The Central Religious Images in the Garden of Earthly Delights

Joannes Richter

Fig. 1: Bosch observing the kingfisher

The dating of The Garden of Earthly Delights is uncertain. Consensus among 20th-century art historians places the work in 1503 or 1504, while earlier conjectures attributed it to Bosch's youthful period around 1485, based on its "archaic" treatment of space. The Garden was first documented in 1517, one year after the artist's death, when Antonio de Beatis, a canon from Molfetta, Italy, described the work as part of the decoration in the town palace of the Counts of the House of Nassau in Brussels. A description of the triptych in 1605 called it the "strawberry painting", because the fruit of the madrone (strawberry tree) features prominently in the center panel. Early Spanish writers referred to the work as La Lujuria ("lust"). The aristocracy of the Burgundian Netherlands, influenced by the humanist movement, were the most likely collectors of Bosch’s paintings, but there are few records of the location of his works in the years immediately following his death. It is probable that the patron of the work was Henry III of Nassau-Breda, the Stadtholder or governor of several of the Habsburg provinces in the Low Countries. De Beatis wrote in his travel journal that "there are some panels on which bizarre things have been painted. They represent seas, skies, woods, meadows, and many other things, such as people crawling out of a shell, others that bring forth birds, men and women, white and blacks doing all sorts of different activities and poses." Because the triptych was publicly displayed in the palace of the House of Nassau, it was visible to many, and Bosch's reputation and fame quickly spread across Europe. The work’s popularity can be measured by the numerous surviving copies— in oil, engraving and tapestry—commissioned by wealthy patrons, as well as by the number of forgeries in circulation after his death. Upon the death of Henry III, the painting passed into the hands of his nephew William the Silent, the founder of the House of Orange-Nassau and leader of the Dutch Revolt against Spain. In 1568, however, the Duke of Alba confiscated the picture and brought it to Spain, where it became the property of one Don Fernando, the Duke’s illegitimate son and the Spanish commander in the Netherlands. Phillip II acquired the painting at auction in 1591; two years later he presented it to the Escorial. A contemporaneous description of the transfer records the gift on 8 July 1593 of a "painting in oils, with two wings depicting the variety of the world, illustrated with grotesqueries by Hieronymus Bosch, known as 'Del Madroño'". The work passed from the Escorial to the Museo del Prado in 1939, along with other works by Bosch. The triptych is not particularly well-preserved; the paint of the middle panel especially has flaked off around joints in the wood. As a remarkable fact the painting reveals two kingfishers, which as a bird (wearing the national Dutch colours orange-white and blue) also has been a favourite symbol for the Prince of the House of Orange-Nassau.

Wikipedia says2:
The de Beatis description3, only rediscovered in the 1960s, casts new light on the commissioning of a work that was previously thought—since it has no central religious image—to be an atypical altarpiece. This of course is a bold statement, which needs to be corrected. Of course any medieval painting, including the Garden of Earthly delights must have been a religious painting and carry a central religious image. It merely needs to be discovered. The Garden has a great number of religious symbols, including the fountain(s) of love, the red & blue colours and the Creation legend. 1Source: The Garden of Earthly Delights 2Source: The Garden of Earthly Delights 3 describing the work as part of the decoration in the town palace of the Counts of the House of Nassau in Brussels.

A painter's self-portrait (?)
Jerome Bosch created The Garden of Earthly Delights4 at the end of the Middle Age (1510). After visiting the Prado museum 2010 I decided to invest some more time in analysing the details in this painting. Starting the observation at the only clothed human being in this painting I identified a man, who probably may have depicted himself, and a neighbouring woman are observing an kingfisher, which is seated in an open glass bowl. The man (Bosch himself?) communicates with this naked women, seated at the table and staring at the bird. She is unable to speak, as her mouth has been shut with some mechanical lock.

Fig. 2: Bosch observing the kingfisher Probably the kingfisher is the key to the painting. The orange-red & blue bird must have played an important part in the symbolic world of the medieval people. The very word kingfisher refers to the royal colour symbols (red and blue), which have been found at the Prado in a great number of paintings. The royals however applied red and blue to enforce their political powers, because these colours are the symbolic elements in medieval religion. 4 All photographs are from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch (Wikipedia, High Resolution-jpg, 8.8 MB)

Black versus White (Evil versus Good)
The same painting does contain another much larger kingfisher, which has been positioned next to a mixed coloured couple. The pale, male person is positioned face to face to a female, dark-skinned, pregnant woman. She is holding her hand in a position to protect her unborn child and she may just have informed her husband of her pregnancy.

Fig. 3: Kingfisher

Fig. 4: pale and dark skinned couple

Analysing her face I consider her as a European woman, merely painted blueish black. The couple mirrors itself to the kingfisher's colours: the pale male person mirrors to the light orange body of the bird. The dark-skinned person mirrors to the blue feathers of the kingfisher. This way Bosch may have correlated the image of androgynous couple in the kingfisher's colouring code: reddish male and blueish-black female.

Fig. 5: pale and dark skinned couple The dark colour for the female gender may have corresponded to the medieval opinion of Eve's evil deed, which caused the loss of the paradise and God's confidence. Bosch contrasts the light red colour pink (symbolizing the good character of the human being Adam) against the dark blueishblack colour (symbolizing the evil character of the human being Adam ).

