Hieronymus Bosch - Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights (detail) [ca. 1500]
Bosch’s most famous and unconventional picture is The Garden of Earthly Delights which, like most of his other ambitious works, is a large, 3-part altarpiece, called a triptych. This painting was probably made for the private enjoyment of a noble family. It is named for the luscious garden in the central panel, which is filled with cavorting nudes and giant birds and fruit. The triptych depicts the history of the world and the progression of sin. Beginning on the outside shutters with the creation of the world, the story progresses from Adam and Eve and original sin on the left panel to the torments of hell, a dark, icy, yet fiery nightmarish vision, on the right. The Garden of Delights in the centre illustrates a world deeply engaged in sinful pleasures.
The enigmatic and strange fantasies that people the work of Bosch earned him enormous fame even in his own lifetime, and his creations were widely imitated. But nothing either in his own or in his contemporaries’ work equals the invention of the Garden of Earthly Delights triptych, justly his most famous painting.
Various attempts have been made to relate these fantasies to the realities of his own day. For instance, some of the sexually related visions have been related to the creed of the Adamites, a hereticel sect of the day advocating, at least in theory, sexual freedom like that in Eden. But the most promising line has been to recognize many of them as illustrations of proverbs: for instance, the pair of lovers in the glass bubble would recall the proverb ‘Pleasure is as fragile as glass’. This approach also provides a link between these fantasies and Bosch’s other work, such as the Cure of Folly or Haywain, and between Bosch’s later work and Bruegel’s in the middle of the sixteenth century: though without Bosch’s satanic profusion, Bruegel also made illustrations of proverbs in this way.