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As humans we are built for pleasure and enjoyment. Who reading this doesn’t enjoy the taste of a juicy, ripe piece of fruit, enjoy the fragrant smell or fresh flowers, enjoy the feeling of being wide awake and in radiant good health; who doesn’t take pleasure in the sight of a finely constructed, provocative outdoor sculpture or the beauty of nature: a flock of birds, a lush green summer lawn or the beauty of a gorgeous human body ? And for that matter, who doesn’t enjoy being in love, or, at least, dream of being in love and having intimate sensual encounters with his or her beloved? All perfectly natural, perfectly harmonious, perfectly human.
We can ask ourselves: how would this natural urge for sensual and sexual enjoyment play itself out when filtered through the alembic of 14th century medieval Europe’s collective unconscious, a century torn by famine, unending war, marauding brigands, papal schism, peasant revolts and, most dramatically, the black death? How would such enjoyment and pleasure be represented by an artist living in this traumatic historical epoch, one of the most creative and imaginative and skilled artists ever to appear in Europe? Well, take a look at the middle panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s huge 12’ x 7’ triptych known as ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, a colossal one-of-a-kind masterpiece where Bosch plays with this very human capacity for pleasure, enjoyment and desire for multifarious earthly delights. What creative imagination, what artistic mastery, what a painting.
For anybody interested in this work by Hieronymus Bosch, Peter S. Beagle’s book is a great find. The clean layout is most appealing -- distinct portions and sections of the painting are presented as their own plates complete with Beagle’s reflections. The book addresses the right and left panels of ‘The Garden’ as well as 10 other Bosch paintings, but, for the purposes of this review, I will focus my comments and observations below on three plates taken from the middle panel since this is the work that has fired my own imagination. For ease of reference I have retained Beagle’s personalized caption for each of these plates.
The Strawberry Cult
Beagle writes, “A throng of men gather worshipfully around an enormous strawberry. These men merge to become merely a swarm of bodies and heads; having lost all individuality, they resemble insects in their ceaseless quest for satiation, both physical and sensual.” My reading of this scene is quite different. The throng of men remind me of how, for thousands of prehistoric years, men sat in a circle shoulder to shoulder around a campfire. True, with Bosch these men are sitting around a ten foot strawberry, but there is something magical about the sheer size of that strawberry; imagine the tales those prehistoric tribesmen would tell about such a strawberry. Or, envision a fairy-tale where boys and girls are lost in the woods and nearly-starving and come upon this strawberry – what a feast! Or, picture a 21st century farmer putting Bosch’s strawberry on display at the local county fair.
The Pool of Female Enticement
What full-blooded male artist hasn’t enjoyed painting beautiful nude women? Bosch certainly was no exception. Beagle says the scene of woman in the oval pool “seems to define lust as the passion which lies at the heart of all the other evils cultivated there.” Well, maybe, since this is the medieval Christian world, but a few dozen shapely young women, most with long golden hair flowing down their back, standing knee-deep in a gorgeous pool of blue water along with several varieties of exotic birds on a clear, sunny summer afternoon. . . that’s a sight most of us wouldn’t mind encountering, medieval times or modern times.
This plate features one of the five towers in the central panel, the 70’ pinkish tower on the far left. Beagle writes of the humans climbing the tower in euphoria, a climbing that will ultimately send them to hell. Again, my viewing is quite different. I see this scene with its bizarre, fantasy-world tower as an artistic expression of what it is that gives us humans our particular strength – our limitless imagination. Our human knowledge is limited (What do we know with absolute certainty about the meaning of life, really?), our capacity is limited (We are tender, finite beings subject to suffering, disease, sickness, old age and death) but our imagination – completely breathtaking . . . and Bosch provides a clear example of just how far our boundless, astonishing, dazzling imagination can soar.
The book’s back cover includes a quote from the Travel Journal of Antonio de Beatis, describing in 1517 this work by Hieronymus Bosch. We read, “There are also some panels of various strange scenes, simulating . . . things which are so pleasing and fantastic that is would be impossible to describe them properly to those who have no knowledge of them.” Fortunately for us modern people, we need not travel to the Museo del Prado in Madrid to see ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ (although viewing the original would be ideal – if you can, please do so). We have many reproductions available, including this fine book published by The Viking Press.