Sometime in the early sixteenth century, Hieronymus Bosch created what would be one of the most enigmatic works of the transitional period preceding modernity. Garden of Earthly Delights is possibly his most well known and popular work, in no small part due to its thorough and mysterious departure from artistic standards of the time. There is almost no information about when or why this piece was created, nor the social and historical context it was created in. Bosch himself has almost completely escaped the clutches of historical documentation. The majority of existing records directly referring to him are related to monetary transactions, with very few significant revelations to be extracted. While this makes it exceedingly difficult to thoroughly analyze any of Bosch’s ouvre, not all hope is lost. As we will see, his bourgeois standing in a thriving city may give us just enough of a frame to jump off from.
Crafted as a triptych in the Christian tradition, Garden of Earthly Delights contains three panels, the outer two folding inward to display a nearly monochromatic depiction of the biblical Creation. Here we see a flat, circular earth half filling a globe of atmosphere. Sparse trees, hills, and strange, semi-organic forms populate the incomplete world. A figure, presumably God, oversees the creation from the top left corner. Opening the wings reveals an assault of color. The left and middle panels depict lush, green gardens. The first Eden centers around the fountain of life, with Adam and Eve being joined by Jesus in the foreground. The peaceful scene depicts some strange creatures among an overall innocence. The second panel shows a highly complex, detailed, and populated Paradise, in which borderline erotic scenes play out alongside surreal, chimeric transformations. Finally, the rightmost panel depicts Hell, slapping us in the face with an oversaturation of metaphysical consequence set in a land devoid of foliage, a burning city on the horizon. This last panel threatens to outdo the surrealism of the previous ones.
The earliest mention of Garden of Earthly Delights comes a year after Bosch’s death in 1517. Evidence suggests that Hendrik II (1483–1538) may have been the original buyer, as it was placed in the town palace of the Counts of Nassau in Brussels. By examining Bosch’s social trajectory through his life, it is believable that he might make a sale to someone of Hendrik’s standing — with particular consideration to Hendrik’s frequent companionship with the Emperor Maximilian’s son, Philip the Handsome. Bosch married into a wealthy family between 1477–1481, which opened some opportunities among the wealthier stratums. Within a year of joining the Brotherhood of Our Lady in 1487, he was accepted as one of its elite inner circle. We can easily conjecture that more doors would then open for Bosch, who was already gaining a reputation for his artistic skills. A commission Bosch received from Philip the Handsome in 1504 contains an intriguing similarity to Garden of Earthly Delights. Where Philip’s requested Last Judgement depicts humanity’s projection toward ruin and judgement after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, Garden later counters with a fantasy of utopia. It’s tempting to believe that Hendrik made the purchase with Philip’s Last Judgement in mind. Hendrik likely had the piece for its shock value, a wonder to surprise his guests with.
The symbolism displayed in Garden of Earthly Delights is largely debatable and inconclusive, but there is, at least, a compelling argument for an alchemical interpretation. Laurinda S. Dixon explains that in the late fifteenth century, alchemy was a common science. Additionally, Bosch’s in-laws were known to have an apothecary, which indicates ready availability to alchemistic resources. In fact, Dixon makes a particularly astounding observation that “the subject matter and organization of the Garden of Earthly Delights triptych is identical to the basic alchemical allegory which sees distillation as the cyclical creation, destruction, and rebirth of the world and its inhabitants.” In other words, steps in the alchemical process include a “conjunction” or marriage of opposites, “coagulation” or “child’s play,” and “putrification,” the rotting and blackening of bodies in the hottest fire possible. These steps can be seen respectively in the Garden with Adam and Eve, the wild orgy of the middle panel, and the right panel’s hellscape.
Though quite strong in its own right, without further context the above statement could be dismissed as subjective. However, taking into consideration the religious connection embedded in the alchemy of the time, the observation holds much more weight:
Ultimately, alchemists sought to achieve the salvation of the world/macrocosm through healing the microcosm of Man’s body. The transmutation from flawed (sick) to perfect (healed) was accomplished by prayer, study, and physical suffering in imitation of the Passion of Christ, by whose example success could be attained.
