Jheronimus Bosch Art Center

Utopia's Doom - The 'Graal' as Paradise of Lust, the Sect of the Free Spirit and Jheronimus Bosch's so-called 'Garden of Delights'

Vandenbroeck 2017
Vandenbroeck, Paul
Genre: Non fiction, art history
Aantal pagina's: 315 p.
Uitgever: Peeters, Louvain-Paris-Bristol (CT)
Uitgave datum: 2017
ISBN: 978-90-429-3468-9

Vandenbroeck 2017



Utopia’s Doom – The Graal as Paradise of Lust, the Sect of the Free Spirit and Jheronimus Bosch’s so-called Garden of Delights (Paul Vandenbroeck – edited by Barbara Baert) 2017


[Art & Religion – 8, Peeters, Louvain-Paris-Bristol (CT), 2017, 345 pages]



This important book (important if only because a number of ideas and interpretations of an important Bosch author are now available in English) only deals with the iconography of the central panel of Bosch’s Garden of Delights triptych. It is an addition to and a partial revision (and translation) of Vandenbroeck 1990a (an article of 193 pages in the annual of the Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts), with lots of new material. The author points out that his analyses of the exterior panels, of the left interior panel, of twelve major details of the central panel, and of the right interior panel have already been published in Dutch (see i.a. Vandenbroeck 1989) or have yet to be published. According to the preface by Barbara Baert and Jan Van der Stock Vandenbroeck’s interpretation method combines ‘art history with cultural anthropology and civilization history in its broadest sense’ [p. 1]. This means that Vandenbroeck’s approach is basically of a cultural-historical nature, a choice that can only be endorsed, as more than 100 years of modern Bosch exegesis have taught us.


I Dreams of boundless pleasure: the medieval folk myth of the paradise of delights or ‘grail’ [pp. 7-48]


In this first chapter (an adaptation of and addition to Vandenbroeck 1990a: 133-140, VDB 1990a from now on) the author elaborately and convincingly argues that from the thirteenth until the sixteenth centuries there was a widespread popular belief in a semi-worldly, semi-supernatural sex paradise (sexual utopia), which was originally called ‘graal’ (not the Holy Grail from Arthurian literature!) and later also ‘Venusberg’ (Mountain of Venus) and ‘mountain of Sibyl’. It was situated inside a mountain (sometimes also on a plain) and was ruled by a fairy or queen who was usually called ‘Venus’ (in particular in the Germanic-speaking countries) or ‘Sibyl’ (in particular in the Romanic-speaking regions), but sometimes also ‘Frau Vrene’, ‘Abondia’, ‘Satia’, ‘Saelde’, ‘the mistress of the game’, or ‘abbess’. In this paradise, one could indulge in sexual pleasures, but those who stayed there longer than one year, could no longer escape from it until Doomsday, and after that ended up in Hell. About fifty allusions to this sexual paradise have been found in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Dutch and German literature. Virtually all contemporary descriptions written by highly-educated (learned, non-popular) authors stress the pagan, sinful and diabolical nature of this imaginary sexual utopia.


That is one thing. Another thing then is that Vandenbroeck argues that in the central panel of his Garden Bosch painted such a graal or false love paradise. Bosch was inspired by popular culture, but approached this popular subject matter from the perspective of the elite culture. In other words: he depicted a false love paradise (graal, Venusberg), but thought of it as something diabolical.


Some questions can be asked regarding the second point. Why should the central panel represent precisely a ‘graal’, when the majority of the textual sources situate this ‘graal’ inside a mountain, whereas with Bosch we see a plain? And where did Bosch represent Venus or queen Sibyl? Could she be the hirsute woman who is pointed at in the lower right corner? Vandenbroeck says nothing about this. Furthermore, we know about other medieval false love paradises. In chapters 40-41 of his Divisament dou Monde (1298-1299), Marco Polo already writes about an erotic pleasure garden near the Caspian Sea. Other Christian sources tell with malicious delight about the sexual paradise promised by Muhammed to his followers. And in his long poem De uure vander doot (The Hour of Death, circa 1516), the Brussels rederijker Jan van den Dale allegorically describes his sinful youth as a wonderful garden in which he meets five charming young ladies (his five senses). Van den Dale calls this garden a dobbel eerts paradijs (false earthly paradise).


