Hieronymus Bosch is best known for his inventive depiction of fantastical scenarios, for example, his The Temptation of Saint Anthony (c. 1500), in which myriad demonic creatures torment their frail human victims. My new book Hieronymus Bosch: Time and Transformation in The Garden of Earthly Delight argues that in The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1505) Bosch pursued an ambition of a different kind: to paint a sequence of panels that depict the history of the world, from the creation of the universe to the destruction of the earth by Apocalyptic fire. Whereas most studies of Bosch’s triptych narrate a sequence of events that turn upon intrusions by Satan into the earthly world and human affairs, my study takes a more positivist approach, one pursued by late medieval natural and moral philosophers who asked: By what process did the world come into being? How did the earth appear both at the peak of its generative powers and in its current barren old age? How has human behavior changed from mankind’s earliest, Golden Age to the Iron Age of modern times? I posit that, like philosophers who theorized about the life history of the earth and its inhabitants, Bosch was concerned to depict how the world might have looked and changed over time, and how humans might have felt and behaved before and after the encroachment of civilization.
For Bosch the attempt to register in paint the way the world changed over time was also a venture into the possibilities of the oil medium. Rather than focusing on the fantastical character of Bosch’s inventions, I attend to his mimetic experiments. How can painting register change—evanescent phenomena like glowing light, vaporizing water, shooting flames, and processes of transmutation whereby a motif that appears on one panel (a sphere, a thorn) reappears in altered form on the next?
Recent technical examination of The Garden has provided clear evidence of the improvisatory manner in which Bosch painted his triptych. The publication in 2016 in catalogues and online of digitized images of the triptych’s panels under direct light, infrared reflectography, and X-radiography (accessible through the app, Second Canvas Museo del Prado) has offered exciting opportunities for speculation on how Bosch worked out his ideas and revised his composition in the course of painting the panels. This technical evidence confirms that Bosch was a painter who came to decide upon what he was “after” not before he started to paint, but in the process of painting. Time and transformation are key to his creative process. Although it is not possible to ascertain the exact sequence of revisions that Bosch made while laying down the paint layers, it is possible to sense the activity of a restless and self-critical imagination.
While working on this project I made intriguing discoveries that cast various elements in the painting in a new light. For instance, in my research on medieval cosmology, I came to appreciate the climate of open-minded speculation about the succinct, enigmatic creation narrative in the Book of Genesis. In my research into evocations of the Golden Age, I came across a text idealizing the religious purity of the earliest inhabitants of the earth. In mankind’s Golden Age, a writer claimed, humans worshipped God directly, free of the corrupting influence of altars or idols, churches or clergy. That made me think of the nude figures in the lower left corner of The Garden panel where a youth directs the attention of his companions directly to God in Paradise. In that sense, this group offers a stunning contrast to the satanic monks and demon-infested church in the “Iron Age” panel on the triptych’s right.
My research also made me aware of the ways in which the musical culture of Bosch’s time helped foster his pictorial inventiveness. Singers were judged not only for the quality of their voices but also for their skill at ornamentation and improvisation. Performers were expected to improvise ingenious variations on the notations that were written in a score. This helped me understand how Bosch’s ingenuity as a painter was attuned to the critical climate in the musical circles to which Bosch belonged.
Particularly exciting to me was the discovery of a kinship between Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Children’s Games (1560) and The Garden of Earthly Delights. Bruegel had the opportunity to see Bosch’s triptych in the Brussels palace of William of Orange, a descendant of the original owner of Bosch’s triptych. As I argue in the afterward of my book, Bruegel was inspired by Bosch’s triptych to adapt the theme of time and transformation in world history to a more tightly focused exploration of time and transformation from infancy to adulthood in the human life cycle. This discovery of Bruegel’s inventive response to The Garden of Earthly Delights validates, I believe, my own interpretation of Bosch’s painting.
Margaret D. Carroll is professor emerita of art at Wellesley College. She is the author of Painting and Politics in Northern Europe: Van Eyck, Bruegel, Rubens, and Their Contemporaries (winner, International Eugène Baie Award).