Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights triptych (a bigger version lies beyond that link)
has fascinated me since the first time I saw it, when I was still a teenager. There's so much to explore and discover there, and so many symbols whose meaning aren't immediately recognizable 5 centuries later... few works of art in history have brought this level of elaboration and forethought, and sadly most modern art doesn't even try
to climb this high.
The three segments of the triptych are three separate scenes, but together they offer what we could almost describe as a narrative. On the left side we have the Garden of Eden, where God (who looks a lot like His son Jesus)
is introducing Adam (who's just awakening)
to Eve (who chastely looks down as Adam admires her)
But there's more to this scene, much more than just the world's first blind date. Below the 1st Couple Ever, several creatures lounge around a circular pond/pool - from common animals such as a cat carrying a rat on his mouth to a handful of hybrids and monsters. In the pond, a fish with a duck's head reads a book because why not, bizarre vegetation casually signifies how different this garden is from any garden we've ever known... and slightly above Eve, on the right side, a serpent slithers around a tree, reminding us that we know how this story goes (spoilers: Adam and Eve are evicted)
(Above, from left to right: a dog with only two limbs, a white giraffe and the serpent around the tree - plus assorted weirdness all around)
Then there's the central part, the titular 'Garden of Earthly Delights', which could best be described as the world's freakiest cross-species orgy olympics lollapalooza.
In a surrealist garden of giant fruits and odd organic shapes, countless naked men and women cavort, prance about, chill at the lake, ride horses, caress each other's genitals, engage in undescribable group activities and generally behave with no shame. I can only wonder how the folks from the 15th century reacted to this imagery, as even my jaded modern eyes sometimes bug out at the sight of Bosch's "Earthly Delights". At least everyone looks like they're having loads of fun.
(Above: Maybe I'm a prude, but I really don't want to try that)
The Garden of Earthly Delights that Bosch reveals is a place of no inhibitions, no gender preferences or racial barriers, and unrestrained insanity everywhere you look. It's a deranged playground of debasement, where gigantic ducks play
with tiny people near gigantic fruits, winged fish walk on land, and nude couples make out inside floating transparent spheres. Bosch's imagination ignores reality and recreates it with wild abandon as an allegory for physical pleasures, that seem to simultaneously condemn and enjoy mankind's forbidden urges. And that implied condemnation of debauchery leads this visual narrative straight to the right side of the triptych: Hell itself, the place where all those nude people should expect to go to when the party's over.
The most famous piece of iconography from this triptych belongs to this segment: the "tree-man" whose torso resembles a shattered eggshell. It's interesting to note that this thing's face is actually Bosch's self-portrait.
Above the tree-man's head, devils and humans walk hand-in-hand around a bagpipe (which, I've later learned, is supposed to symbolize genitalia)
without any apparent purpose beyond making the rounds. Within the tree-man's torso, gamblers and alcoholics hang out as if they were at the pub, unaware of the large pantless creature with an arrow shoved into its arse that's climbing the stairs towards them. This tree-man is the Anti-Christ, a leader around whose ideas men will foolishly gravitate, and who has nothing inside him but vice. Behind him, a pair of ears carried by human slaves wields a blade. If you glance around this scene, you'll find humans being punished for each of the Seven Deadly Sins. For example, in the picture below we have a lustful sinner being punished by having a flute stuck into his arse, and a vain woman gazes at her own reflection on a devil's backside while another devil gropes her body. Above them we see a bird-headed creature, wearing a cauldron on his head (a mockery of a crown)
and sitting on a 'throne' (is this the King of Hell?)
while he devours corpses and defecates them right out, a fitting punishment for the gluttonous.
All this and much more; I've probably bored you all to tears and yet I've barely scratched the surface of this compelling, disturbing and extremely rich piece of art. It may not be the best decoration for your living-room, but it's a layered and intriguing exploration of catholic concepts - that takes those concepts far far beyond what priests describe to their congregations. This is HARDCORE art, son.