Black Eve after the Fall
Comparing faces for an innocent, pale-skinned Eve just after creation and the black version after the Fall I noticed similarities in the hair dresses. In both faces the hair style is similar in splitting the forehead in two high halves. To me there is little doubt that Bosch tried to paint the same face for a pale-skinned Eve and the dark pregnant woman at the side of the large kingfisher. The dark-skinned woman symbolizes an evil Eve after the Fall.

Fig. 7: Eve at Creation

Fig. 6: Black Eve after the Fall

A Pink pillar over a blue rock
The fountain at the left-sided panel does contain the same symbolism, depicting a pink (good male) column over a dark blue (evil → Eve) rocky underwater-area in a pond. We may consider this fountain in the garden of Eden as a source for fertility. The idea of a tall and erect, red column spending the water of fertility over a blueish pond signifies a fertility principle in which the reddish column clearly symbolizes the male and the blueish pond symbolizes the female principle. These basic elements belonged to the standard medieval religious concepts, which today probably would be defined as pagan ideas. The royal families however refused to rely on Christian symbols (such as crosses, relics and bibles) solely. They also included pagan elements in their coats-of-arms, garments and flags. The most important religious symbols were the colours red, blue and purple.

Fig. 8: Pink pillar over a blue rock

The Spanish king Philip II
The Spanish king Philip II, lord of the Seventeen Provinces from 1556 until 1581, acquired the painting The Garden of Earthly Delights at an auction in 1591; two years later he presented it to the Escorial. Philip II, who owned some of Bosch' paintings, is known to have defined a coat-of-arms indicating a golden crown with alternating red & blue jewels and a surrounding chain of blue/red and golden decorations. Especially the crown may have included red & blue jewels to confirm the divine support for the royal family. Philip II and the other royals of these eras may still have understood the true symbolism in Bosch' paintings. Jerome Bosch has been a respected citizen during his lifetime. Respect has been known to have existed up to the second half of the 17 th century. In the 17th century people lost the understanding for medieval symbolism and the general opinion reversed. From that time Jerome Bosch has been despised and considered a heretic and obscene artist.

Fig. 9: Coat of arms of King Philip II of Spain

Coat of arms of King Philip II of Spain. Also used by Philip III, Philip IV and Charles II. Host09 licensed this file under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

Alternating coloured Jewels
Alternating red & blue coloured jewels may hardly be identified from web-images or photographs books, but must be observed at the museums for their minimal size which often seems to vanish in the large paintings. Digital processing will require a high pixel-resolution to display the correct colours and border lines. Unfortunately I was unable to make my own photographs at the Prado and I had to use web-documents to illustrate the medieval idea of royal symbolism in using alternating red & blue jewels. • • • • Rembrandt paints Judith at Holofernes' banquet5 with a chain of red & blue jewels. Michel Coxcie (1499) paints a red & blue crown in Santa Cecilia6 Rubens paints a red & blue coloured bracelet at the Birth of the Milky Way (in which Hera is trying to nurse Hercules). Diego Velázquez painted a crown of alternating red & blue colours in Mary's Coronation (1645), in which Mary wears red & blue garments and God-father and Son wear purple/red garments.

Fig. 11: Birth of the Milky Way

Fig. 10: Mary's Coronation

Fig. 13: Saint Cecilia by Michel Coxcie (1499) Fig. 12: Judith at Holofernes' banquet

5 6

Bild P2132 in Saal 15A Bild P1467

The Dutch flag
Another painting revealing the colour symbolism in the Prado is The Surrender of Breda7, painted during the years 1634–35 by Velázquez, and inspired while Velázquez was visiting Italy with Ambrosio Spinola, the Italian general who conquered Breda on June 5, 1625. It is considered one of the Velázquez' best artworks. Jan Morris has called it "one of the most Spanish of all pictures"8. In the centre of the painting the colours of the original Dutch flag (blue, orange, white) may be identified. The flag's design however is incorrect. The white area should be painted in the middle between orange and blue. Orange, white and blue are also the colours of the kingfisher. The respect of the victorious Spaniards for the Dutch and the Dutch flag may have been influenced by the knowledge of the victorious royals for their shared religious ideas, which remained valid in spite of religious differences between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and Germany.

Fig. 14: The Surrender of Breda, or The Lances - Velázquez , 1635
public domain because its copyright has expired.

7 also known as El cuadro de las lanzas or Las lanzas 8Jan Morris 1964: "Spain", p.29

The good-pink and the evil-black Gender
The left-sided panel of the triptych depicts the male Pancreator in a red-pink garment, coloured just like the pillar at the top of the fountain. Obviously pink is the divine colour for the male gender.

Fig. 15: Creation Legend Inspecting of the bottom area where the fountain of love has been grounded we may observe an amount of black debris, which may easily be recognized as a pond of evil material waste. Did Bosch paint the black debris to symbolize the evil elements in the medieval interpretation of Eve's sinful character?

Fig. 16: Base area of the Fountain of Love

The central religious image of the Garden of Earthly Delights exists and may be identified in the androgynous symbolism of the red pillar over a blue pond in the fountain(s) of fertility and love. Androgynous symbolism belonged to the early forms of symbolism in Indo-European religions and probably to the early Hebrew religion as well. The colours red and blue have been applied to symbolize the power of royalties in their crowns, coats-of-arms, flags and garments. The Garden of Earthly Delights has been painted in religiously coloured symbols, including the king's bird – the kingfisher wearing orange, white and blue, the strawberries and other fruits in red and blue.