Hieronymus Bosch finished The Garden of Earthly Delights in around 1505. The painting represents Eden, the earthly world, and Hell. The central scene is hell, where humans sin in the absence of moral or religious restrictions. Naked men and women engage in various pleasure-seeking activities in the absence of God, unaware of any future consequence. Bosch created a rebellious and anarchist fictional narrative, a form of art that had not existed before, not only for the theme but also because of what set Bosch apart from his other contemporary painters (including Jan Van Eyck and Leonardo da Vinci): painting humans from the inside and not from the outside, representing their fears, obsessions, passions, hidden desires, and yearnings, giving us a highly existential world, and he did it in a poetic way that the world hadn’t seen before either.
It’s hard to believe this hallucinogenic scene was painted over 500 years ago. Being in front of it is like being inside an unsettling Alice in Wonderland full of bizarre bodies caught in an awkward moment. We have to decipher what they are doing exactly and why. We are not exactly sure about Bosch´s intentions as he didn’t leave any diary or notebook in which we could read his thoughts or views. Historians can’t agree whether the painting was an allegorical interpretation in support of the Bible or a critique. Perhaps he was being critical of the society of that time, and the target was to moralise via acid criticisms, but that is disputable.
We might think that his fantastical, morbid paintings caused scandal and cessation in those times, but that wasn’t the case. The triptych created an immediate positive impact and was soon displayed in one of the most prominent locations in Europe: the palace of the Counts of the House of Nassau in Brussels. Bosch had admirers from everywhere and even joined the highly respected Brotherhood of Our Lady, a devotional confraternity with seven thousand members from around Europe.
Since Bosch first appeared, an endless number of artists incorporated many elements of his paintings into their work, but we had to wait 400 years to finally categorise what he was doing: Surrealism. But even still, that wasn’t precisely what Bosch was doing. Bosch places his scenes in the earthly, not the surreal world. He was not representing dreams; he was representing our secret desires kept in the dark drawer. However, when surrealism appeared, many thought they had found a definition close to what Bosch was doing.
The Garden of Earthly Delights is a five-sided triptych, which causes a problem for any conventional exhibition spaces. In fact, it has changed its position many times because it makes no sense for it to be hanging on a wall. It is as if the painting had been living in discomfort for 500 years. Now, it has reached the age of 3D, virtual reality, and metaverse, and it seems somehow that it has finally found some allies with a platform where it can find – and expand – all its possibilities. It appears that artists now can explore Bosch’s creativity like never before. The fascination seems more vivid now that the painting has landed in the digital art era.
Just like 500 years ago, humans are still fascinated and terrified by radical opposites like life and death, heaven and hell, and other complementary factors without which we cannot live, such as absurdity and poetry. On top of that, we live a lifestyle of double standards – something that, deep down, we all love and secretly pursue. We can find all those elements in The Garden of Earthly Delights, and it is open to any free interpretation.