Posted by: burusi | 08/06/2009

Damon Knight – Hieronymus Bosch “Garden of Earthly Delights”

IN 1517 a visitor to the Brussels palace of Hendrick III of Nassau saw this giant triptych hanging on the wall. It hangs now in the Prado in Madrid, except when it is being restored. The triptych is more than eight feet tall and fifteen feet wide. The outer panels when shut display the creation of the world in a crystal sphere. The left inner panel shows the creation of Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the right gives us a view of sinners in Hell.
Moralist critics have always read one continuous story into the three panels. It is obvious to them that the center panel is an intermediate step between Paradise and Hell, and therefore is to be read as a sermon against lust.
In order to discuss this boneheaded idea we must go back to the part of the Genesis story that leads up to the expulsion of Adam and Eve. We’ll use a literal English translation of the Vulgate, the version Bosch knew, and we begin with Gen. 2:7.
Accordingly the Lord God formed man from the slime of the earth and blew into his face the breathing-place of life, and man was made a living being. Also the Lord God had planted a garden of delight in the beginning, into which he put the man whom he had formed.
The Hebrew word eden means “delight.” What we now call the Garden of Eden was a pleasure garden, a garden of delight.
Now we turn to Gen. 3:1.
But the serpent was more cunning than all the animals of the earth which the Lord God had made, and he said to the woman, Why has God commanded you not to eat of all the trees in the garden?
To which the woman answered, We may eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden. To be sure, God has commanded us not to eat or touch the fruits of the trees that are in the middle of the garden, lest perchance we die.
But the serpent said to the woman, By no means shall you die the death. Truly, God knows that in whatever day you eat of it, at that moment your eyes will be opened and, like the gods, you will know good and evil.
Accordingly, the woman saw that the tree was good to be eaten and pleasant and delectable for the eye to look at, and she took of its fruit and ate and gave it to the man, who ate.
And the eyes of both of them were opened. When they knew themselves to be naked, they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves girdles.
And when they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the air of the afternoon, Adam and his wife hid themselves from God’s face in the midst of the trees in the garden.
And the Lord God spoke and said to Adam, Where are you?
And he answered, I heard your voice in the garden and was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself.
And God said, Who revealed to you that you were naked, unless you ate of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?
And Adam said, The woman you gave me for a companion gave me of the tree and I ate.
And the Lord God said to the woman, Why have you done this? And she answered, The serpent deceived me and I ate.
And the Lord God said to the serpent: Because you have done this thing, you are cursed among all animals and beasts of the earth: on your breast shall you go, and earth shall you eat all the days of your life.
I will put enmities between you and the woman, and your seed and her seed: she shall trample your head, and you shall lie in wait for her heel.
To the woman also he said: I will multiply your labors, and your conceptions: in sorrow shall you bring forth children, and you shall be under thy husband’s power, and he shall rule over you.
And even to Adam he said: Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I told you not to eat, the earth is cursed in your work; in labor shall you eat of it all the days of your life.
It shall sprout thorns and thistles for you, and you shall eat the plants of the earth. In the sweat of your face shall you eat bread until you return to the earth from which you were taken: for dust you are and to dust you shall return.
This powerful story has always trailed something confused and mysterious after it, a sense of something hidden, mislaid or forgotten. Howard N. Wallace suggests that the phrase “good and evil” is a merism meaning “everything” (in the same way that “old and young” means “everybody”).n But this does not explain the crucial point: Why does the forbidden fruit make Adam and Eve self-conscious about their nakedness?
God asks them, very reasonably, “Who revealed to you that you were naked, unless you ate of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”—since they had never seen anybody with clothes on, unless it was God himself.
St. Augustine believed that it was the spontaneous erection of Adam’s penis (together, we suppose, with a swelling of Eve’s clitoris) that made the couple ashamed, because they saw that these organs were no longer under their conscious control. In Leo Steinberg’s words, “Augustine explains that the shame felt by Adam and Eve after their punishment was not caused by the sight of their nakedness, nor by a sudden first notice that they had genitalia (they had not been created blind, he protests), but by the novel insubordination of these altered organs.”n
This is scholastically ingenious, but a better explanation can be found in the Bible itself. The phrase “to know good and evil” occurs twice more, once in the Old Testament and once in the New, and in both places it means “to have mature judgment.” (Not “to know everything,” but “to know what’s what.”)
Your children, of whom you said that they should be led away captives, and your sons who know not this day the difference of good and evil, they shall go in: and to them I will give the land, and they shall possess it. (Deut. 1:39)
For whereas for the time you ought to be masters, you have need to be taught again what are the first elements of the words of God: and you are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.
For every one that is a partaker of milk, is unskillful in the word of justice: for he is a little child.
But strong meat is for the perfect; for them who by custom have their senses exercised to the discerning of good and evil. (Heb. 5:12-14)
This reading gives us the kernel of an explanation for the shame felt by Adam and Eve. Their eyes were opened, they saw that they were made in the image of God, and yet, unlike God, they were naked. From this, using the reason God had given them, they concluded that it was wrong to be naked. Eating the fruit had given them the power to decide for themselves what was right and proper, not only in matters of dress, but by extension, other things too. It was this extension into future possibilities that alarmed the Lord God, and their blushes were merely a symptom.
After all, God had made Eve as a companion for Adam, and he had made Adam as a sort of android gardener.n They had never been designed to be members of God’s tribe—”one of us, to know good and evil.”
Barr traces to a Pauline misunderstandingn the idea that Eve’s disobedience brought death into the world. The Genesis story never says that Adam and Eve were created immortal. Indeed, God expels them from the Garden precisely because he fears they might eat of the Tree of Life and live forever.
It would have been pointless for him to say, “If you eat of this forbidden fruit, you and all your descendants will eventually die,” since they were all going to die eventually whether they ate the fruit or not. What he threatened was death as retribution; instead, for reasons best known to himself, he expelled Adam and Eve from Paradise. We may conjecture that the serpent told the truth about this, and that God’s threat was empty to begin with—that he merely wanted to frighten his puppets.
Because of our Pauline prejudices, we usually suppose that Adam and Eve had no children until after they sinned and were expelled from the Garden; but the text never says so. Indeed, that assumption is contradicted by Genesis 1:28, wherein God says to Adam and Eve, on the sixth day of creation, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.”
We have no reason to believe that Adam and Eve disobeyed this or any other commandment until they ate the fatal fruit. Depending on how long they were in the Garden, they might have had dozens or hundreds of children. (Where did Cain get his wife, and how many men and women did it take to populate his city?)n
All we know for certain is that Cain and Abel were Eve’s first children after the expulsion, under the new harsh conditions that God had laid down: “To the woman also he said, I will multiply your hard labors, and your conceptions: in sorrow shall you bring forth children, and you shall be under your husband’s power, and he shall rule over you.” The Vulgate does not say dolores, pains, in the first part of this sentence: it says aerumnas, hard labors. This suggests that labor in childbirth was a new thing, and that the task of multiplying was easier before the expulsion—perhaps it was done by a different method altogether.