II The amoral utopia here and now: the ‘Sect of the Free Spirit’ in the late middle ages and their ‘worldly paradise’ [pp. 49-79]


This chapter offers new material. From the thirteenth till the fifteenth century there were heretical groups in Europa that wanted to create a concrete ‘love paradise’ in real life. These were different movements that can all be brought together under one name: the Sect of the Free Spirit. Its members wanted to reach an ideal life here on earth, wished for absolute freedom and pleasure, speculated about the original status of man in Eden, had fantasies about the end of the world, and were looking for the true identity of God and man. The use of violence was not uncommon. Vandenbroeck explicitly notes the ‘masculinism’ and phallocentrism of these groups, for whom women were merely objects of pleasure and utility. Of course, we know these sects from the writings of Wilhelm Fraenger, the German Bosch author who argued in 1947 and later that Bosch was a member of a Free Spirit sect. It is noteworthy that in this chapter the name Fraenger does not appear, not even in the footnotes (also see infra, though).


The mutual relations between all these heretical groups and their ideas (sometimes differing, sometimes not) are of a complex nature, yet Vandenbroeck points out that the way in which they organized their orgies is strongly remindful of the free love fantasies focusing on the Venusberg and the mountain of Sibyl. Mainly active in the Netherlands and in Bohemia were the homines intelligentiae or Adamites, who wanted to live here on earth as Adam was believed to have lived. They practised nudism, praying and gathering in the nude, and sexual promiscuity, although we know less about the Adamites in the Netherlands than about those in Bohemia. In Bohemia they clearly had revolutionary objectives: they combined extreme sexual libertinism with extreme violence, condemned all ecclesiastical and civil institutions, and rejected the most sacred elements of Catholic doctrine.


During Bosch’s lifetime these heretical Free Spirit ideas were still well-known. These ideas and the popular belief in a ‘Graal’ shared a preference for total sexual freedom, which played an important role in fantasies about both the earliest history of mankind (the period from Adam till Noach) and the end times.


       Before we move on to the (much longer) third chapter, some words about the style, the approach, and the method of Vandenbroeck. In chapters 1 and 2, the author has brought together an overwhelming amount of knowledge in an admirable way, based on wide reading, regarding the popular Graal myth and the Free Spirit sects. The well-documented information about the Free Spirit sects in the second chapter will vainly be looked for in the writings of Wilhelm Fraenger, who receives a (be it posthumous) lesson in thorough research from Vandenbroeck here. A problem, though, is the fact that Vandenbroeck largely relies on secondary sources, which are continuously referred to in footnotes but (once again) are so numerous (and sometimes also hard to access) that it is virtually impossible to control and double-check everything that the author writes.


       Furthermore, the information gathered from secondary sources is presented to the reader in a very compact and meandering style, which sometimes makes it difficult to follow the argument in a concentrated way. Here and there, the reader would have benefitted from a clearer and more concrete approach (more analyses and examples, less synthesis and fewer concise statements). This goes for both chapter 1 and chapter 2. One example of such a hard to access (modern) book, yet constantly used by Vandenbroeck in chapter 1, is: Philip Barto, Tannhäuser and the Mountain of Venus – A study in the legend of the Germanic paradise, New York, 1916. I have not been able yet to lay hands on it (although I did try). Of minor importance is that the first two chapters, in particular chapter 2, are livened up by a number of illustrations, among them details from the Garden and depictions of naked dancers, of which it is not really clear what they have to do with the running text.


III Utopia dreamed and castigated: Jheronimus Bosch’s Triptych of the Grail or False Love Paradise, commonly called the Garden of Delights (c. 1480-5) [pp. 80-291]


This (long) chapter is a translation of Vandenbroeck 1990a: 11-166, with some small adaptations but sometimes also with major changes. Some authors interpret the Garden’s central panel negatively as a representation of luxuria, according to others we see the innocent joys of (earthly) paradise. Vandenbroeck informs the reader that in 1989 he published an article (Vandenbroeck 1989) in which he focused on twelve details from the central panel. A number of these details could only be interpreted in a negative way, whereas some other motifs alluded (positively) to a paradisaical state. Therefore the conclusion was, so Vandenbroeck writes in 2017, that the central panel cannot have a sheer positive nor a sheer negative meaning.