The church approved and even endorsed alchemy. That close-knit intertwining of theologistic symbolism with alchemical practice had precedence meant Bosch did not have to look far for related metaphors.
Another fascinating avenue to explore relates to the Netherlandish tradition of triptychs. These pieces were almost exclusively religiously themed, and dealt with spirituality and salvation in the afterlife. Bosch’s triptychs were primarily religiously themed, indeed, and were therefore seen as suitable as altarpieces like other triptychs. However, he broke from tradition by featuring more secular and worldly imagery than spiritual. In fact, Bosch was such a rebellious rapscallion that he even added color variety and narratives to the wing exteriors of some of his triptychs. The tradition of his time was to have these pieces be muted and serve “as a preface to the interior,” and be “distinctly subordinate to it.” Thus, Bosch’s departure from tradition goes farther than just the images depicted, shining light on just how unique he was for his time.
Demystifying Bosch and his Garden may require additional framing of his historical positioning. As of the late 14th century, the Low Countries — including Brabant, the province in which Bosch lived — were under control of the Duchy of Burgundy. By the time of Bosch’s birth c. 1450, the Netherlands under Burgundian rule had developed a strong central government. An argument can thus be made that Bosch may have been born into a relatively stable situation. However, around 1463, his hometown of ‘s-Hertogenbosch experienced a massive fire which destroyed much of the city. Though none of the sources for this paper did more than allude to the possibility, it seems clear that this event was a major influence on some of his imagery — particularly his depictions of burning buildings in Hell.
In 1482, rule of Brabant was turned over to the House of Habsburg, which controlled the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. No available documentation indicates whether this specific event, or any circumstances surrounding it, may have affected Bosch either directly or indirectly. However, the emperor Maximilian and his son, Philip the Handsome, were known to have visited ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 1504. Additionally, a receipt for initial payment of The Last Judgement shows that Philip commissioned Bosch for the piece around that time. This is yet another indicator that Bosch must have had some amount of renown and respect. It would be interesting to know Bosch’s opinion of the imperial family, as it could give clues to a deeper understanding of his symbology. Such information is likely impossible as it simply doesn’t exist, but rigorous analysis of his membership as a sworn brother in the Brotherhood of Our Lady — and, subsequently, the upper echelons of urban society — could provide some insight.
Though his political stance may be shrouded in obscurity, Bosch’s works frequently depicted criticisms of the church and its clergy. One particularly damning scene exists in Garden of Earthly Delights, as described by Hans Belting:
A fat pig wearing the veil of a Dominican nun is seducing an unwilling man with her kisses in a bid to persuade him to sign a contract bequeathing his fortune to the church. An assistant is ready and waiting with the seal for the contract. A second assistant, concealed in a suit of armour with a foot dangling from it as the emblem of the professional beggar, proffers the inkpot for the signature. This is not a depiction of one of the hellish punishments, as in the nearby scenes. If at all, it is a pointer to a sin committed by the church, revealed by the fact that it has brought no advantage.
Bosch expresses criticism towards the church on at least a few other occasions, one such example being in Ship of Fools. This piece from his middle period depicts a monk and nuns among revelers in a boat. “The monk and one of the nuns are singing lustily, the latter accompanying herself on a lute; they resemble the amorous couples depicted in medieval love gardens, who make music as a prelude to making love.” Walter Bosing posits that the clerical criticism may be borne from the economic activities of the religious houses, which saw rapid growth through the fifteenth century. With their considerable wealth and competition with craft guilds, it is reasonable to assume that immorality among monks and nuns was an acute controversy in late medieval ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
Perhaps the most potent situation potentially permeating Bosch’s psyche was the age of discovery that had begun in the fifteenth century. The central panel of Garden of Earthly Delights is particularly vivid in its expression of a “new form of exoticism,” one that “was no longer satisfied by the traditional views of the world,” due to the expansive possibilities laid bare by the conquests of the time. The left panel of the triptych depicts what would have been closer to the typical representation of Paradise. The swelling breadth of the world threatened the reality of this Paradise, making it less and less plausible. In a time with increasing wonder and anxiety, Bosch uniquely took poetic license to portray an unapologetically imaginary Paradise in which the original couple, Adam and Eve, proliferated, having never fallen to the Original Sin. By placing the Garden on such a fantastical foundation, Bosch could freely depict a wondrous world that combined the influx of new discoveries, and his own imaginary creations.
