Painted between 1490 and 1510 by the Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch and housed in Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain since 1939, the Garden of Earthly Delights, a threefold oil-painting on an oak panel, depicts the whole of human experience, from life to the afterlife. Although the intricacy of its symbolism, particularly in the central panel, has led to a wide range of scholarly interpretations over the centuries, it is regarded as one of the most intriguing and mind-blowing works in the history of art. As it is a triptych or painted three large triptychs, it is presumed to be readfrom left to right, in which each panel is essential to the meaning of the whole. In fact, it is a sequential narrative of the Creation in the left panel, followed by worldly pleasure in the central panel and ultimately leading people straight to Hell in the right panel. In other words, the inner centerpiece is flanked by heavenly and hellish imagery.
In the closed position, the outer panel of the triptych joins to form a sphere, resembling a planet-shaped glass vessel half-filled with water. The panel lacks hue and color, possibly for portraying day three of God’s creation of the world or a time before the creation of the sun and moon, which according to Christian theology were formed to give light to the world.
While the global sphere is partially illuminated by beams of light shining through clouds, its interior is surrounded by water, signifying the sea. It is generally maintained that the panel depicted the creation of the world when the greenery was beginning to cover the crust of the newborn planet Earth.
The left wing of the opened triptych mainly depicts the moment when God presents Eve to Adam in the Garden of Eden, amidst a vast array of creatures and spurting fountains in the paradisiacal garden, and the landscape is animated by vaguely alchemical vials and beakers. The painting exhibits a blue-eyed God with golden curls, presenting Eve to Adam, who just woke up from a deep sleep. In his left hand, God held Eve by her wrist, while his other hand is raised, signifying his blessing to their union. According to Walter S. Gibson, an American art historian, although Eve avoids Adam’s gaze, she is shown seductively presenting her body to Adam, and despite Adam’s expression of amazement, the intensity of his gaze towards Eve expresses his lust more than love, and possibly a desire to procreate.
Although the scene depicting the introduction of Eve to Adam is strategically located in the centre foreground, there are other creatures in the landscape that include an elephant, a giraffe, a unicorn, and other hybrid or unknown animals, along with birds, snakes and insects. While the playing rabbits behind Eve signify fecundity, the dragon tree is thought to represent eternity or eternal life. There is a lion, about to devour his prey, behind a fish, there is a person clothed in a short-sleeved hooded jacket and with a duck's beak holds an open book as if reading, and to the left of the area, a cat holds a small lizard-like creature in its jaws.
Detail of the Central panel, lower portion
The central panel of the triptych is the garden of the earthly delights, from which the painting takes its name. Although there is no explicit sex in this panel, it is often argued that the centre panel depicts the sexual indulgences and pleasures of human beings and those carnal activities lead them to Hell. While God is conspicuously absent from the scene, the expansive garden landscape exhibits teeming male and female nudes, the offspring of Adam and Eve, engaged in diverse amorous sports and activities, both in couples and groups. However, while some of them appear to enjoy sensory pleasure, many are shown nibbling on an enormous strawberry, and others play unselfconsciously in the water.
In the middle of a lake lies a blue globe, resembling a fruit pod, and visible through its circular window, a man is stretching his right hand close to the genitals of his female partner, while another figure with bare buttocks is hovering in the vicinity.
A man is shown carrying a naked couple encased in a mussel shell, and the head of a female nude is adorned with two cherries that perhaps represent pride or vanity. In the central circular pool, the sexes are mostly segregated, with several females adorned by peacocks and fruit, but the pools in the fore and background contain bathers of both sexes.
Apart from the above, there are many more exhibits in the panel, which are difficult, if not impossible to decipher.
To mention a few, gigantic ducks playing with tiny humans under the cover of an oversized fruit, men riding unicorns,a man staring from inside of a red fruit at a mouse in a transparent cylinder,a passionate couple encased in an amniotic fluid bubble, and fishes walking on land while birds dwell in the water.
The right panel of the triptych depicts Hell, the final destiny of humans who have succumbed to the temptations of unrestricted pleasure that lead to evil and reap eternal damnation. It depicts an apocalyptic scene of torture and destruction, a nocturnal inferno with striking and harsh beams of light exposing the burning of a prison-like city, where surreal creatures dole out death and terrible punishments.It shows a rabbit carries away a bleeding corpse, a giant ear marches forth pierced by a knife, a huge birdlike creature seated on a latrine chair, like a monarch on his throne, gobbles humans and excretes them out as they were, while a miserable human in the vicinity is forced to vomit into a well in which other human faces swirl.
The scene also exhibits humans are tossed into the fire by some surreal creatures, while others are poked, prodded or fed upon by their ultimate executioners. The foreground is filled with a variety of distressed or tortured figures of naked humans, who have lost all their eroticism and many of them are attempting to cover their genitalia and breasts with their hands, as if ashamed of their nakedness. While some are crucified by harp and lute, in an allegory of music, and thus sharpening the contrast between pleasure and torture, the scene's focal point is the Tree-Man, at the center of the destruction.The Tree-Man is not really a man, rather a surreal figure formed of decaying trunks and a cracked egg, whose head supports a disk crowded by demonic creatures and their helpless victims parading around a jumbo set of bagpipes, which is often used to signify men’s scrotum and phallus.While a grey figure in a hood bearing an arrow jammed between his buttocks climbs a ladder into the central cavity of the Tree-man, where nude men sit in a tavern-like setting, the tree-man gazes outwards with a mixed expression of wistfulness and resignation. Although the Tree-man is a subject of much debate and seems to be impossible to identify, many believe that it is a self-portrait of the artist, Hieronymous Bosch himself, who claimed a bizarre pictorial world for his own personal imagination.
Considered one of the most intriguing and confusing paintings in the history of art, the Garden of Earthly Delight has sparked curiosity among scholars to interpret the symbolism behind the intricate art. However, despite innumerable theories and unaccounted suggestions, the work is generally agreed as a warning against unbridled earthly pleasure and lust as a whole, and the central panel as a representation of the impermanence of worldly pleasure.