For Bosch black people, wild men, mermaids, and sea-knights were negative figures. He associated them with an asocial and cultureless life, far from his own (late medieval, bourgeois) society, and with instinctive behaviour, in particular regarding sexuality [pp. 82-106 = VDB 1990a: 11-30]. In the central panel a circle of naked riders is turning around a pond with naked women. The men behave in a wild way because of the women. Their wildness is shown by the fact that they ride animals without reins, which refers to their passions, and by the fact that they move around within a circle turning anti-clockwise, which refers to sinfulness and wrongness [pp. 106-116 = VDB 1990a: 30-43]. The women stand in the centre and the men turn around them, which confirms the medieval (male) idea that woman is en eternal seductress. The visual motif was probably inspired by i.a. representations of morris dancers in which male dancers are circling around a desired woman [pp. 116-121 = VDB 1990a: 43-47].




Dealing with the ‘wild man’ motif, Vandenbroeck also focuses on the hirsute figures in the lower right corner (on pp. 96-100). Here we notice an essential deviation from Vandenbroeck 1990a. In 1990 we read (translated from the Dutch):


'To the hirsute wild people also belongs a couple in a cave in the lower right corner. Since Bax, these have been interpreted as Adam and Eve. (…) Apparently, the humans’ ‘becoming wild’ is traced back to the first couple: it is the result of the Fall of Man for which woman is to blame (Adam is pointing at Eve).'


In 2017 this has become:


'The couple in the cave has been identified since Bax as Adam and Eve. (…) It is questionable, though,whether the ‘wild woman’ in the cave is actually a woman at all.' [pp. 96-97]


And three pages further the figure is suddenly bound to be a man:


'The young wild man with the apple is partially hidden behind a hollow glass cylinder.' [p. 100]


Because in 1990 the figure behind ‘Adam’ was identified as Noach, again following Bax, and the apple was linked up with the Fall of Man, Vandenbroeck’s argument back then was sound: Adam and Noach were the founding fathers of humanity and the central panel represented the period between Adam and Noach. In 2017 Eve is no longer Eve, but Adam is still Adam, Noach is still Noach, the apple is still the apple of the Fall of Man, and the central panel still represents the period Adam-Noach (the Sicut erat in diebus Noe theme). It is clear that the argument is no longer sound in 2017, for who is now this ‘young wild man with the apple’ and why is ‘he’ being pointed at?




The next pages deal with the intermingling of natural and artificial forms and elements in the central panel. In 2017 the author adds that some have related this to alchemy, that he does not believe that Bosch depicted alchemical theories, but that probably some parallels with alchemy may be present [pp. 123-124]. The combination of organic and anorganic elements refers to the sexual and according to Bosch diabolical character of Nature. Nature has been corrupted by man (at the instigation of the devil), because the whole of Nature obeys to God’s laws and commands, except man (since the Fall of Man): mankind does not only have sexual intercourse in order to procreate. How the upper region of the central panel is composed (four ‘buildings’ and a central fountain) is remindful of descriptions of the heavenly and earthly paradise. And yet, Bosch cannot have represented the heavenly paradise here, because too many chaotic and negative things can be observed [pp. 123-156 = VDB 1990a: 47-72].


These pages, which we have very briefly summarized in the above paragraph, make tough reading and sound very abstract and theoretical, although in the end all this does seem to lead to correct general conclusions, at least in my opinion. The ‘heaviness’ of these pages is mainly due to the fact that the author continuously confronts the reader with dry enumerations of textual and in particular visual sources which show similarities to what Bosch painted or may have inspired him, not always showing  illustrations of all these (visual) sources. Footnotes do signal where such illustrations can be found, but their number is so large that not many will feel inclined to double-check everything, supposing that this immense secondary literature would be easily accessible, which is not (always) the case. Unfortunately, reading about visual sources that cannot be seen at the same time, is tiresome.