Below is the left panel of Garden. In the upper background and in the pink concretion in the middle of the lake, we see life emerging from non-life,n finding its own modes of expression—curved, knobbly, moist, spotted, spiny. Farther down, fabulous animals are roaming at large: unicorns, a dragon, a spotted porcupine, a spiny sow with five piglets. On the shore to the right of the lake, bizarre things are struggling up from the water. (One of them, the one with the long tails clinging to the top of the rock, looks rather like Bosch’s idea of a trilobite.)

მიწიერ სიამოვნებათა ბაღი, ჰიერონიმუს ბოსხი

In the foreground, Jesus rather than Jehovahn has just extracted Eve from Adam’s side and is raising her to her feet while Adam watches in dumb wonder.
The postures of Jesus and Eve parody those of the bride and groom in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding. Jesus is looking away uneasily, as if he would like a chance to think it over. Arnolfini is made of sterner stuff.

The left and center panels have a continuous landscape. The left panel is set in Paradise, and so is the center. Close to the horizon line we see the same weird mineral-vegetable growths in both panels, and in the middle of each, a tower rising from a lake. Look at Adam and Eve in the left panel, and then at the people in the center panel—they are little Adams and little Eves.

The vegetable concretions in both panels, with their bulging shapes and glistening surfaces, are sexual beyond any doubt. But the people are not. Like Adam and Eve before their disobedience, these innocent people don’t know they are naked.
Critics who call this painting lustful are really talking about their own reactions to bare skin. A simple thought-experiment will confirm this: imagine that the people in the center panel are doing exactly what they are doing now, but are decently dressed (some in bathing suits).

The panel is not erotic but ludic. These little Adams and Eves are playing, and so are the animals around them. Some of the men are riding various animals around and around, while some of the women have congregated in the pool, just as they might at a beach motel today. In all this crowd of people, there are only half a dozen doing anything that could possibly raise an eyebrow. In the crystal ball near the bottom left corner, a man puts his hand on a woman’s belly, and she rests her hand on his thigh. (See below.) Above and to their right, a man and woman stand with their arms around each other; they look as if they’re practicing the tango and the man has just stepped on the woman’s foot. And all the way at the bottom in the left-hand corner, a man is chucking another man under the chin.

