The opposition between the parched land in Bosch’s Haywain and the unquenchable thirst of its inhabitants for dry hay is contrasted to the mouthwatering abundance of the aqueous Garden of Delights. Schwartz suggests that this supports his interpretation of the Garden as a fulfillment of God’s command to the first man and woman.
Around the year 1600, the learned Spanish friar Don Jose de Siguënza wrote this judgment of the immortal middle panel of Jheronimus Bosch’s Garden of Delights.
In this painting we find, as if alive and vivid, an infinite number of passages from the scriptures that touch on the evil ways of man, for there are in the scriptures, in the prophets and Psalms, tame, wild, fierce, lazy, sagacious, cruel, and bloodthirsty beasts of burden and riding animals that man searches for and converts for his pleasure, recreation and ostentation by his inclinations and customs and the mixture that is made of one and the other.
The riding animals, pleasure and recreation are plain to see, as in this detail where naked men ride a griffin, a stag, a boar, a leopard and a unicorn in addition to ponies and horses:
What I fail to see is even one, let alone an infinite number of passages from the scriptures. I don’t see any bloodthirsty animals nor an indication that the behavior of the people in the middle panel is being displayed as an image of the evil ways of man. We are dealing with an artist who knew very well how to create such images. Greed, intemperance, pride, wrath – we see them punished if not portrayed in other paintings. But not here.
As I wrote in my two books on Jheronimus Bosch, I believe the middle panel of the Garden to show mankind honoring God’s commandment to the first man and woman in Genesis 1:28-29:
God blessed the humans by saying to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it! Be masters over the fish in the ocean, the birds that fly, and every living thing that crawls on the earth!’
I was not the first to be impressed by the fact that everything in the middle panel is organic and natural, while the hell on the right contains only man-made objects like musical instruments. Mankind creates its own instruments of torture.
What I did not realize until after my book was published is that Bosch created an equally apt opposition to the Garden in the main action of his Haywain. The two works have much in common. They are in a format – the triptych – that people knew only as altarpieces, but which Bosch used for paintings you do not expect to see in a church. The Garden and the Haywain combine traditional and unprecedented iconographies in a new way. Even if they are of different sizes and from different periods, they have this important original feature in common.
The difference that now strikes me concerns the environments depicted, in particular their humidity. Rather than eating succulent fruits and pursuing juicy pleasures, the people in the Haywain fight over a desiccated substance that has no nourishment for them, dry hay. There is no water where the Haywain rides, in contrast to the pools and waterways in the Garden.
Equally if not more interesting is that there is also no water in the Paradise wing of the Haywain, while the Paradise in the Garden is rich in pools and streams and marine life. I see this as support for my contention that the Paradise of the Garden, in contrast to conventional representations of the creation of man, shows the benign version of the story told in Genesis 1. In that text there is no forbidden fruit; no satanic serpent; no Fall of Man. The Haywain presents the usual, fraught sequence of events in Genesis 2 and 3, marked by disobedience (even of the non-scriptural angels), followed by divine retribution.
In the immensity of literature on Bosch, it is foolish to claim to be the first to light upon any given interpretation. It pleased me, in fact, after betting heavily on the theory that the Garden of Delights is based on Genesis 1, that this had been posited earlier by the Spanish polymath-philosopher Ignacio Gómez de Liaño. Going a step further, in which I am not sure I can follow him, Liaño connects the Garden to the eternal spring of Ovid’s Golden Age. I learned this from a fascinating book by the Dutch journalist Henk Boom, De bezeten visionair: vijfhonderd jaar controverse over Jheronimus Bosch (The possessed visionary: five hundred years of controversy over Jheronimus Bosch; Amsterdam [Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep] 2016, pp. 247ff.). Boom not only has delved deeply into the published literature on Bosch. He also attends conferences on the master, where he approaches scholarly specialists to ask them pointed questions on disputed issues, taking wicked delight when they contradict each other and sometimes themselves. From him, I learned that not only Ignacio Gómez de Liaño but also Jos Koldeweij, head of the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP), put into words my very feelings about the middle panel of the Garden: “a visionary image of how creation would have looked had the Fall of Man not taken place” (p. 238; Liaño, p. 249). Regretfully, this important statement is not repeated in the definitive publication of the BRCP, its Catalogue raisonné (see my Amazon review). There the middle panel is said to depict a world in which mankind has chosen sinfully to indulge in lust and is therefore on its way to hell. The relevance of Genesis 1 is brought into discussion, but the BRCP does not draw from it the conclusion that I find inescapable (and that Koldeweij confided to Henk Boom) – that the Garden shows a world without sin.
How are we to judge the relative merits of these interpretations, and all the many others that have been advanced? For the moment, I’m afraid there is no way except by following our own sense of what is most (or, dealing as we are with Bosch – least) likely. I said “I’m afraid,” but is that really something to fear? We can also embrace this indeterminacy. In its uniqueness, the Garden of delights throws each of us back on our own resources, devices and prejudices. As world-famous as it is, the Garden remains in this way a personal discovery for every viewer. If that is not a value to cherish!
© Gary Schwartz 2016. Published on the Schwartzlist on 16 June 2016.
Next week I will be in the Prado, enjoying the rare privilege of visiting the Jheronimus Bosch exhibition before opening hours. This is one of the perks of being an art historian, or in this case, a close associate of a group of museum curators. The visit is part of the nineteenth congress of CODART, a network organization of museum curators of Dutch and Flemish art that I founded, with the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage (now the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands), in 1998.
To my delight, with thanks to Henk Boom, in Madrid I will be meeting for drinks and Bosch talk with him and Ignacio Gómez de Liaño, in a promising-sounding café across the street from the Biblioteca Nacional.
Nine weeks after undergoing a successful hip replacement operation, I am walking free of pain for the first time in five or six years. Painlessness is not the only benefit I am enjoying. In this stage of recovery, when I am still weak in my left leg and am pleasantly surprised that it doesn’t hurt, I am more aware of my health than otherwise. Being a bit sick makes your health palpable.
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