Vandenbroeck argues that a lot can be said in favour of the hypothesis according to which the central panel depicts the Sicut erat in diebus Noe theme (compare Matthew 24, 37-39) and thus mankind before the Flood. By representing sinful mankind from the times of Noach, Bosch wanted to warn the viewer and incite him to a vigilant and more virtuous life. According to medieval sources this period was dominated by the sin of unchastity. Circa 1600 the Sicut erat in diebus Noe theme was very popular in the Low Countries. There is no evidence that Bosch was influenced by astrological and prophetic predictions of the end of the world around 1500 [pp. 157-182 = VDB 1990a: 72-91]. When on page 175 Vandenbroeck suddenly writes: ‘All the same, it is still doubtful whether this really is the subject of Bosch’s panel’ (a sentence lacking in VDB 1990a: 87), the reader is bound to feel confused.


The left interior panel focuses on the idea of marriage (Adam and Eve). According to the author the figures in the lower left corner of the central panel are pointing at the scene with Christ, Adam, and Eve. The Sicut erat and false paradise themes shed a negative light on human sexuality. The author points out that in the Middle Ages God’s order ‘be fruitful and multiply’ was often abused in order to account for licentious sex, whereas actually sexuality should serve as a means of procreation. Bosch’s view on this matter is traditional: marriage was instituted by God in Eden but perverted by mankind [pp. 182-188 = VDB 1990a: 91-98].


In Bosch’s times some people still believed in the function of earthly paradise as some sort of waiting room before Heaven and as the final phase of Purgatory. Bosch painted this in panels in Bruges and Venice, with some details referring to sinfulness and pointing out that these souls have not been fully liberated from their desire for earthly vanities. New is that in 2017 Vandenbroeck thinks that these souls will also have to atone for their sins after the Last Judgment, thus avoiding the problem that in Bruges and Venice the earthly paradise appears within a Last Judgment context, whereas all medieval sources confirm that after Doomsday there will no longer be a Purgatory [see pp. 199 / 201, and compare VDB 1990a: 109]. The plain which Bosch painted in the central panel is not a garden: there is no wall around the plain and it is not cultivated. It is a false paradise in which sexuality plays a pivotal role. The pursuit of lust in the present (and in the days before the Last Judgment) was compared to a similar pursuit ‘in the days of Noach’ and considered a fall-back on uncontrolled, primitive instincts. The scene in the lower part of the central blue fountain (a man touches a woman’s genitals) points out that the central panel is dominated by the idea of sinful lust. The mermaids, the  sea-knights, and the phallus-shaped animal in the circle with male riders point out the same [pp. 188-228 = VDB 1990a: 98-129].


The pages 229-237 (in 2017) add new elements to the argument of 1990. This time, Vandenbroeck signals a number of scenes referring to group sex and sodomy. He also elaborates on Lorenzo Valla’s treatise De voluptate, which may have inspired Bosch, and he rebukes those authors who consider the central panel a depiction of a hypothetical paradise, the earthly paradise as it could have been without the Fall of Man.


The pages 237-256 then match VDB 1990a: 140-153. Similarities are pointed out between the Sicut erat theme and the Golden Age topos (the mythical primaeval age of mankind), which was popular again in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The author argues that Bosch (in the Garden) linked life in primaeval times to the Golden Age, but that he (and some of his contemporaries) also associated this Golden Age with sinfulness, in particular with luxuria (unchastity) and with the supposedly sinful life of mankind in the End of Times which ‘just as in the days of Noah’ will believe to live in some sort of paradisaical state. The link primaeval times / End of Times is already present in the quotation from Matthew with the Sicut erat line. Again, these pages (which we have summarized here in a very concise way) testify to an impressive wide reading and knowledge concerning the Middle Ages, but on the other hand the numerous facts and references often burden the argument, making Bosch’s Garden disappear behind the horizon. Anyway, these pages will not be enjoyed by the average reader, and the more specialized reader also has to make an effort.


The pages 257-267 largely correspond with VDB 1990a: 129-140 (which pages have been put in a different place in 2017). The central panel represents a pagan earthly paradise, a ‘Graal’ or ‘Venusberg’ where people can enjoy unbounded sexual pleasure. A Venusberg was not always described as a mountain, it could also be a plain. No depictions of it have come down to us, but archival sources do mention performances of Venusberg celebrations in the late Middle Ages. We do not know any visual or textual sources which are similar to what Bosch painted in the central panel of the Garden, but Vandenbroeck argues that some analogies can be observed in Triumphus Veneris (The Triumph of Venus, printed in 1509), a treatise by the German humanist Heinrich Bebel. The author offers a large summary of this text, which is considered a failure by historians of literature because of the chaotic amount of incorporated material (!). Judging by this summary and with the best will of the world, I myself can discern few or no similarities to Bosch’s central panel.


