Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

There has always been something enigmatic about Hieronymus Bosch and his shockingly abundant allegorical paintings that seem to be too complex to attempt to decipher them: dozens, hundreds of figures, real and mythical, are often placed in totally inexplicable surreal contexts.

Details in Bosch’s paintings can be studied and reexamined infinitely, and every time you approach his work you discover something that earlier went unnoticed, wondering how could you have paid no attention to it before. Well, we could say that Hieronymus Bosch, who lived during the transition from the Gothic era into the Early Renaissance, was the grandfather of Surrealism. But his imagery is so significantly more lavish and hallucinant than that of the twentieth century movement, that the latter appears as a juvenile attempt to unravel the mystery of dreams in comparison to Bosch’s nearly formal analysis of the meaning of life.

There are however some obvious similarities, for instance, Salvador Dali‘s wide expanding landscape that served as basis for some of his most important paintings certainly brings to mind the idea of the medieval “world landscape” – introduced by Joachim Patinir and taken up by the other Netherlandish artists, including Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Monumental in its scale and incredibly meticulous in detail, Bosch’s most famous triptych, Garden of Earthly Delights is the culmination of artist’s one-of-a-kind technique and prolific artistic vision. The eponymous scene depicted on the central panel is often copied separately from the remaining parts of the triptych and came to be perceived as an independent artwork by itself. It is the most highly lit, vibrantly colored and densely populated scene. On top of that, it is the most ambiguous part of the triptych: Adam and Eve are quite predictably depicted on the Paradise panel, sinners  suffer their eternal punishment in Hell, while the Garden of Earthly Delights is mysteriously populated by joyfully self-unaware men and women of all different races riding horses and unicorns, nibbling at giant strawberries and consorting with birds and animals. But this seemingly innocent, playful sexually imbuing the tranquil garden is most probably symbolically and metaphorically referring to the sin of Lust. And while there are no infernal monsters to punish the sinners, the figures seem to be tormented by their own perverse desires: take note of a couple concealed in a mussel shell (see detail).

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