Jheronimus Bosch Art Center

Hieronymus Bosch - Garden of Earthly Delights

Belting 2002
Belting, Hans
Genre: Nonfiction, art history
Aantal pagina's: 126
Uitgever: Prestel, Munich-Berlin-London-New York
Uitgave datum: 2002
ISBN: 3-7913-2674-0

Belting 2002


Hieronymus Bosch. Garden of Earthly Delights (Hans Belting) 2002

[Prestel, Munich-Berlin-London-New York, 2002, 126 pages]


Professor Hans Belting is an art historian who teaches in Karlsruhe. At the Bosch Conference in ’s-Hertogenbosch in November 2001 he gave a lecture about the Garden of Delights. This book can be seen as an elaborated version of this lecture.


A Tale of Fascination [chapter 1, pp. 7-19]


According to Peter Beagle the Garden of Delights possesses a utopian aspect and this fits in with Belting’s own interpretation: the central panel of this triptych represents a paradise that does not really exist, it could be called a ‘virtual world’. This triptych is not an altarpiece: Bosch only used the structure of an altarpiece to express something new. The left and right interior panels agree with the rest of Bosch’s oeuvre, but how does the central panel fit in with this oeuvre? Siguença (early seventeenth century) saw the central panel as a representation of sinfulness that is being punished in the right interior panel, but according to Belting we are dealing here with an innocent paradise and the link between the central panel and the right interior panel is not what Siguença wrote about this. In the literature of the sixteenth century there was already something that could be called ‘poetical freedom’. Bosch introduced this concept into the art of painting. The cultural-historical approach of Bosch, focusing on contemporary religion and society, neglects the language of Bosch’s historical imagery. Fraenger was wrong as well. The alchemical approaches were also wrong: there are alchemical motifs in Bosch’s work, but these are intended as satirical observations, not as secret codes. This first chapter shows that Belting’s writing style is sometimes rather blurred, although this may partially be due to a weak English translation (from the original German).


In a Painted Labyrinth of the Gaze [chapter 2, pp. 20-57]


To describe every individual motif would be too much work. Do the separate parts of the Garden deliver a coherent message or does Bosch force us to create free associations between the three panels? This seems to be a rather strange question. Taking into account the rest of Bosch’s oeuvre, the answer to the second question can only be: no. There is a clear chronology in the triptych: first the creation of the world (closed wings), then the creation of man (left interior panel), and next hell (right interior panel). But the central panel is a special case and does not fit in with this chronology. According to Belting Bosch consciously wanted to express something with this…


The closed wings represent the Third Day of Creation and the world as the Earthly Paradise, still free from abuse by humanity. God is small and seems insecure, as if He has already lost control over His creation. But the verses from Psalm 33 (9) signal that the closed wings are meant as a painted song of praise about creation. The left interior panel represents the Marriage of Adam and Eve in Eden. The Fall of Man is not depicted, but is anticipated by the serpent curled around a palm tree (center-right) and by the not very idyllic, aggressive behaviour of some of the animals. This left interior panel shows the influence of illustrations that accompany the travel letters of the humanist scholar Cyriacus of Ancona (see the giraffe and the elephant, this was demonstrated by Phyllis W. Lehmann) and of engravings by Martin Schongauer (the dragon’s blood tree and the date palm). In the right interior panel (a Hell) nature has completely vanished: people are being punished by means of things they have created themselves and thus Bosch presents a satirical view of the world. The Prince of Hell (bottom-right) wears a kettle on his head that looks like a globe and the window that is being mirrored in the kettle is definitely a metaphor for a room without exit. Belting’s (weak) further analysis of the right interior panel is a mixture of correct observations (the bagpipes are a sexual symbol) and subjective interpretations (the Tree-man is probably a self-portrait, the scene with the sow-nun to the bottom-right = a rich man donates his money to the Church and is seduced into doing this by a nun…).


In the central panel humanity completely lives within nature. Although the landscape of Eden in the left interior panel continues here we know from the Bible that man has never populated the Earthly Paradise. Bosch prevented the spectator from placing this panel somewhere in the biblical history of the world and invited everybody to give his or her personal interpretation of this central panel. Everywhere people are eating and having sex. This does not refer to sinful eroticism but to natural fertility (death only arrived in Eden after the Fall of Man). There are no children in this paradise and all figures lack individuality, they look like timeless souls. This is a utopian vision of a world that has never existed. The glass cilinders are not natural, though, and are perhaps a critical comment on the attempts of the alchemists to imitate God’s nature. The man and the woman in the right bottom corner are perhaps Adam and Eve (the man is possibly also a self-portrait) and the pointing finger may refer to an awareness of the difference between Good and Evil, which only came after the Fall of Man. Bosch painted a fictitious paradise. In these pages Belting’s argument is very hazy and can hardly be followed in a rational way.