Meanwhile, we have arrived at the eighth section of chapter II (title: The purpose and patron of Bosch’s Grail triptych). As compared to VDB 1990a: 153-166, the pages 267-291 have been adapted, changed, and expanded in such a way that we are dealing here with new material and as far as the patron is concerned even with a completely new hypothesis. Vandenbroeck rejects Fraenger’s approach: in many places Bosch’s oeuvre shows that Bosch can never have been a member of a Free Spirit sect. The Garden theme comprizes a conglomerate of ideas focusing on the primaeval age, marriage (sexuality) and the End of Times. The manifest main subject is perhaps (!) the Sicut erat in diebus Noah idea: Bosch considered the period from Adam till Noah a (pseudo-) paradisaical age during which mankind interpreted marriage and sexuality in a wrong way (as a means of lust and not of procreation). If this interpretation would prove to be incorrect, Vandenbroeck writes [p. 271], the idea of a false love paradise still remains valid.


It is remarkable how Vandenbroeck after 270 pages or erudite analyses is still keeping his options open, which he already did in 1990: see VDB 1990a: 162-163 where literally the same can be read… The pages 271 and 273 (in 2017) inform us that ‘recent research suggests’ that the Garden was painted in 1480-85 (a footnote explaining that this ‘research’ concerns the dendrochronological and stylistic findings of Bernard Vermet and Peter Klein). In 1990 it was still claimed that the triptych was probably painted in 1503 or 1511 (on the occasion of the first or of the second marriage of Henry III of Nassau). Now we read [p. 273]: ‘This hypothesis has to be rejected’.


The pages 273-291, where the author discusses the potential patron of the Garden, are among the most interesting of the entire book. They have also been written in a clearer style than many preceding passages (because they were written at a more mature age?). With some sound arguments, Vandenbroeck argues that it is not very probable either that Engelbrecht II of Nassau, Henry III’s uncle, was the patron. He then introduces a new hypothesis, again with some sound arguments: Engelbrecht’s wife, Cimburga of Baden, may have commissioned the triptych with Bosch. With the painting she may have wanted to rebuke her husband’s licentious walk of life, and thus the triptych could be considered a ‘marriage mirror sub specie aeternitatis’ after all, but in another way than argued by the author in 1990. Furthermore, Vandenbroeck shows that Cimburga may very well have been aware of the Graal story by referring to the books in her possession, in particular to the Middle German text Daniel von dem Blühenden Tal by Der Stricker. Today, this Daniel is better known as Tannhäuser.


Vandenbroeck also points out a miniature in another manuscript (circa 1449) showing naked men and women flirting with each other between green vines who look like prefigurations of Bosch’s nudes, and among the figures in Bosch’s central panel he spots a man who indeed shows some vague resemblance to the portrait of Engelbrecht in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum. Meanwhile, the author seems to concur with Reindert Falkenburg, who in 2011 argued that the Garden functioned as a ‘conversation piece’ around 1500. Personally, I am very partial to Vandenbroeck’s new hypothesis, even though for now there is no conclusive evidence. I know for sure that long before 2017 I discussed this idea off the record with Jos Koldeweij, and I seem to remember that somewhere in the nineties I also talked about it with Vandenbroeck himself, of course without the nice argument which he delivers here.


IV The repression of physical experience and the rise of new artistic genres. Beauty and/from madness. An existential and aesthetic connection, fifteenth-sixteenth century [pp. 293-314]


In this short and last chapter (with a title that is much too long), which partially harks back to Vandenbroeck’s (Dutch-written) books from 1987 and 2002, the author no longer deals with the Garden’s iconography (what did Bosch paint?) but with its iconology (why did Bosch paint what he painted?). Vandenbroeck thinks that in the Garden Bosch’s fantasy worked in an associative way and that the triptych contains elements referring to dreams, to the ‘topsy-turvy world’, to the themes of folly and madness, and to ideas about uncontrollably proliferating nature. He argues that this shows similarities to contemporary culture (in popular dances, in absurd poetry, in grotesque marginal illuminations, in humanist word play, but also in micro-architecture, in metal work and sculptures, in Gothic polyphony).


