“The timely art of Hieronymus Bosch: the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights” (Margaret A. Sullivan) 2014
[in: Oud Holland – Quarterly for Dutch Art History, vol. 127 (2014), nr. 4, pp. 165-194]
According to Sullivan Bosch is related to the growth of humanist interests during the last decades of the 15th and early years of the 16th century and especially in his Garden of Earthly Delights triptych he exhibits the subtle but significant shift in aspirations that mark the Renaissance artist: the desire to invent new and original images, give free rein to the imagination and develop a distinctive artistic personality.
The scene in the foreground of the left interior panel is usually interpreted as the Creation scene from Genesis (the figures being God/Christ, Adam and Eve). Nevertheless Bosch scholars have already noticed some anomalies in this panel: its unmistakable erotic character, the fact that not God the Father but Christ is present and the inclusion of disturbing elements traditional in a scene of Hell or Purgatory rather than Paradise. Sullivan then suggests that the figure between Adam and Eve is not Christ, but the Antichrist. By the end of the 15th century the Antichrist iconography had changed and he was often portrayed and described as a man looking and acting exactly like the true Christ, a demoniacal deception that made him particularly frightening. For the artist (Bosch) this posed a problem: how to make a figure look and act like Christ and yet alert the viewer that it was actually the Antichrist? Bosch found a solution to this problem by surrounding the figure with evil images including many that have an explicit association with Antichrist and his legend, such as the frogs (or toads), the three-headed hybrid emerging from the pool, the tree to the left, the pink fountain with the owl, the tubes and jewels at its foot, the apple trees to the right, the naked female and the two rabbits.
Sullivan’s text is accompanied by six contemporary depictions of the Antichrist (fig. 6-11). In each of these depictions the Antichrist is unmistakably identified as the Antichrist by means of an adjacent devil. This is not the case in Bosch’s left interior panel. The only reason why Sullivan thinks Christ is not Christ but the Antichrist is because there can be seen some ‘anomalies’ in his neigbourhood and these can be related to the Antichrist and his legend. But: these supposed relations do not seem very convincing. The three-headed hybrid for example is related to the Antichrist because the Antichrist was sometimes portrayed as a three-headed tyrant, a sign of his claim to be God, that is: the trinity.The tree to the left, the dracaena draco, is surrounded by a vine with circular leaves: they look like gold coins and refer to the Antichrist promising wealth to those who follow him. The jewels at the foot of the fountain are said to have the same meaning. The strange branches of the tree suggest an upside down tree whose roots have blossomed, thus referring to one of the Antichrist’s miracles (making an uprooted tree blossom). The pink fountain has a phallic shape, so together with the apple trees, the naked woman and the rabbits it refers to lust, one of the Antichrist’s most dangerous temptations and the man-made form of the tubes below the fountain suggest the Antichrist’s education in the art of alchemy.
Although some of these interpretations seem to be far-fetched (of course Eve is pictured as a naked woman, there were apple trees in Eden and aren’t rabbits a symbol of fertility?) and most of the others are rather questionable, some details mentioned by Sullivan can indeed be seen as anomalies in an Edenic context and they do seem to signal that something is going wrong in the Earthly Paradise from the very start. But is that enough to identify the figure between Adam and Eve as the Antichrist? Isn’t it more logical that the figure who looks like Christ IS Christ and that the unusual details are a sign of Evil (the devil) that (who) has already penetrated the Garden of Eden? In the literature about the Garden this is an interesting issue, which is still under discussion with pros and cons, but undoubtedly it will seem far more interesting to most Bosch scholars than a newfangled debate about whether Christ is really Christ? What will be next? Eve is not Eve but the Holy Virgin? In this context it is remarkable that Sullivan does not mention the weird ‘rock face’ to the right of the left interior panel (under the tree with the serpent), nor does she seem to be aware of the even weirder ‘grinning face’ in the lower part of the fountain (but for this she should have read Falkenburg 2011, which apparently she hasn’t, in spite of her 162 endnotes). What Sullivan did notice is the reddish complexion of the figure between Adam and Eve. She writes that red was associated with the Devil, the heretical Jews and the pagan god Priapus, but does not mention that in medieval descriptions of Christ His healthy, rosy complexion is one of the topical motifs.
Sullivan then focuses on the central panel of the Garden. When the Christ-like figure in the left interior panel is recognized as the deceptive Antichrist it generates a sequential, Apocalyptic reading of the triptych as a whole. In the center panel the reign of Antichrist has reached its apogee with a false and illusory paradise in which men and women indulge their lust in a world that has become as sinful as it was in the ‘days of Noah’. Bosch painted this center panel as a satire of sexual excess, drawing on a wide range of sources, classical and Christian, proverbial and esoteric and also including references to same-sex relations. Antichrist’s responsibility for this explosion of licentiousness is evident by the ways in which the left panel is related to the center (the landscape that is contiguous, for example). The hell scene in the right interior panel completes the drama by detailing the punishments that await those who have fallen prey to Antichrist’s temptations at the end of times. For an artist like Bosch who wished to amaze his contemporaries and create things never seen before Hell was an ideal subject. The exterior panels, with the world seen through clouds and darkness as in a dream, God the Father and the quotation from Psalm 33, prepare the viewer for the vision of the future presented in the interior panels, showing the world after the Flood (wicked as it was in the days of Noah) and in the end time when ‘false Christs and false prophets will arise’.
Sullivan concludes that Bosch’s apocalyptic subject was timely, meaning that it was a logical product of its own time: by envisioning a world as wicked as it was ‘in the days of Noah’ the Garden addressed contemporary anxieties about widespread vice and fears that the end of time had begun.