The deep well of mystery around Bosch goes ever deeper than I can address here. Even a connection with Humanist philosophy that other researchers have toyed with is largely inconclusive, albeit compelling. Thomas More’s Utopia was published the same year as Bosch’s death in 1516, which would be too late to have had an impact. However, More’s friend, philosopher Erasmus, is known to have spent time in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Was humanism informally developed out of a widespread attitude that Bosch was privy to? Or could it be that he was simply pulling off a masterful, borderline heretical prank for Hendrik’s enjoyment? Whatever the truth may be, we may need to accept that its unsolvable mystery is just part of its fantastic allure.
 Janssen, Paul Huys. “Hieronymus Bosch · Facts and Records Concerning His Life and Work.” Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch 68 (2007): 239–54.
 Belting, Hans. Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights. Prestel Pub., 2005., 71.
 Dixon, Laurinda S., “Bosch’s Garden of Delights Triptych: Remnants of a ‘Fossil’ Science,” The Art Bulletin 63, no. 1 (1981): 96.
 Ibid., 98–99.
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 98.
 Jacobs, Lynn F., “The Triptychs of Hieronymus Bosch,” Sixteenth Century Journal 31, no. 4 (2000): 1013.
 Jacobs, “The Triptychs of Hieronymus Bosch,” 1019–1020.
 Constance, Sr. M. “Spanish Rule in the Netherlands under Philip II.” The Catholic Historical Review 14, no. 3 (1928), 379.
 Koldeweij, Jos, and Bernard Vermet. “Introduction; Hieronymus Bosch and His City.” Hieronymus Bosch, The Complete Paintings and Drawings, New York (Etc.) 2001, 53.
 Belting, Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights., 44.
 Constance, “Spanish Rule in the Netherlands under Philip II.”, 382.
 Koldeweij, Vermet. “Introduction: Hieronymus Bosch and His City.”, 39.
 Ibid., 56–58.
 Belting, Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights., 44.
 Bosing, Walter. Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1450–1516 : Between Heaven and Hell. Taschen, 2000, 30.
 Bosing, Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1450–1516., 30–31.
 Belting, Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights., 27.
 Ibid., 85–100.
 Ibid., 121.
Belting, Hans. Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights. Prestel Pub., 2005.
Bosing, Walter. Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1450–1516 : Between Heaven and Hell. Taschen, 2000.
Constance, Sr. M. “Spanish Rule in the Netherlands under Philip II.” The Catholic Historical Review 14, no. 3 (1928): 365–422.
Dixon, Laurinda S. “Bosch’s Garden of Delights Triptych: Remnants of a ‘Fossil’ Science.” The Art Bulletin 63, no. 1 (1981): 96–113.
Jacobs, Lynn F. “The Triptychs of Hieronymus Bosch.” Sixteenth Century Journal 31, no. 4 (2000): 1009–1041.
Janssen, Paul Huys. “Hieronymus Bosch · Facts and Records Concerning His Life and Work.” Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch 68 (2007): 239–54.
Koldeweij, Jos, and Bernard Vermet. “Introduction; Hieronymus Bosch and His City.” Hieronymus Bosch, The Complete Paintings and Drawings, New York (Etc.) 2001, p. 10–83.