Around 1500 aesthetics were dominated by two desires: the desire to imitate and emulate the generative powers of nature in works of art, and the desire to suspend reason through dreams and folly. The context of all this is the late medieval bourgeois culture whose ideas on art were influenced and inspired by lower, popular, ‘subaltern’ cultural layers which at the same time it assessed in a negative way. Thus, folly could lead to beauty. According to Vandenbroeck Bosch did exactly the same: his phantasmagorical, irrational, non-sensical images were often inspired by popular culture, but being a moralist he eventually made these influences fit in with his bourgeois-urban set of values and his Christian message.


Again, the tone of this last chapter is very erudite, compact, and heavy, and only few readers will read it from a to z, let alone understand it. Personally, I also find that here Vandenbroeck sounds as if he can teach the fish to swim and that he often goes too far. In these pages, only the reference to grotesque marginal illuminations seems really relevant to me. In my opinion, the author had better left this last chapter away. The book would then have ended on page 291 with the following nicely phrased passage:


'Although Bosch clearly propounded and fiercely defended a particular set of values throughout his oeuvre, he left scope – in spite of himself – for him to express himself ambiguously and for us to read between the lines. This irreducible paradox makes Bosch a figure not only of half a millennium ago, but also of our own time.'


In the last chapter (and not only there) Vandenbroeck reads a bit too often ‘between the lines’. Meanwhile, it is nice to see that on page 310 Vandenbroeck approvingly refers to Falkenburg’s ‘discovery’ [2011: 88] that the lower part of the Fountain of Paradise in the Garden’s left interior panel shows a ‘grimace’.




Let us first clearly point out that after 2017 no author will be able to write about Bosch’s Garden of Delights without referring to this extremely rich and important book (the same was already true for the article in the Antwerp annual from 1990). At the same time it is also a fact that this monograph contains an abundance of material that stupefies the reader, and because of which the argument sometimes becomes silted up and Bosch himself disappears behind the horizon. Yet, in spite of the high academic purport and in spite of the fact that the author sometimes writes debatable things, one can only observe that here Vandenbroeck is doing at least one hundred times better than many other Bosch researchers. Which is why it can only be applauded that this book is published in English.


       Unfortunately, one of the results of the high ‘academic’ purport is that very few authors in the past have felt the need to engage upon a dialogue with Vandenbroeck. This sometimes leads to halfhearted passages such as this one:


'I admit freely that I have not attempted to incorporate, let alone compete with, the magistral contributions of Paul Vandenbroeck to this essential subject, in writings many times the length of the present book' [Schwartz 2016: 240 (endnote 5 to page 233)].


For now, I have only been able to find two reviews of Vandenbroeck 2017. Lynn Jacobs’ review (2018) is positive and superficial (she only points out the book’s meagre illustrations department). Michael Meinhard’s review (also 2018) is less shallow and also more critical, but his summary of Vandenbroeck’s ideas makes a somewhat confusing impression (admittedly, it is not easy to summarize those ideas).


       Neither can it go unmentioned that since 1990 not a single Bosch author has been prepared to concur on Vandenbroeck’s proposal to change the Garden’s title into Triptych of the Grail. If I understand Vandenbroeck correctly in spite of the ‘oscillations’ in his argument mentioned above, his interpretation basically boils down to this: thematically the central panel represents the period of mankind before the Flood, whereas the formal depiction was inspired by the false paradise tradition, in particular by the Graal subject matter. Without adducing a long argument here, in my opinion Vandenbroeck’s interpretation is largely correct. I am also convinced that the central panel shows a false love paradise, but I do not see why it should be more precisely a Graal (or Venusberg). ‘Venus mountains’ are not the only medieval ‘false paradises’ known to us. To round off, let us reiterate and stress once more: Vandenbroeck 2017 is indispensable lecture for whoever wants to venture on an interpretation of the (so-called!) Garden of Delights.


Other reviews



[explicit 29th July 2023 – Eric De Bruyn]


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