Many readers of this article will probably agree with Sullivan that Bosch’s Garden carries an eschatological message and that its center panel is a depiction of man indulging in lust and debauchery but few will be prepared to accept her identification of the figure between Adam and Eve as the Antichrist. The reason for this being her rather poor arguments. Above I focused on the general outline of her article, but next I would like to discuss a few matters of detail, some of them concerning minor flaws, some others more serious issues.
An example of a minor flaw is endnote 6 where Sullivan notes that the the first owner of the Garden was either Engelbert I of Hendrick II. This should of course be Engelbert II and Hendri(c)k III, but more than likely these are printing errors (as a matter of fact, the article has quite a lot of them, but we are all familiar with the printer’s gremlin).
Somewhat more aggravating is the following. Sullivan is one of the authors to reposition Bosch in relation to emerging humanist interests around 1500. Of course nobody will blame her for that, but on page 167 she calls upon Paul Vandenbroeck to support her case, quoting him as follows: ‘(Vandenbroeck) suggests the name “Bosch”, the Latin form of the professional name that J(er)oen van Aken adopted, provides an insight into the way the artist viewed himself’. For this quote endnote 19 refers to J. Koldeweij, P. Vandenbroeck and B. Vermet, ‘Hieronymus Bosch, The Complete Paintings and Drawings’, Ghent-Amsterdam, 2001, p. 190. Two comments here. One. Either Sullivan does not understand Vandenbroeck or she (undeliberately yet rather clumsily) confuses the reader. Of course ‘Bosch’ is not the Latin form of Jeroen van Aken but only a (common) abbreviation of the name of his hometown ’s-Hertogenbosch. What Vandenbroeck meant was that Bosch signed his works with the Latin form of his Christian name Jeroen, namely: Jheronimus. Two. Vandenbroeck writes that this Latin form Jheronimus may signal that Bosch had a large self-awareness and he also mentions that this should not be exaggerated, because Bosch did not use the Latin form of his last name (in Latin ‘Bosch’ would be ‘Silvius’, or something the like). What Vandenbroeck does not write is that the Latin form ‘Jheronimus’ is a sign of humanist influence. Of course not: in that case the Flemish Primitive Jan van Eyck who painted the sentence ‘Joannes de Eyck fuit hic’ in his Arnolfini double portrait (London, National Gallery) would also have shown humanist influence. And yet Sullivan uses this reference to Vandenbroeck as if it would support her case. This could be called: abuse of bibliographical references, if not: deception of the reader.
Sullivan’s article further shows a number of methodological weaknesses that make a sloppy impression. When she discusses the figures of (Anti)Christ, Adam and Eve in the left interior panel she rejects the interpretations of this scene as the ‘Marriage of Adam and Eve’, but she does not mention the ‘Creation of Eve’ motif and – more important – she does not seem aware of the ‘Presentation of Eve to Adam’ motif. She calls the fact that not God but Jesus is present in Eden an ‘anomaly’, but her figure 4 (an engraving by Master E.S., c. 1475) shows Jesus with Adam and Eve in Eden. By the way: one of the Middle Dutch Vision of Tondal texts explicitly mentions that Jesus (and not God the Father) married Adam and Eve in Eden.
On page 172 Sullivan writes that there is no fountain in the creation scenes in Bosch’s Haywain triptych. But there is! See the weird rocky construction right above the Creation of Eve scene. On pages 176-177 she first signals a few common strawberries (fragariae) in the Garden’s center panel and then she interprets these with the help of Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, not realizing that Pliny is referring to the strawberry plant, arbutus unedo in Latin, madroño in Spanish. On page 179 she signals two figures in the lower right corner of the center panel who are pointing at ‘an oddly androgynous figure holding an apple’. She interprets these figures as Elijah and Enoch (who traditionally fight against the Antichrist) because according to Revelations 11: 3 Elijah wore a dark, hairy garment and then writes (about the two figures in the Garden): ‘Elijah and Enoch wear sackcloth’. But how can she tell that the left figure is wearing sackcloth, if we can only see his head (and perhaps his hand)? About the oddly androgynous figure holding an apple we read nothing. On page 183 Sullivan writes about the exterior panels: ‘It was not an innovation to present the world as a globe, but this is the first time the image serves as the principal subject of a painting.’ This is very confusing: Bosch did not paint the world (the earth) as a globe, but the universe. The earth itself was painted as a flat disc by Bosch.
Sullivan does not shy away from Hineininterpretierung either. The hand, severed and pierced with a knife, in the right interior panel is the Antichrist’s blessing hand we see in the left interior panel. The pig with a nun’s headdress who makes a sinner sign a document refers to the famous Menippean satire (lost except for its title!) Testamentum Grunii Corocottae porcelli (The Will of a Pig) and is a criticism on the cupidity of the clergy (a nun who forces a man to put her in his last will). Endnote 131 then continues (after having noted there were dozens of clerical establishments in ’s-Hertogenbosch): ‘If Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights was painted shortly before his death in 1516 personal concerns may have intruded. As the municipal documents establish Bosch as relatively wealthy and he had no children perhaps he was under pressure to leave his estate to one of those religious groups.’ On page 165 Sullivan writes: ‘A date between 1500 and 1516 (…) is likely’, thus pushing Bosch’s triptych as closely as possible to the ‘emerging humanist interests’ she is trying to advocate.
Because of this methodological approach Sullivan’s endnotes are filled to the brim with references to classical and sixteenth-century humanist authors, but they don’t yield any surprises. In most of the cases where this reference material does seem relevant, it concerns topical ideas and symbols that can also be found in other (non-classical, non-humanist) sources.
[explicit 26th July 2015]