The artist in his home town [chapter 3, pp. 58-69]


Some well-known facts about Bosch’s life and work (his success with the high nobility, member of the Fraternity of Our Lady, his numerous imitators, the comments of Guevara and Siguença). From these comments Belting wishes to conclude that Bosch introduced artistic freedom into the late-medieval world of painting and that he turned the satirical style into a serious form of art, giving people the occasional chance to laugh because of a painting. The Rotterdam Vagabond must once have formed the closed wings of a secular triptych, the interiors showing The Ship of Fools + Gluttony and The Death of a Miser: a satirical criticism on the folly of society and the sins of the individual. As has been demonstrated by Bax, Bosch often used Dutch idioms and proverbs for this. As an example Belting refers to the drawing called The field has eyes, the wood has ears, thereby quoting Koldeweij’s hypothesis: the drawing not only represents a proverb, but also Bosch’s name and the name of his home town ’s-Hertogenbosch (ogen – bosch / eyes – wood).


In the Palais Nassau [chapter 4, pp. 70-84]


An unconventional work of art such as the Garden of Delights must have been designed in close co-operation with a patron that trusted the artist and felt related to him. Both Engelbert II and Henry III of Nassau are possible patrons but Belting seems to be in favour of Henry, without any argument for that matter. Henry III is said not to have been very pious, but he was interested in art and this must be taken into account in interpreting Bosch’s painting. Henry had his Breda residence changed into a Renaissance palace and in the Grote Kerk in Breda he had a beautiful Renaissance tomb installed for his uncle Engelbert.


Whatever others may tell, dendrochronology is of little use for a dating of the triptych: it only informs us that Bosch used wood from the period 1460-66. Based on a rather vague argument (the Garden’s structure reminds us of the structure of a Last Judgment triptych but the central panel is totally different and the left interior panel does not represent Heaven but an innocent Eden) Belting supposes that Philip the Fair and Henry III competed with each other in ordering ambitious triptychs with original subjects (according to Mosmans the Last Judgment ordered by Philip in 1504 would have been larger than any other work of Bosch we know). In 1520 Dürer saw – among other things – a piece of a meteorite that had fallen out of the sky close to Henry III in the Nassau Palace in Brussels. In this context of mirabilia, anticipating the later Wunderkammers, Bosch’s triptych – which was not an altarpiece – was at its proper place. It was probably used by Henry to entertain his guests during parties.


The succes of the triptych can be derived from the numerous copies that were made for rich patrons before 1568, the central panel being the focus of attention. One of these copies was almost as large as the original. Only the left interior panel of this copy has survived (Escorial) and the wood is older than the wood of the original (felling date: 1449-55).


A gap in the Bible [chapter 5, pp. 85-89]


Bosch’s triptychs often deviate from tradition. The left interior panel of the Vienna Last Judgment for instance does not represent the future Paradise but the Earthly Paradise and thus offers a linear story: the Fall of Man is the beginning of a history that ends in Hell. The Haywain, which summarizes the folly of the world, shows a similar scheme. The vagabond on the closed wings refers to man who is only a temporary guest in this world.


The Garden of Delights seems to use a similar scheme, but this is not the case, because nobody in the Eden of the left interior panel is eating the forbidden fruit and the way in which the overpopulated Earthly Paradise in the central panel is a visual continuation of the Earthly Paradise of Adam and Eve does not agree with the biblical facts. But suppose there was a gap in the biblical story, a gap between what really happened and what could have happened? In the third chapter of Genesis the devil is introduced and chapter 2 describes a paradisum voluptatis, a pleasure garden. Bosch omitted the devil and phantasized about this utopian pleasure garden in which Adam and Eve’s descendants have sex without any awareness of sin. According to Belting some elements from Genesis 2 return in Bosch’s painting (the precious stones, the four rivers, the central tower that visually combines a source and a tree) and there were still others in the Middle Ages who phantasized about the way the Earthly Paradise could have looked without the Fall of Man (among them Bosch’s fellow countryman Dionysius the Carthusian). Bosch thus created a utopian vision based on biblical facts (to avoid the accusation of heresy) and introduced into painting the freedom of phantasy that was until then the prerogative of literature. An error in Belting’s argument is the statement that Bosch omitted the devil: in the left interior panel the devil is represented by the serpent which is curled around a tree. Belting himself mentions this in chapter 2 (where he also mentions that the aggressive fauna anticipates the Fall of Man). What Belting does not mention is the anthropomorphic rock (right beneath the serpent): probably another diabolical reference.