მიწიერ სიამოვნებათა ბაღი, ჰიერონიმუს ბოსხი

I haven’t mentioned the man who is floating head down in the water, with his hands modestly covering his scrotum (above). Taking into account the long-billed bird sitting in the big red cherry in his crotch, I think this gesture is only prudent, but Walter S. Gibson names it among the “perverted acts of love”n in the center panel. Does he mean masturbation, for goodness’ sake? Titillation of the testicles? What would he have said if the man had kept his hands underwater?

Gibson’s other example is “the youth who thrusts some flowers into the rectum of his companion.” This is a matter of viewpoint, no doubt, but it’s my belief as an optimist that the young man is taking the flowers out. That interpretation is consistent with the large number of blossoms to be seen in the panel, and the total absence of privies.
Notice that there are no children or old people in Bosch’s Garden, and also that although there are blacks and blonds, there are no mulattos. These facts are consistent with the suggestion that an alternate method of reproduction is in use here.
A likely candidate is the crystalline bubbles in which Bosch’s animals and people seem to have appeared fully-formed. There is no obvious way for people to get into these bubbles, yet there they are. There is no obvious way for them to emerge, either, but they don’t look alarmed or unhappy. The bubble we mentioned earlier, in which two people are sitting, has a network of cracks in it. Probably it will fall apart and let them out to join the fun.

Near the lower right-hand corner of the painting, under an overhanging bank (above), are two little people who are unlike all the others: they are partly covered with hair. The dark one is smiling at us and pointing at the blond one.
It has been proposed several times that these figures represent Adam and Eve after God made them garments of skins; but this design does not quite fit. To begin with, the blond figure is not even a woman; he has the flat chest and strong features that Bosch gives to men in the Garden. Second, do you notice that the figure to the left seems to be wearing a garment of skin, but the one on the right is hairy? Finally, why did Bosch give so many others a resemblance to the Adam and Eve in the left panel, but none to these two?
An explanation may be found in the story of Jacob and Esau in Gen. 27, where Rebekah tricks Isaac by dressing her favorite son Jacob in skins, so that blind Isaac will mistake him for Esau (“a hairy man”) and give Jacob his blessing. In this reading, it is Jacob who smiles as he points at his brother, who is sucking a blossom and looks stupid.
Why, then, is the right panel a picture of Hell? In my opinion, because it was what Bosch was known for and what the patron ordered: “One painting of the Earthly Paradise, two folding panels, one of Adam and Eve in the Garden, the other of Hell.”

“old and young” means “ everybody” Wallace, The Eden Narrative, p. 28.^
insubordination of these altered organs. Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ, p. 319.^
a sort of android gardener. Gen. 2:15: “And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and keep it.”^
a Pauline misunderstanding James Barr, The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality, chapter 1.^
to populate his city? Cuthbert A. Simpson, in his discussion of the J and E authors of Genesis, says about Gen. 3:20 (“And Adam called the name of his wife Eve: because she was the mother of all living”), “The fact that the verse was intruded here, rather than after the notice of man’s expulsion from the garden, would seem to suggest that in this earlier recension of the myth children had been born to the man and his wife while they were still in Eden.” (The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1, p. 513.)^
life emerging from non-life Medieval people were familiar with fossils, and debated whether they had once been living or not. Those who thought not, usually considered fossil shells and ferns to be imitations or shadows of living forms. The seeds of a theory of evolution were already planted in Bosch’s time, and the trilobite should not surprise us.^
Jesus rather than Jehovah By the fifteenth century the distinction between Father and Son had been lost or had become a formality. In Venice in 1442 a miller named Carlo was brought to justice for making an abbess pregnant and having “too little considered how much injury he caused our highest creator by attempting and doing such things against nuns, his brides.” See Guido Ruggiero, The Boundaries of Eros, p. 71.^
“perverted acts of love” Gibson, Hieronymus Bosch, p. 65.^


  1. great article. thanks!

  2. Very interesting interpretation! Bosch is one of my favorite painters, and I’m currently finishing a paper detailing his possible ideologies on race (as interpreted through the prism of his works). It’s unfortunate that there is such a lack of information chronicling the exact details of the commission. I think you might be right though about the Hell panel: given the time period of Europe, it’s more feasible to imagine that many of his decisions were dictated rather than being his own artistic choice.

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