For an explanation of what I am attempting with this series of posts, please see the first post in the series.
9. The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1490-1510)
Of the works of art I have blogged about so far, this is probably the one which is most familiar to me, and certainly the one I have known for the longest. I cannot remember when I first came across it but I know that I was already well-acquainted with the right-hand panel of the painting by the time I left secondary school.
The complexity and scale of this piece have always been what’s drawn me to it. There is so much happening here, even in the relatively deserted Creation within Eden.
The other draw to this painting is that everything that is happening, all of that complexity and liveliness, is also batshit crazy. The more famous right-hand panel features giant instruments and strange, bird-headed people and a hollowed-out pigs’ arse below a burning city which looks oddly reminiscent of renderings of the Blitz of London … some 500 or so years later.
The less well-known central panel is, if anything, even more demented. There are people doing arbitrary headstands underwater and vast spiked globes and God only knows what people are doing but it all looks ever so slightly unwholesome and a little bit like Soho Square in the middle of summer. During the five minutes when it’s sunny.
It has strange associations – a children’s book of winter landscapes, equally heavily-peopled and with similar disregard for natural perspective, whose title and artist have eluded me for 20 years – and later, when I was introduced to the Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini, it set off echoes of the great Garden.
Garden of Earthly Delights is a nightmare, somehow a more convincing one than Dali’s Catalonian landscapes. It teems with the horror and the glory of humanity, crammed together in a weight of existence. The true garden in the image, the second garden that follows Eden, is as much a nightmare of strange purity as the depiction of darkness that lies to the right. The vast, weird collection of recognisable European garden birds, the otherworldly spires, the turbulent imaginings of glory as confounding as the fevered visions of punishment.
Hieronymous Bosch’s ambitious scenes of excess for me, at least, succeed. They represent an uncomfortable and otherworldly reality that swamps the sense of the individual.