Rendezvous with the Garden of Earthly Delights

A painting from the school of Hieronymus Bosch

As a preview to the upcoming exhibition Garden of Earthly Delights (26 July to 1 December 2019), the eponymous painting from the school of Hieronymus Bosch will be on display at the Gropius Bau on weekends between 27 April and 19 May 2019.

Nach Hieronymus Bosch

Nach Hieronymus Bosch. Der Garten der Lüste (Mitteltafel), ca. 1535-1550. 182 x 168 cm

Private collection

Past Dates

The triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch is one of the central works of European art history. To this day, discussions unfold about the painting and its dynamic and enigmatic composition. On view at the Gropius Bau is a version of the centre panel, entitled Garden of Earthly Delights, painted in the 16th century by Bosch’s followers. With its dimensions in keeping with the original and its exceptional attention to the iconography’s details, it is thought that the panel was painted directly from Bosch’s triptych, which today is located at the Prado in Madrid.

The painting depicts a vast and chimeric landscape. It bustles with flying fish, people intertwined with fruits or inside shells entangled with each other, among oversized birds feeding naked human figures. Men riding on the backs of dromedaries, stags and pigs trot around a pool replete with bathers. In the background, fantastical architecture abounds gathered around a central fountain, structures which appear somewhere between precious stones and meteorites. The colours and depiction appeal to all of the senses — touch and scent are conveyed just as much as a soundscape of noises formed from nature, humans and animals thronging together. On closer inspection, the absurdity of the imagery continues to unfold, for instance, people emerge from the water and, as if an egg yolk, they climb back into a broken eggshell. Or in the foreground, a person picks flowers that are growing out of the outstretched buttocks of another figure.

There is a lot to see in the Garden of Earthly Delights — but what do we actually see here? Much of what happens in this garden seems to evoke a state of paradise. The characters are free to pursue their desires: riding together on a pink cow perhaps, or hugging a human-sized strawberry. In addition to art historical interpretations that read the painting as a portrayal of debauchery, vice and sin, other readings suggest that it either presents a vision of paradise on earth, or a Garden of Eden populated by before-the-fall humanity, or even as being a vision of the other side, a playground for saved souls. These multifarious readings are indicative of the particular way that the painting allows us to think about society. For example, examining how and where people have historically imagined paradise to be is highly telling.

According to the art historian Hans Belting, this paradise is a virtual world in which sexuality is not understood as being sinful, and so offers an alternative perspective on the biblical narrative of the Garden of Eden. Casting aside sin and atonement as categories, humans and animals are portrayed in an alternate reality, in a dance that overcomes supposed opposites. In this exhibition space, the painting is shown in its own right. It invites you to dive into its unique visual language and to discover the facets of this fascinating garden. This summer, the painting will be the starting point of the exhibition Garden of Earthly Delights at the Gropius Bau, in which artists avail of the motif of the garden as both a metaphor for the state of the world and a poetic expression to explore the complexities of our increasingly precarious times.