Friday, July 24, 2015

Bagpipes in Hell: Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights

More ink has been spilled interpreting Hieronymus Bosch’s masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights, than the oil applied to the panels on which it is painted. The triptych with dates to the early 1500s now hangs in the Prado, Madrid.

The left panels depicts a youthful God, presumably Christ, presenting Eve to a dazed Adam. Around the first couple cavort an assortment of animals, some recognizable, and some surreal. The panel to the right depicts Hell. A man is eaten by a seated bird-headed creature. His head is in the beast’s mouth, birds fly out of his posterior.  Around him are grimly fascinating scenes of torture and vicious cruelty.  A rabbit, as innocent looking as Potter's Peter Rabbit, carries an impaled and bloodied man. At the center of the canvas a hallowed out man is supported by rotting tree-trunk. Balanced on this head is a disk bearing a set of bagpipes.  Yes, there will be bagpipes in hell.

Sandwiched between Paradise and Hell is the scene which gives the painting its modern name, the Garden of Earthly Delights. The panel depicts hundreds of carnally engaged couples, enormous birds, flying fish, and an abundance of strange vegetation. A theme of excess dominates: excessive sex, excessive pleasure, and excess fructification. In the center of this panel, which is therefore at the very center of the entire work, a blue orb emerges from the middle of a lake.  Through a window in the globe a man can be seen cupping his partner’s genitals. A rotund bottom shares the scene. Is this an earthy paradise, is it the world as it should be, or, rather, does it depict a way-station in our decline from paradise to hell.  Perhaps, in the end, we shall all be consumed by the bird-demon, with birds flying out our asses.    

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