Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch
Interpretation, Analysis of Netherlandish Altarpiece Triptych

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Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch
Detail taken from the
Garden of Earthly Delights
By Hieronymus Bosch.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Garden of Earthly Delights (1500-05)


Interpretation/Meaning of Garden of Earthly Delights
Further Resources


Artist: Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516)
Medium: Oil on wood
Genre: Moralistic religious art
Movement: Northern Renaissance
Location: Prado Museum, Madrid.

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Detail from Hell

Interpretation of Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

This triptych is one of the most enigmatic and evocative religious paintings of the 16th century Netherlandish Renaissance. Designed in all probability as a private, moralistic, altarpiece (albeit somewhat eccentric), it consists of three hinged panel paintings filled with the most bizarre, fantastical figures and surreal creatures. Its creator was the early Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516) - born Jeroen Anthoniszoon van Aken - a wealthy and highly respectable citizen of s-Hertogenbosch, from which his adopted name derives. This oil painting shows three scenes, reflecting Bosch's account of the world: Paradise on the left; Hell on the right and a garden of worldly pleasure in between. When the wing panels are folded shut, they show a grisaille picture of the Earth on the third day of Creation.

Fine art posters of paintings
by Hieronymus Bosch,
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Art Appreciation
To understand works like
Garden of Earthly Delights,
see our educational
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More Analysis of Garden of Earthly Delights

Strongly influenced by the religious conventions of the day - notably the attitudes of the conservative religious group The Brotherhood of Our Lady, of which Bosch was a member - The Garden of Earthly Delights is one of Bosch's best known works - all of which depict sin and moral failing. Roughly forty surviving paintings are attributed to Bosch, though none are dated, which means that chronology is only approximate. His other major triptychs include: The Haywain Triptych (1485-90, Prado, Madrid); The Temptation of St Anthony (1500; Portuguese Museum of Art, Lisbon); and The Last Judgment (1500s, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). During the 16th century it was widely assumed that Bosch's works were essentially works of illustration - picture books designed to illustrate Christian morals. Now, art historians attribute a deeper meaning to these original and complex works. Perhaps the most fruitful interpretation is to see them as illustrations of proverbs: the pair of lovers in the glass bubble, for instance, depicts the proverb "Pleasure is as fragile as glass". This method also helps us to make connections between The Garden of Earthly Delights and Bosch's other paintings, such as the Haywain or the Cure of Folly. Lastly, it explains similarities between Bosch's pictures and those of his artistic successor Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-69).

Pictorializes the Progression of Sin

Believed to have been commissioned by a God-fearing but humanistic nobleman - such as Engelbrecht II of Nassau (d.1504) or Bernard van Orley, Henry III of Nassau-Breda (1483–1538) - The Garden of Earthly Delights measures about 13 feet by 7 feet when all three panels are open. The picture narrative begins on the outside shutters with the creation of the world; after the shutters are opened, the story continues, left-to-right, with the Genesis account of original sin, the proliferation of that sin during human life, and ends with images of the nightmarish penalties which the sinful can justly expect to receive in hell. Its fantastic iconography and modernistic images make it one of the greatest Renaissance paintings of the 16th century, and arguably the most inventive picture produced by Northern Renaissance artists in Flanders, Holland or Germany.

Left Hand Painting: Garden of Eden

The left-hand panel shows God having made Eve out of one of Adam's ribs, taken as he slept. God presents his creation to Adam, who has just woken up. They are in the Garden of Eden, but the pool before them is full of dark, slithering creatures, hinting at a dark future. The biblical image of Paradise being an enchanted garden is given a complete make-over by Bosch. Instead of fruit trees, Bosch's Garden of Eden is full of real and imaginary creatures, lush meadows, anthropomorphic rocks, bizarre pastel-coloured rocky outcrops and strange pod-like objects. (Compare Michelangelo's Garden of Eden, painted in his Genesis Fresco - one of the great Sistine Chapel frescoes, in the Vatican.)

