Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights (1503) Right Panel: Hell

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights (1503) Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Right Panel: Hell

Back to Bosch! Today we will be looking at the right and final panel of Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych. This is by far the most disturbing and therefore, to me anyway, interesting. It has twice the detail of the rest of the work and more monsters and strange happenings than a child's nightmare. If this is what Hell looks like I think we should all be afraid!

In order to fully explain this work I have found a great and really detailed explanation of the work from the BBC that will attempt to explain some of the more obvious scenes. I would try to explain this myself but I fear that I would fall far short of describing what this picture holds and how truly horrendous some of these things are! Here is the explanation from the BBC:
"The image of hell on the right-hand panel is one of Bosch's most violent hells, contrasting with one of Bosch's lushest paradises, which precedes it. This insinuates that the more sinful happiness people enjoy in their lifetime, the worse the experience will be afterwards. In Bosch's less violent hells the buildings burn; here they seem to explode. From the fires to the icy lakes, this is a depiction of extremes. The world has been turned upside down. Normal objects have grown to enormous proportions. In the central lake water is being turned to blood, and massive musical instruments are torturing their victims. Bosch's use of imagery helps the viewer realise how horrifying this scene actually is - in particular, his use of musical instruments as implements of torture. In Bosch's time, musical instruments were not only used to play music, but also played a role in literature and art. Different instruments have different connotations:

* The pink bagpipe in the centre above the tree-man has several connotations: the bagpipe was considered a very aggressive instrument because of the loud sound it makes, and may represent those that play it who are now being punished in this hell. The bagpipe was also a symbol of the male sex organ.
* The pommer is an early form of the oboe. It played a sharp sound and was common in Bosch’s time. The pommer was a phallic symbol, a connotation expressed in this painting.
* Below the pommer is a drum with a man trapped inside. The drum symbolises victory over the lust in the world, so it seems right that the drum traps inside it a lustful man.
* Currently, the harp is a symbol often linked with royalty and noble, but here it is torturing a man caught up in its strings. In the past the harp was a symbol of the female sex organ, and many Dutch sayings refer to this symbolism.
* The lute was used very often in medieval art to represent music, and in many paintings the angels played it. However, here Bosch is drawing on another symbolic connotation of the lute, which is that of seduction. Here the lute is overcoming people with pain.

Somewhat ironically, lust was also known as 'music of the flesh'. Therefore the musical instruments here suggest that the victims are paying for their lust in their previous life. Bosch is also implying that things that cause people pleasure in life, like musical instruments, can and will cause them pain later on.The people are not paying only for their lustfulness but also for all manner of sins: idleness is illustrated by the man in his bed being looked upon by demons. The punishment for gluttony is illustrated by the man being forced to vomit his food, and in the centre of the tree-man, an image of a tavern illustrates the sin of gambling. Several people around the panel are guilty of the sin of anger. In this hell normal relationships are being turned upside down: the hunters have become the hunted and the animals that are hunting them are grotesque. The animals within this piece are some of Bosch's greatest creations. Visual representations of man's faults are illustrated in creatures of all shapes and sizes, from rabbits to gnomes. The illustration of monsters was not unusual in Bosch's time; several books were written describing actual or fictional animals, and many people took inspiration from these books, as Bosch likely did. One interesting creature is the bird in the left-hand corner, very similar in appearance to the Egyptian God Horus. Horus, a man with a head of a falcon, was one of the oldest gods in Egyptian culture. Horus was the God who saw all with sharp eyes, and here he is punishing those he has seen sinning. In this piece, the bird represents the devil torturing souls. The devil eats his victims and excretes them into a pit below his throne. The image of the devil as a beast that sits on a throne is a direct lift from The Vision of Tundale by St Vincent of Beauvais: 'Bestia sedebat super stagnum'. This poem lists many different tortures in hell and all the various punishments."


In closing on this three-part topic I will reiterate the strange place that Bosch holds within the canon of Western art. Though he is well-known and his technique is not far from his contemporaries in the Netherlands during the 16th century, his work is almost completely unique in its macabre and sinister elements. Though the work of Netherlandish artists before and after him featured many elements of dark subject matter, Bosch enjoyment of these aspects and blatant disregard for the sensibilities for those looking at his work makes him one of the first truly individual artists within a defined movement.

I will be covering some of his other, more definable and understandable, works later in this blog but I felt that in order to be able to look at any of his work one must have been exposed to the Garden of Earthly Delights and seen his twisted mind displayed in all its glory first!


"And now, onto something completely different."

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