The Earthly Delights of Heironymous Bosch

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Heironymous Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" may be one of the most studied works of art in the world, yet we still know very few definitive facts about the triptych or the man who painted it. At the request of readers Jodie and Nikki, though, I've gathered up the most interesting information I could find on the medieval Netherlandish artists and his masterpiece.

1. Heironymous Bosch (1450-1516) probably has more variations of his name than any other artist (or at least any covered in "Feel Art Again"). Various sources record his first name as Heironymous, Jheronimus, Jeroen, Jerom, and Jerome. His birth surname is written as Anthonissen, Anthoniszoon, van Aken, and van Aeken. Finally, even his chosen surname, which is for his birthplace of "˜s-Hertogenbosch, is written as both Bosch and Bos. If all those spellings weren't confusing enough, he's referred to as "El Bosco" in Spain.

2. The three panels of "Garden of Earthly Delights" are generally thought to represent Adam and Eve in paradise, the "earthly delights," and hell, from left to right. It is also generally accepted that the triptych, like most of Bosch's work, was designed "to teach specific moral and spiritual truths." However, there is still much debate over the work's overall meaning and the interpretation of the many individual symbols and motifs found in the three panels.

3. On the outer panels (the backs of the left and right panels), Bosch painted the world during its creation. God, a tiny figure, can be found in the upper left with a Bible in his lap. Most scholars assume the scene depicts the third day of creation, since vegetation is present on Earth, but there is no visible human or animal life. Written above the scene is a Biblical quotation: "Ipse dixit, et facta sunt: ipse mandávit, et create sunt," or "For he spake and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast."

4. Some Spanish writers referred to "Garden of Earthly Delights" as La Lujuria, or "The Lust." When King Philip II bought the painting in 1593, the subject of sex was avoided completely by recording it in the inventory of the Spanish Crown as "the picture with the strawberry-tree fruits."

5. "Garden of Earthly Delights" contains two possible self-portraits of Bosch. Several theories abound regarding the identity of the clothed man in the central panel, but one theory is that he is Bosch. Other scholars find Bosch in the right panel ("Hell") as the face of the tree man, the face that peers out at the viewer from the center of the panel.

A larger version of "Garden of Earthly Delights" is available here. You can also view a 14 gigapixel, zoomable version of "Garden of Earthly Delights" via Google Earth and Maps. (Click the second thumbnail in the top row.)

Fans should check out the detailed analysis of "Garden of Earthly Delights" on Wikipedia; the Bosch and Bruegel Society; the Bosch galleries on Art in the Picture, WGA, and ARC; the "Garden of Earthly Delights" digital kaleidoscope; action figures straight out of the painting; and the "Garden of Earthly Delights" play currently on stage in New York.

"Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at artist suggestions, with details of current exhibitions, or for sources or further reading.

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January 13, 2009 - 5:30pm
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