Centre Painting: The Human World

The landscape continues into the central panel of this extraordinary painting, which suggests a natural progression from one sin to many. The name of the triptych comes from the garden in this central panel, which features cavorting nudes, giant birds, oversized fruit and several strange objects or contraptions. In the background is the Fountain of Flesh, where naked women seduce male riders who circle around them. It is the sinful counterpart to the Fountain of Life in the Garden of Eden. In general, the panel depicts mankind engaged in a range of depraved activities, all of which are clearly deemed sinful by the artist, who shows (in the right-hand panel) that they lead to the torments of hell. Symbolism is everywhere. The fruits, animals and exotic mineral structures in the background, for instance, have all been identified as erotic symbols based on popular songs, sayings and slang expressions of Bosch's era. Thus plucking fruit or flowers was a metaphor for copulation, while the peelings, which the lovers find so fascinating, was a byword for worthlessness.

Curiously, the centre panel contains only young men and women: there are no children and no senior citizens to be seen. Also, the scene contains no focal point and no linear narrative, which enhances the overall mood of abandonment. Note the absence of God in this panel, which highlights what happens when mankind is given complete freedom. As we can see, under such circumstances, Bosch predicts a playground of corruption.

Right-Hand Painting: Hell

In the right-hand panel, Bosch's hell (the only picture to be set at night) is divided into three levels or tiers: in the top tier, a ravaged landscape is lit by the macabre glow of an eerie fire. Huge crowds can be seen marching endlessly. In the middle level, Bosch has painted a mocking self-portrait, in the guise of a man/tree whose arms/roots are set in two boats. The hollow torso contains a sort of hellish tavern, frequented by resting 'devils'. On his head is a rotating platform with a bagpipe - a symbol of evil and lust. Two enormous ears on the left are pierced by an arrow and cut by the blade of a knife. The contraption symbolizes Man's deafness to the New Testament exhortation: "If any man have ears to listen, let him hear." In the bottom tier, the guilty are confronted by their sins. Thus personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins are made to suffer. The vain woman is doomed to stare for eternity at her reflection in a demon's rump; a glutton is forced to vomit into a pit; a miser is forced to excrete gold coins into a cesspool. Various musicians are tortured on gigantic versions of their instruments. Similarly, a hunter is impaled by a hare, while another is devoured by his own hounds.Neither beauty nor warmth are on show anywhere in this panel: a tone which reflects Bosch's chilling view, that the guilty who have succumbed to the temptations of the devil must reap eternal damnation.


To sum up The Garden of Earthly Delights in one sentence, one might say it pictorializes the progression of sin, shows what would happen to Man if it wasn't for God, and offers a moral warning against the perils of temptation, notably lust.

Hiernonymus Bosch (1450–1516)

Little was known of Bosch until his name appeared in the municipal register of s-Hertogenbosch in 1474. Seven years later he married Aleyt Goyaerts van den Meervenne, 25 years his senior, whose wealth gave him the freedom to become a full-time painter. By the time he painted The Garden of Earthly Delights (1500-05), he was internationally famous. Queen Isabella of Spain owned several examples of his religious art, while in 1504 he was awarded a prestigious commission from the Duke of Burgundy. As an artist, Bosch left a remarkable and unique legacy. Imitated by many, equalled by no one, except perhaps Pieter Bruegel the Elder, his fantastical imagery and narrative ability was to have a significant effect on the development of Surrealism in the first half of the 20th century. God bless Aleyt Goyaerts van den Meervenne!



Further Resources

If you're interested in Northern Renaissance religious paintings, try these resources:

Hugo van der Goes (1440-82): Passionate Flemish religious artist.
German Renaissance (1430-1580)
Matthias Grunewald (c.1470-1528): Mainz-based religious fanatic.
Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545): Visionary German painter.

See also: How To Appreciate Paintings.

• For more about Dutch painting, see our main index: Homepage.

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