples and strange plants and animals, which formed a topic of fascination for artists and collectors alike.
There is a childlike innocence about Bosch’s prototypical humans, suggesting a sexual relationship that is free from lust and sin. God is represented in Christlike form, anticipating the incarnation. His flesh-coloured robe flows against Adam’s foot: a reminder that in Christ — the new Adam — God will clothe himself in human flesh.
Yet this paradise is already being infested by the harbingers of fear and death. A beast that is halfway between a reptile and a bird devours a frog. A cat slinks away with a lizard-like creature dangling from its mouth. In the background, the snake —biding its time — twines around a palm tree.
The Fall itself is not depicted in this triptych, but the encroachment of an uncanny “otherness” into Eden suggests a malignant and disruptive presence. Marriage, in this context, is being offered as a remedy for lust — a protection against the sins of the flesh which are creeping into human consciousness, and will soon be unleashed in the libidinal free-for-all displayed in the large central panel.
MODERN interpreters tend to interpret this cornucopia of erotic fantasies as a celebration of pre-lapsarian sexuality. I see it rather differently: as a morality tale, intended to strike the fear of God into those who indulge the cravings and obsessions of desire as if there is no tomorrow. In the words of Romans, “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
“Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1.22-24).
Bosch lures us into this scene with a pornographic gaze. He shows us our most forbidden fantasies: all tastes are catered for, and I defy any red-blooded adult to spend time gazing at this garden without finding something that titillates and arouses. The only commandment is the imperative to “Enjoy!” I find myself thinking of that advertisement on London buses a few years ago, sponsored by the British Humanist Association and Richard Dawkins: “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
These naked bodies inhabit a timeless hedonism of the here-and-now. The gaze slips and slides over a flattened landscape without shadows or depth. The bodies are blanched — no longer innocent, as the bodies in Eden were, but alien. There are no lovers in this garden, only consumers absorbed in the solipsistic pursuit of pleasure. Bodies touch, but eyes do not. This is a world without relationships. There are no children, or other vulnerable bodies. This is a world with “no fidelity, no love, no mercy” (Romans 1.31).
But, contrary to what ancient and modern libertarians want us to believe, there are consequences. Bosch’s pleasure-seeking garden morphs into a nightmarish vision of hell, “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity” (Romans 1.29). Human bodies are penetrated and tortured in grotesque ways. Hordes of people flee from invading armies. The darkness glows with incendiary light. Cities burn in the background, and, in the foreground, the rivers are frozen over.
Torture has a musical motif. Musical instruments become instruments of torture. A giant pair of ears is pierced through with an arrow, and a phallic dagger protrudes from them. If we remember that, in medieval theology, music was a favoured analogy for the harmony of God’s creation and the joy of paradise, then music here symbolises the discordance that results when sin disrupts the fragile beauty and order of creation.
Here, nature itself has been destroyed, and the consumers have become the consumed. We are not far from our contemporary fears of an environmental apocalypse, unleashed by human greed and excessive consumption.
DONALD TUSK speculates about what that special place in hell reserved for no-deal Brexiteers might look like. Bosch’s war-ravaged landscape reminds us why the alternative to European unity might indeed be a hellish return to war and conflict.
Bosch is not painting a chronological account of salvation history. He is opening a window into the human soul — a window that would be closed by the rationalising gaze of scientific modernity, only to be thrown open again by Freud. Freud spoke of “the return of the repressed”. Is it time to reclaim the repressed, so as to give back to Christianity a dramatic sense of the irony, pathos, and hope of the human condition, beyond the bourgeois morality that holds in place the status quo?
I cannot imagine a painting such as this finding a place of welcome in modern Christian orthodoxy, and that, I believe, is our loss. No wonder the best theology is migrating from the academy to the movies — but that is a topic for another time. . .
Tina Beattie is Professor of Catholic Studies, Director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre, and Director of Catherine of Siena College at Digby Stuart College, Roehampton.
Our Lent series is based on a series of talks being given at St John the Baptist, Catford.