Cardinal Grimani’s altarpiece [chapter 6, pp. 90-95]


Belting compares the central panel of the Garden of Delights to the Earthly Paradise panel in Venice where the post-lapsarian Earthly Paradise functions as a waiting room for Heaven. This panel makes a very ‘normal’ and traditional impression, whereas in the Garden Bosch used traditional iconography as the basis for a utopian idea (the pre-lapsarian Earthly Paradise) and for social criticism (the Hell in the right interior panel).


A new concept of art in dialogue with literature [chapter 7, pp. 96-98]


In this short chapter Belting compares Bosch’s Garden of Delights to Sebastian Brant’s Das Narrenschiff and Erasmus’ Praise of Folly. He also refers to Thomas More’s Utopia. Regarding these texts Belting states that fiction liberates argument by disguising it, and this could also be applied to Bosch. A humanist scholar could have interpreted the Garden as follows: just as More described a ‘non-place’ (u-topia), Bosch’s central panel describes a ‘non-time’ (u-chronia), a Paradise that lies outside time. The Hell panel confirms this by contradicting this and by reminding us about the place where the sins of history were being punished. Once again Belting’s way of reasoning makes a rather blurred impression in this chapter.


Rival dreams of Paradise [chapter 8, pp. 99-106]


With the discovery of the New World around 1500 the belief in a real Paradise (a Garden of Eden) on earth vanished. The old mythological tradition of the Bible was now pushed aside by a new fictional genre, utopian literature, and Bosch applied this to the art of painting, probably influenced by the exotic gardens that could be seen in Europe and by objects from America that were on display.


The isle of nowhere [chapter 9, pp. 107-112]


Although Thomas More published his Utopia in 1516, the year in which Bosch died, this utopian vision of a perfect society is a literary equivalent of Bosch’s view of a paradisiacal mankind, although there were also important differences. With More and with Bosch we notice a tendency to get away from the imitation of visible reality, giving more freedom to the artist’s imagination. Belting then further elaborates on Utopia, but it is not really clear what this has to do with Bosch.


Fiction and humanist portraiture: an excursus [chapter 10, pp. 113-120]


This chapter offers another elaboration on Erasmus’ involvement with the origin of Utopia and on some portraits of Erasmus, Thomas More and their friend Peter Giles. All this has nothing to do with Bosch and one wonders why a chapter like this is part of a book about Bosch.


Summary [pp. 121-122]


Belting’s final conclusion comes as a surprise: the art of Bosch deviated as far from the conventional religious iconography as from the new humanist iconography, which he did not use at all. Why then that complete tenth chapter? The Garden of Delights has the structure of a triptych, but it is not an altarpiece and it is based on the Bible without literally following the Bible. The Earthly Paradise in the central panel is a fiction that has never existed and the result of an artist who is looking for poetical liberty. The right interior panel does not represent a Hell, but the post-lapsarian world Bosch saw all around him in his own days.


If we understand Belting properly after all this, the central panel of the Garden represents the Earthly Paradise with the innocent descendants of Adam and Eve before the Fall of Man. It is an ideal, utopian world (which is not mentioned in the Bible). The right interior panel is opposed to this perfect world because it shows the sins from Bosch’s own time and environment.


What Belting writes on page 57, doesn’t harmonize with this: the pointing gesture of Adam towards Eve (bottom right corner of the central panel) is said to refer to ‘an awareness of the difference between good and evil that, according to the Bible, did not exist before the Fall of Man’. More than likely this statement is correct, but at the same time it completely turns Belting’s interpretation of the central panel upside-down. This is probably caused by the fact that his scientific approach of Bosch can hardly be called scientific, for it is based on few or hardly any valid arguments. What Belting writes about the right interior panel is a bit comical: this Hell (if ever a Hell was painted, then this one!) is not a Hell, but the everyday world! Belting’s interpretation of the Garden is totally out of sync with the rest of Bosch’s oeuvre, everybody will agree about that. If Belting were right, the Garden of Delights would be an amazing (and implausible) exception within this oeuvre.


The final conclusion can be that Belting’s interpretation of the Garden of Delights in this (beautifully edited) book is not very convincing. Striking about the bibliography at the back of the book is its sloppiness in many places, definitely unworthy of a book written by a professor.


Other reactions


  • A short indirect reaction of Matthijs Ilsink (see also Ilsink 2009) in a review of some other Bosch books [in: Millennium, vol. 17 (2003), nr. 1, p. 50]: Also last year a very interesting book about the Garden of Delights was published by Hans Belting… And in a footnote: The central idea of the book is that in the enigmatic central panel of the Garden the world is represented as it could have been if the Fall of Man had not taken place.



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