A massive oil-on-oak painting measuring more than 7 by 12 feet, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510) was painted around the turn of the sixteenth century by Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch and is still one of the most famous and mysterious works of art in the world today. What is the true meaning of Bosch's iconic yet terrifying painting? A thorough analysis reveals the religious and secular meaning of The Garden of Earthly Delights, a painting with strangely surreal, modern overtones. What is the hidden meaning of The Garden of Earthly Delights? Can we really find modern significance in any interpretation of this mysterious work of art?
It can sometimes be hard to find modern-day applications for old, religious art painted so long ago, but there is something unique and oddly prescient about the art of Hieronymus Bosch and The Garden of Earthly Delights in particular. The term "Boschian" remains in use even today, and speaks to the fantastic details Bosch is known for. Not one to keep thing simple, in The Garden of Earthly Delights Bosch begins with a simple story but peppers his giant canvas with lots of weird tangents, side stories and odd, alien imagery along the way. In fact, Bosch's art is so curious that some have even wondered if he was under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. Though Bosch lived and worked hundreds of years before the Surrealist art movement of the twentieth century, due to the often dreamlike and bizarre imagery of his art some historians like Andre Breton view him as a kind of protosurrealist, or a "grandfather" of Surrealism. Famous Surrealists Salvador Dali and Joan Miró were also taken with Bosch's strange and wonderful art.
In the environmental documentary Before the Flood (2016), actor Leonardo DiCaprio discusses the lasting impact that Bosch's painting had on him as a child, when it was hung as a poster in his childhood bedroom. "If you look at these panels long enough, they start to tell a story," he says pointedly. What is the true meaning of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch? Why do we keep returning to this curious painting, even centuries later?
Very little is known about the artist Hieronymus Bosch. Painted sometime in the middle of his life, The Garden of Earthly Delights is arguably his most famous and most ambitious work of art. The painting is a triptych, a form of art that was popular during the early Christian period, when Bosch lived and worked. Derived from the Greek triptychos, meaning "having three folds," a triptych is a large painting divided into three sections or scenes and is meant to be read chronologically, left to right like text in a book. Bosch painted 16 triptychs throughout his career, including the similarly themed The Last Judgment and The Haywain Triptych. Like most art from the Middle Ages, Bosch's triptychs all center around — though at times quite loosely — religious themes and Biblical imagery.
Working from left to right, Bosch begins his story simply in the first panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights. A well-known story, Adam and Eve relax peacefully in the Garden of Eden bestowed to them by God in Genesis 2. The couple looks innocent and content in the lush green Paradise, the perfect pastoral setting providing them with everything they need. Is this Heaven? Not quite. At their feet, carnivorous creatures engage in a harmonious but earthly circle of life, with the bigger ones feasting on the smaller rodents scurrying about. Adam does not notice, totally transfixed and in awe of the presence of God, but Eve noticeably gazes down at the animals below. Is there already trouble in Paradise? Maybe it looks a little boring.
Still verdant and green, the garden scene transforms dramatically in the central and largest panel, from which the title of the painting comes: The Garden of Earthly Delights. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden to find a new home of their own. In contrast with the divine simplicity of the first panel, the center panel is busy, full of life and energy. As DiCaprio points out, "The second panel is where it starts to become more interesting." In the center section, there is more of everything: more space, more people, more animals — more going on all around. Here the simplicity and calm tranquility of the first panel gives way to an exuberant, crowded party. Excess is the general theme.
Though the second panel is perhaps more interesting than the first, in Bosch's world more does not necessarily mean better. As DiCaprio points out, this is where the deadly sins start to infuse their way into the painting, though subtly. The crowds of naked people frolic in a bacchanalian free-for-all with carefree abandon. Life in the Garden looks like fun, but Bosch represents the underlying chaos in the Garden with the oddest visual metaphors. Unlike the first panel, there is no more clear hierarchy or delineation of order here; the natural world of humans, animals and vegetation are all mixed together in the same jumbled sprawl. Throughout the center panel, Bosch seems to capture the revelers in the middle of some surreal metamorphosis, transforming from human into fantastic hybrids: a berry boy, a fish girl. What is the meaning?
No party is complete without refreshments. Everywhere, the crowd carelessly feasts on the garden's abundant fruit. Is this the forbidden fruit? In the Biblical creation story, eating of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil ultimately led to the Fall of Man as described in Genesis. While Bosch likely intended to make that Biblical allusion, for Leonardo DiCaprio this fruit is literally just fruit with no religious hidden meaning. To him, it symbolizes "the fruits of what this environment's given us," he explains in Rolling Stone (2016). For him, the painting has modern significance beyond what the artist may have originally intended. Looking at the painting as a snapshot of our world today, for DiCaprio the worst offense in The Garden of Earthly Delights is unsustainability and taking our environment for granted through wastefulness and overconsumption.
Things get dark and very ugly in the painting’s third and final panel. The garden has once again transformed into what DiCaprio calls "nightmarish" and a "burnt-down apocalypse." While the first two panels are sunny and green, the last panel is contrastingly gloomy, maybe taking place at night or perhaps even subterranean, underground. Is this one of Dante’s circles of Hell? Remnants of the party and its symbols of vice — playing cards, a gambling dice — are strewn about, discarded. Once animated and carefree, the people now look distraught, worn out and tired after a long night.
Again, Bosch illustrates the chaos and disorder of this place with fantastic figures caught in between two states of being. The surreal hybrids of the second panel looked mostly innocent and even comical in their appearance, but in the last panel these figures take on a monstrous quality with religious undertones. Here a pig wears a nun's habit. Next to her, a reptilian critter crouches, its impish face covered by a knight’s helmet. Beyond, a papal birdman devours a person without blinking an eye. Are these weird creatures Bosch’s demons?
A religious artist, Bosch most likely intended these nightmarish figures and the painting as a whole to function as a harsh and pointed condemnation of the corruption he saw happening within the Roman Catholic Church. The musical instruments strewn about also point to this: at this time, music, like all art, was reserved for praising God, but here it is degraded and brought down. Painted around the turn of the sixteenth century, Bosch completed The Garden of Earthly Delights not long before the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg. Did the same forces that led to the Reformation inspire Bosch to paint his grandiose and scathing masterpiece?
What is the meaning of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch? As modern viewers, what can we take away from this mysterious piece of art? Forming a strictly religious or moralistic analysis of this famous painting is not very difficult to do, but there is so much detail and so many stories contained within The Garden of Earthly Delights that the painting defies a singular interpretation. This is perhaps one of its most modern aspects. While Bosch may have been setting his sights on the hypocrisies of the Church of his day, Leonardo DiCaprio can still analyze the painting from a twenty-first century perspective in secular, earthly terms. As an environmentalist, DiCaprio sees Bosch’s painting as a cautionary tale about human-caused climate change. Though you can approach this painting from many different angles, ultimately the meaning of The Garden of Earthly Delights comes down to the importance of the choices we make, both as individuals and as a society, and can determine our fate. What we do really matters.