Taste of culture

Learn and enjoy: art, music and words enable us to discover where we come from, so we can decide where we’re going.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

One of the most mysterious paintings in the history of art. Its interpretation goes beyond what we see at first sight. Explore it!

Jheronimus Anthonissen van Aken (The Netherlands, 1450 – 1516), known as Hieronymus Bosch, was an Early Netherlandish painter popular for depicting dream-like worlds. He was an extremely mysterious figure with his own unique style that sets him apart from other Netherlandish painters of his day. His works are notable for being mid-way between a magic-related medieval world-view and the humanity of the Early Modern Age, as may be seen in the expressive attitude of his characters.

1. The tree of life

Everything is intriguing in this painting, starting with the left panel, which depicts the garden of Eden featuring Adam and Eve. Oddly, the tree of life here is a palm! It’s a symbol of justice and resurrection, since it’s able to live a long time without water.

2. The world after original sin

We can often see characters inside pieces of fruit or shells. Did you know that in medieval times “picking fruit” was used to refer to the sex act? That’s why they say that the central panel represents the world after original sin.

3. Adam or Bosch?

If you look closely, only one person appears in the painting dressed. While some have interpreted this as being Adam, others say that it’s a self-portrait of Bosch. What’s more intriguing, years later the artist was portrayed by another painter in exactly the same posture.

4. Reference to alchemy

The strange, fantastic springs in the central panel show Bosch’s interest in alchemy and symbolise the elixir of life. The deer and turkey heads on the bathers represent incredulity and vanity. It has been written that the artist formed part of a secret sect called the Adamites!

5. Folklore and popular culture

Bosch made reference to Dutch folklore. The fruits, animals and exotic mineral structures are allusions to erotic symbols that inspired popular songs and refrains of the time.

6. The real world

At first sight, the right panel may be interpreted as illustrating hell. But if we look closely there’s no nature. Maybe it’s not hell but the real, civilised world, and that’s why machines and instruments appear. So, taking the alternative reading and according to the Adamite vision, the central panel would be the real world, rather than a corrupted paradise.

You can find further information on the Prado Museum website.